Imagine sitting on the mountainside, perhaps a pleasant breeze is blowing and the sun shining as excitement begins to fill the air, and people are gathered around everywhere, talking with anticipation as they wait to hear what Jesus is going to say. This is the scene as Jesus begins his preaching ministry and his most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount.
As I continue my journey of reading through Jesus’ words in the New Testament, I come to the next passage in Matthew after Jesus has just finished telling the crowd how to be blessed, or also known as The Beatitudes. There is much contradiction and confusion in our world today, and I believe if we just listen to Jesus’ words, they are complete and will show us the truth. Who else has ever said, “You are the light of the world…”?
~ Matthew 5:13-16 Salt and Light ~
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on by men.
You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
The best way for me to describe what Jesus is saying here is to tell a modern-day story of my youth.
Once in my younger days, I decided to go to two parties in one evening. I was single and trying to make the most of my opportunities, I suppose. The first party was with my church group. The second party was with some acquaintances from work. Both parties were in close driving distance, so I thought I could do both in one night. I first went to the church party, enjoyed the fellowship of good friends, and then departed a little early to make the next party. I walked into the next party, most of the people I didn’t even recognize, but I seemed to be getting some odd glances from people that I couldn’t quite explain. I check my outfit but everything looked ok. There was nothing unusual I could see, but the atmosphere felt very dark and I didn’t have a good feeling about the place. Then, it was as if I heard Jesus saying to me, “You don’t belong here. My light is still shining from you being in My presence earlier this evening, and it stands out in this place.” I turned around and left, feeling like a fool for thinking I could be two different things.
Sometimes when we feel like we don’t fit in, it is because we’re not supposed to. The more we try to go along with the crowd, the more diminished our salt and light becomes (“trampled on by men” – verse 13). We begin to doubt and lose confidence. Jesus is saying we are to stand out, in a positive way that will attract people to His presence. Jesus will do the speaking from there.
It’s been a little disheartening this Christmas season to not see as many decorations and lights as I used to. The stores seem barren of decorations, wreaths and Christmas nostalgia. (Really, Publix and Target, your sales would increase with a little more Christmas cheer! The paper decorations at the end of the store aisles is just being lazy.)
I drove through lovely neighborhoods on the way to parties and gatherings this year, and I only saw a sparse scattering of Christmas lights. I remember when I used to make a special trip to some of these neighborhoods just to see their lights. I know the recent years of economic downturn haven’t helped, but this is the time we should be clinging to our faith even more. In prosperous times, faith is often overlooked or perceived as not needed, or our motives are done for the wrong reasons. As I drove through the mostly darkened streets past the barely decorated stores, it felt as though everyone had forgotten about Christmas. Then I saw one house in the distance, beautifully lit with blue and white lights all over the yard. It was a spectacular site, not designer decorated but handled with much care and love. Its lights shown even more brightly in contrast to all the dark houses surrounding it. It represented hope, bringing light to the darkness. So let’s all spread a little cheer and hope this season – an extra bow on the mailbox or a string of lights in the window. It doesn’t have to cost much, but we can outshine the darkness, and it will make you feel good.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16
Here is an article I read on “Saint Nicholas, A Life Lived for God’s Service”, from Christian Community Magazine, Nov/Dec 2014. It is well-worth the read this Christmas season, as it reminds us of what one person can do to bring light to an otherwise dark world.
The man behind today’s legendary character is quite different than the world gives credit for. The real St. Nicholas was a devout Christian who lived simply. Many stories of “Nicholas” are based on legend, however there are enough historical resources that provide facts to frame significant details. The Greek Orthodox Church provides a great deal of history.
Nicholas was born in 280 AD in the town of Patara, an ancient seaport, located in the region of Lycia, Asia Minor, which is present day Turkey. He was born to an elderly Greek and wealthy Christian couple who were unable to have children. It is taught that they prayed similar to that of Abraham and Sarah for a child. They considered this child a direct gift from God with a special calling to help people. They named him Nicholas which meant in Greek ‘victory or hero of the people.’
As he grew, he became known for his virtue and became strong in the scriptures, predominately in the areas of fasting, abstinence and temperance. He entered the nearby monastery of Sion where he trained and was ordained into the ministry. He later became the Bishop of Patara, when his uncle, also named Nicholas and the current bishop, gave up his position to journey to the Holy Land.
Nicholas’ parents died of a severe plague, most likely from the smallpox outbreak of the “Crisis of the Third Century (235-284).” His parent’s death left Nicholas a very wealthy man. He was quite generous and used his inheritance to give to and feed the poor and needy, as well as paying “ransoms” for those who were taken captive by money lenders whom they could not repay.
This initial story of generosity, whether historical or fictional, is what leads this Nicholas into the gift-giving figure our Christmas is based on. In fact, several of our customs today can be found in his story.
There was a nobleman with three grown daughters who fell into financial collapse and became bankrupt. His creditors took his property leaving him penniless. The father’s hope was to marry off his daughters quickly before the creditors took them as their payment for his financial losses, thereby saving the girls from a life of slavery or prostitution. However, he did not have the money for their dowries which was necessary for them to legally marry.
Nicholas heard of this nobleman’s plight, so one night after dark, he threw a bag of gold coins through an open window for the eldest daughter’s dowry. News traveled fast throughout the town and she was quickly married.
The creditors were ruthless and came after the nobleman persistently. Nicholas repeated this action of kindness with another anonymous bag of gold coins through the windows so the next daughter would have a dowry to be able to marry. The nobleman prayed earnestly with thanksgiving to the Lord for redeeming his daughters while he asked for yet another miracle.
The third time Nicholas tossed a bag of gold coins through the window, it landed in a stocking that was hanging on the fireplace to dry. The father ran out to see who was rescuing him and his family, and he caught Nicholas at the window. Wanting to give God alone the glory for these blessings, Nicholas made the nobleman promise to keep his secret until his death.
Did you also know that Saint Nicholas is the Patron Saint of Pawn Brokers? The three gold balls in the Pawn Shop windows represent these three bags of gold coins.
There are also stories of Nicholas calming stormy seas, much like Jesus, during his many voyages. Stories include a time when a sailor fell on the deck and died. Nicholas prayed over him and his life was restored. These stories make him the Patron Saint of Sailors.
Nicholas desired a quiet life within the monastery, however the Lord spoke to him. The Lord said, “Nicholas, here is not the field in which you must bring forth the fruit I expect, but turn back and go into the world and let My name be glorified in you.” Nicholas later became Bishop of what is today known as the Episcopal church. He strove to be an example to the believers, in word, in love, in spirit, in faith, and in purity. He was humble of spirit and forgiving, shunning all vainglory.
Extreme persecution arose against Christianity during Nicholas’ life by Roman Co-Emperors of the East, Diocletian and Maximian. In 302 AD, a council at Nicomedia resolved to suppress Christianity throughout the empire and to “tear down the churches by fire.” Bishops and Deacons were jailed in large numbers. Atrocious and torturous deeds were performed on the imprisoned clergy in an effort to get them to renounce Christ and embrace idols. Many were massacred.
In 305 the vicious Emperor Diocletian stepped down from his throne because of intestinal illness, paving the way for Emperors Galerius, Constantine and Licinius to co-rule a split Roman Empire. In 311, the “Edict of Toleration” was issued by the emperors, which officially ended what was known as the empire’s bloodiest persecution of Christians.
Constantine was the first Roman Emperor who was a Christian. Details of his conversion are unknown, but it may have been because he was exposed to the faith by his mother, Helena, who was a Christian. He ordered the persecutions of all Christians to cease. Christians were freed from jails and dungeons, and allowed to return to their homelands. Bishop Nicholas went back to his city of Myra where he once again began preaching against idol worship which had become more widespread with the vacuum left by the imprisoning of the Christian leaders. One of his accomplishments was leading the people to tear down the Temple of Diana in Ephesus, which was known for immoral ceremonies, religious prostitution, and human sacrifice. This is the same temple written about in Acts 19 that the Apostle Paul confronted. It had been one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Bishop Nicholas became known as Saint Nicholas as stories of his answered prayers and miracles spread. He also became the Patron Saint of Children because of healings and supernatural rescues. It is difficult to determine legitimate facts from legend; however, he had a noteworthy following that had religious and spiritual merit and respect.
Saint Nicholas was invited to and participated in, the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Emperor Constantine commanded this ecumenical gathering to end Arian heresy which demoted Jesus to “less than” God. There were 118 church leaders who attended this conference from all over the Roman Empire. The Three Persons of the Trinity was affirmed and the Nicene Creed was established which continues to be the profession of faith used by many churches and denominations around the world.
Saint Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD. The tradition of secret gift giving on the anniversary of his death began when stories of his ministry spread through Turkey, Greece, and the Roman Empire. His legacy lives on today in many countries with variations of traditions. There are few men in history more loved and revered today.
I wondered… Are they for real or just another couple of
crazy people in Las Vegas?
I have been to Las Vegas a couple of times now, both times were stopovers on my way to California and the Grand Canyon. The Las Vegas airport is positioned where you almost always have to fly through it to get somewhere in the west. I know several people who enjoy the occasional trip to Vegas, and while I may not share their same vacation excitement, that is not the focus of my writing. My Vegas experience was on a different level.
The first time I went, my son was very young and we mostly stayed in the kiddie pool and circus areas. It was a little unsettling for me then, and I did not really care to return. A few years later, having forgotten my first experience, we ended up there again on another stopover. My son was around eleven years old this time, and I soon remembered my mistake in returning.
We had just finished dinner that night, watching the Bellagio water fountains from the main strip, as we began walking back through the streets to our hotel. It was dark and the sidewalks were shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. People were handing out advertisements, yelling and selling things, and the ground was littered with all sorts of trash. I will never forget stepping over all those flyers that blanketed the sidewalks, stepping on the pictures of young women selling themselves. I tried not to think about it as I kept my eye on my son in front of me, who had a tendency to wander, and I somehow felt like I had let him down bringing him to an unsafe place as this. As I trudged along, I became overwhelmed with an immense feeling of hopelessness that I felt from all around me – the pain I saw behind people’s faces, seeing them grasp for comfort in anything they could find, and the destruction of themselves and others. Tears welled up inside me and I began to cry. I’m sure I must have looked like a fool, walking down the streets crying while everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves. Trying to hide my tears, I did not want my family to see me crying. I did not want them to experience what I was feeling.
I began to ask God.. Are you even here among all of this? Have you already abandoned this place like Sodom and Gomorroh?
There were no outwardly signs of God anywhere – no friendly faces, no one saying “have a nice day”, no church on the corner, not even a bumper sticker that says “God loves you”. Nothing. If anyone doubts the existence of God in our everyday lives, then they should see what it feels like to be in a place with the absence of God.
A few minutes later into our walk, my husband, as if he already knew my thoughts, tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the street corner ahead. I looked up and saw two young men standing there with their Bibles open, speaking out loud.
I wondered… Are they for real or just another couple of crazy people in Las Vegas?
I stopped for a moment to observe. Hundreds of people continued to walk past the corner where the young men stood. Most did not even see them or glance their way, and no one was shoving at them or shouting drunken insults. It was almost as if there was a barrier around them. One person out of the crowd had stopped to talk to one of the young men, and they seemed to be engaging in a serious conversation all their own. The other young man continued speaking out loud. He was not talking about hell or doomsday or the end of the world (for many of these people were already living that), but he was talking about Jesus and love and hope.
For Jesus came to save the world…
I got my answer that day. Yes, God is in Las Vegas. He will be there as long as there are “Paul and Silas” type missionaries willing to spread a sliver of hope and light in a very dark world.
For there is nothing else in this world that can offer this type of hope – not Islam, not Buddhism, not new age spirituality, and not money.
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Matthew 5:14
Today, I pray for my son, and for all moms praying for their sons. It is a special thing, when I hear another mom talk about her son. Mine is beginning his last year of high school, and my prayer is simple and direct. I pray for safety always, and for God’s guidance in those small but impactful decisions he will begin to make this year, and to finish school strong.
Whew! The journey has not always been easy up to this point, but I can look back and clearly see God’s hand and blessings through the smiles and tears over the years. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to keep my son in a Christian school since pre-K. It has been a year-by-year faith, not always knowing if we would be able to continue paying the tuition for the next year, or if I could work out the transportation with my full-time job. But God always provided in wonderfully amazing ways; sometimes even to the surprise of my co-workers. Twelve years ago, I could not have even imagined how we would get to this point on the journey. God eagerly wants us to know Him, and nothing can stop God when we earnestly seek Him in our lives.
I am reminded of the last few years, when I would drop my son off at his church youth group on Wednesday evenings and would hear the music and activity coming from the building. I was overwhelmed with the thought that Good is being created here. I could feel it in the air. There was something special here; God’s presence among all these young people. Yes, Good was being created here. As I drove away after dropping off my son, I would always say a prayer of thanks to God, for the opportunity and comfort that this church provided, and especially that God would bless the youth pastor and his family who so tirelessly and lovingly gave to all these students. It is probably the most unselfish prayer I have ever prayed, for the blessings to be poured out to someone else’s family whom I don’t even know.
Good created here… hundreds of high school youth releasing balloons and prayers and hopes and futures up to Heaven. (photo courtesy of First Baptist Church Woodstock GA)
Multiply the good, and its light will outshine the darkness.
With the unimaginable tragedy that happened this week with Oklahoma’s 200 mph tornado, I found that I could not direct my written thoughts to anything else. By comparison, everything else is trivial. What a year this has been so far. We, as a nation, started off the year with recent memories from the Sandy Hook school shooting in December, then the Boston Marathon Bombings and West Texas factory tragedies soon followed. Next, we hear of the miraculous rescue of 3 child kidnapping victims in Cleveland after they lived 10 years in captivity, and now 24 people have lost their lives in the 1.3 mile wide E-F5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. Many were young children, hundreds more injured, and schools and homes were demolished by this monster tornado. It would be easy to be despaired at this point, and to start down that long road of questioning Why? There is no satisfying answer for that word. We live in a world that experiences unfathomable tragedy every day; yet we also live in a world that experiences heroic goodness every day too. The dark times would rather have us give up, to tell us it is hopeless. But instead, we can all choose another way, which is to Act. Here are some ways we can start doing that right now.
Start each day with prayer. It may not change our circumstances, but whatever the day brings, it is very comforting to know that you’ve already talked to God about it in the morning, and He is walking with you.
I am not much of a morning person, so sometimes my earnest prayers do not start until I am already on my way to work or have just arrived in the office, but that’s ok. I make sure I set aside a few minutes before my day starts. Five minutes at the beginning of the day can sometimes save me hours later on.
Don’t just talk, Act. We can each do something that will make the world better. It will be like a domino effect of goodness that washes over everything when we are all motivated toward a common goal of helping each other. Some people may choose to donate to the Red Cross, others open up their churches, or send food and supplies. We only need to step outside of ourselves occasionally and look up and out.
Every few months, I spend a couple of hours helping women who are recovering from drug and alcohol abuse to learn basic life skills – how to interview for a job, putting together a resume, and using a computer. These women are just trying to survive. They are not complaining about being too busy or getting stuck in traffic. They just want to own a car. It is humbling for me at the least, and I always leave there having learned more from them.
Remember the big picture. I recently finished reading a book from a local author and physician, called “A Mis-Match Made in Heaven” by Mike & Ann Litrel. I highly recommend it, full of humor and stories about health and the human spirit. Dr. Litrel says it best: “As we journey together, we face many difficulties that are inherent in biological life. Yet when we understand that our path begins and ends with God, we will see that our struggles are simply signposts along the road. In the end, helping us find our way back Home.”
If the light that is in you is not darkness, then your whole body is full of light, just as the bright shining of a lamp gives you light. (Luke 11:35)
May we all choose that road which leads us back Home…