A City on a Hill

Matthew 5:14-16

Last week we saw how Jesus said, “I am the light of the world, the one who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of light of life.” We said that the second article of the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ” is the bright light in the center of the room that cast light upon the dark corners of the first article of the Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty…”, and the third article of the creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

We see the creation all around us, but apart from Jesus Christ the Creator is hidden from us. Jesus changes this. In John 1:18 we read, “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus Christ. I once watched surgeons pick bone chips out of a man’s hip, where they had removed his leg. I knew him before the stroke which had caused the loss of his leg. So, I watched as long as I could, lest he should awaken. I wanted to know I had not change in regard to him. When I could stand no more, I went into the hall outside his room and asked, “God, do you care about us? Do you feel our pain, do you know our suffering?” Almost immediately, an answer came to me in the words of a hymn addressed to Jesus Christ by Charles Wesley. “Amazing love, and can it be that thou my God shouldest die for me.” Since that time I have faced every difficult situation—whether it affected me or someone I care about in the sure confidence God does care; and we know God cares because we believe that in Jesus Christ God stepped down out of the frame of the universe to reveal that “God is with us.”

And what about the light that Jesus cast upon the Holy Spirit? Apart from Jesus the Holy Spirit remains a shadowy figure that many Christians find more fearful than inspirational. When I was taking clinical pastoral education at the University of Kentucky, I watched a film of snake handlers. Their faith is based on the long ending of Mark’s gospel that is not original to the gospel. It was added in the 3rd Christian Century. As the film began, the pastor greeted several ladies in the congregation with “a holy kiss,” right on the mouth, which revealed itself as pure lasciviousness, then he brought out the snakes and encouraged the faithful to handle them. He said that no Spirit filled Christians need fear the snakes. As I watched the film, I said to myself, “This is not the work of the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is Christ-like.” The Methodist missionary and evangelists Stanley Jones was once invited to preach in the largest Methodist church in California. The pastor asked him his topic. Jones said, “I will speak on the Holy Spirit.” The pastor said, “Please, don’t; we don’t want any of those Holy Spirit antics in our church.” Stanley Jones said, “You need not fear. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and the work of the Spirit is to make us more Christ-like.” The pastor said, “Then by all means, speak on the Holy Spirit.”

In Romans 8:9-11, St. Paul says:

9b Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.

The Holy Spirit is the lowest common denominator of our Christian discipleship. The Spirit alone is “the guarantee of our inheritance until we receive possession of it.” (Ephesians 1:14) The Holy Spirit does many other things in the life of every believer. I would mention three:

First, the Holy Spirit is God’s seal, or mark of ownership upon us. More than thirty years ago my mother-in-law gave me a library seal for Christmas. When I get a new book, the first thing I do is mark the title page of the book with that seal. It embosses the page with the declaration that the book is, “From the Library of Worth Green.” In the same way, when we turn in faith to Jesus Christ, God marks us with the seal of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is the outward sign of this reality, but the Holy Spirit himself is the ultimate seal. In Luke 11, Jesus told his disciples that God is as willing to give us the Holy Spirit, as we are willing to receive the Holy Spirit, saying:

What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Second, the Holy Spirit witnesses to us that we belong to God. The early Moravians taught this doctrine. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, made it universally known among Christians. Wesley said that the witness of the Holy Spirit was two fold. First, the witness of the Holy Spirit consists of the visible signs of our discipleship. “If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation, the old has passed away, the new has come.” (2nd Corinthians 5:17) When we come to Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we put away those things that separate us from him, and from one another. “A tree is known by its fruits,” and Christians are known by our actions. Second, the witness of the Holy Spirit os what Wesley called “an inward impress upon the soul.” The shiver of anticipation that we feel when we enter the church on Ash Wednesday to take the Holy Communion is the witness of the Holy Spirit. So is the feeling of calm and confidence we have when we watch the sun sink over the mountains or into the sea, and have no fear of the day’s end. I cannot imagine that God would adopt us as his children in Jesus Christ, and then deny us all tokens of his love and affection. God not only wants to make us his children, he wants us to have no doubt about our relationship. In Romans 8:15-17, St. Paul wrote:

When we cry, ‘Abba, Father,’ it is the Holy Spirit bearing witnesses with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Jesus Christ, provided that we suffer with him in order that we might be glorified with him.

The witness of the Holy Spirit is not constant. We see from the Romans text that it is occasional; but it is real. So, too, I think it interesting that St. Paul associates the witness of the Holy Spirit with suffering, for it is in suffering that God is closest to us.

Third, the Holy Spirit is God’s power in us. Jesus was the son of God, but he was also the son of man. Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, and it was possession of the Holy Spirit that gave him the power to endure temptation, perform cures, cast out evil spirits, love his enemies, and otherwise work the works of God. In John 14:12 Jesus speaks to his disciples saying,  “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.” And a few verses later, in John 14:14-15 Jesus explains how it is possible that our works (collectively) exceed his own. He said:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever.

In the book of Acts, the evangelists uses the Greek word from which we get our English word “dynamite” to describe the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers. We may think ourselves powerless, but the New Testament declares that the same power that God used to lift Jesus from death to eternal life is available to us, too, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life. One man, one woman, plus God is equal to any situation.

I hope you have noted that there is a progression of the Holy Spirit, from the Father, to the Son, and from the Son to his disciples, including you and me. Likewise, there is a progress of the “light of life,” which is from the Father, to the son who reveals the Father, to the disciples of the Son, who reveals the Father and the Son.

In John 8:12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world, and he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” In John 9:5 Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” And in John 12:36 Jesus said to his disciples, “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become children of light.” If we believe in Jesus, we are the children of light, and it is our turn to shine. In Matthew 5:14-16 Jesus speaks to his disciples, and to us through them saying:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

As I considered this text, I was intrigued with the phrase, “A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” I jotted down four things that were a result of my reflections.

First, we must not overlook the fact that a city on a hill is still a city. People come together as a city (or any political unit) for the sake of the common good. The common good of the city is so important, that in Jeremiah 29:7 God speaks through his prophet and tells his people to seek the welfare of the city where they have been sent into exile, that is, infamously, “Babylon.” The text declares, “Pray to the LORD on behalf of the city, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The only time a city ceases to become a city is when its citizens begin to struggle against one another, and the city falls into chaos. The only time the church ceases to be the church is when its members begin to bite and devour one another, and its members start to look just like world around them. A city on a hill is still a city, and the people of a city have come together for the common good. In order for the church to work for the common good, which for us is the good that Christ wills for us, is in our loyalty to him, that issues in loyalty to one another. That is what Count Zinzendorf was getting at when he wrote:

Christian hearts, in love united,
Seek alone in Jesus rest;
Has He not your love excited?
Then let love inspire each breast;
Members on our head depending
Lights reflecting Him, our sun,
Brethren His commands attending,
We in Him, our Lord, are one.

Second, a city implies a safe-haven in a dark and dangerous world. In ancient times, the greatest cities were surrounded by walls, and entered by gates. In ancient near-East, it was the duty of a city to provide travelers with hospitality and a safe-haven. In Genesis 19, during the time of Abraham, God destroys the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sins of the city. According to the text, one sin is the threat of homosexual rape. We know from a parallel text that another sin is that the cities did not obey the ancient laws of hospitality. A parallel text is found in Judges 19. The events the chapter describes take place long after the time of Abraham, but long before Israel had a king. In Judges 19, the tribes of Israel come together to destroy those who dwell in the city of the Jebusites, which came to be known as Jerusalem, because they failed to offer hospitality and protection to “a certain Levite” and his concubine. Whatever else it does, or fails to do, a church must provide people with hospitality and a safe-haven. A church may not find you a job. A church may not find pay your rent, or buy you a car. A church may not affirm your theology or your politics. A church can fail to do all that and still be the church as long as a church provides you with hospitality and a safe-haven. In his poem, death of a hired man, Robert Frost says that “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” That is a perfect description of church, too.

Third, a city set on a hill is aid to navigation. In the ancient world, many a traveler rejoiced to crest a hill, and see the lights of a city spread out before him in the distance. I know how important it is to see a light in the dark. Years ago, when I was much younger, and much more daring, I used to hunt in the area of Surry County known as Devotion. One night, I did not come off my stand until it was full dark. There was no moon, and no stars, and no artificial light of any kind, and I had left my compass at home. I could see the outline of the dark trees against the light shade of the night sky, but I could not see the path in front of me. Thinking I was traveling in the right direction, I went down the wrong side of a finger, and that took me down the wrong side of the mountain. For more than hour, I walked confidently away from my true goal. When I finally admitted my mistake, I started to contemplate a long cold night in woods. Then I thought to pray. I prayed a very specific prayer. I prayed that God would send a car along a road, so that I could see its lights, and get a direction. A few minutes later, I saw thin, faint, reflected light move in the darkness. I counted it as an answer to my prayer, and set out in that direction. After about another hour, I struck the road, and followed it in the dark until I found my car. I never did see another light, but I was oh so grateful for the lights from that one automobile. The people of this world are traveling in darkness. Few will see the light of God, unless they see it reflected in the light of God’s people. As my mother used to say, “The only Christ the world will see is the Christ it sees in you and me.” The way we live our lives does indeed matter.

Fourth, a city on a hill reveals not one light but many. Though we cannot see it without the help of a prism, every white light contains many colored rays. The work of the Holy Spirit is to make us Christ-like, yet I have never believed it is my job, or your job, to be Jesus Christ. There is only one light that is Jesus Christ. Jesus was undoubtedly a person of color, yet he is the white light that contains all the colored rays. You and I make up the spectrum. We are Roy G. Biv. You are Red, Orange, Yellow, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. I am Green. “It is not easy being green.” Never the less, it is because we are all different that together we make up the white light of Christ. To use another metaphor, he is the head of the body which is the church, and we are his members, his hands and feet …in the world.

Not only does every light contain many colored rays, but the lights of a city on a hill are many. The late Herbert Weber used to tell the story of a preacher who was invited to preach in the outback of Australia. It was not yet dark when he and his hosts arrived at the little church which was miles from nowhere. The preacher was surprised there were no lights in the building. He quizzed his host about this, and his hosts said, “Oh, come and see.” They stepped back outside the church, and immediately the preacher saw moving lights, here and there scattered about in the darkness. As he watched, the lights came together, and converged on the little church. Each light represented an individual, or a family, carrying a lantern. When at last, all the people had entered the church with their lighted lamps, the whole place was filled with light. Then, when the service was over, the preacher watched with satisfaction as the lights scattered toward their homes. Then his host lit a lamp for them, and they went home, too. I have always regarded Herbert’s story as the perfect illustration of what happens in a church. When we gather together to worship and serve the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, we pool our lights and bask in their light and warmth. We are like a light set on a stand, that gives light to all in the house. Then, when we depart, we carry our lights out into the world, so that we might be a light in the darkness for those who wander the world without direction, lost between the womb and the tomb, not knowing that they have come from God, and that God intends they should come back to him. No wonder Jesus said to his disciples, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Finis

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