Last Sunday at Melbourne Heights, we started a new series of sermons called “Imprint” where we’re talking about life lessons that were first imprinted on us when we were kids. And there were a lot of valuable lessons that most of us learned when we were kids. By the time you learned how to tie your shoes, you also learned how to share, how to play fair, and how to clean up after yourself.
But throughout this series, we’re not just talking about lessons that your parents tried to teach or things that you learned at school. We’re specifically talking about lessons we learned in church. And it doesn’t matter if you learned these lessons in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School, it doesn’t matter if you learned these lessons at church camp or during a church service; there are life lessons we learned as kids that we should never outgrow.
There are life lessons we learned as kids that we should never outgrow.
And last Sunday, we spent our time together talking about one of the most important lessons we learned in church when we were kids. And it’s a lesson that Jesus taught us while he was preaching the most well-known sermon he ever preached — the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:14, Jesus teaches us that:
14 You are the light of the world…
And he goes on to tell us to:
16 let your light shine before people…
So one of the most important life lessons that we learned when we were kids – a lesson that should be imprinted on us for as long as we live – is that when life feels dark, we need to shine Jesus’ light.
When life feels dark, we need to shine Jesus’ light.
But today, I want us to start digging deeper and start talking about how we can shine Jesus’ light when life feels dark. But before we can do that, we need to spend a little bit of time talking about what the word shine actually means. And we need to talk about what the word shine actually means because how we define this word will shape the way we try to shine Jesus’ light when life feels dark.
So what does the word shine mean? Well, the first – and primary – definition is that the word shine means to give forth or cast light. So this is what we’re talking about when we say that a lightbulb shines. A lightbulb casts light out over a big area.
But that’s not the only definition of the word shine. The word shine can also mean to direct light on or toward something. So this is what we’re talking about when we say that a spotlight shines. A spotlight directs light toward an actor on a stage so that everyone in the audience can focus their attention on that actor.
So which definition is Jesus talking about when he tells you to “let your light shine before people”? Does Jesus want you to cast your light far and wide as you go about your daily life? Or does Jesus want you to focus your light where there is darkness around you?
I think that Jesus wants us to do both. I think Jesus wants us to kind of cast a permanent glow wherever we go in life. I think Jesus wants us to be the kind of people that others can look to and see hope, peace, joy, and love radiating from.
But I don’t think that Jesus just wants us to be a passive light in the world that others can see when they look at us. I also think Jesus wants us to be a direct light that shines on the darkness we encounter in life. And this is what I really want us to focus on as we talk about how we can shine Jesus’ light when life feels dark. I want us to talk about how we can shine Jesus’ light directly into the darkness we see around us.
Now, obviously, there are so many dark areas around us in the world today. So we could spend our time talking about how to shine the light of Jesus into the darkness of terrorism and human trafficking. We could talk about how we can shine the light of Jesus into the darkness of climate change or childhood poverty. We could talk about how we can shine the light of Jesus into the darkness of gun violence or drug addiction.
But I want to start by talking about how we can shine the light of Jesus onto something that hits much closer to home for us all. And this problem that we need to shine our light on is something that Robert Gates, who was the Secretary of Defense under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, talked about a few weeks ago. During an interview with Face the Nation, Sec. Gates was asked, “What do you think the biggest threat to the United States is right now?”
Remember, this was a question for a former Secretary of Defense. So this is someone who knows about the darkness in our world. This is someone who knows about violence and warfare. This is someone who knows about the threats of terrorism at home and abroad. This is someone who knows about the possible devastation of biological or nuclear war.
But Sec. Gates didn’t talk about any of those things. Instead, when he was asked, “What do you think the biggest threat to the United States is right now?” Sec. Gates said:
I think it is the polarization in the country. And, you know, we've always had polarization in America. If you go back to the Jefferson, Adams presidential race in 1800, the things that were said in that election would fit right into the current political environment. But what's been different, more recently, is not just a measure of paralysis…but a level of meanness and a lack of civility among our politicians, or the sense that somebody who disagrees with you is not just somebody you disagree with, but is an enemy, is a bad person. This lack of civility is, I think, something new and really is pretty pervasive in the Congress. And it sets a pretty bad example for the rest of the country.
So when he was asked about the biggest threat to America, Sec. Gates said it’s a lack of civility. And what is civility? If you looked in a dictionary it would tell you that civility means being courteous or polite. Sec. Gates hinted that civility means being able to disagree with someone without thinking they’re your enemy. But I personally like the way that we all would’ve defined civility when we were kids. Because civility is really just a fancy word that means we need to get along with others.
And it’s pretty clear that we live in a world where we struggle to get along with others.
We live in a world where we struggle to get along with others.
This is a lesson that we all learned when we were in elementary school. We’d go out on the playground and see one kid push another kid. Or we’d hear one of our classmates call another kid a name as we walked down the hallway. Or our teacher would make us work in a group and by the end of the period, we’d all be yelling at each other because no one wanted to listen to what anyone else had to say.
So we know that we live in a world where we can struggle to get along with other people. So this is clearly an area where we need to shine the light of Jesus. When people don’t get along, we need to shine Jesus’ light.
When people don’t get along, we need to shine Jesus’ light.
But how do we do that? How do we shine Jesus’ light when other people aren’t getting along? Well, maybe we should take a look and see how Jesus did it. So, if you’ve got a Bible close by go ahead and grab it and turn with me to Luke 19.
And, as you’re finding it, I’ll just remind you that the book of Luke is essentially a biography of Jesus. So when you read the book of Luke you can read about Jesus’ birth and baptism, his ministry and the miracle he performed, as well as his crucifixion and his resurrection. But in Luke 19, we’re going to read about how Jesus interacted with people who weren’t getting along.
So let’s take a look at Luke 19 together, where we’ll start reading in verse 1. Luke writes:
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. 2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd.
Luke 19:1-3 (Common English Bible)
So in the verses we just read, we met a man named Zacchaeus. And Zacchaeus really wants to see Jesus. But in this passage, we’re told that Zacchaeus is a short man who couldn’t see Jesus because of the crowd.
Now, many of us assume that this means that Zacchaeus was somewhere in the back of the crowd and he couldn’t see Jesus because there were tall people in front of him. But I gotta tell you, it wasn’t that long ago that my family went to the Oregon Zoo as part of our summer vacation. And while we were there, the zookeepers were doing a training exercise with the elephant. They had the elephant posing and swimming and splashing. And there was a huge crowd gathered all around the enclosure watching every move the elephant made. But that huge crowd didn’t stop some little kids from bobbing and weaving their way right up to the fence to see the elephant.
And chances are that as a short man, Zacchaeus could’ve done the exact same thing. Zacchaeus could’ve bobbed and weaved his way through the crowd unless the crowd didn’t want him to get through. So there are a lot of biblical scholars who believe that’s exactly what’s happening in this story. They believe that Zacchaeus was forced to the back of the crowd and the crowd wouldn’t let him get close enough to see Jesus.
And why would the crowd work so hard to keep Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus? Because he was a tax collector. Now, I don’t think there has ever been a point in history where people loved tax collectors. I mean, none of us are ever going to be excited to see a letter from the IRS in our mailboxes when we get home. But in biblical times people absolutely despised tax collectors.
And they despised tax collectors because the tax collectors were contracted by the Roman Empire to collect taxes in a given area. But the contractors had to pay for the right to be a tax collector before they collected a single dime. So they would routinely abuse their position to make back the money they had already spent and then some.
So this crowd hates Zacchaeus…and Zacchaeus probably feels the same way about them. So this is clearly a situation where you have people who don’t get along. So what does Jesus do in this passage to shine his light into this darkness?
Well, let’s keep reading and see what Jesus does. We’ll pick back up in Luke 19:4, which says:
4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” 6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.
Luke 19:4-6 (Common English Bible)
In these three verses, Jesus shows us the most basic thing we can do to shine his light when other people don’t get along. If we want to shine Jesus’ light when people don’t get along, we have to treat people like people.
If we want to shine Jesus’ light when people don’t get along, we have to treat people like people.
Because too often when people don’t get along they don’t see each other as people, they see each other as labels. And it’s really easy to not get along with someone that you only see as a Democrat or Republican. It’s really easy to not get along with someone that you only see as being pro-life or pro-choice. It’s really easy to not get along with someone that you only see as being pro-Second Amendment or pro-gun control.
But when Jesus met Zacchaeus he didn’t see a label. He didn’t see an outcast. He didn’t see a traitor. He didn’t see a tax collector. Jesus saw Zacchaeus. Jesus saw a person. And Jesus treated Zacchaeus like a person.
And we even have a word for this, when we treat people like they’re people, we call it empathy. So, if we want to shine Jesus’ light when people don’t get along, we all need to learn to be more empathetic. But how do we do that? How can we all become more empathetic?
Well, here are three things we can do. First, we all need to realize that our perspective isn’t the only possible perspective. And just because you see an issue one way that does not mean there aren’t other ways to see that issue. Yes, the crowd could see Zacchaeus as a traitor and a thief, but Zacchaeus could’ve seen himself as someone doing what he had to do to take care of himself and his family.
So, when you’re struggling to get along with someone, try to take a step back and realize that your perspective isn’t the only perspective.
The next thing we can do to become more empathetic is to learn to listen to understand not to respond. Now, this isn’t the way that we as human beings are programmed. When we’re having a conversation our minds naturally want to think about the next thing we’re going to say instead of listening to what the other person is trying to say.
But if we take the time to slow down and really listen to what other people are saying, we start to see their perspective and we can find ways to overcome our differences instead of continuing to tear each other down.
And a final thing you can do that will help you be more empathetic is to practice being empathetic. I mean, you’re never going to be able to see things from another person’s perspective and to really listen to what they’re saying if you don’t practice. And one of the best ways to practice empathy, believe it or not, is to read fiction books, or watch movies or TV shows and then try to see the story through the perspective of different characters.
So, if you want to build empathy, watch some of the Star Wars movies and try to see the story through the eyes of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Or pick up a Berenstain Bears book with your kids and think about the story that unfolds from the perspective of Mama, Papa, Sister, and Brother Bear.
And by putting yourself into the shoes of these fictional characters, you’ll start opening your eyes to see the world in different ways. And then, when you need to be able to see an issue through the eyes of someone you don’t get along with; it’ll be a little easier to be empathetic.
Now, I’ll be honest here, if you and I learn how to be more empathetic that isn’t going to eliminate all of the conflict in our world. But, if we learn how we can disagree with someone without dehumanizing them then we will be shining Jesus’ light into the darkness of our world. And, if we can show other people how to do the same this world will become a brighter place.