From Darkness to Light
by Bill Stewart audio
1 LIGHT OR DARKNESS? (Let no one deceive you!)
"For once you were DARKNESS,
but now in the Lord you are LIGHT.
Live as children of LIGHT
– for the fruit of the LIGHT
is found in all that is
good and right and true." (Ephesians 5:8-9, NRSV)
Light or darkness? It couldn't be more appropriate to today's reading from Ephesians that overnight we've begun "daylight saving". Have you ever thought about how much light and darkness still influence our lives – even in the age of electricity, with sources of light being available 24-hours a day? One writer (Craig Koester) has this to say about it:
"…the interplay between light and darkness is a fundamental feature of human existence. Day and night, brightness and shadow, establish the contours of the world we see. … Light comes gently with the promise of dawn but glares down from the noonday sun; it gives the assurance of vision yet threatens exposure. Darkness may fall quietly around two lovers while cloaking the movements of the thief; it can lull the weary to sleep but also awaken the terror of the unknown.
Although light and darkness may signify many things the Gospel ... focuses their meaning ... by connecting light with God, life, and knowledge, and by associating darkness with their opposites."
One of the things that I find helpful when I'm reading the Bible, and especially when I'm reading Paul's letters, is to ask myself: What picture is the author painting here? That is, what are the most important images they are using here and why are they being used? In today's reading I see three pictures Paul paints for the Ephesians – three different but related pictures; three of images of things that are opposed to each other – opposing paths, opposing choices.
But before we look more and Paul's pictures I want to tell you about my friend Ken. When I was growing up Ken was my doctor. Ken was not known for his bedside manner. Ken could come across as a bit of a gruff sort of man, and he was a bit abrupt sometimes. These days we would call him a "task oriented" person. But Ken is a man of great faith. As well as being an elder in his church he is a member of the Gideons organisation which provides the Bibles you find in schools and hotel rooms. It was because of Ken that I was given this copy of the New Testament in my first year at high school. It's still written in the front: "Presented to Bill Stewart, 9/3/81". When I left home to go to university Ken gave me some gifts to encourage me in my Christian faith. One of them was a laminated copy of these words of these words by the writer Robert Fulghum (from his book It was on fire when I lay down on it). I have always found them to be words of wisdom and exactly opposite to what most of the world is telling me most of the time:
"Making a living and having a life are not the same thing.
Making a living and making a life that's worthwhile are not the same thing.
Living the good life and having a good life are not the same thing."
Later in my life when the shoe was on the other foot and I was working in ministry with teenagers beginning university, I would often share those words with them. The great thing about that was that this often led to conversations about the questions which obviously follow from it:
What does it mean to have a good life?
How do you make a life that's worthwhile?
I think that what Paul is saying here to the Ephesians in today's reading is the same as what Robert Fulghum is saying – with one crucial difference (as I'm sure Ken would agree), and I want to come back to that difference near the end of the sermon.
Paul says to the church at Ephesus:
v. 6-7: "Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated with them."
v. 11-14: "Take no part in the unfruitful works of DARKNESS, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the LIGHT becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is LIGHT."
The contrasts are strong aren't they? Couldn't be stronger! On the one hand we have the fruit of the light found in all that is good and right and true. And on the other the unfruitful works of darkness – things people do secretly which it is shameful even to mention. Paul has already painted a picture of such shameful things: "fornication [sleeping around, in our language] and impurity of any kind, or greed ... obscene, silly, and vulgar talk" (v. 3-4). History tells us that the city of Ephesus had a reputation as a place where if it felt "good" people did it. Society encouraged people to follow lust after whatever or whoever they desired. It doesn't sound at all like our world does it? That was the lifestyle that the Ephesians had been converted away from. And Paul's message to them is "no compromise". You can't go back to those ways of speaking and acting:
v. 5: "Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God."
I think Paul's next words in v. 6 are especially important: "Let no one deceive you with empty words." You may have seen the recent episode of 60 Minutes where they surprised everyone by discovering a high rate of excessive alcohol consumption among young people and the self-destructive behaviour related to it. Paul could have told them this sort of thing has been going on for thousands of years. But it is true that it seems to be an especially widespread and destructive problem today. Is it a problem because people young and old are desperate to have a good life and on every side voices are saying "live the good and you'll have a good life"? "Empty words"!
Instead, Paul says: "live an alternative lifestyle" – a real alternative lifestyle! Verse 11 says: "Take no part in the unfruitful works of DARKNESS, but instead expose them." I have found J.B. Philips' translation of this verse in the Living Bible helpful:
v. 11: "Let your life show by contrast how dreary and futile these things are."
I thank God that my Christian friends at university showed me how dreary and futile these things are, even if they seemed attractive at the beginning.
2 WISE OR FOOLISH? (Be careful how you live!)
Light or darkness? Wise or foolish? One of the things I think we see very clearly in Paul's letters is that he is anything but an ivory tower theologian. He is very well aware, isn't he, of the pressures there are on the Christian lives of the Ephesians? He doesn't pretend that there is any easy escape from these difficulties. What he does say is that there are two possible responses that the Ephesians can make.
v. 15-17: "Be careful then how you live, not as UNWISE people but as WISE, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be FOOLISH, but understand what the will of the Lord is."
There is no choice to avoid the world. We will hear the "empty words", again and again and again. But there is a choice to live wisely or to live foolishly. And for Paul to live wisely means to listen to words that are not empty:
v. 10: "Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord."
v. 17: "So do not be FOOLISH, but understand what the will of the Lord is."
The voices won't go away but we can choose to listen to another voice: a voice that will help us to make wise decisions, or what we might call "sober" judgements.
3 DRUNK OR SOBER? (Be filled with the Spirit!)
This leads us to Paul's third pair of opposing images: Light or darkness? Wise or foolish? Drunk or sober?
v. 18: "Do not get DRUNK with wine, for that is debauchery; but BE FILLED with the Spirit."
I was tempted to say that Paul's point here is that "If you drink and pray you're a xxxx xxxx." But after hearing last week's sermon and reading the first verses of today's reading I thought better of it. In any case, Paul is not talking about drinking alcohol here is he? He is contrasting being drunk with being sober. It's another powerful contrast isn't it? We know, don't we, that if people drink alcohol often enough in large enough quantities it will become their pattern of life and the thing that drives the other things that they do. In time it will affect relationships, work, maybe even lead to a life of crime. Paul is suggesting, isn't he, that what is repeated takes control of people's will. Excessive use of alcohol repeated constantly will master a person's life but repeatedly seeking to understand what the will of God is, and being "filled with the Spirit" (v. 18), will help us to become wise, to make sober judgments, to have a good life and make a life that's worthwhile.
Did you notice the way at the end of the passage Paul went back to the beginning and tied all this together with two contrasting uses of language? In verses 3-4 he says:
v. 3-4: "But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving."
Then in the last verses the picture is entirely different – as different as darkness and light (pun intended):
v. 19-20: "…as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
4 CHRIST WILL "SHINE" ON YOU
Choose light not darkness. Choose wisdom not foolishness. Choose sobriety not drunkenness. But Paul's painting has one final detail. In the Old Testament God's glory or light was often pictured as appearing over Israel and bringing life-giving power. In the prophecy of Isaiah, for instance:
"The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great LIGHT;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness —
on them light has shined." (Isaiah 9:2)
"Arise, shine; for your LIGHT has come
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn." (Isaiah 60:1-3)
Now in Paul's picture of the light overcoming the darkness, Jesus is pictured as being like the rays of the rising sun. Did you notice verse 14?
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will SHINE on you."
Christ will "shine" on you. It is in the light of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, that people become light. In fact, the change ought to be so profound, Paul tells the Ephesians, it's like being raised from the dead!
The crucial difference between what Robert Fulghum says about having a good life what Paul says about living as children of light is Christ. In his Gospel the apostle John says:
"In [Jesus] was life, and the life was the LIGHT of all people. The LIGHT shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:4-5)
And elsewhere in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says:
"For it is God who said, 'Let LIGHT shine out of darkness', who has shone in our hearts to give the LIGHT of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Perhaps the apostles used the image of light so regularly because Jesus used the image of light to painted pictures of his message. I found it interesting when I put two of them side by side; one from the Gospel of John and the other from the Gospel of Matthew:
"I am the LIGHT of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)
"You are the LIGHT of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives LIGHT to all in the house. In the same way, let your LIGHT shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)