Readings (NRSV) and Psalm (ELW):
Isaiah 58:1–9a [9b–12]
Psalm 112:1–9  Light shines in the darkness for the upright. (Ps. 112:4)
1 Corinthians 2:1–12 [13–16]
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In this time the Northern Hemisphere is celebrating the light which is growing daily in length. Although the temperatures have been exceedingly cold, it takes only a little of the sun’s light to make an appreciable difference in a world that suffers in the cold darkness of humanity’s inhumanity toward humanity.
Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) And we repeat these words to every individual at their baptism. It happens at that point in the rite of baptism when the light of the baptismal candle illumines the newly baptized. It is at this moment that our understanding of enlightenment occurs within the Christian faith.
We are not unique in our quest for enlightenment. Most every religious tradition speaks of the illumination or enlightenment that results in insight. For example, Buddhism has the Four Noble Truths which arose out of the enlightenment of Siddhartha: All life is suffering, the cause of suffering is ignorant desire, this desire can be destroyed, the means to this is the Eight-fold Path.
In the Christian tradition enlightenment occurs in the encounter with Jesus the crucified/risen Lord. Paul writes to the Corinthian community,
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)
It is for this reason that Paul as the earliest written witness to Christ teaches that baptism is the act by which we are joined to the body of Christ, not as a club or service organization. Together the baptized are washed in the waters of baptism. Yes, even more than washed, we are drowned in the waters of baptism. Luther taught in the Small Catechism,
What then is the significance of such a baptism with water?
It signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Dying and rising with Christ means that we can no longer see the world or ourselves in the same way that the world would try to teach us to see it. The world would teach us to believe that we are an end unto ourselves, that we are here to be served rather than to serve, that we are placed here to consume this world’s bounty.
I remember when I was expelled from one job, working on a doctoral dissertation, grieving the death of my brother, and searching for a denominational home. It was a terrible time filled with anxiety. It was in those days that I felt the light of Christ dawning on me but not before I needed to be challenged with this world’s way of seeing reality.
I ordered those video tapes by Tony Robbins the king of self-help. I thought at the time maybe he could mentor me into how to be a successful person—that I could win in the academic arena, that I could get past the grief, that I could be a winner and walk on coals of fire, that I would have the signs of success by which I could consume this world’s goods.
It was at that time that I realized that Mr. Robbins probably could teach me all of those things. At the same time, however, I had an alarming picture of what I would be like if the only thing I did was to succeed at these things. I could not wipe away the raw feelings that my brother’s death brought to me. It was one of those “Ecclesiastes” moments.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. . . What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-5, 9)
Or just for the fun of it we could hear again the words of Shakespeare in Macbeth.
“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
― William Shakespeare, Macbeth
It was then that I started attending the liturgies of the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church. There I began to realize that there is another way, another path. It was the way of the baptism by which the anxious self could simply die by being joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The liturgies served as fixed points by which I could live in this reality. Participation in the liturgies offered the repetition of a new consciousness—an enlightenment as it were.
The new reality was that I could more easily accept death as a part of life. I could see my destiny, not as an individual, but as a participant in a human destiny made flesh and blood in Jesus Christ. That I no longer needed to compete with my brothers and sisters. And that I could cooperate and share with others both within the community of faith and outside the community of faith. I no longer measured my worth by my ability to consume this world’s goods, nor did I need to act like those with more of this world’s goods were more worthy than those with less.
The encounter with the crucified God was a game changer not just once, but every time I encountered the crucified/resurrected Jesus in the Sunday assembly around word and sacrament.
Dear sisters and brothers, who would not want to encounter the mystery of God in an authentic faith that allows us to see the world as it is and, yet, to love the world because in our enlightenment we come to know God as the creator who loves what God has created.
Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” And so you are!
“You are the light of the world.” And so you are! No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the 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 5:13-16)