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Sermon: Following the Light

March 6, 2011

2 Peter 1:16-21

Some of you here know what it is like to drive on an unfamiliar road in a heavy, wet snowfall at night.  Your headlights barely penetrate into the mass of thick flakes.  All around you to the side is white; there are glowing snowflakes in the air in front of you, and somewhere down there is the road.  You are hoping for two things—and you are not in control of either of these—that the road will not make a sudden, sharp turn that you won’t notice until it is too late, and that your wheels will remain in contact with the ground so that you don’t go spinning off into a snow drift.  No matter how slowly you are driving, it doesn’t seem to be slow enough.  Your hands grip the steering wheel until your knuckles are as white as everything else.  Every bit of your concentration is focused on those twin beams of light thrust out ahead of your car.

But your headlights give you enough light—just barely enough light—that you can sort of make out where the road is, even though the road, like everything else, is white.  At that moment, that light is your salvation.  It is the only thing that will allow you to keep going on to your destination.  You can’t pull over and stop—you’re in the middle of nowhere.  You have to keep moving forward.

The light is one of the most predominant images in Christian scripture.  Jesus is the Light of the World, and like Moses, the divine light transfigured him and he glowed from within when he came face-to-face with God.  For the Church, Jesus is the light, like a lamp shining in the darkness, that allows us to keep moving ahead into God’s future.  That light keeps us focused and grounded, moving on the right path.

In our second scripture lesson, the author of 2 Peter reminds his people to be attentive to the light.  Know what it is, where it is and where it is leading.  Though the letter itself says it is written by the apostle Peter, the preeminent of Jesus’ disciples, it was probably not written by him.  That’s not unusual for the time, and it shouldn’t concern us too much.  The author wrote this short letter in the name and spirit of Peter, and the Church later agreed that it should be a part of holy scripture.  The Church, in fact, came before the Bible.  It was the Church that decided which books should be in the Bible and which were not worthy to be included.  The Church decided that the letters known as 1 and 2 Peter were consistent with the character and witness of Jesus Christ, and that they were a part of the chain of tradition that originated with Jesus and the first disciples.

The letter of 2 Peter is primarily concerned with that very issue.  If you read the entire letter (and I encourage you to do so later), you’ll discover that there were some people in the author’s community who were teaching ideas that were at odds with the teaching of Jesus.  The author did not want his fellow Christians to go astray, to go skidding off the snowy road, by following these false teachers.  This letter, then, reminds the readers that there is an orthodox teaching—a right, a correct belief—that represents the true nature of Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus himself was proclaimed God’s own beloved son in the transfiguration on the mountaintop, and there were eyewitnesses to that event.  Peter was one of them.

The author of this letter was telling his people that these new teachers were twisting scripture with unorthodox ideas, and those ideas would lead you off the road.  So “you will do well to be attentive to [the right teaching] as to a lamp shining in a dark place” or a pair of headlights cutting through the heavy snowfall.  The example and teachings of Jesus keep us on track, they keep us grounded, firm.

*     *     *     *     *

We live in a culture in which “new” equals “good.”  New means innovation and progress.  We are always racing ahead to the next better thing.  If you buy the new iPhone 4 today, the top-of-the-line, faster-than-light, does-everything gadget, you will probably be out-of-date and have to upgrade to the even better iPhone 5 in six months.  The new advertising tagline for the iPhone 4 is “This changes everything.  Again.”  I still haven’t adjusted to when Apple changed everything with its original iPhone in 2007—that’s four iPhone versions in less than four years.  That is a little too much “new” for me.

Certainly, new is not necessarily bad.  I think we’re all glad that the new automobile made the old horse-and-buggy obsolete.  Or that the new medicine made the old leeches nearly obsolete.  Jesus himself, while reaffirming the authority of the ancient Torah, also offered new interpretations.

New can be very good, but new is not foolproof.  Remember Betamax?  Remember New Coke?  The DeLorean?  Somebody even tried to market bottled water for pets.  And some new ideas are very bad.  For the author of 2 Peter, the new ideas he encountered were not just bad, but destructive.  They were harmful to the fellowship of believers as well as to individual salvation.  The author does not give a name to this new teaching or these new teachers, but he wrote that they followed “licentious ways” (2:2), they “despise authority” (2:10), and they “entice unsteady souls” (2:14).  He has some very harsh words for these new teachers.

Of course, we don’t want to be unsteady souls.  We want to be steady, to be grounded, to remain on track.  And so the advice of 2 Peter is to pay attention to the teaching of our faith “as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”  You know what that means.  It means to continue doing what you are already doing—gathering together with other Christians to worship and hear the scriptures, to study and pray, to put yourself in a position where you could have one of those mountaintop experiences where you feel connected to God and the Spirit of God.  There aren’t any big secrets.  It is just a matter of quiet, unspectacular work day after day and week after week.  You concentrate on the light because it is your salvation.  It keeps you on the road.

Christians aren’t known for innovation.  We are often parodied for being old and musty.  Sure, we have a few new things, like contemporary worship and natural church development, but our great cathedrals are many hundreds of years old.  Some of the oldest buildings in this town are churches.  Many of our favorite hymns are a few hundred years old.  The very act of worship itself predates any organized religion.

It is true that when a church building is eaten through by termites, it needs to be replaced.  Hymns that worked for a time, but have grown tired, are replaced by newer songs.  Even our Bibles wear out.  But some things last.  There is one thing that Christians have been doing since the beginning to keep us grounded, one act we repeat over and over.  We mimic the very thing Jesus did with his disciples.  We gather together.  We take bread and give thanks to God.  We break it, and we eat it.  We take the wine and give thanks to God.  We drink the wine.  We do these old, ancient actions to remind ourselves of God’s great love and care for us.  The bread and wine tell the story of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf.  Holy Communion is something that is very old, and we do it often.  It is our most cherished sacrament.

And though it is old, though Communion is old, it never loses its meaning, and it never wears out.  That is because God’s great love for us never wears out.

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