In a world filled with people who are hungry, poor, illiterate, oppressed, jobless, far from God, and people who have no idea they matter to Him or to anyone else, Jesus is looking for someone who is willing to let their light shine.
This Sunday we look at Mathew 5:14-16 and learn how to be the kind of people who are willing to let our lights shine, to be a city on a hill, and to engage in good deeds that change people’s lives, as well as our own.
To start today, I want to look at two cities that both existed in Jesus’ day. One city was built by Herod Antipas called Sepphoris. || Herod Antipas learned building from the master, Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus said, “When I saw Rome, it was made of brick. When I finished with it, it was made of marble.” Caesar knew about building a city that was a monument to wealth and power. And Herod Antipas learned from him. So when he came back as a young man to become the ruler of Galilee — he decided he would build it like Caesar built Rome. He was actually rebuilding a city that had, pretty much, been destroyed. And he determined that the city of Sepphoris would be a monument to his wealth and power. It was called the ornament of Galilee. That’s how impressive it was. || Since the 1980s, many different teams have been excavating the city of Sepphoris. And they’ve found out a lot about it. It was laid out on a grid as all great Roman cities were. The north-south street in a Roman city was the primary one; and in Sepphoris it was 44 feet wide. There was nothing else like it in Galilee. It was paved with stone — built so well with an elaborate sewage system running underneath it — that it lasted 500 years. || And then there was always the main east-west road. And this grid, among other things, served to demonstrate where you stood on the financial-status totem pole. The closer you were to the center of that grid, the more you mattered, and the more you had. The goal of life was to get there. || Everyone knew where everyone else stood. || Herod built an enormous palace for himself in Sepphoris with a huge gymnasium. with public baths — public buildings that had pools lined with marble. This was very rare in Galilee. There was a bank. There was a large temple to Rome and the gods of Rome. There was a theater that seated between 4,000 and 5,000 people. || Now, all of this, of course, takes a lot of money. And Herod understood about money. If you’re in government — if you are the government, which was pretty much the case for Herod — how do you raise money? Taxes. And Herod knew about taxes. There was a temple tax assessed to people that was supposed to go to the temple in Jerusalem. There was a land tax on their crops. Galileans had to pay a poll tax just for being alive. By the time you were 14 if you were a male, 12 if you were a female, you had to pay a poll tax. There were certain fees — import fees, taxes on roads, bridges and market goods — that were collected by a special group, an increasingly wealthy class called Publicans. Sometimes, they used these funds to start Roman country clubs. Then they were called Republicans. Okay, I made that up. || Historians estimate — think about this — up to 70% of a peasant’s income went to Rome. Think about the taxes you pay. And think about being a peasant… and 70% of your income going to Rome. || This is why, in Jesus’ day, there was an increase of poverty and loss among the vast majority of people. || And there wasn’t much of a middle class in his day at all. There were the very wealthy, and then the vast majority who were very poor. And their plight was getting a whole lot worse in Jesus’ day. || You may have noticed how often, in Jesus’ parables, he talks about absentee landowners and hired laborers who serve them. Well, that’s because that was the reality of his day. Increasingly, these wealthy few were taking over the land. Many of them lived down in Jerusalem, but they owned the land. And the people were becoming sharecroppers or slaves. || You can imagine what this did to the sense of unrest in Jesus’ day. That’s how Herod Antipas could build. And he was so good at what he did, historians estimate that Herod Antipas himself owned between one-half and two-thirds of all the land in Galilee. || || Now, contrast that with another city in the first century — the city where Jesus grew up — a place called Nazareth. Often, people’s feelings about money and possessions are shaped by their family and the home where they grew up. Well again, thanks to archeology, we know things about Nazareth, things about the life that shaped Jesus that Christians for almost 2,000 years have not known. || How big do you think Nazareth was in Jesus’ day? Turn to the person next to you and take a guess. What do you think the population of Nazareth was in Jesus’ day? || Okay, I’ll tell you. Are you ready? Nazareth was around 200 people. || Basically, this means it consisted of several extended families. It was a very small community. || I’ll tell you how insignificant Nazareth was. The historian Josephus, roughly a contemporary of Jesus, wrote in the first century. He was a general in Galilee during part of his life. He knew it quite well. He wrote about 45 towns in Galilee — named 45 of them. Guess how often he mentioned Nazareth? Never! Not a single time. || In the ancient rabbinic writings of that era — in all of the writings of the Mishnah and the Talmud, 63 towns in Galilee are named — never Nazareth. It’s not mentioned in the Old Testament. || All of Nazareth fit on about 10 acres of land. || And that’s where Jesus grew up. || In Nazareth, which again archeologists have been working on for years… There were no public buildings. No paved roads. Sewage got dumped in alleys, which was foul and often dangerous. No gold coins have been found there. No silver coins have been found there. Just a few bronze coins. No metal cups. No metal bowls. The houses the people lived in in Jesus’ town had no tiled roofs, no stone floors, no frescoed walls — nothing like Sepphoris. People lived on dirt floors. || This is our Lord. This is where he grew up. They lived on dirt floors. Their walls were made of fieldstone packed together by clay or mud. Their homes were often built into the sides of caves that were used for storage and sometimes living space. Jesus grew up in a village of peasants. They didn’t have much food. They ate bread, some olives, and occasional vegetables or fish. They would have had, probably, one set of clothing each. || If you picture Jesus and his family in contemporary American terms — small business owners with dreams of upward mobility and financial security — you’ve got the wrong picture. No one in Nazareth was climbing any ladders. The best they could hope for was to avoid dying or falling into debt. They just paid their taxes and survived. || That was Nazareth. And Nazareth shaped Jesus. He spent 90% of his life in Nazareth. || And his life didn’t get much different, financially, later on. Jesus said of himself in Matthew 8:20: Birds have nests. Foxes have holes. The Son of Man has no place to lay his head. || What do we call that in our day? Homelessness. Jesus was homeless. || That’s Jesus. That was his life. || This is why the Apostle Paul, when he’s writing to the church of Corinth, says — a distinguishing characteristic of life in the kingdom of God is openhanded giving. Paul writes: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became [what?] poor, [He really did.] so that you through his poverty [that’s the word] might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9) He lived in poverty. He grew up poor in a poverty-stricken town. That was Jesus. || || These two cities Sepphoris — a monument to wealth and prosperity. Nazareth — a town of desperation and poverty. || Now what does this have to do with the sermon on the mount? Well, Sepphoris and Nazareth are only three miles apart. That’s about an hour away by foot. And not only that, Sepphoris was on a hill that was about 400 feet above the valley. Josephus said that Sepphoris was called the ornament of Galilee. || Do you know what they called it down in Nazareth? They called it — “The city on a hill that cannot be hidden,” because it was a showplace. It was a tribute to wealth and power and skill and engineering. || Maybe the showplace of Sepphoris was the amphitheater. It was designed to emphasize the gap between the haves and the have-nots. || If you were rich, when you went into the amphitheater, you came in one entrance. You had privileged seating apart from the masses. Your seat was nearest to the front. Your seat had a backrest on it. Your name might be chiseled into it. People in the masses could watch you, but they were not allowed in your section. || It’s sort of like when you go on a plane and there’s first class and there’s coach, but then there’s the iron curtain that separates the riff raff in the back from the people that ride in the front. It’s a little like that. It was designed, in part, to keep people in their place, to reinforce who’s on top and who’s on bottom in the kingdom of this earth. || Interesting thing about Jesus and that amphitheater — we’re told that Herod enlisted workmen or craftsmen — the Greek word was “tekton” — throughout the area to build that amphitheater, because there weren’t enough just in Sepphoris. So he enlisted “tekton,” workmen, craftsmen throughout the area. In Mark 6:3, we’re told that Jesus is a carpenter. Anyone want to guess the Greek word translated carpenter in Mark 6:3? Tekton || In other words, there is a real good chance that word — when we think carpenter, we think of someone who just works with wood. But that word often referred to stonemasons — craftsmen in general. There’s a real good chance when Jesus was a boy, he and his father would walk from Nazareth — that three-mile hike — to Sepphoris and help build the amphitheater that Herod enlisted the “tekton” in the area to build. || Jesus knew all about the gap between rich and poor. He grew up a peasant boy just 3 miles away from luxury and wealth. || And he would look up at “the city on the hill that cannot be hidden.” He’d look at all that wealth and power and he’d go home to sleep on dirt floors. || And amazingly enough, when he grew up… He didn’t hate the rich. He didn’t envy them. And he didn’t aspire to be one. Many of his countrymen hated the rich. || || And now we come to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has a plan for his followers. This is what he said in Matthew 5:14, speaking to people who have thrown themselves open to the reality of the kingdom of God. He said: You are the light of the world. God has no intentions of giving up on this world, of giving up on this earth. This dark place will be increasingly flooded with the light of his kingdom. And it’s you and me. “You are the light of the world.” And then look at this — Jesus, the peasant boy who grew up in poverty, staring at that giant tower of wealth and power, says: A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. His people are going to build another kind of city. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. Jesus had one strategy for his followers to touch the world. His plan was for his Church — which he loved so passionately — to rest upon and be vindicated by one thing. And it sounds so simple, it’s almost embarrassing to say it — In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. That’s the only light he named. || And that is, in fact, what happened when Jesus left this earth. His followers had virtually no money, no influence, now power, no soldiers, no weapons — it was a very small following. What they did have was a community. It was a small one at first, but it was unlike any community that had ever existed in the world. || And this is a simple matter of historical fact — in this community, the rich voluntarily let go, gave up what they had to help the poor. People who had always been separated and hostile toward each other came together — slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile. And they were like brothers and sisters. They were reconciled. They were kind and gracious. No one had ever seen a power like that before in human history. Orphans and widows got cared for and honored and celebrated. When people got imprisoned for their faith in Christ, there was a whole community that gathered around them… and their spouse and children. || This dynamic is so striking that one of the earliest opponents of Christianity, a man named Seleucus, many centuries ago, wrote about the Christian community: “Christians continually attract worthless and contemptible people: idiots, slaves, poor women and children.” And what he intended as a critique, as an insult — his observations about the radical goodness of a community reaching out indiscriminately to anyone at all, and especially to people who have particular needs — that’s what made that community irresistible. And the good deeds that were done by the men and women of this “city on a hill” were so radiant that they simply overwhelmed the world. || And this is a matter of historical fact. They overwhelmed a Roman empire that was filled with wealth and power. You could not keep people out. They had no buildings, no influence, no money, no power, but you couldn’t keep people out. || For 2,000 years that single image of Jesus, that picture of a shining city set on a hill that could not be hidden is so powerful that the human race has never been able to forget it. || And I’m here today to ask you a single question: Do you think we could be a city like that? Do you think we could be a church like that? || I’ll make it real personal. How brightly is your life shining these days? || Are you involved, at least sometimes, in doing good deeds that have the result of causing people to say, “What a good God, God is, that he would cause someone like this to be in my world — in my life”? Or has your wattage gotten kind of dim? || Today is really about building this city on a hill, about letting lights shine, about getting back to the foundation. || Now I think everyone in this room wants to do good. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. My bet is even if you’re not sure about God yet — even if you’re still kind of exploring faith — you want to be a person who does good. || So what do you do? || I’m going to get very concrete now because I know almost everyone in this room lives a busy life. You have commitments that you cannot walk away from. How do you do good? || I want to give you one thought. This comes from a man named Jim Wallace who is one of the great Christian leaders of our day in this area. He wrote a book called “Faith Works.” And he gives a starting point for people who want to do good. || So I want to tell you the phrase that he offers and then kind of unpack it. He wrote, “You’ve got to get out of the house more often.” || Here’s the idea: We all tend to live in a little slice of the world where we feel comfortable. I go to school. I shop. I work. I go to church. I do things with people who are like me. Our society just divides people up that way — it puts all kinds of real subtle barriers in between different kinds of people. And as long as I don’t get out of the house… people who live in other conditions, people who are different from me — different language, different accent, different skin color, different economic conditions — they’re just not on the radar screen. They’re just not in my mind and heart. || Most people who are deeply committed to doing good — who are building bigger hearts and trying to reach out as Jesus did — most people in that condition will trace their own transformation to some time when they went to someone in need — maybe on a mission trip or a service project or something that was out of their comfort zone And they had — a real experience with a real person who had a real name and a real face || Usually what transforms people and motivates them to do good, is not a great talk. It’s not a good book. It’s not a powerful documentary or a real moving film. It’s a real life experience that grips your heart and seizes your vision and immerses you into the life of a real person. You’ve got to get out of the house. || I have a very deep conviction that if you will do that — if you’ll get outside your normal world… if you serve and pray for a real person with a real name, your heart will be touched. God will just work in you in that way… and you will just want to do good. You will begin to think about how you might do that… not because someone is trying to make you… or because you feel like you ought to — it will come from inside you. || || On the other hand, I’m here to tell you today that if you don’t take that step, if you don’t get out of the house, your attention will simply be devoted to other things. It just will. And over time, your heart will get smaller and colder. And the day is coming when you will face a mountain of regret… Not so much for the wrong things you did… but for the wonderful thing you didn’t do. || || So get out of the house. Learn one name. Just one name, one face can be so powerful. || I’ll tell you why. Because that’s the face of someone made in the image of God. Because that name is the name of someone that Jesus died for. Because Jesus said in some way we don’t fully understand that when you extend a hand to someone, no matter how ragged they may look to you, “whatever you do for the least of these” — he said, “You do it for Me.” || Mother Theresa used to send members of her community to a home for the dying. She wrote of a young woman from a wealthy family who spent three hours caring for a dying man brought in from the streets who was covered with maggots. And Mother Teresa said to this young woman, “You be very careful. You be very loving as you touch him — for there is Jesus in his distressing disguise.” || That’s why when you get out of the house… and you learn a name and see a face… something changes in you — for there is Jesus in his distressing disguise. || Now that’s why we are utterly committed to building a church of men, women and children who do good deeds. This is just core to the message of Jesus. || || What I want to do in the time that remains is give a couple fundamental reasons we need to arrange our lives around doing good. I want to walk us through two changes that your good deeds will bring about. || The first one is this — Doing good deeds will change you. || Every time you do a good deed it changes you a little bit. || Martin Seligman wrote a book called “Authentic Happiness.” He’s devoted his life and study to trying to find out what it is that causes authentic human joy and well-being and wholeness. He writes — we all tend to think that if we could just get more of the stuff we want, then we’d be happy. We tend to think the secret to happiness is just more — more money more sex more chocolate more success more achievement more stuff more But he says it turns out there’s this gap between more and enough that can never get bridged. More is never enough. Old question: Who is more content? The man with 12 children or the man with 12 million dollars. The answer, of course, is the man with 12 children, because he doesn’t want any more. || Seligman did a fascinating thing. He gave an assignment to one of his classes. He said all the students were to go out and engage in one pleasurable activity — one thing they thought would make them happy. And engage in one good deed. And then write down their reflections on both things. He said: The results were life changing. The results of the pleasurable activity — hanging out with friends, watching a movie, eating ice cream, whatever it was, paled in comparison to the effects of doing something good for someone else. || Seligman found — when people are involved in acts of compassion… They become less self-absorbed. They become less depressed. They become more tuned in to others — more capable of empathy. They have a greater sense of community and a decreased sense of loneliness. It’s very ironic that when people’s primary focus is on doing something that will make themselves happy, they get depressed. And when they focus on giving themselves to others, they get joy. || When you get to the end of your life, the greatest memories you have will not be of the pleasure moments you accumulated for yourself. They’ll be the ways you spent yourself to bless the lives of other people. Those will be the greatest memories you have. “Let your light so shine,” Jesus said. || You know, anytime you do something good for someone in need — it doesn’t have to be huge — When you stop, even though you’re busy, and just listen to someone who’s hurting. When you, with all the important things you have to do, take the time to be kind to someone who’s confused or afraid. When you’re at a restaurant, and there’s someone cleaning a table who’s in his forties or fifties, and he doesn’t speak English very well — And he’s working two jobs, maybe, to help his children find a better way of life. Instead of just treating him like he’s part of the furniture that you’re entitled to have serve you because you’ve got money… you really notice him. You look at him and speak to him like someone who has dignity, like someone that maybe you could learn something from. You treat him the way Jesus would treat him if Jesus was in your place. || Anytime you do a good deed like that, you change a little. Your heart gets a little bigger. And your light shines a little brighter. You help build a city on a hill that cannot be hidden… that Jesus staked everything on. || || And it’s not just that doing good deeds changes you. It does. It’s the best way to live for you. But it’s not just that. When you devote yourself to doing good deeds — You change the world one person at a time. Which is really the only way this world will ever get deeply changed. || The reality is we live in a world that desperately needs what you and I have to give. || Because so many of us live fairly comfortable lives, it’s so easy and so tragic for us to shut our eyes to the need of this world. But we have to look. We have to open our eyes. We must do this. || You know, sometimes when we look at the needs and they’re so great, we can get overwhelmed and as a result we become paralyzed. And we end up doing nothing. || I want to challenge you the same way someone challenged me. Rather than get overwhelmed by the gravity of the need… and end up paralyzed and do nothing, consider this — Where can you — do for one what you wish you could do for everyone? Don’t look at the overwhelming need. Just look where God is breaking your heart for the things that break his heart. And… Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone. Just pick one person. || I want to give you some ways you can do this — some ways you can get out of the house… and do for one what you wish you could do for everyone. || You can be a date for a person with special needs at our Starlight Ball coming up in April. You can visit a homebound senior or someone in a care facility who is living alone. You can provide dignity to those who are alone and desperately need someone to visit with them. You can tutor a child or be a mentor through the foster and kinship program in the Pleasanton schools. Our church partners with City Team in Oakland and Goodness Village in Livermore to serve the homeless population. You can serve a meal to the homeless community. You can teach a trade to homeless people at City Team or Goodness Village. These are people just like you and me. They came into the world just like you and me. And yet they’re suffering. If you don’t live in the Pleasanton area, you can find something similar in your area. If your heart is for the millions of orphans in the world, just pick one and help that one orphan. You can sponsor one child through Compassion International… and it will make a huge difference in the life of that one child. If you need help getting involved, you can email [email protected]
and we’ll work with you to find a good fit for you. || And you’ll change the world a little bit — just one life at a time. || Jesus said, “There’s going to be one source of light in this dark, fallen, sorry world… and it’s you. You are the light of the world.” || When individual human beings deliberately sacrifice their own time or energy or resources to help someone else for no strategic reason at all. When someone crosses an ethnic barrier, a cultural barrier, a generational barrier to build a bridge where our world is just filled with walls. When an outsider walks into a prison to reach someone he doesn’t know. When those who are wealthy in this world reprioritize their resources to be about advancing the kingdom of God rather than advancing their own kingdom. When an educated person sits down to tutor a little child she’s never met. When a person who owns quite a comfortable home picks up a hammer to build a home for someone who doesn’t have one. When someone who has more than enough food to eat and clothes to wear provides for those in the developing world who have very little food or clothing. When a young, healthy, busy person walks into a facility and sits quietly beside the bed of an elderly person who everyone else in the whole world has forgotten. When people with jobs meet together on a cold night and drive into the city and just search for people huddled on benches who need blankets and food and give it to them. When someone on purpose re-prioritizes his or her own affluence or security or comfort or ease for the sake of enhancing the life of someone else. That’s when our light shines before others. That’s when people say, “Maybe there’s something here that I need to pay attention to.” That’s when the kingdom of God starts to break into this world. That’s when you and I start to build a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. That’s the only way it gets built. || || So I’m here today, really, to give you just one challenge — get out of the house. Visit with some of our partner organizations and just learn what’s going on — learn faces and names. || You know, if this is just one more talk, just a piece of information that comes and goes and you don’t get out of the house, over time your heart is going to get a little smaller. And one day you’re going to face a mountain of regret. || || I have one more thing I want to ask of you and then we’ll be done. Would you pray with us… that we (Blue Oaks Church) will be building a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. || And would you pray that we’re not overwhelmed by the sheer scale of human suffering and misery in our world… Because the reality is people are born into this world one at a time. They suffer one at a time. They die one at a time. And they get helped one at a time. It’s a “one at a time” deal. If we wait until we can do everything, until we have all the answers to solve every problem, we’ll wait until we die. || Pray that we all will do for one what we wish we could do for everyone. Blue Oaks Church Pleasanton, CA