When I was a kid, I remember asking my parents about neon signs. It is cool how an artisan (or, these days, maybe a machine…but programmed by an artisan) bends glass in certain ways, so that charged gases – when given an electric charge – light up to spell out a message. My question, though, was simpler: how do they keep the parts between the letters from lighting up? I think it was my dad who answered: they just paint those sections black. So much for some fancy idea about suppressing photon discharge for portions of a continuous volume; in this case, the simplest solution was all that signmakers needed!
Although people in the first-century didn’t have access to alternating-current electricity in their homes, they still understood this principle: light can’t shine through when you block it out.
“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.
Matthew 5:14-15 NLT
I realize that many modern households have extra light, and we sometimes have to suppress it when there is too much. In our house, we have a little Lego-brick construction in front of the TV receiver in the master bedroom to block out the little LED’s on the receiver at night. A new clock purchased for our son was too bright (even on the lowest dimmer setting), so a smoked-gray plastic folder was used to make it less intense. We even have others in our country working to manage “light pollution”, where there’s so much light in an area – even at night – that it can be a detriment to people’s health.
Still, it is more typical that we need to let light do its job. If we had blocked out my son’s clock entirely, he wouldn’t have been able to tell if it was time to go to bed (or to get up), and it would be somewhat pointless to have purchased it in the first place. Trying to navigate through a toy room at night (or just walk back across the room after turning off a child’s book-reading light, after he’s fallen asleep) definitely benefits from some illumination – whether from the street lamps through the window, or from one’s cell phone.
Jesus doesn’t suggest that His followers might have light to share, or a message to make others aware of…He says that they are “the light of the world”. Whether or not the news about Jesus is “good” is not in question. It is good. In fact, this good news is the cure for sin, the remedy for broken relationships, and the ticket to fulfillment and joy.
By the way, if you haven’t yet enjoyed the great experience of following Jesus, I encourage you to read through the book of Matthew. It’s something you can read through easily in a month, one chapter a day, and it directly shares messages that Jesus taught, as well as His sacrifice for you.
For what it’s worth, if you read through Matthew, you’re allowed to skip the first 17 verses on your initial read-through – they provide continuity from other parts of the Bible that came before Matthew, and you can pick them up later. The rest of this book is an un-pretentious, simple recounting about Jesus, allowing you to decide for yourself what you think about Him…rather than just trying to infer what He taught by looking at people who imperfectly try to follow Him.
So, the question is, if we have the Light in our hearts, ready to shine brightly, are we hiding it? Are we like the piece of a neon sign that is blacked out, so that the light is just absorbed into the “paint” of our own lives, and not getting out to be seen by the rest of this fallen world?
In the next verse, the gospel according to Matthew records this instruction from Jesus:
In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.
Matthew 5:16 NLT
This clearly tells us both how we can shine out the light (through good deeds), and the why (so that God will be praised).
When we block out the light within us (that is, when we don’t do good deeds in Jesus’ name), we – or maybe just me, if you’ve mastered this skill, already – end up making mistakes like these:
- Passing up opportunities to do good things, skipping chances to show others how much we appreciate the greater good that God did for us, and failing to illustrate for them what it means to live like His Son, Jesus.
- Missing opportunities to speak words of hope, healing, or restoration to those who are hurting.
- Or, just doing the right thing but not making it clear that we do so in Jesus’ name. Here, others might appreciate the benefits, but not be drawn any closer to the ultimate source of good – Jesus Himself.
So, as the old children’s song says, may our light shine, and may each of us strive to not be a “gap” (a painted-over piece of neon-filled glass) in the message to others. Unlike an “Open” sign, the message of Jesus is particularly readable when the light shines from all of His followers.