Let Your Light Shine!
Readings: Exodus 13:17-22; Matthew 5:14-16
So, you may or may not have noticed that I’ve not been here over the last couple of weeks. I hope you enjoyed the break! And if you weren’t aware of my absence, it could well be because you’ve been so engrossed by the incredible displays of speed, strength and skill which have graced our tv screens over the past fortnight. Whilst some here will be looking forward to the television schedules going back to normal, others of us will miss the edge of your seat excitement that comes with watching reverse two and a half somersault tuck dives, lightning Bolts striking thrice and horses dancing to samba, when the 2016 Olympic Games are brought to an end with the closing ceremony. In the early hours of tomorrow morning for us, the Maracana Stadium will play host to the official end of the sporting party as the athletes are congratulated, the Olympic flag passed on to its 2020 hosts, Japan, and the Olympic flame extinguished. And I don’t know whether news of this reached these shores but there was a bit of controversy over the fact that for the first time since the modern Olympics began, this year, the flame did not reside in one of the athletics stadia but was removed after the opening ceremony and placed in downtown Rio, opposite the Candelaria Roman Catholic Church. We are told that this was done as a nod to the fact that the Olympic venues are not located in one park but rather spread throughout the city and in placing the flame in a public square, the thousands of Rio’s inhabitants that couldn’t afford tickets to the events might still have some access to the surrounding paraphernalia.
Olympic Flame : Rio 2016/Alex Ferro
However, I wonder whether the flame’s position also tips a wry wink to the mythical origins of the Olympic flame…one of which goes like this – Prometheus was from a strong family line which had links with the world of humans and the world of the gods. Prometheus saw that humans were a bit of a miserable lot, living in caves, shivering with the cold, dying of starvation and so Prometheus was moved to sympathy. ‘If only they had fire’, Prometheus thought to himself, ‘then at least they could keep warm, cook their food and build tools’. So off Prometheus went to ask the great god Zeus if he could give humans fire to make their lives better. Long story short, Zeus said no, for fire might give humans power. So Prometheus tricked Zeus with some fennel, as you do, and gave fire to humanity – who were extremely grateful. Zeus found out, was not best pleased and ordered Prometheus to suffer eternal torment for his treachery. The Ancient Greeks then commemorated Prometheus’ theft from the gods and gift to humans by keeping a flame alight during the ancient Olympics. In other words, clever humans find power in the stealing of fire from the mean-spirited god Zeus. In this context, the location of the Olympic flame opposite the church, alongside the words of its designer, Anthony Howe, that his vision was ‘to replicate the sun and remind people that there are no limits to what humans can accomplish’ might both convey some interesting connotations.
For the Israelites, of course, far from being a symbol of humankind’s independence, power and cunning, the presence of fire, such as in today’s reading, was often a sign of God’s power, might and care for His people. In today’s Old Testament reading, we join the people of Israel after they have been set free from Egypt but before they have crossed the Red Sea. In this transitional period, they are walking the desert road towards the Red Sea, being led by God in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Now, I wonder, how are we to understand this? How might we picture such a scene and what does it tell us about the nature of God? For me, it begs more questions than it gives answers. If this language, this story is to be taken literally, what does it mean that God was in the pillar of fire? Was it a literal, visible manifestation of the divine presence? If taken metaphorically, is the pillar of fire perhaps a way of remembering that God surrounded the Israelites with warmth and light at a time they needed it most? And either way, how would this literal or symbolic picture have looked for an Egyptian? After all, two chapters hence, we are told that Yahweh looked down from the pillar of fire , threw the Egyptian army into confusion, jammed the wheels of their chariots and drowned them all in the Red Sea even after they acknowledged Yahweh’s power and whilst trying to escape. Such an interpretation doesn’t feel so very different to the picture of Zeus in the Prometheus story. Powerful deity withholds or wields fire as a way to demonstrate His might and punish those He does not care for. To me it feels like a very tribal image of God – the ‘our God is bigger than your God’ rhetoric that you sometimes see glimpses of in the stories of Old in which Yahweh is proven to be bigger, better, stronger than Baal, Asherah, Amon or any number of other deities of the surrounding cultures. Perhaps God did need to intervene with mighty acts of power in order to free the slaves of Egypt. Perhaps God needed to demonstrate to the Israelites that they should put their faith in their God. Or perhaps the truth of God’s liberation of the Israelites was passed down at a time in which God’s people wanted reassurance of the power and might of their God. We can’t know for sure. But what is clear is that time and time again, princes, poloticians and priests referred to this story and image of the pillar of fire when they wanted to reassure them that God would not abandon them in their hour of need. God would be faithful; Yahweh would Make Israel Great Again; Israel’s enemies would be crushed.
And once again, we come to a picture of religion that seems to say that God likes one group more than another – be it Israel or America, Christians or white people, men or heterosexuals. Once again we come to a picture of religion that says God will make a certain people or nation strong, rich, victorious over others. Once again we come to a picture of a God who flexes His…and it always is His…muscles to demonstrate His might and who threatens fire and retribution for anyone who thinks otherwise.
Cue Jesus and his turning of religion upside down! Take his opening manifesto in Luke 4 as an example, in which he quotes Isaiah but deliberately omits the line about divine retribution before almost getting himself killed when reminding his listeners that God’s blessing has always been found beyond the boundaries of Israel. Take his healing of those not Jewish, his condemnation of a system that excludes and judges others, his denial of those who ask him for a miracle, or his rebuking James and John, his close friends and disciples, when they ask if they should command fire to consume those towns to which Jesus was not welcomed.
‘Do you still not get it?’, he asks them, wearily.’ I do not work like that. God does work like that’. When the priests are saying that God’s love is dependent on our purity, Jesus says that God’s love is for all. When the religious zealots are declaring that God will redeem Israel through mighty acts against Empire, Jesus whispers words of forgiveness from a cross. When even the disciples are wanting to call down fire from heaven, Jesus talks about a different kind of flame.
“14 “You are the light of the world,” He tells us, midway through his sermon on a mount. “A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 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. 16 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.”
With these few words, Jesus offers us an alternative story to that of Zeus and Prometheus. One speaks of a mean god who withholds what is good, who remains distant from humanity and keeps fire and power for himself. The other story, the greatest story, speaks of a compassionate God who immerses us with love, who humbles himself to dwell amongst us, who brings light to the world and passes that light on to his followers, telling them to share that light with all. And the flame that we are to burn with is not a blaze of retribution or power but the flickering light of love. So let your light shine, he tells us, by turning the other cheek and forgiving your sister or brother. Let your light shine by welcoming the stranger, comforting the burdened, visiting the sick. Let your light shine by feeding the hungry, looking out for the best in the other, by being a bit more generous to yourself. There are a billion different ways that we can shine with God’s love – from mighty acts of great self-sacrifice to simply picking up the phone to someone who might well appreciate it.
So after all this talk of lampstands and shining, where does this leave old Prometheus, the Olympic flame and tonight’s closing ceremony then? Well, I quite like the flame design actually. And perhaps Anthony Howe lets his light shine through the use of his God-given artistic gifts. But I don’t think he succeeded in replicating the sun. And I don’t think that humanity’s purpose or possibilities are best summarised in the Olympic flame, or in the opulent beauty of the church that currently stands opposite it for that matter. Not when, in the Olympic city, there is another sculpture to ponder. The one that stands on a hillside and can be seen wherever you are in the city. It is of a man in simple clothes with arms outstretched to embrace the favelas and skyscrapers of Rio de Janeiro, the factories and rainforests of Brazil, the people and planets throughout creation. It is of a man from Nazareth, God-with us, who shines brightly for all to see and who call us to do the same. This week, may your love be luminous; may your light shine bright. Amen.
Christ the Redeemer:Studio Loureiro