Luke 9:28-32 & Exodus 34:29-35
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 3, 2019
In a TEDx talk about a year and a half ago, John Sutherland, an officer in London’s police department, gave a message entitled “Every Contact Leaves a Trace”. In it he made reference to what in forensic science is called Locard’s exchange principle. Developed by Dr. Edmond Locard of France, it begins by noting how people never fail to leave behind a trace of themselves wherever they go; they always deposit some calling card of their having been there: a fingerprint, a footprint, a piece of hair, fibers from their clothing, etc. Something of us remains every time.
The principle goes on to note that we also never fail to leave behind a trace of ourselves in every human-to-human interaction, whether it be an “exchange” with a lifelong friend or a passing stranger. Every relational contact has an impact – if not a physical one, then a psychological one.
I think we all recognize that the beauty, strength and goodness of the best people leave a lasting impression upon us. Today’s scriptures tell us that the light and glory of God in Christ also leave a lingering impression upon us after we’ve experienced them.
Jesus called Himself the light of the world, but He called His followers the light of the world as well. Jesus understood that people would absorb something of His light if they’d come close to Him and relate with Him a while, and that His light would exude from them afterward. People would reemit the heavenly light He shines upon them. They’d receive light and thereby gain light to give it on to others.
Human beings are like the exotic frogs that bask in the sun and then gleam in the darkness of the night, like the glow-in-the-dark paint that absorbs light from room lamps and then shines with it when the lamps are turned off, like the glow sticks we used to buy at fairs and wear as photo-luminescent bracelets.
Jesus lit up from His contact and interaction with His Father in heaven, “the Father of lights” as James 1:17 describes God. It was Jesus’ basking in His presence up there on that mountain that produced the glorious transfiguration we celebrate today. It was, Luke 9:29 says, “while he was praying” that “the appearance of His face changed, and His clothes became dazzling white.”
In the same way, it was after 40 days alone with God on another mountain that the face of Moses, 1200 years before, came to shine with a radiance so fierce he had to wear a veil for normal interactions.
Moses’ face did not shine like that forever; but, whenever he engaged with God either to hear His words or to pass them on to others, His face lit up and an afterglow remained.
Therefore, Moses, like Jesus, did not just speak the word of God, but embodied it. It was written on his face, the window on to his soul. Thus, from a mere mortal, people not only heard what God said but saw it standing before them – concrete, tangible, visible.
If we want to be a light to others, to embody in our character and conduct God’s truth and glory, that will come about, not by our steadfast exertion, but by our steadfast exposure to God’s light, by our entering and lingering in the presence of Christ that we might absorb some of His light and so exude it in an afterglow of grace, making it concrete, tangible, visible.
While we who follow Jesus are justifiably self-critical about how much we absorb and exude the light of Christ’s justice, love and truth, the fact is that many of us do it more than we think.
Objective sociological research has found hard evidence showing that faith in Jesus more often than not changes people for the good. According to one recent study, Americans of faith give to charitable causes over seven times as much as Americans of no faith, personally help the poor 50% more, are 14% more likely to vote, and are 66% more likely to be active in their community to improve it.
New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, who describes himself as “not particularly religious”, wrote a column a couple of years ago about how he has been struck by the fact that Christians are far more generous than any other group of which he is aware, and far more likely to go to the front lines, at home or abroad, to fight hunger, human trafficking and poverty.
Consider as well the witness of Matthew Parris, a reporter for The Times of London and a self-described atheist, who a while ago wrote an article entitled, “I Truly Believe Africa Needs God”. Born on the continent, Parris often visits Africa for his work and keeps close tabs on developments there. In the article this honest atheist talks about a belief he cannot shake – a belief, he says, “I’ve been trying to banish all my life” but that the evidence keeps confirming. This belief, he says, “confounds my ideology, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.”
Parris continues, “I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects, and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. In Africa, Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”
Parris notes how Christians in Africa are “always different…. Their faith [appears] to have liberated and relaxed them. There [is] a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that [seems] to be missing from traditional African life. They [stand] tall.”
Many of us hear that, and we ache to become a light like these Africans for those around us.
Our temptation is to follow our default settings and to resort to firing up our determination, working harder than ever, and burning with such self-ignited ethical fervor that we make ourselves the light Jesus wishes us to be.
That, however, will never come about. The light Christ means for us to shed is derivative from a relationship with Him, the light of the world. We shine with His light by basking in it, soaking it up into our soul, and allowing its afterglow to emit its radiance, through us, all of itself.
The call then is to spend time with the Light of the world by means of personal daily devotions, weekly worship with fellow believers, and faithful acts of service, mutual support and witness. The call is to expose ourselves to His light, absorb it and, as a result, exude it. It all begins and ends with Jesus.