This March my husband and spent 3 weeks travelling through Israel, visiting Jerusalem and Galilee, the Temple Mount, the wailing wall, the Jordan river, the Mount of Olives, the garden of Gethsemane. It was all extraordinary, but I would like to tell you about my favorite night of the whole trip.
We were visiting the ruins at Petra, an ancient city from around 300 BC that’s carved into faced of rock in the desert of the Wadi valley, which runs from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. While we were there we decided to participate in an organized night hike in the pitch darkness, called Petra by Night. If you’ve ever been out in a desert at night, you know what the darkness out there is like, and how it just descends over you like a blackout curtain. Your eyes can’t even adjust to the darkness because there is literally not even a glow from a distant city or a flicker of light anywhere, nothing for your eyes to get accustomed to. Just utter blackness.
The trail we were following led us for a while, maybe half an hour, through a long, narrow passageway between walls of rock. We were stumbling through the suffocating darkness for what seemed like ages, and I don’t mind telling you I was pretty scared at this point. Or, okay, terrified. And then suddenly the walls of rock were gone and we stepped out into an large, open clearing, with the sheer rock cliffs encircling us and the night sky high above us. And the whole clearing was filled with tiny, flickering candles. We stepped out of the darkness to find that glowing lights lay spread almost like a blanket across the desert floor, filling the clearing with light and holding the darkness at bay. What had been a walk of terror was suddenly transformed into a vision of light and illumination. The light of a million tea lights had vanquished the desert’s darkness.
A multitude of flickering lights in an infinite sea of darkness: this could also be a metaphor for the church, couldn’t it? As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, For it is God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
This morning we were blessed to be witnesses to a baptism, one of the most holy acts of the church. This morning one woman was brave enough walk out of the darkness and into the clearing where a whole host of flickering lights were waiting to welcome her and rejoice in her homecoming.
As you look back on your life, you may remember your moment, a conversion or baptism or maybe just a quiet morning on a hillside, when it happened for you: when you took that step from the darkness to the light and the brightness came like a new dawn in your heart: the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
But this morning we’re also moving into stewardship season at Peace Church, and it’s as good a time as any to think about polishing clean our lamps so that we burn a little brighter. Three times in the Bible – once in each of the synoptic Gospels – Jesus asks his disciples rhetorically, “who would light a lamp and then put it under a bushel?” (That’s such a Jesus question, isn’t it?) Who would bother to light a light in the darkness and then immediately… put a bowl over the candle, effectively snuffing it out and making it dark again? The question for some of us this morning who have been Christians for a long time may be: does my light, my witness, grow stronger with the years, or am I starting to flicker and fade?
This morning, in addition to a baptism, you will, in a few minutes, also do me the honor of recognizing me as your lay preacher, as a non-ordained but trained and dedicated shar-er of the Word of God among you. But that is just one little job that I happen do, and it is in no way any more or less important that your ministry. Wait, what? —my ministry?!?! Yes, your ministry. The truth is that we are all ministers. The day you stepped from darkness into light, the day God bent down with lighter in hand and set your heart on fire with the Holy Spirit, was the day you became a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, according to 1 Peter 2:9 we, the people of God, yes, all of us, are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
We have all been called to be ministers of the Gospel. This is one of the most central teachings of the Protestant church. In fact, almost 500 years ago exactly there was a funny, round little man named Martin – maybe you would recognize him, he always wore this funny little hat? – and Martin risked his life to insist on this idea, which he called the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” That was one of his big ideas: that the “priesthood” is not just the ordained, but the baptized and forgiven. And actually, it all turned into quite a row with the Pope.
This is Protestantism 101: that the Gospel and the sacraments can be offered not just by men in robes or collars, but by men and women and children in jeans and sneakers, with loaves of bread in their hands and the light of the glory of God in their hearts. And thankfully, none of us needs to wear a pastoral stole over our jeans and fleece to serve in a soup kitchen or minister to those in need, or swing an incense burner around in our neighborhoods or in order to minister faithfully to neighbors and colleagues.
At the end of the day, the “priesthood of all believers” is just a fancy way of telling us that we, each of us, is a candle burning in the darkness, bearing witness to the one who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Each one of us by virtue of grace alone has been made a carrier of the living light and a minister of the gospel. We have been made ministers to one another and preachers to the world.
Which – trust me – is no small task. In that darkened valley in Petra, each candle had a job to do. Each candle was shedding the light that only that candle could, by virtue of its having been placed down on the desert floor in just that spot. And you, too, have been placed down by God in a specific time and place with a call to shine your light just so and to hold the darkness at bay in the places where you live and work and love. Who will reach your neighbor, if not you? Who else will be a living lamp in your workplace, if not you? Who will be the one to care for the people in your life, if not you? Who will be the one to speak openly to your friends and colleagues and neighbors about the hope you have in God, if not you?
Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servant for Jesus’ sake. For it is God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
This is the good news this morning. If you were starting to get all panicky, wondering if you had what it takes to be a minister, you can totally relax: You don’t. None of us does. But the mercy of the living, holy God has made us ministers, and the Word of God speaks into our hearts to make the light shine out of the darkness. Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.
This week I challenge you to think seriously about your specific ministry. What is your ministry title, in God’s holy church and out there in the world? Minister of warm hugs? Minister to Peace Church visitors? Minister to the ill and bereaved and hospital-bound? Minister to your neighbor’s latch-key children? Minister to the people who climb in the back of your taxi? Minister to Mrs. Jones in the apartment upstairs who never gets any visitors and can’t go out?
You may not get an answer this week. It takes a lifetime of loving and serving and ministering to discover who we are and what our real vocation is. But make no mistake: you are a minister of the Gospel, priest of the love of God. And the world is crying out for your light.
Go and serve, you ministers of the Lord!
p.s. some pictures of our time in Petra: