The risk is that we are less the light of the world and more the lighthouse of the world. From time to time we give off light to others looking at us but most of the time the space between us is plunged into darkness and if the light shines at all, it is only to warn people away from us. As the light turns in a circle, it can seem from the inside as if it is permanently lighting up the space in front of it when the reality from any one point outside is bleaker and only sporadically enlightening.
Isaiah 58 begins with a disturbing paradox. On one hand God is announcing judgment on his people; yet on the other hand they feel perfectly content in their relationship with God. Unable to read his mind, they not only take refuge in their disciplined religious observance, they pick a fight with God for not rewarding their conduct: Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice? In modern parlance, the people are looking up the heaven and saying: ‘hello?’ - fatally unaware of the fracture in their relationship with God. God’s response: look, you fast only to quarrel and to strike with a wicked fist reveals a break in a vital link between what the people believe and how they behave.
It is easy for us with hindsight to judge these people, but of more immediate concern should be the way this text stands in judgment of us. Our culture encourages us to live lives that are very precisely delineated. We separate out the strands so they do not have to touch one another. Sometimes this is quite innocent, as when we choose to distinguish work colleagues from personal friends. Not only do we not wish to mix them, we become acutely embarrassed when by chance they come together, as if some kind of taboo has been breached which will expose us as lacking integrity in some way. This is partly because we choose to behave differently in different contexts. On one level this is of no consequence: different aspects of our personality come out in different settings and sometimes other people give us permission to be a certain kind of person which others squeeze out of us. The risk is when we become two different kinds of character. This is what the Israelites did when they kept the fasts and the festivals with uncommon scruple but fell out with one another the moment they left the Temple and short-changed their workers. This is what we do when we smile at one another over the Peace and stick the knife in the back over Sunday lunch.
The integrity of believing in God and behaving in a way that is consistent with this is essential if we are to shed light on this world. Interestingly, it does not seem to matter as much as it used to in our world today if we live in a way that is not consistent with what we believe. The so-called pick and mix approach to morality has given us freedom to live inconsistently. With the fracture between belief and conduct, the emphasis on what we say is also becoming more important than what we do today. You have probably lost count of the number of people who have had to apologise publicly for things they have said in the last year in national life. Sometimes it is right that people apologise, but we are becoming more punitive towards those who speak out of turn as, for instance, Lord Young discovered last year when he remarked that the majority of people have never had it so good during this recession. (I’ll spare you a discourse on Andy Gray and Richard Keys, you’ll be pleased to know.) While we are policing what people say more closely, we are becoming ever more laissez-faire over how we choose to live our lives. It is quite acceptable now not to factor in our responsibility to the wider community in the individual decisions we make. This is not a position we should be comfortable with.
The kind of Hebrew thought exhibited in Isaiah 58 sees any division between belief and conduct as spurious. People should not so much believe in truth as walk in truth. What the people believed about God would be shown exclusively in how they lived:
Is not this the kind of fast that I choose:
To loose the binds of injustice,
To undo the thongs of the yoke,
To let the oppressed go free? (Isaiah 58:6)
The reason for God’s silence was because relationships within the community had been corrupted by selfishness and exploitation. This is how highly he values peace and justice among his people: that our failure to keep it extinguishes our prayers.
Yet we are remarkably blasé about poor relationships both within and outside the church. Malicious gossip, casual criticism and sometimes sweeping judgments are part of the accepted fabric of our lives. Our tolerance of these and other failings may be costing our prayers dear. We’d rather not think of it like that, preferring to keep an image of a God who always answers us, but this is the clear inference of Isaiah 58: he is listening to those who walk in truth.
In spite of the challenges that this wonderful passage from Isaiah presents us with, the words of Jesus offer us comfort and assurance. He does not say: ‘you could be the light of the world’ or ‘you might be the light of the world’. Instead he instructs us: you are the light of the world’. Where the Holy Spirit is present in a person and in a community, this light will shine out without us even being conscious of it. It is one of the most romantic and mysterious components of our faith. We simply don’t realise how much of an impact we make on others for good. If we did, we would bestow a lot more of our attention on them. We are remarkably influential with others. Woody Allen once said that 80% of success in life is just turning up. If you feel daunted by the challenge of Isaiah, remind yourself that just by getting up in the morning and smiling at someone, you have taken the first step in a walk of truth.