I love the analogy Jesus applied to himself and to His followers of light shining in the darkness. Speaking to His disciples, He said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16) He also said, “I am the Light of the world; He who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” (John 8:12) Paul used the same metaphor in his letter to the Philippians. He wrote, “So that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.” (Philippians 2:14)
The bottom line is this; God sends light into a dark world, a light with the power to dispel the darkness. As John said in his Gospel, “And the light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has never overpowered it.” (John 1:3 Amplified Bible)
In addition to these biblical metaphors of candles on lamp stands, and cities on hills, historically the church has used the metaphor of a lighthouse to describe the purpose of the church in the world. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone pray, “Lord, make our church a lighthouse in this community.” I understand their intent, and I have even prayed something similar myself in times past. However, is this best figure of speech to describe the purpose of the Church?
While it is true, a lighthouse, like a church, serves as a beacon shining in the darkness, the analogy stops there. Is the metaphor of a lighthouse the best way to communicate how the followers of Christ dispel the darkness in their world? I think not. Let me suggest a different analogy – the lamppost.
A lighthouse is a tower, building, or other type of structure designed to emit powerful beams of light, and serve as a navigational aid to ships at sea Lighthouses mark dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals, dangerous reefs, and safe entries to harbors. A lamppost or streetlight is a raised source of light on the edge of a road or walkway. From the time of the Greeks and Romans, lampposts served primarily for safety and security. It is still the primary function of modern streetlights today.
Both the lighthouse and the lamppost serve to dispel the darkness. The similarity however, ends there. The beacon from the lighthouse serves those many miles away, while the lamppost serves those nearby. It is at this point the analogy of the lighthouse fails to communicate the true purpose and mission of the Church in general, and of local congregations in particular.
The image of a towering structure next to the ocean shining a beam of light seen hundreds of miles away is appealing; but does it help those who live in darkness next door? Somehow, I don’t think Jesus was thinking about a lighthouse when He said, “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) nor when He said, “Let your light so shine before men that they my see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
Letting our light “shine before men” happens locally, and in the context of real, authentic relationships. What makes us think if our light does not shine in our neighborhood, we can somehow make it shine from our “lighthouse,” where we gather for worship miles away?
Honestly, we have enough religious lighthouses. What we lack are lampposts – local communities of believers who are living out the light and life of Jesus and driving out the darkness in their neighborhoods. We need to see the Body of Christ in the communities where people are broken by sin, suffering from hurt, and crying out for someone to love them. It is here, next door, where we hear the cry, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”
In spite of what we learned from those gospel songs, the unsaved are not out there somewhere in the fast ocean of lostness looking for a beam from a lighthouse. They live next door and down the street. They and their families are groping for a light switch in the darkness of everyday living. If the gospel light is not shining in our neighborhood through the way we do business, in the way we treat our neighbors, in our response to human suffering, through the feeding of the poor and caring for the most vulnerable, then the “light” from a lighthouse is meaningless!
The church can and should be a beacon for the truth and the love of God in a dark world. However, our primary function is to shine God’s light in our immediate community – to be the lamppost on the street corner giving out the Gospel of God’s amazing grace.
The challenge is for us to be faithful lampposts where God has planted us, and to let our light shine so others may see His glory.