Waiting for the Light
Before you point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own. For several months now, our Biblical lessons have been following the slow, downward spiral of the Israelites. Their kings have failed them. They have ignored the pleas and threats of prophets. They have followed after and sacrificed to almost every single god except their own. Babylon has already come to town, leveled the Temple to the ground, and dragged huge portions of the people off into exile. There, they have withered away, pining for their homeland.
Cyrus is my second favorite Biblical person, after Jesus. Ruling over the sprawling Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Now Babylon’s spoils of war were his, including the Israelites. And Cyrus issues a decree throughout his empire permitting the Israelites to return to their ancient kingdom and rebuild their Temple. Not only that, their current neighbors are to give them the supplies they need.
The people return, begin rebuilding the Temple, and though it causes some to mourn for the nostalgia of the way things used to be, it is a day of celebration.
All of this is very much in line with what we know of the Cyrus from history, the documentary 300 notwithstanding. The Persian religion was Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic faith that is one of the oldest in the world. At the time of Cyrus’ death, the Persian Empire extended from Turkey in the West all the way to Afghanistan in the East. What set Cyrus apart, however, was his approach to the conquered peoples under his rule.
As far as empires go, Cyrus’ was quite enlightened. You can get a glimpse of this even in the ruins of the ancient capital Persepolis. Carved into bas relief on the rock are images of the various nations bringing their tributes to the emperor. Great care was taken in these carvings to show the distinctive dress and valuables of the different regions. Cyrus ruled his vast holdings under the assumption that stamping out their individuality was unwise. Rather, he gave them limited autonomy to practice their religions and customs and traditions, which turned out to be in the best interest of the Empire.
Such is the esteem with which Cyrus was held that the Greek word for Lord, Kyrios, is adapted from the name Cyrus. And in the Bible, Cyrus is the only foreigner to bear the title “Messiah” – that is, anointed by God.
Up to this point, the Biblical story of God and God’s people has been a pretty tribal. Sure: there are the notable foreign heroes, like Ruth and Uriah and Nathan and Rahab. But it’s not until Cyrus comes along that there is this explicit notion that God uses instruments beyond the covenanted people.
Before you point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own.
That does seem to be the common thread between the lesson of Cyrus and the Christmas season we await: God chooses the unlikeliest characters to anoint with the spirit. Whether it’s a foreign king who worships a different concept of god or a helpless baby born into a struggling family on the run, those who tend to make God’s desires real are usually not the ones we would choose.
If nothing else, the God we know in Christ is a God of consistent surprise. Jesus’ disciples were a ragtag bunch of misfits and outcasts. Even so, they would often take Jesus to task for hanging out with all of the wrong kinds of people: lepers, Gentiles, women! Even those who knew Jesus best still missed the point. That is why he consistently called them to account, especially when it came to self-righteousness. His parables and wisdom sayings returned to the theme of humility again and again.
Jesus asked the crowds, “How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ when you do not see the log in your own?” In other words, before you go around criticizing someone else’s hypocrisy and shortcomings, take care of yours.
Do we do this? Are we honest about our selves and our values, even when they are hidden from the light of day? Or do we speak about God on the one hand, and behave as though it were all up to us?
Friends, I’m convinced we are at a moment of spiritual crisis in our nation. And that crisis is one of personal and collective self-righteousness we ignore at our own peril. This past week, everybody’s favorite hated narcissistic presidential candidate issued another outrageous statement about a religious litmus test for immigration. At that moment, it became clear that a line had finally been crossed. We vented our collective moral outrage. Politicians across the spectrum came forward with public denouncements. Everyone from Barack Obama to Paul Ryan to Bernie Sanders to Dick Cheney spoke out, each saying some version of, “This is not who we are. America is better than this.”
And this is what we always do at times like this. We distance ourselves from the whackos and the lunatics. We call them things like “whacko” and “lunatic” so that we can dismiss them more easily. We treat them as though they don’t belong, that the rest of society is just fine and decent and just and kind.
But the truth is that we are too busy picking at the speck and ignoring the log.
I don’t think our current national obsession is an aberration – not by a long shot. In 1968, George Wallace was a viable third party candidate, getting almost 15% of the popular vote while running on a platform of segregation. In 1944, nearly two years after we had rounded up more than 60,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry into internment camps, polls showed that 13% of Americans favored utter extermination of the Japanese.
And these were not momentary lapses in judgment. The Indian Removal Act, the Trail of Tears, and the near genocide of Native Americans are part of our history. As are slavery, the Middle Passage, Dred Scott, lynching, Jim Crow…
Before you point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own.
These may not be streams of our history that we want to remember. They are certainly not our finest moments. They may not even represent the core of who we are as a nation or what we value. But there is danger in pretending as though they never happened or, when they do happen, that they are not our collective sin.
I believe the same is true of every community – whether that is the community of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Americans, Chinese, Sudanese, you name it. We require an internal examination of reckoning of the collective sin that leads to brutality, injustice, and terror. And I also know that the first place I can start is at home.
Returning to our morning’s lesson: when Cyrus gives permission to the prophet Ezra to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, there is a danger – one that is right there in the story itself. Those in the crowd who are grieving as the Temple is being rebuilt, because it isn’t what it used to be, are those who are most likely to forget or misremember how it was destroyed in the first place.
The reason Cyrus is necessary in the story at all is that both Israel and Judah forgot the covenant God made with them. They forgot that they had been freed from brutal slavery. They forgot that they had been miraculously sustained in the desert. They forgot that they had inherited vineyards they did not plant, wells they did not dig, houses they did not build. They forgot – and they ignored every effort to be reminded.
Before the exile, before Babylon defeated Judah, while prophet after prophet after prophet warned of the price of unfaithfulness to the holy covenant with God, the reaction was a national, collective shrug. It is not hard to imagine people thinking to themselves, “Well, Solomon may have 700 wives and concubines, but at least the mule trains run on time.” Or, “I know I shouldn’t sacrifice here at this altar to Ba’al, but I don’t want to be rude.” Or, "We really should stick to those commandments, but we're at war!"
But before we point out ancient specks, let’s return to modern-day logs.
Let me put a finer point on it: our candidate in question, whose name I will not utter so as not to feed the self-obsessed demagoguery, identifies himself as a Presbyterian. While he is not currently a member of any Presbyterian church, despite claims to the contrary, what is true is that he grew up in one. He is a child of Presbyterian Sunday School. Whether we like it or not, he is one of ours. And that is our reckoning.
But, preacher, before you point out the speck in your presidential candidate neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own. Amen to that.
I know that I have my own reckoning to do. I have my own past to come to terms with, my own hidden thoughts and fears that are not of God or God’s desires. I am fortunate that my youthful indiscretions happened before social media. And because I am not what I ought to be – or even what I can be – I need confession, forgiveness, and mercy. And yet, in spite of all this evidence to the contrary, God still thinks I am worthy to be an instrument of God’s grace.
That is true for each one of us here. Yes: we have to come to terms with our past. Yes: we have things in our life – past and present – of which we are truly embarrassed, ashamed, mortified. Yes: we are imperfect. Yes: we can be more, so much more. And even though all of this is true, God still thinks us worthy to be called God’s children, worthy of God’s love, worthy of God’s purposes.
That’s what waiting for the light is all about. It’s not that light is better than dark; it’s that God’s light that comes in Christ shines into the shadows where we think we can hide. It’s not to shame us or embarrass us – we do that well enough ourselves. It’s to warm us, to guide us, to let us see how truly beautiful we are not in our own eyes, filled with their forests of logs, but in God’s eyes, the ones that truly matter.
After all, despite the logs in our eyes, God is the one who does the heavy lifting. Thanks be to God!