Epiphany 3    Year A    January 23 2011

Isaiah 9:1-4;    I Cor 1:10-17;    Matt 4:12-23

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light

Possibly some of you may remember my speaking of a fascination with Valeida Snow. She was, remarkably, an American jazz trumpeter in the 1930's and 40's and just to have achieved that suggests that she had a strong sense of her calling, a strong sense of identity. When you learn that she could be seen driving around Manhattan in a lilac coloured Mercedes, all dressed up in a lilac travelling outfit, with a chauffeur in lilac livery and a monkey also dressed in a lilac suit you can’t help but admire the lady. However, you also find yourself wondering: where did this confidence come from? From within, or from beyond her? Was it a kind of bravado - a constructed confidence, behind which she could hide? Or was it truly revealing of the person within?

As this morning we turn to the beginning of Jesus' public ministry and the call of the first disciples, we find ourselves also dealing with some powerful images - not lilac outfits but something as striking and much more profound. After a week in which light has been such a feature - that huge moon, gleaming white, high in the sky, or golden, low over the horizon, or even pink and the sun revealing colour where everything seemed so drab - and Friday’s amazing sunset with that brilliant red sky, we find Matthew borrowing the theme of light from Isaiah. Being in the dark is disabling but physical darkness is as nothing compared to the darkness of ignorance. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” In Isaiah 9 the prophet celebrates the contrast but think back to Chapter 6 where he records the frustration that is associated with struggling in the dark - people who have eyes but cannot see; ears but cannot understand. Here, in Chapter 9 without any desire for retaliation, with no quick repartee Isaiah says simply and directly, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Matthew associates this same text with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Just as the threatening darkness in Isaiah is related to the reign of death, the consequence of political rivalries, war and violence, so Jesus begins by stepping aside, as it were - moving a little away from Nazareth where the manipulations of Herod and his successors were all too immediate - to the lakeside town of Capernaum. There is much more: what precedes Jesus’ public ministry in Matthew but the temptations in the wilderness? Jesus, God-incarnate, goes to confront the darkness of temptation and sin, goes to do battle with the devil, goes out into the wasteland of the desert, puts himself at one with us in the dark side of our nature. Now, having looked this utter darkness in the face and resisted the temptation to succumb to its enchantment, Jesus comes to begin the proclamation of light - or, more truly, to be light in the face of our darkness. His first word is, “Repent”.

It has to be said, this is something of a disappointment. Here is the source of light, bringing colour and brilliance as he walks by the sea of Galilee and immediately he casts a shadow, a ray of darkness: “Repent!”. This takes us close to the heart of this Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus is truly light in the midst of our darkness. In him alone do we find grace and truth - the light of God. The hope, the salvation that God brings to us in Jesus is not a kind of bolt-on. It is not as though Jesus works the crowds, sticking “Saved” stickers on the backs of those who approach him - so that, while everyone else can see they are saved, the “saved” themselves have no idea. No: the gospel of the kingdom is the summons to get up, to move with Jesus, into his light, to look into his face. We are unable to make that move, unable to receive the gift, if we cannot recognise that we are stuck in darkness. It is so important that we never lose hold of this bit - the Gospel, the light, comes to us from beyond us, from outside us. Jesus comes and challenges us. Coming to the light of faith is not simply a gradual and gentle process of waking up. It is change - not once but continually. As Paul Tillich once said, “Nothing is more surprising than the rise of the new within ourselves.”

This makes the call of the first disciples all the more astonishing. The fact that, when Jesus says, “Follow me!” they immediately leave their nets and follow him is a clear indication to us that they have seen and understood the darkness of sin and death that threatens them. Then their response indicates graphically their desire to be in a new place, to leave behind all that belongs to the darkness. This is not the response of people clinging desperately to something that might get them out of a hole but the confident move of those who have seen clearly what is necessary for the beginning of what will be a lifelong journey. The journey itself has one constant: it is made in the company of the one who will never leave us, Jesus, our life and our hope.

In this context, Paul’s sharp, not to say sarcastic, retorts to the Corinthians are all the more of a challenge to us. Here he is faced with a church that has forgotten the vital stages of the journey: first, repent - acknowledge the darkness; then, get up and follow Christ. Paul sees that the darkness has returned and the result is disunity. We have no choice but to look at Christian life today and see that it may very well be that we are offering justifications and strategies more concerned with perpetuating the darkness of sin than of living in the light of Christ. It is always a great deal easier to create a new schismatic movement than it is to heal rifts and divisions. If Christ is the way, the truth and the life then he is the companion of all. My task is to recognise everyone else as a brother or sister called by Christ; and, for myself, to recognise that I am constantly liable to fall back into darkness with the result that I begin to find myself more confident of my own call than of theirs.

All of which leads us to ponder with wonder the God whose love never ceases; who witnesses our persistent turning aside and yet who never ceases to call us into the light. This immediately challenges our tendency to gloom and despair when unity seems remote and when dispute and conflict appear to dominate, for the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The fact that we tend to slip back into the gloom or - as Paul has it, attempt to empty the Cross of Christ of its power - cannot alter the fact that the light has come and there is no darkness that can overcome it.

Peter Allan CR