Don't hide from the light

Isaiah 9:1-7

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 
2 *The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
   on them light has shined. 
3 You have multiplied the nation,
   you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
   as with joy at the harvest,
   as people exult when dividing plunder. 
4 For the yoke of their burden,
   and the bar across their shoulders,
   the rod of their oppressor,
   you have broken as on the day of Midian. 
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
   and all the garments rolled in blood
   shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 
6 For a child has been born for us,
   a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
   and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 
7 His authority shall grow continually,
   and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
   He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
   from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. 

 Matthew 4:12-25

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 
15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 
16 the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’ 

17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him.21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

The Sermon Draft

On Thursday I conducted the funeral of the mother of school mates from 50 years ago. I learned of a startlingly generous woman— I'd never met her. I had never known what adversity the family lived with when we were all kids— they lived in a couple of towns away from my home.

Their mum… was amazing. People like this woman— her name was Stella— fascinate me.

I can understand someone who has had a terrible life ending up being miserable and bitter. I can sympathise with that. And I have learned that, often, folk who seem to have everything going for them, but are still not happy, and who find life terribly hard, are actually carrying trauma and griefs hidden from the rest of us. I understand that.

What I don't   understand is the miracle of the person who lives a stellar life. The person for whom things have been really tough, who… you would expect… would be soured and bitter, but who has turned adversity, trauma, poverty… into triumph. What sets such a person free to fly in life?

The word the bible uses for this is gospel. We Christians think gospel is our word! But it was a word the Romans used for a victory. The heralds would cry, "Gospel, Gospel— good news— Caesar has won victory in Gaul!" The early church took that word and applied it to what Jesus gives us... victory… in life.

There is something about living the Jesus life which gives us a victory. We can see Matthew pointing us to this in the reading for today. He says, "Repent… change the way you are living… because the kingdom of God… the victorious life… is near to you!"

And he shows us that life coming near in the reading:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel— the good news— of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 

Stella… was healed, instead of being miserable and bitter. My friend who lived 17 years in a refugee camp, who lost so many people in the wars, has gospel— victory. She is one of the most peaceful people I know, a balm to the soul. My next door neighbour who said they never knew if the family would be alive at the end of the day— who spent years in Baxter, and years more before he could get his family to safety— he and his family have gospel. They are whole, grateful, triumphant people.

You know people like this; people who against all the odds and expectations are free, who are a blessing to the rest of us— an inspiration.

How do we get there? Is it just the luck of the draw? Do some folk just have a gift of being— I don't know— kind of chilled, laid back? Is it just luck?

I reckon that sometimes people do have a good start in their background, despite all the things that may go wrong in life. But that's not the whole story. There is a will to heal in the universe. God wants to give us good. And I think we can tap into the flow of that spirit.

Except it's not quite like we might expect. Immediately before  the reading where Isaiah says

there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. … The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—    on them light has shined….

Immediately before that reading he says of some of those people,

They will turn their faces upwards, 22or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness. (from Isaiah 8:21-2)

He's talking about the same people. We get to choose whether the light shines on us in a healing way, or not. We get to choose whether we respond to God's offer of healing, or not.

We all know the story of the call of the fishermen. I will make you "fishers of men" it says in the old translations. Well… Jesus' people would hear that saying very differently to us.

In their culture, the image of being hooked by the fishermen was not a good thing. Let me quote:

[The e]ighth century prophet, Amos, delivers words of warning to God’s people in Samaria because of their neglect of the poor and needy. “The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:2). Jeremiah writes to warn the people of Judah not to imagine that they will escape Babylon. “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the LORD, and they shall catch them . . .” (Jeremiah 16:16).

[In Jesus' culture, f]ar from the “saving of souls,”     “fishing for people” seems to carry the meaning of uncovering that which is concealed, just as fish seem to be concealed in the water until they are netted or hooked. (Tom Mundahl)

What it means for the darkness to end and the light to be shined on us, is to look at ourselves, to see our own darkness— our selfishness, our greed, our hatreds… however justified they may seem— and to live differently.

The people who live a stellar life choose, somewhere, to live differently. They choose to live compassionately, and to live generously. They choose to learn to forgive— which is hard work. And they don't just talk about doing this. They do it. They practise it… over and over. And it changes them.

They find they have stepped into the healing flow of the spirit of God. And the life that could have been defeat becomes gospel; it becomes a victory, and it becomes an inspiration to others.

Christians sometimes talk about getting saved. As though somehow someone will catch them with the good news and then everything will be fine, and all their problems will be over. It's not quite like that.

In fact, after the first excitement that we sometimes feel, it can be a lot different. Because the Big Fisherman who's dragged us up out of the dark waters of the lake says, "Look at yourself in the light. Start changing." In the text before the Isaiah reading today, Isaiah saw that God would send someone who would be what he called a sanctuary for us— like a strong safe place built of  stone. We instinctively think of Jesus.

But Isaiah said

a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 15And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.

When Jesus shines the light of God upon us, as we sometimes say, he shows us to ourselves as we truly are: pretty mucked up and self-centred, and capable of being incredibly cruel and evil.  All of us.

We can reject that. We can close our eyes to it. Or we can look at ourselves and decide to begin to be somebody different. And then, in some mysterious gift of God, we find a surprising healing. We end up getting far more than we give.

Jesus shows us ourselves. He calls us to change. It moves us into a stellar life… sometimes we spread a bright light everywhere we go… sometimes, even in terrible hardship that crushes people, even then, there are small bright growing points of light in our lives, little stars of hope and inspiration.

The gift is ours for the taking. Will you take the gift? Amen.

And I should add this:

In the homily at the funeral I said God turns no one away. It's not like because you don't do the right thing God will send you to hell. That doesn't happen.

What does happen is a change in how we experience life. We can live life as a bitter and a hard place, or we can live it as a gift and a place where we find… victory, and goodness, and joy. That's the good news. Amen.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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