22 January 2017
TEXT Isaiah 9:1-4 & Matthew 4:12-23
TITLE The Light that Jesus Calls us to
This afternoon we’re going to think about light. Not the kind of “light” that any of us who would like to lose a few kilos would like to be, but as the kind of thing that we get when we turn on the switch by the door.
“Light” opposed to “heavy” and “Light” opposed to “dark” are often mingled, to our amusement. There’s a product in America called “light beer”. It has fewer calories than regular beer and doesn’t taste very good. In one TV ad, an actor dressed for a part in Shakespeare’s play, MacBeth, playing a scene set in the dark, called out, “a light, a light”, and someone off stage threw him a can of beer.
Scientifically, light has a dual nature. It acts both like a particle that travels in straight lines, and like a wave that bends around things.
Light was mentioned in both the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures we read today. The SAME EXACT LINE in both places, meaning something different in each place. We’re going to try to figure out what it might mean for us, here, this afternoon, attempting to rise above both literature and science, and reach for the realm of metaphor.
The writers of both Isaiah and Matthew tell us that “The people who were in darkness have seen a great light.” For the writer of Isaiah, who lived at a time when his nation was under threat of being invaded and swallowed by a nearby empire, the “Galilee of the Nations” referred to a territory that had already been taken away. Galilee and the road that ran past it were lost to his people, and were regarded as being in darkness. The darkness was a matter of international politics and the affairs of nations. The prophet’s words were of a future time when things would be made right again.
The writer of Matthew’s gospel wrote things down more than 40 years after Jesus had left his world. What we read there reflects the faith of one part of the Christian church in about the year 70 AD. This writer was particularly intent on showing that Jesus, in whom he believed and of whom he testified, had come to fulfill the prophecies made to the people of Israel long ago. He used a technique that was familiar to Jewish rabbis of his time, “throwing a Bible verse” at something to make a connection that we, today, might find pretty weak. We have a fact: Jesus went to live in Galilee, followed by the author of Matthew throwing in an Old Testament verse connected to Galilee. In its Old Testament setting, it’s about something entirely different. But even in that “misapplication” there’s wisdom. If we get beyond the reason for the quote (that the two things are about a place) we can get to the metaphors of darkness and light. The people of Galilee in JESUS’ time were also under an empire, but that wasn’t their darkness. They were pulled this way and that by their society, culture, economics, local and international politics, and the supermarket of religions available to them from their own traditions, the religions around them, Greek culture and Roman politics.
Do people live in darkness today, whether here in Tainan or in any of the other countries from which we come? They sure do. Our darknesses are the same as those of old: political, economic, cultural, social and religious. But now it’s not so simple as it seemed to have been in Isaiah’s time. Then it was possible to say, “the darkness is because of that Empire” or in Jesus’ time, “the darkness is because of that culture.” Of course, even in those times the darkness was complex. In the age in which WE live, our darkness is often seen as psychological. Do you know of anyone who suffers from depression, or shame, or narcissism, or some other psychological darkness. That is where people today live just as sure as many of us live in political, economic, cultural, social and religious darkness. And we share spiritual darkness with the peoples of all times and all places.
II: The Light started small.
There’s an English language proverb that probably translates well into all languages and cultures, “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Light may begin to come into our darkness from a very small point, but it’s a pledge of the great light that is to come. Most mornings, it’s “a little bit light” before it becomes “fully light”. The bible puts it this way, Before Jesus, there was John the Baptist, of whom it is said that “he was not the light, but he came to testify TO the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone…”
The use of the image “seeing the great light” in the Isaiah verses we read referred to Galilee already having been lopped off of the territory over which one nation used to have control. Isaiah was a prophet in a different nation, but the peoples of both nations were the same, so the darkness was felt even where he lived far away. The political threat from the same people who had grabbed Galilee was on Isaiah and his king in Jerusalem. The words in that setting are a prophecy that the threat would be lifted. Reading the history of the region, it came about, at least for a while. Lifting the threat was “a little bit of light” for those who walked the road in darkness.
We can’t say enough good stuff about Jesus. We sing all kinds of praises about him being the light of the world, the bright and morning star, we sing songs like, “Shine Jesus, Shine, Fill the World with the Father’s Glory” and lots of other stuff. Often we forget, though, that Jesus was, for those years he walked among humans, “just one guy.” He resided in a house in Galilee, he walked everywhere (or sometimes rode in a boat). He suffered the same human limitations we do. Sometimes, just like us, he even quoted the Bible incorrectly. (or maybe that was just the guys decades later who wrote about what he said who quoted Jesus incorrectly.) For us today, Jesus is the great light. But that light started out shining pretty dimly. Kind of like one candle lit in the darkness.
Reflecting on darkness earlier, we considered it from political, economic, cultural, social and spiritual sides. Light’s like that, too, even though many of us may not want even to consider politics, economics, culture, science, the arts or society as “bearers of light”. If we’re religious people we may want to think that light mainly comes through spiritual things. In fact, “spiritual things” may be the place where the main source of light in our own lives has been located. But if “darkness” has been in our home life, then perhaps someone outside of the family has given us light. If darkness has been in our oppression as part of some minority group, then light may have come through a new understanding of human rights. And if “darkness” has been psychological, then perhaps it’s been the Prozac, Xantax, Valium or some other medicine that has cleared things for us enough so that we can see light.
Sisters and brothers, whatever our darkness, we can also look to Jesus for light, because in relationship to him and through the things we read in the Bible about what he did and what he said, THERE IS LIGHT, even if, when we just get started, it is only just a candle’s worth of light.
III: The great light that people saw
A candle might not seem like much. The light given off by a match, or by a burning cigarette may seem to be even less. But there’s a reason that soldiers in combat zones are trained not to smoke at night. Nicotine addiction is so strong that some can’t resist lighting up and taking a few puffs. That little glow from the end of the cigarette, which if not held in the mouth is in the hand, gives someone who wants to shoot and kill a very good target, even from far away. The “little light” of a cigarette invites the big flash of a rifle being fired in the deadly direction of a nicotine addicted soldier.
The light of Jesus, one guy, shining on people who met him, ROCKED their WORLD. Rejected people, like the tax collectors Levi and Zacchaeus, were restored to self-esteem and community. Lepers who were isolated from social contact were restored to families and friendships. Ritually unclean women could return to home and synagogue. Poor people deemed beneath notice were the first to hear the good news. Women beneath value in their society were Jesus’ friends. Simple working guys became religious leaders.
And through those followers, the message of inclusion and salvation was spread from one little social and political backwater in the Roman Empire. It first went to the southern and eastern regions in Egypt and Syria, from there to the cultural centers in Turkey and Greece, and eventually to the imperial center at Rome, and on to ALL THE WORLD. Not that numbers mean much, but in today’s world, a religious census finds more Christians than any other religion. Not that numbers mean much, but in the Congress in the United States, 91% of the members self-identify as Christians.
The light of Jesus ROCKED THE WORLD of his followers, and through them has ROCKED THE WORLD that we live in today. Has it rocked YOUR World? Maybe it has; maybe it hasn’t. Maybe it’s just like a candle for you, because the important things you deal with day to day are more social, professional, educational, economic or political.
A cartoon I used to watch with my children had an episode that started from the Greek epic, The Odyssey. A character who was supposed to be the grandson of Ulysses, when told that his ancestor was “A mountain of a man”, responded, “Yeah, I’m more like a small hill.” Maybe that’s what the great light is in some of our lives. Maybe it’s only a candle’s worth or even just a gentle glow.
But it shines. Just like the dim light shone for the people of Isaiah’s time, just like news of “that Jesus guy in Galilee” shone for hopeful people in far away Lebanon, Jerusalem and other distant places 2000 years ago.
Although it’s pleasant to think about people long ago, our challenge is to live among people and in situations now. We aren’t Jesus, but we can be sources of light to and for the people in our world this week. If we have no light of our own to shine, we can be reflectors of Jesus’ light into darkness around us.
Choose a person or place onto whom or into which you can shine your own light or Jesus’ light in the coming week. You’re not required to go all the way to testify to them in a way that leads them to confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. That’s such a scary thing that it might make you not even try. But don’t reduce it to inviting someone to churc. Though we welcome everyone, we may not shine much light in any one week. They may be disappointed. So try one of these:
1) see and selflessly meet someone’s need.
2) apologise to someone you’ve offended,
3) listen to someone whom nobody else respects.
Be like Jesus back in Galilee, a candle to people next to him, but a great light to the world. Do this, and you shall live.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN