January 23, 2011
Isaiah 9, 1-4; Matthew 4, 12-23.
It’s a common saying that people have ‘seen the light’.
Our readings today are linked by a prophecy from Isaiah that people who are in darkness have ‘seen a great light’. The people he is talking about live in ‘the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali’, the area north and west of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry.
For Isaiah, light is an image of triumph and conquest. He prophesies that someone will be sent by God to overcome the oppressor, (at this time the Assyrian Empire) lift burdens and hardship from the people, and bring them joy.
It is clear that Isaiah is expecting God’s agent to be a human king. The passage we heard continues in verse 6 to talk of the child to be born, the son to be given who, will be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Prince of Peace. He is also called Mighty God and Eternal Father, because he will act as God’s agent in bringing light.
Light in the Old Testament is often used as a sign of God’s presence with people: in the burning bush, and the pillar of fire that led the people of Israel through the wilderness, as well as in the psalms and the prophets.
The same imagery continues in the New Testament – in the descriptions of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels and in the account of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus; and Matthew frequently associates Jesus with prophecies about the light of God shining on both his own people, and the Gentiles.
So, when Jesus leaves Judea and returns to Galilee, Matthew sees this as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the people there will be taken from a dark existence into one filled with light; taken from oppression to liberty, from sadness to joy, from sickness to health. Jesus announces that the rule of God is coming in, and that from that time on, God’s people are under God’s rule.
He calls on those who hear him to ‘repent’. ‘Repent’ has become a religious word, and we tend to hear it in a specific way, meaning being sorry for our sins, but originally it was a word with a much richer meaning. Metanoia means a change of mind, involving going outside and beyond one’s present limited mindset. In
modern terms, it means thinking outside the box, thinking big, seeing the light. It involves adopting a new way of seeing the world, and a new way of loving. Of course that might involve being sorry for past sins, but only because our new viewpoint reveals to us how much those sins separate us from God and get in the way of the divine plan.
Jesus also calls specific individuals (Andrew and Peter, James and John) to ‘follow me’. Again, following someone can be understood in a fairly weak sense: “tag along and see what happens”; or in a strong sense. When Jesus calls people to follow him, it is in the strong sense, meaning be with me, learn from me, respond to what I teach you, do what I do, be totally committed to me and my vision for the world. It involves a complete change of mind, priorities, relationships and community, to one which puts the Kingdom of God first.
The last sentence of the reading shows the Kingdom of God being realised in Jesus’ ministry: light breaking into people’s minds through his teaching, light coming to society through his proclamation of the Good News, darkness being removed from people’s bodies through the curing of disease and sickness.
The gospels show the response of the first disciples to Jesus’ call as immediate and unconditional; although they also show that ‘seeing the light’ did not happen immediately, but was a continuing struggle for them. We also see from the gospels that the call to ‘repent’ was a difficult one for the Galileans to respond to, as it has been for people ever since.
We would think, wouldn’t we, that people would prefer to ‘walk in the light’ rather than to continue in the darkness. After, all, darkness can be dangerous and frightening. But light can also be uncomfortable! Just think about why we do spring cleaning: because when the sunlight shines into your house, it shows up all the dust and cobwebs in neglected corners that were less noticeable in the gloomy days of winter. Choosing to walk in the full radiance of God’s light is similar: it opens us up to scrutiny, and reveals all our shortcomings, so that it often feels more comfortable to continue to hide ourselves in the dark.
So, what might the readings say to us today?
Light continues to be an important symbol for us. We no longer need candles to light our homes, but they have become things that are frequently used to express joy, love and remembrance. We use them in our churches, our houses and in public shrines. But what this passage is talking about is not gentle candlelight – it is penetrating searchlight or all-illuminating floodlights.
Isaiah talks about the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light. We might ask ourselves, where is the darkness in our world, and how can we help to move people – including ourselves – out of that darkness and into the light?
When we look on the large scale at the whole world, there are obviously lots of areas of darkness, just as there were when Isaiah wrote: nations at war, countries affected by natural disasters and the changing climate, groups who are persecuted because of their race, or gender, or sexuality or nationality. Perhaps we cannot do a great deal to move those people into the light, except through contributing to public debate and exercising our democratic privileges with care. We can do more, perhaps, to dispel the areas of darkness in our nation and even more in our community. Transforming communities – bringing the light of Christ to shine in them – is one of the three priorities of the Diocesan initiative launched last week.
But what of our church? And what of ourselves? The readings challenge us to examine those places closer to home, and to bring them into the light. Ignorance of the true nature and the true demands of God were often spoken of as ‘darkness’ in the gospels. How ready are we to open our cherished beliefs, traditions and practices to the searching light of God? How prepared are we to spend time and effort studying our faith and the Bible, rather than simply accepting what has been passed down to us, or what we learned in our childhood? Going deeper into God – and allowing God to penetrate deeper into us, is another of the priorities of ‘Living God’s Love’.
Jesus calls on us, as he called on those first century Galileans, to repent, to allow our minds, our world view, our relationships to be completely changed, and to put ourselves under the rule of God. Are we ready to undergo that transformation, disturbing as it will undoubtably be?
And finally, how do we respond today to Jesus’ call to “Follow me”? Those first disciples are shown as immediately abandoning everything to be with Jesus. Some of us might look at what they did and say to ourselves “Well, that was fine for them. But what about their wives and children and families? How did they manage? Didn’t God care about them?”
The third strand of “Living God’s Love’ is making new disciples. Perhaps we need to start with making new disciples of ourselves. As Christians, we have pledged ourselves to follow Jesus. But we have to work out for ourselves, as people with jobs and mortgages to sustain, and families to care for, how exactly we can do that. And each of us may come up with a different response, that is right for us at this particular time in our lives.
What is important is that, through hearing the Good News proclaimed by Jesus, we commit ourselves to seeing the light, repenting, and following him, and acknowledge that serving the Kingdom of God must become our first priority.
Living God’s Love Prayer:
Living God, draw us deeper into your love;
Jesus our Lord, send us to care and serve;
Holy Spirit, make us heralds of good news.
Stir us, strengthen us, teach and inspire us
to live your love with generosity and joy, imagination and courage;
for the sake of your world and in the name of Jesus, Amen.
January 9, 2011
(Isaiah 42, 1-9; Matthew 3,13-17)
Has anyone ever said to you “Whose side are you on?” It usually happens when you are involved in a discussion, and you make a point which demonstrates that the issue is less clear cut, less ‘black and white’ than other people thought.
Through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, God says to the Jewish nation in exile that he is on their side. It may not seem like it to them. After the glory days of King David and King Solomon, the kingdom had split in two, and first the Northern Kingdom of Israel, then the Southern Kingdom of Judah had been defeated and overrun and their elites deported to a foreign land. This was explained by the prophets as God’s punishment for their lack of loyalty to the Covenant.
But through second Isaiah, God proclaims that he is going to do something new. He is going to restore them to their position as his people, renew the covenant with them, and make them a light to the whole world. There will be no doubt that he is on their side. But he is going to do it in an unexpected way. They might expect God to send them a warrior King, who will defeat their enemies and establish their dominance by force of arms. But the King God will send will be a Servant, whose main task will be to bring God’s justice to the world.
He will do so in gentleness. He won’t make a great fuss about it, or be high-handed or brutal. His way will be so gentle that it wouldn’t break a bent reed or snuff out a lamp. Both of these metaphors tell us God’s servant will have a special care for those people the rest of society thinks useless or unimportant. A bent reed was no use to make a pen for writing, or for building with; all that could be done with it was to break it and use it for fuel. A dimly burning wick was worse than useless,it was a danger. As it burned towards is end,it grew dim, and the wick could break and fall onto the rush covered floor,causing a fire; the only safe thing to do would be to extinguish it. But God’s servant would do neither. He would bring liberty, teaching and the rule of God not just to the Jewish nation, but to the furthest ends of the earth.
Though his way would be gentle, he wouldn’t be ineffective or weak, because he would be sustained by the strength of the God who created the earth and gave life to all humanity. God had chosen the Servant and God delighted in him. He was to be sent to do God’s work on earth.
Isaiah didn’t identify who God’s Servant was. It could be he was speaking of an individual. It could be he was referring to the Jewish nation, or a faithful remnant of them. It is clear that the gospel writers identified Jesus as the Servant, since there are constant references to the Servant Songs of Isaiah in their writings. So when we hear the Servant Songs, we hear them as referring to Jesus and his ministry. But they could equally refer to anyone who does God’s work of bringing justice into the world. They refer to those who are on God’s side, as God is on theirs.
The Hebrew word for justice means so much more than our contemporary English word. ‘Zedakah’ means much more than doing things according to the law; it goes well beyond retributive justice (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth) or equal application of the law. In the Old Testament it is frequently paired with the words for compassion and grace. Justice is equivalent to righteousness, and loving-kindness, which show a particular concern for the defenceless, the sick and the vulnerable, and which are characteristics of God,.
In New Testament Greek, too, the same word, dikaiosune, can be translated as integrity, virtue, charity, piety, godliness, righteousness, justice. This is the word which Jesus uses when he answers John the Baptist’s objections to baptising him. he thereby affirms that he sees his ministry as doing God’s will, and as applying God’s standards of justice.
His baptism is affirmed by the descent of the Spirit (the spirit which Isaiah prophesied would be given to God’s Servant) and by the voice from Heaven, which proclaims (again, like the Servant) that God delights in him. In Matthew’s version, the message is addressed not just to Jesus, but to everyone. It is a proclamation that he is on God’s side, and God is on his.
Righteousness and justice are particularly important in Matthew’s Gospel. In his birth story, he says that Joseph was a just or righteous man. This did not mean that Joseph simply kept the rules; if he had done so, he would have denounced Mary and had her punished when he found out she was pregnant. On the contrary, he went against the rules, shielding her from punishment by resolving to divorce her quietly; and then standing up against public opinion by marrying her and adopting her son as his own. Like the Servant, he was strong but compassionate.
Righteousness also features twice in the Beatitudes, as a human characteristic which will bring blessing from God. For Matthew, this is a defining characteristic of the Christian community, the followers of Christ, those who have made the choice to be on his side. Matthew, more than any other Gospel writer, presents his readers with the necessity of making that choice before it is too late.
His baptism by John in the Jordan is shown in the Gospels as the moment when Jesus made public his commitment to work for God’s justice and righteousness. John the Baptist proclaimed the same standards; he rejected the approaches of the Sadducees and Pharisees because they didn’t really understand how far their understanding fell short of what that meant. Jesus later said that his followers must have a higher concept of righteousness than those of the religious elite: unless their idea of righteousness and justice exceeded that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, they would not enter God’s Kingdom.
Our baptism is the moment when we decide, and make public whose side we are on. We are called to recognise who Jesus is, and to follow him in doing what he did. We promise, as he did, to do God’s will, and to be God’s faithful servants for the whole of our earthly lives.
For some of us, that commitment was made for us when we were infants; but we take responsibility for it ourselves when we are confirmed, and every time we re-affirm our baptismal vows, and every time we have to make a decision about how to act. Will we act in accordance with earthy standards of righteousness and justice – or in accordance with God’s standards?
It is very, very easy to forget what a radically different standard of righteousness baptism commits us to. It is all to easy to fall back into a less demanding definition, which simply asks that we keep the rules and accept the current definition of what is good or bad or the traditional interpretation of what it means to be righteous.
If we study it carefully, the Bible can open up to us the full richness and complexity of God’s standards of righteousness. The Bible can be interpreted in a restrictive, judgemental and negative way, reinforcing human concepts of righteousness, which teach , that only a few who consciously believe and don’t break any rules will be saved. Or it can reveal to us the full glory of the God who will go to any lengths to save even those who consciously reject his call: his judgement on human evil, yes, but also his compassion for human weakness and the repeated offer of forgiveness and eternal life to all who turn to him in repentance and humility.
Christian baptism calls us to Live God’s Love (as the Bishop of St Albans has titled the current diocesan initiative). The Feast of the Baptism of Christ today is another chance for us to reconsider exactly what that means in our lives, and decide once again whose side we are on.