Isa 9:1-4, 1 Cor 1:10-18, Matt 4: 12-23
I come from a family of church musicians. We would all sing in the church choir, and my Dad and brother played the organ. One of our favourite things to do before Christmas was to put the score for Handel’s wonderful piece “Messiah’ on the piano, with mum accompanying, and sing through it, as much as we could fit in between other facets of our day.
There is a wonderful bass solo, that my Dad and brother would sing – actually we’d all join in. ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light!’ This is so ingrained in me that I have struggled so far today to resist breaking into song!
This text forms the bulk of our Isaiah reading, and in the Gospel Matthew tells us that in the coming of Jesus, Isaiah’s words are being fulfilled. Jesus himself doesn’t mention Isaiah here, but Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience who were familiar with the scripture, and who were looking expectantly for the Messiah.
Then Matthew sums up the shape of Jesus’ early ministry – ‘From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’‘
These are not very specific words are they? I often find that when I am looking to the Bible for guidance, it can be frustratingly vague – sound familiar? The Message translation puts this verse another way: ‘Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.‘
I think that is a good way of describing the effect of ‘seeing the light’.
But what does it mean for us, here, in New Zealand? What does it mean for this parish? Now, in some ways I am at a loss here, because I don’t know you yet, and you don’t know me. So I have to trust that what I am bringing you today is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Have you walked in darkness in your life? Have there been times when it just all seemed too hard, too depressing, as if nothing good ever happened?
I’ve certainly had those times in my life. I’ve walked in darkness, both through my own behaviour, and through some of the people I knew.
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Not just any light.
The phrase, “I have seen the light’ is a common way of describing having received a revelation, not just something with a certain number of photons, but a new understanding, that would stay permanently.
Well, if we’ve seen God at work, we have indeed seen a great light. The greatest light, the creator of the universe – Imagine what a great light the initial moment of creation must have been – astronomers can still see it, in the very depths of space, through the strongest telescopes. If we’ve seen God at work healing and delivering people, we too have seen this great light.
It’s all very well to remind ourselves that we may have seen this light, that we have had a revelation of Jesus, who he is, and what that means for us. But, just as a genius like Einstein cannot ‘undiscover’ his insights, so we too cannot walk away from having seen that light.
I think that’s what the Corinthian people must have been doing – remember our Epistle reading?
They had seen the light, they had had Christ revealed to them. And yet, they were reverting to walking in darkness, the darkness of dissension and grumbling, envy and worse. They were arguing about who was greater – those who had been baptised by this one or that. In our modern context we could liken this to … having received the Holy Spirit through the hands of this prophet or that – was it at New Wine or at a Bill Subritzky campaign?
You can see how relevant this scripture can be for us. We are reminded that when we have seen the light, it never truly departs from us, but we still have a choice. The people of Corinth were choosing to behave in an all-too-human way, trying to find a position of superiority over each other by their spiritual credentials. Pride was sneaking into the group, and insecurity was rearing its ugly head. I wonder who sent them there?
Paul reminds them, lovingly but rather sharply, that Christ’s is the only Gospel – it doesn’t matter who told them about it. Whenever dissent creeps into a group of believers, the enemy rejoices and rubs its hands, making a bigger wedge between the members of the body. For the sake of the united body of Christ – that sounds like a new church doesn’t it? Christians must not indulge in one-upmanship over each other in their journeys to faith. These journeys are our testimonies, and it’s wonderful to hear each other tell their story of how they got from A to B, but it can be a source of trying to top one story with another. Better to treasure these things in your heart, as it were, than use them for pride.
We can take this idea – a sense of non-discrimination perhaps – broader too. There are many diverse ways of worshipping, and all sorts of not-quite -lining up theology – and that’s just in the Anglican church! If the Corinthians were being urged to put aside their differences and celebrate the cross where Jesus triumphed over death once and for all, surely any gathering of Christians, for whatever purpose, should be a place where all can feel as if they belong, where there are no second-class citizens.
Let’s take another look at Isaiah. “You have multiplied the nation and increased its joy! I don’t know about you, but my joy is increased when I am with a group of Christians. I love being part of the family, the body, where you don’t have to explain what you believe. It’s better than being with biological family in many ways – we were at a family wedding last weekend, where the culture of our granddaughter’s friends, with their myriad tattoos, was very different to ours. Most of the people there had no time for church or Christ, and faith seemed completely irrelevant to them. I knew many of those people because we are related. But today I am here with you, and while I have met some of you briefly, I don’ know you as well as I know my husband’s relatives, but because you and I chose to be here today, we can assume a certain similar mindset when it comes to faith. Christians aren’t clones of course, and there may be many ways in which we have different angles for seeing things -probably as many ideas as there are people here! but the sense of the Body of Christ is strong.
Isaiah says that the people rejoice before God, as with joy at the harvest. Let’s always do that when we meet together, rejoicing before God that we are indeed loved, and that in Jesus we have seen this great light.
The final part of the reading tells us the reason for this rejoicing – the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of the oppressor has been broken.This yoke, this bar, this oppression is sin.And when the Corinthians allowed pride and comparing themselves to creep in, they were making a way for sin. They were forgetting that they, who had once walked in darkness, had indeed seen a great light.
May we too always keep in mind where we have come from, what Christ has delivered us from, and rejoice together in Jesus.