(Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany A 2017; Matthew 4:12-23 and Isaiah 9:1-4)
In every age, God’s people have lived through dark times, and in every age God has sent messengers to bear the light of God’s Word into their darkness. Today you and I are the ones called to carry the light of Christ that scatters the darkness and enlightens all people…. But before we can obey the call to be light bearers, we must first know who we are, and in order to know who we are, we must know the biblical story that shapes our identity. So, from Isaiah to Jesus and on down to our own day, I’m going to give you a bit of a crash course on the story of God’s people, which is also our story!…
Once upon a time, about 2700 years ago, the people of God entered into an unholy alliance. It seems their leader, King Ahaz, had failed to listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who’d warned him against this alliance because it was contrary to the will of God. As you can probably guess, things didn’t end well for Ahaz and his people: The land of Zebulun and Naphtali was quickly overrun by the powerful and cruel Assyrian army. Many of the leaders of God’s people were sent into exile. For them and for those who remained behind under Gentile occupation, it was a time of great darkness and suffering…. That’s what happens when the people turn away from God and put our faith in human leaders and institutions…. And yet here’s a remarkable thing: Even though the people of Judah turned away from God, God did not turn God’s back on them! Instead, God sent Isaiah to speak a word of hope and promise into the midst their darkness. God promised to be there in the darkness with them…. The people who were walking in darkness would see a great light: The heavy yoke and the stinging rod of their oppressor would someday be broken, and this unlikely victory would be God’s doing, just as on the day Gideon and his tiny army defeated the mighty Midianite military force.
Once upon a time, about 2000 years ago, the people of God lived under the dark cloud of Roman occupation. The gospel writer Matthew frames this story in a way that makes it very clear that Galilee under Roman rule was a place of darkness and death. There was a great deal of poverty, hunger, sickness, and disease among the people. The produce of land and sea and the products of trade were all subject to regulation and taxation by Rome. The bleak way of life in first-century Palestine may well explain why the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John are so eager to follow Jesus, when he comes bearing the light of God’s promise. Jesus offers them a new identity, a new community, and a new calling: fishing for people.  The fledgling disciples don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into, but they’re hungry for a sense of purpose in life, and they trust that in time they’ll come to understand what they’re being called to be and to do…. As they follow Jesus, they observe that wherever he goes, he always meets people where they are, and he always brings light into the dark places of their lives: He brings light by teaching in the synagogues, by proclaiming the hope of the kingdom, and by healing every disease and every sickness among the people. As the disciples watch and listen to Jesus, they come to understand that “fishing for people” involves casting a wide net of grace: a net in which there’s room for all people…. To sum up, in everything he says and does, Jesus teaches his friends to be light bearers, because the life of the world depends on the light spreading to all nations….
Once upon another time—our time!—the people of God were living in the shadow of great global uncertainty…. No matter what our various political viewpoints might be, I’m sure all of us here today can agree that our world faces grave challenges and great divisions. Everywhere we turn, there’s a sense of feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of problems like climate change, the refugee crisis, rampant greed, and epidemic violence—problems that have brought great suffering to humankind, to our fellow creatures, and to our planet…. From talking with some of you, I know that the fear and grief are personal and palpable, as you and I worry about ourselves and about the people we love: “What about my preexisting condition? Will my gay and Muslim friends be okay? Will our kids ever be able to afford to buy a house?” And the list goes on…. Sometimes it feels like we really are walking in a land of deep darkness…. And yet…you and I, who are God’s people in this time and place, also know that the darkness will not get the last word! We know this because our Creator, who brings light out of darkness, promises that the darkness will never overcome the light of God’s love….
We’re all aware that on Friday Donald J. Trump gave his inaugural address when he became the 45th president of the United States…. What you may not be aware of is that in our gospel lesson for today, Jesus gives a very different kind of “inaugural address”: This is Jesus’ first public speech at the beginning of his ministry, and it consists of one sentence: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Now, don’t go getting any ideas about one-sentence sermons—just sayin’!…) All kidding aside, though, it’s important for you and me to understand that in a very real sense Jesus’ inauguration is also our inauguration: Jesus calls all of us who would become his disciples to turn away from false gods and turn back to God, to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance. In a single sentence, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that the Kingdom of God is already here, and it’s greater than all the kingdoms of this world…. Jesus’ one-sentence speech is a powerful response to the temptations he’s just experienced in the dark, shadowy wilderness. You may recall that immediately following his baptism, Jesus was led out into the wilderness, where Satan, the great father of lies, promised to give him all the kingdoms of this world, if he would only bow down and worship him…. Jesus, who was deeply steeped in Scripture and prayer, was able to resist this temptation because he knew who he was: Jesus knew that he was God’s own beloved Son and that no one could ever separate him from God’s love. His baptismal identity gave him the courage and wisdom to see things as God sees them: with eyes of love—eyes that see beyond the darkness to the light that comes from God alone. Jesus was able to see that ultimately all things belong to our loving Creator, who is always working to bring healing and new life to the whole world….
During our short lifetime here on earth, the question of why there is darkness and suffering in the world remains mostly a mystery to us mere mortals…. But there is something important that many of us have learned: Walking through darkness and suffering can help us grow in faith. When you and I turn to God for help and guidance in the darkness, we find that God shines just enough light for us to see the next step and then the next and then the one after that. With the psalmist you and I can say that God’s Word is truly “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path….” Once we finally emerge from the dark wilderness, we can begin to see how God has filled our hearts with compassion and courage that overflows, bringing hope and healing, light and life to others who sit in darkness…..
Dear friends in Christ, through prayer and practice, our Lord Jesus learned to see the world as God sees it: through eyes of love…. I wonder: How do you see the world? When you look around you, do you see only darkness and suffering? Or do you see the light and new life that’s being incubated in the darkness even now?… Sisters and brothers, this is what God wants for you and me more than anything else: God wants us to catch God’s heavenly vision of healing and wholeness for this world, and God wants us to live in light of that vision here and now…. In order to learn to see as God sees, you and I need to follow Jesus’ example of contemplative prayer and practice….. I’ll have more to say about contemplative prayer in the coming weeks, but for now let’s do some practicing, because when we share our “God-sightings,” we help each other see more clearly how God is at work in our lives and in our world!… I wonder: Where have you had the chance to see or be the light of Christ this week? To say it another way, where have you experienced hope, healing, love, light, or new life this week?…
[pass the mic around for sharing…]
Speaking for myself, I’m aware that in the past week or so there’ve been a couple of occasions where I’ve been blessed by the ability to see the common humanity of individuals whose background and perspective are very different from mine. I have to say it was an incredible gift of love and healing, and it’s led me to reflect: Just think what a difference it would make if we could all learn to see each other with eyes of love! Then we could bridge the great divisions between us and come together to tackle the grave challenges that threaten our life and the life of this world God loves so much…. Please pray with me: Lord, teach us to see as you see: with eyes of love. Teach us to see and to be your light in the darkness. May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as in heaven! Amen.
 See Judges 6-7.
 Psalm 119:5.