January 22, The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev. Dr. Frank Senn

Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

This is the time of the year when I begin to watch hopefully for signs of more daylight – the sun rising a little earlier in the morning and setting a little later in the evening.  We’re only a month past the winter solstice, but the darkness in our northern world gets old fast.  We yearn for a little more light.

I suppose we could say the same thing about the political situation in our country. We yearn for a little more light. We went through the darkness of a particularly nasty election season and, unfortunately, not much has been done to assuage the fears of many of our fellow citizens regarding the actual policies of new administration. Perhaps what little light has been shed on the situation has come from people comforting one another, like in all the women’s marches yesterday in cities across our country---or one-on-one I did on a street corner yesterday after my men’s yoga class as I listened to a fellow class member vent his heart-felt concerns about the new president for more than an hour.   

We’re also in the time after the Epiphany, which begins with Isaiah’s announcement: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1). I expect the light to grow stronger as Christ’s presence in the world expands through the mission of the gospel.

I would note that we are in the week of prayer for Christian Unity. Certainly as Churches find ways to be in full communion with one another and ministers from different Christian traditions can be authorized to preach and preside at the Eucharist as needed in one another’s churches, the light of unity is growing brighter.

Two of the three readings today speak of light in the darkness. The other one speaks of the power of God in the Cross. There’s a clashing here as these readings are juxtaposed with each other that brings even deeper meaning to the "light". I think we need that word about the cross because when we Christians hear the message of the light of God shining in Jesus there is an unconscious expectation and a subtle hope that if we profess our faith in him things will be better and life will be much smoother sailing.  But there is a deeper truth that emerges by holding these passages together.

These three speak of hope and the hope is realized in Jesus when he begins his ministry of preaching, of calling the disciples, of teaching and healing. Matthew carefully places Jesus in the right place at the right time by showing how he was truly the long promised One, the light coming into a dark world. He puts Jesus into the right place geographically by picking up Isaiah's prophecy.

The land of Zebulun and Naphtali at the time of Jesus was Galilee. But back 800 years earlier, when Isaiah wrote, the people from these tribes of Israel were the first to be carted away by the Assyrians. Since then the whole region was considered with contempt and somehow degraded, especially by the Jerusalem Jews. The question of Nathanael when he was introduced to Jesus, "What good thing can come out of Nazareth?" gives you a feel for their contempt. Galilee was now populated with Gentiles as well as Jews, and therefore more cosmopolitan and not as pure as Judea. But the long ago promise was that out of this place of darkness and hopelessness a great light would shine.

And then Matthew paints a picture of Jesus walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee calling his first disciples. He walks between the earth and the sea. Now the ancient Jewish writers saw the sea as evil. It floods and destroys the world. It separated the Israelite people from freedom when they were slaves in Egypt.  It rages uncontrollably in floods that come crashing down the cataracts from Mount Hermon.

In the creation story the earth was formed out of some chaotic watery substance. The sea is chaos and the earth is order. These images and symbols have been given new meaning for us since the great Tsumani of several years ago – the power and chaos of the sea sweeping humanity up and devouring everything in its path. And then came Hurricane Katrina, and recently the floods in Texas and even in Arizona, of all places. Maybe these images help us understand how the Hebrews felt about the sea. Matthew is presenting a picture of Jesus calling order out of this chaos.

The Corinthian reading seems to come from way out in left field. Paul is writing to a small house church which he has planted in the great Greek city of Corinth. When the Corinthian converts first heard about Jesus they trusted in him.  Something connected for them and the light went on.  They were filled with God's Spirit in amazing and wonderful ways.  But in a brief few years they seemed to have completely lost their way. They quickly became divided and proud and self‑seeking. This is a church in darkness, so to speak. And into this darkness Paul drives home the center and focus of their faith – the CROSS of Jesus. He reminds them how he came to proclaim the gospel to them not with fancy words and eloquent wisdom, because the cross speaks for itself. The message of the cross is a powerful message to those who trust in it, but to those who don't it just seems like foolishness and nonsense. It is the CROSS that brings light out of darkness. Martin Franzmann caught that connection in his great hymn, “Thy strong word didst cleave the darkness.” He writes:

From the cross thy wisdom shining

Breaketh forth in conqu’ring might;

From the cross forever beameth

All thy bright redeeming light.

The cross speaks of pain, rejection, abandonment, helplessness and death. Not the sort of things we like to think about and certainly not what we want to experience for ourselves. It doesn't have the same good feeling about it as light shining in darkness does.  It feels more like darkness itself.

So we have today a word about light dawning in a dark world, and a word about the cross. Our lectionary puts them together today. And they raise the question: If Jesus came as the light, why is there so still so much darkness?

If God had revealed himself through an all-powerful Christ who came to conquer the oppressors and liberate his people and bring in a new order of justice and peace, the CROSS wouldn't have been necessary. But he didn't. Instead the Light was extinguished, seemingly snuffed out at the cross. Jesus submitted himself to the evil forces and powers of the time. Even the land was covered in darkness at his death.

Jesus is the icon of God.  He reveals God to us, what God is like. God is not different from Jesus. Does this mean that somehow God is not the all-powerful controlling force that is responsible for every cause and effect in the way we often think of Him? Is there something about the way Jesus suffered and confronted evil that gives us more truth about God? Is this finally what “Immanuel”  – “God with us” – means? Suffering alongside us?

"The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God," wrote Paul. God's power is released in suffering. The light shines because there is darkness. Certainly the resurrection has happened but the full redeeming and reconciling effects of this resurrection haven’t taken place yet. If it had there would be no Tsunamis, no devastating hurricanes, no torrential floods, no wars and bloodshed and refugees.  No, the general resurrection of the dead and the new heavens and the new earth are yet to come, and come they will, just as surely as Jesus came at the right time in the right place on the shores of Sea of Galilee.

This is good news for us. Into the deepest pain and suffering, confusion and disappointments, the sin we can't overcome, the self‑absorption we so easily succumb to – into these dark places the light shines. It shines from the cross. By gazing on the wounded, dying Christ, who reaches out to us with love, seeing us in all our frailty and woundedness, weakness and complete inability to help ourselves, we allow him to enter into these dark places.  He comes with power to turn on the lights and help us see something in a new way. In our weakness, he becomes our courage.  In our fear, he becomes our hope.  In our hurt, he becomes our healing.  In our helplessness, he becomes our confidence.  In our storms, he becomes our shelter. In our darkness, he becomes our light.

When Jesus called the fisherman on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they immediately left their nets and followed after him. What did they know about him? It couldn't have been much in such a short time. But there was something about him they sensed and trusted. That trust was tested over and over for his disciples, for Mary his mother and the other women and the small company that followed him and learned so much from him. They had been walking in the presence of Love, and when they looked into that face on the cross many of them fled in fear and shame. But some stayed. Later, these same fearful men faced their own violent deaths, but this time strong and sure that the light who had come into their lives was the light of the world.

Light is coming into our dark world. The sun and the earth will keep on doing their thing in their orbits, upheld by God’s grace for our benefit.  But the Light of Christ in our world only grows stronger. As Fransmann wrote in his hymn,

Lo, on those who dwelt in darkness,

Dark as night and deep as death,

Broke the light of thy salvation,

Breathed thine own life-giving breath.  Amen.

– Frank C. Senn, STS, Evanston, IL