Sunday, January 22, 2017

“The People Who Walked in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light”

Third Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
Isaiah 9.1-4; 1 Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew 4.12-23
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

We’ve heard this particular passage a disproportionate amount in the last month. First hearing it as the Old Testament reading for Christmas Eve. And today, we hear it twice. First in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, and then again in Matthew’s own rendition of this same prophecy from Isaiah.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Think about the imagery presented in this short verse. How many of us, at one time or another, has found ourselves in complete darkness. I’m not talking metaphorically. I’m not talking psychologically or emotionally or spiritually. For now, I’m talking about actual physical darkness. An experience of being in a place with absolutely no visible light. When the power has gone out. Or in the middle of the night. A situation where you have had to move through the darkness in search of a light switch or a door or some other avenue of escape.

When I’ve found myself in such a situation, I immediately feel lost and disoriented. I don’t know which way is which. I’m uncertain which way I need to go to find the door or the light switch. This sense of disorientation is generally accompanied by a panicked, fearful feeling. In that disorientated, fearful state, I then become almost paralyzed. Psychologically but also physically. Almost unable to move. Taking all the strength and courage I have to move forward inch by inch. At least I think it’s forward. Inching along, trying to find my way. Stumbling along. Afraid I might run into a wall or a piece of furniture or some other unseen obstacle on the floor. As a result, the sense of time becomes distorted, seeming to take forever to move just a few steps toward my goal. At least I think it’s toward my goal. I hope it’s toward my goal.

In such situations, the sense of darkness becomes palpable. It takes on an existential reality beyond the mere absence of light. A reality that becomes all-consuming. Threatening us in, what in the light of day, are irrational ways.

As humans, we also can experience such a sense of darkness even in the light of day. Now I am talking metaphorically. When we struggle with something so deeply that it becomes all-consuming. A psychological trauma. An emotional distress. A spiritual struggle. A moral dilemma. Some external situation that takes up residence in our thoughts and emotions. In our spirit. That blocks out the light of our being. Sometimes to the point of us experiencing disoriention, panic, fear. And in more extreme situations, in a sense of paralysis. A feeling that we might never get out of the darkness that seems to surround us. The darkness that seems to consume us.

I remember one time in particular that I felt that way. It was in my former life as a transportation planner. I was working on a very large and difficult project. The client called and demanded that the work be completed by a particular date – giving me far less time to complete than I needed. Particularly since I had run up against a brick wall and was struggling how to deal with some new, unforeseen issues. With the call from my client, the whole world around me seemed to go dark. I immediately felt paralyzed. Physically, mentally, emotionally. I just sat in my office and literally cried. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how I was going to solve the issues I had run up against, let alone how I was going to get months worth of work done in mere weeks. It was impossible.

As I sat there crying, my boss happened to walk by my office and saw me. He came in and asked what was wrong. I stumbled through an explanation of what was happening, or not happening, on this project. He put his hand on my shoulder and told me it would be okay. We would figure it out together. He calmly led me through a discussion on how we might deal with the new issues and how we might meet the client’s deadline. Ray had a very gruff exterior. But in that moment of deep darkness, through his compassion he showed me a moment of light. A moment of light that allowed me to see a way out of the darkness.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

When put up against our own personal experiences of darkness, our own personal experiences of seeing glimmers of light in the darkness, we begin to get a sense of what the prophet Isaiah is saying. Of the picture he is painting that goes beyond mere words. A picture that touches us on a deeply personal level. Physically, psychologically, emotionally. Sometimes even spiritually.

The original prophecy from Isaiah was written around the eighth century BC, when the nation of Israel was under occupation by the Assyrians, beginning with the lands of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. The area that would become known as Galilee in Jesus’ time. When the Assyrians conquered a nation, they engaged in the systematic removal of the people they conquered, taking them from their own land and moving them elsewhere. And then the Assyrians would move their own people into the occupied territory. The people of Israel were feeling as if in great darkness. Their lands were being taken from them. They were being forcibly removed. Their way of life was over. Particularly for a people so tied to the land for their identity. Whose religious identity was rooted in the land given them by their God.

But Isaiah tells the people that this darkness is not the final word. The people will be redeemed. The darkness will be turned into light in the promised new age of peace and justice. Isaiah’s prophecy is for the coming of a messianic king who would defeat the Assyrians, liberate the people, and return them to their own land. In reality, things did not quite play out that way for the northern kingdom of Israel. But the prophecy served as a warning to the people of Judea, the southern kingdom. In the darkness of the threat of Assyrian invasion, the Judean king Hezekiah was able to take measures to help protect Jerusalem against the Assyrian threat. He also enacted sweeping religious reforms, including a strict mandate for the sole worship of Yahweh and a prohibiting the worship of other gods in the Temple in Jerusalem. In the darkness of his time, Hezekiah provided a light to guide the people. And he did this by pointing to the light of the one true God.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

We see a similar situation in the time of Jesus – during the Roman occupation of Israel. The occupation and domination of the same lands that were the original subject of Isaiah’s prophecy – “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali . . . across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.” This was indeed a time of darkness for the people of this land. Their land was occupied. Their freedoms were suppressed. The only light that might potentially be found was in their religion. But even the Jewish authorities were so fearful of the Roman occupiers that they bowed to them and corrupted their religious practices, dimming what little light their religion may have provided. It was a time when potential messiahs abounded. Anyone who might give a sense of hope to the people. There were those who thought that John the Baptist (despite his clear statements to the contrary) might be the one who would bring light to the people. But when he was put in jail by King Herod, the sense of darkness deepened. Sure, there were others. But none who were the true messianic king prophesied by Isaiah.

Until Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, the prophecy is fulfilled through Jesus Christ, whose life and ministry bring light to the darkness. And not just to the darkness of the political situation of the time. In a spiritual sense, the people were also walking in darkness. And not just the people of Israel, but all humanity. We had been walking in darkness from the beginning of time. Despite repeated attempts by God to establish covenants with his people, we were still overshadowed by the darkness of sin and death. The darkness of sin that is brought about by our separation from God. For that is the true meaning of sin – separation from God. And sin, creating a barrier between us and God who is the source of all life, ultimately brings with it death. Death of relationship with God, but also physical death. At its deepest sense, “The people who walked in darkness” describes a fundamental condition of humanity characterized by brokenness, ignorance, unbelief, dis-ease, and sin. Even death.

The ultimate light that broke through the darkness is brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That the darkness of the cross, representing the darkness under which humanity had lived, is dispelled by the light of resurrection shining from the tomb on Easter morning. The darkness of sin and death, overcome by the light of forgiveness and eternal life.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Even this side of the resurrection, we still struggle with the sense of darkness and how to find light to break through it. We see this in our Epistle lesson. We see the applicability of this prophecy, even though it is not stated in the reading from 1st Corinthians. The newly formed church in Corinth had become embroiled in quarreling and division over various factions – some claiming to follow Paul, some claiming to follow Apollos, some claiming to follow Cephas, some claiming to follow Christ. Paul attempts to bring light to the darkness and heal the division by reminding the Corinthians of who they truly follow. The one who ultimately brought a great light into the darkness of the human condition. The one who is the great light that destroys the darkness that surrounds us and seeks to consume us.

Even today, in our own times, we are still subject to darkness. To psychological, emotional, and spiritual darkness that plagues us from time to time. But today’s scripture readings remind us that these times of darkness are not permanent. They are not the status quo for those of us who follow Christ. For those of us who believe in the true light that comes into the world through him. We see how in all these situations, the darkness is dispelled by the light of the kingdom of heaven Jesus promises to be upon us. This is a new reality that touches us in deep spiritual ways. In ways that move us, as Jesus’ followers, to set out on a path that leads not only to our own healing, but also to healing of the brokenness of the world.

We are the people who walked in darkness, and we have indeed seen a great light.

No comments: