Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Freedom from Darkness -- A Lectionary Meditation

Isaiah 9:1-4

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Matthew 4:12-23

Freedom from Darkness

Christina Rosseti’s hymn of Christmas(1872) describes the feeling that many have at this moment of time – it might be winter blues, but it’s more than that. There is a cloud that hangs over the globe. Economic disarray, warring parties, weather-related disasters, and of course the-all-to-fresh memories of the tragedy in Tucson, all are on our minds and hearts. 
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

The promise of the hymn is this:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Although we may experience darkness, the promise of Epiphany continues to speak to us, offering us a word of hope. That word of hope is this – the light that is God’s presence in the person of Jesus the Christ is shining in the darkness. Yes, the clouds are lifting, and hope is returning. This is a message that lies before us, one that beckons us to pick up and share – God’s realm is breaking into our world, bringing freedom from darkness and oppression. Will we then join with God in making God’s reign visible on earth as it is visible in heaven?

Of the three texts that the lectionary provides for this week, two are directly linked. Matthew reflects upon Isaiah’s prophetic word to provide context for Jesus’ own ministry. His decision to move from Nazareth to Capernaum, along the Sea of Galilee, after the arrest of the John the Baptist, is linked directly to Isaiah’s word of hope to the land of land of Naphtali and Zebulun, in the Galilee of the Gentiles.

Isaiah’s word of hope, a word that we last heard in an extended passage on Christmas Eve, says to the people of Jerusalem, who in the 8th Century B.C.E., suffered under the oppressive rule of the northern kingdom of Israel, who in turn faced harassment from Damascus because Israel and its client in Judah chose not to participate in an alliance against a weakened Assyria. The word that comes from the prophet speaks of light shining in the dankness, and as a result the people of the nation of Judah can now rejoice as if they are at a Harvest Festival or perhaps better (in this context) sharing in the plunder of their enemies. Yes, God has reached out and expanded the nation, lifting the yoke of oppression from their shoulders, even as Gideon broke the hold of Israel’s earlier enemies (Judges 7:19-25).

Matthew sets Jesus’ decision to move to Capernaum in this earlier historical context. John has been arrested and so his voice that prepared the way for the reign of God had been silenced. Jesus, who seems to have returned from the Jordan and his temptation in the wilderness to his home in Nazareth goes to the sea and takes up John’s mantle, and begins proclaiming a message of repentance, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Or, as it reads in the Common English Bible – “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

This is the message that light – God’s realm – is about to make itself felt in a world that is enshrouded in darkness. Therefore, where once the people stumbled around in the dark, unsure of where they were going or what they should be doing, now they can walk along a pathway light by the light that is Christ. As we consider this word, it’s appropriate to note that in Matthew’s quotation from Isaiah, he makes it plain that the message is to reach the Gentiles of Galilee. Thus, we’re reminded that God was and is expanding the borders of the realm of God – just as Isaiah suggested centuries earlier!

The passage from Matthew closes, much as the passage a week earlier from John 1 closed, by describing the call of Jesus’ first disciples. In this case Jesus finds Simon and Andrew casting their nets in the lake, and he calls on them, inviting to “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Then, he spies James and John, sitting in a boat with their father Zebedee, mending nets, and Jesus calls them. In both cases the two pairs of brothers jump up immediately, drop what they were doing and they follow Jesus. Unlike the Andrew in John’s gospel, no one asks Jesus where’s he’s going or where he’s staying – they just go with him. I’m always amazed at the way this text is constructed. No thought, no consideration, no planning, just going and doing. It’s so unlike me. I need at least a few weeks to get ready. But, they go and they accompany Jesus as he traveled through Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, and curing every disease and sickness. In this we see described the very essence of Jesus’s ministry – that of itinerant evangelist and healer. He could easily become Elmer Gantry, and yet he doesn’t.

Finally we come to Paul’s words to the Corinthian Church. I left this passage to the last for a reason. In Isaiah and Matthew we see the foundations laid for Jesus’ ministry of proclaiming and living the reign of God. I’m not saying that Isaiah understood that this was the intent of his words, but Matthew used them for this purpose, to underline the connection between Jesus’ message of the kingdom and Isaiah’s promise that hope would prevail. In this chapter of 1 Corinthians, we see the dark side of the church. We are called to live and proclaim the good news, and yet it’s so easy to lose focus, to start choosing sides and pulling power plays.

Paul’s word to the church that is experiencing deep divisions is that they should “all be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” This is a most difficult request to live out. Being of the same mind and purpose, I’ve rarely seen this occur in the church. We bring so many different ideas and experiences to the table, and we all want to be heard, and we want our ideas to be enacted, so being of one mind and purpose as difficult. And yet Paul understands that if the message of God’s reign is to be heard and accepted and lived out, then this is required of us. We can’t say – I belong to Luther or to Calvin, to Barth or to Ruether, to Cone or to Borg. Indeed, we can’t even say – I belong to Christ, because if we do so, are we not pretending to be purer than we really are? I say this with a bit of fear and trembling, because I belong to a movement that declared itself to be Christians Only, not the Only Christians! But the point is this – when we’re divided the cross and its message loses its power. And that is not good. So let us join together and embrace the call!

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