Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
Isaiah 9.1-4; Psalm 27. 1, 4-9; 1 Cor. 1.10-18; Matt. 4. 12-23
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace to you and peace from the One who is a light in our darkness, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I know I have said before that there are passages in Scripture that make me not want to be a pastor because I don’t really like what they have to say. They are tough to find a word of hope and they sometimes make me feel like no one, especially me, will ever be good enough. However, not today! There are days like today that reading Scripture is like a breath of fresh air; poetry that is music to the ears and hearts of the hearer.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined (Isa. 9.2).”
What a powerful proclamation to anyone whose life has been touched by suffering, violence, or death. I have a pretty good guess that all of us in this sanctuary have already known these realities. It is true that all creatures, including human beings, suffer and will eventually die. At times this is all too apparent as we look around or read the newspaper or watch the news. Sometimes it is downright depressing and leaves us with a sense of hopelessness.
For the people who lived at the time of the writing of the book of Isaiah, our first reading today, and also when Jesus walked the earth 2000 years ago, people also suffered and died, believe it or not. They would hear the words, “For those who sit in the region of the shadow of death light has dawned (Matt. 4.16),” and they would long for them to be their reality here and now and not in some future time. But how can these words have truth in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali?
Zebulun and Naphtali in the region of Galilee…torn by centuries of wars and various occupations by the super powers and monarchies of the world. The people of the region, generally thought of as ‘not as educated or wealthy or as religious’ by those living in its neighboring Jerusalem. And here we have in our text today, Jesus going directly to that war-torn, occupied region of “the lesser” people who have known suffering, violence and death, to live among them, heal them, and bring them good news. This is where Jesus makes his home. It is with those who sit in darkness, who live in the shadow of death and have known defeat.
It is a heavy task to think about darkness, especially if you’ve known or are knowing it this very day. It is like being pulled down into the depths or like curling in on one’s self and remaining there. Kind of like when you touch a millipede and it quickly curls and remains that way for quite a long time. Depression, addiction, and grief, among other things, have the ability to pull us down into the depths of darkness from which we can convince ourselves that there is nothing else.
In preparation for this sermon I read pieces of the book, “The Light of the World,” by theologian Jaroslav Pelikan. In it he quotes a profound ancient author and thinker named, Athanasius, who was certainly no stranger to suffering. This is how Athanasius describes what it is like for someone who has no hope:
If someone were to plunge into the depths, they would no longer see the light nor the things that are visible by the light; for their eyes would be turned downward, and the water would be all above them. Perceiving only what is in the depths, they would suppose that nothing else exists, but that what is evident to him is the only true reality.
Sometimes when we suffer we get tunnel vision and think that suffering and darkness is all there is. Our lives can be so painful that we simply cannot look up to see the light from the depths, and darkness can appear to be our only reality. But it is precisely in the deepest darkness in which the greater reality of light has the ability to shine the brightest. The darker it is in any given space, the more one can notice when light comes into that space, right?
One of the outdoor activities I enjoy is something called caving, or better known as spelunking. Say that word fast 7 times. It’s where you enter into various caves, some are connected and some are dead ends. At times they can be dimly lit by the sun coming in through the entrance or cracks in the walls, but many are totally pitch black and you cannot see a thing. It is both fun and scary. I would not recommend it to people who are claustrophobic. Usually I bring along my trusty headlamp (here it is) to light my way.
However, one time I went and I forgot my headlamp and I decided I would go into the caves anyway. I started with the lighter caves, but eventually made my way to a cave that was rather dark. I felt my way along the walls of the cave until I came to a split and I did not know which way to go. I also realized at that point that I wasn’t positive on the way to get out either. I didn’t have much choice other than to take a seat and wait in the dark for someone with a light to help guide me out.
After some self-loathing for getting into that situation and a wild imagination of visualizing the bats swarming around me before someone would rescue me, I saw a faint light coming towards me that got brighter with each step. Then voices filled with the joy of exploration and discovery. They were happy to have me join them and we all followed the light out of the darkness.
Many times people make the mistake of thinking that we must go out to find Jesus. That Jesus is somewhere else other than with us. Being a Christian isn’t about finding Jesus, or saying or doing the right things; it is realizing that Jesus is already with you. Jesus finds and comes to you, especially in your darkness and leads you to life that has joy and hope.
It is often hard to believe things we cannot clearly see, touch, or hear, but it doesn’t mean they’re not real. The wind blows and we only see it move the trees. We feel it on our skin, but we don’t know from where it came. All around us there is mystery and life, and just by being and living we participate in creation and in the light that is Jesus.
Okay, we’re going to do an experiment now to wrap things up. I was introduced to this picture when I was in college. Some of you may be familiar with this. Hold the picture in front of you and concentrate on the four dots in the middle for 45 seconds. When the 45 seconds are up, tilt your head back and close your eyes.
Salvation is not about “being good enough” or doing and saying the right things. The deal is, is that we live in a world that was created good, but carries the reality of and suffering and pain. We will remind each other every week that it will not always be this way because there is a greater reality of light in Jesus that is holding you and the whole world in love.
There are so many times in life that our reality is anything but light or the presence of God with us. But I will keep telling you that Jesus comes to you, where you sit, where you are, and then loves you down to your very core of being and existing. You belong to God. God loves you. God is with you. Try to keep your eyes open to the mysterious ways God is engaging you and all of us in and through creation, but when times are so very dark, close your eyes and let Jesus fill you with words of promise and light.