Sermon: Light Has Dawned, January 22, 2017
Lectionary Reading: Matthew 4:12-22.
“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light; and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”
When I was 6 or 7 or 8 and a winter front would creep through and days lingered damp and dark, and my brothers and sister and I were cooped up indoors, sometimes we would start picking on each other. Sonny, the oldest, would tease. And I might lose my temper. Suzanne, two years younger, would tattle to Mama. Johnny, not wanting to be forgotten, would add lots of noise, as 3-year-olds can. We would all be hollering at each other, the dog barking–I’m talking about pandemonium. And invariably, Dad would enter the room and say in a loud voice, “Enough! Enough!” And all of us together (including the dog) would press our faces against the window and peer out, longing for the sun to break through so we could go outside to play.
Dark days. Matthew tells us that John the Baptist had been captured. And he would soon be executed. The tension was longstanding. Herod, the king at the time of Jesus’ birth, had been a violent person. He had killed so many that it was said that it was better to be one of his dogs than a relative. And we remember how Herod tried to kill the baby Jesus and in the process ordered the murder of the children under two in and around Bethlehem. And then, when Herod had finally died (4 BCE), and Galilee had attempted to free itself of the tyranny, the Romans had stepped in. Troops had burned the old administrative center of Sepphoris; and the Roman commander Varus had crucified 2,000 of the Galileans, leaving their bodies rotting on posts to be pecked by birds. Then, he had enslaved the surviving inhabitants. Although a small child at that time, Jesus would have been keenly aware of this history. Nazareth was only 3.7 miles up-mountain from Sepphoris–an hour’s walk away.
The hatred simmered in Galilee. When Jesus was about 12, it broke again into open revolt. The leader, Judas the Galilean was killed; many followers were captured; Judas’s brothers were crucified. Revenge was in the air–an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth. A certain Simon set fire to the royal palace at Jericho. Sicarii carried small daggers or sicae into crowds and assassinated friends of the Romans. More crucifixions, more slavery; another round of hatred and murder. . . .
And in the midst of that dark time in Galilee, just after John the Baptist was imprisoned, Matthew writes, Jesus moved to Capernaum in order to recall for the people what the prophet Isaiah had said.
Now, Jesus’ was an interesting move. For in Isaiah’s day conditions had been, if possible, even more desperate in that region. The Assyrian armies that marched up and down on the road by the sea were some of the more brutal in history. Those who resisted were stripped of clothing, impaled with the poles planted around the conquered cities. Severed heads were gathered into mounds; victims were staked to the ground spread-eagle and flayed alive, the human skins then used as coverings for the goods taken in conquest; pregnant women were ripped open and their entrails and unborn babies spilled onto the dirt; soldiers swung toddlers by the feet and smashed their heads against the rocks; older children were burned alive.
But it wasn’t the horror of Isaiah’s time that Jesus wished to recapture by moving to Capernaum, but what Isaiah had prophesied: A child would be born who would be called Imanuel, that is, God is with us, Isaiah had said ( 7:14). And that birth would signal the coming a new age when hatred would be put aside. Suffering and violence would give way to everlasting peace. The one who was coming would be called Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace. He would establish and uphold justice (9:6-7). And Israel would learn again to lean on the Lord (10:20).
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse . . .
The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him . . .
With righteousness he shall judge the poor . . .
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (11:1, 2, 4, 6-9).
So just when John the Baptist was arrested and everything pointed to escalating hatred, more violence— In the midst of a cycle of horror that seemed unending, Jesus moved to Capernaum, the land of Zebulon, the land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea to remind his followers of Isaiah’s promise for the future. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light; and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”
Enough to hatred! Enough to violence! Enough! Enough!
And Jesus then began to preach: “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” Repent? Literally metanoeite means “Change your mind! Change the way you see things and do things!” Hatred for hatred and violence for violence are no answers. This was the point that Martin Luther King, Jr. made in a 1957 sermon (published in Dr. King’s book, Strength of Love, 1963).
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. You may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. You may murder the hater, but you do not murder the hate, nor establish love. Returning violence for violence only multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
The world needs kindness, not meanness.
One of my favorite descriptions of Jesus is Peter’s description in Acts 10:38: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power; and Jesus went throughout Galilee doing good and healing many.” What acts of kindness do you plan today?
Hanging on the wall of my office on campus is a portrait of John Wesley. There are many reasons I admire Wesley, but the reason I love the founder of Methodism and hold him as a model is because John Wesley went around doing good.
As a member of the Holy Club, Wesley had a goal of visiting Oxford prison often, daily if possible; and he preached there at least once a month. Throughout his life Wesley advocated prison reform, separating those imprisoned because of bad debts from felons and providing separate cells for women and children. Even the most hardened criminals were not beyond the reach of God’s love through us, Wesley believed.
Doing good. In the 1780s, Wesley joined his friend Robert Raikes in addressing the needs of London’s street-children. In those days, there were no labor laws protecting minors. The boy and girl chimney sweeps and factory workers labored sometimes fourteen or sixteen hours a day, Monday through Saturday. The factories were closed on Sunday, however, providing opportunity to start Sunday Schools so the children could learn how to read. Literacy provided hope, a doorway to a better life. Wesley’s lifelong advocacy for children’s rights, helped lead Parliament to enact in 1802 the first British law limiting the hours of a child’s workday, then to 12 hours.
Our responsive reading was from Psalm 27. “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (v. 1). The biblical word for “salvation”—in Hebrew, Yeshua, Jesus’ name– has a richer meaning than simply “safety” or “deliverance.” The word connotes “healing,” “well-being,” “wellness.”
To be well, the world needs kindness, not hate. The world needs yeshua, Jesus.
One more comment on the subject of kindness: sometimes little actions have great meaning—a visit; a phone call; a comforting word; a written note; a hug; a prayer. A moment of mercy, a little more patience, small acts of love can prove more powerful than hate.
For Christmas, my daughter Jennifer gave me a drone as a present. And as soon as I could, I went out to fly it. But I wasn’t very good at controlling the drone. Jenny posted my first attempt on Facebook, and you can just hear her squealing with laughter in the background. I got the drone in the air, but then it kept going higher and higher, and soon it was over the street headed toward my neighbor Clarence’s house. It was as if it had a mind of its own. And I pushed the joystick to get it back my way, and suddenly the drone just plummeted 30 feet and crashed into the ground. I repaired the drone and tried again. But my second attempt was no better. I got the drone stuck sideways in a tree. I was really bad at this. Again, I tried–many more failures. But I knew my granddaughters would be coming, and I wanted to play with them when they came. So I persisted. And finally after much practice I reached the point where I could get the drone off the ground and again land it.
And sure enough, the granddaughters came and we went out to play. So first I demonstrated how to fly the drone . . . and was proud of myself because I got it off the ground and back down again all in one piece–but with a very bumpy landing. And then I handed the controls over to the girls. And 8-year old Sophie took the controls and without further instructions or any real help from me flew the drone first time as beautifully as you might imagine. She maneuvered it here and there and then landed it softly at my feet. Bah!
Now, not all of us have Sophie’s gift for flying drones. And actually there are many ways we all fall short in life. But as hopeless as we might be in some areas, God gave each one of us the ability to love. And that is the greatest talent of all.
The world is our parish.
Don’t you like the way that Matthew’s Gospel introduces Jesus’ preaching of good news as a continuing activity? “From that time, Jesus began to proclaim” the good news. The business of replacing hate with love didn’t start and end on that one day in Capernaum by the sea after John the Baptist was arrested. Jesus continued proclaiming the good news throughout his ministry. Jesus’ death on the cross itself was the affirmation of love over hate. And as the resurrected Christ, Jesus’ last command to his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 was to make disciples of all nations teaching them what Jesus had taught.
Jesus’ good news is for all people. As the apostle Paul wrote, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28).
Enough of racism! Enough of xenophobia! Enough of class divisions! Enough of misogyny!
Wesley captured Jesus’ affirmation of the brotherhood and sisterhood of all peoples by claiming the World as his parish. And sure enough, you and I are in this Methodist meeting today because in 1735 Wesley came across the Atlantic to preach to the native-Americans in Georgia. I’m proud that Wesley was as interested in people from other nations as from his own beloved England.
I’m proud that Wesley was an abolitionist and in 1774 authored one of the most-read writings in the English language attacking slavery. It was primarily through reading Wesley’s “Thoughts on Slavery” that John Newton came to see that slavery was indeed a crime and then penned our hymn “Amazing Grace.” Wesley’s last letter, in fact, was an encouragement to William Wilberforce in his efforts to have Parliament outlaw slavery. “O be not weary of well doing,” Wesley wrote. “Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.” By 1791, when Wesley died, Blacks (free and slave) numbered over twenty percent of American Methodists.
And as concerns the equality of men and women, I’m immensely proud that as early as 1761 Wesley licensed Sarah Crosby to preach in Methodist gatherings, and that today women are equally ordained Elders alongside men in our United Methodist Church.
Enough of hate and violence! And enough of certain groups of us thinking we are more worthy than others! We were all created children of God. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.
Conclusion. Fishers of men.
It is time to conclude. Let me do so by mentioning the most obvious point of our text. Immediately upon starting his ministry, Jesus called disciples, first Peter and Andrew, saying “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus asked his followers to help him give birth to the new age of wellness. Jesus is depending on us.
So a final story: Michael Tougias’ 2009 book The Finest Hours tells the story of an amazing sea rescue off the coast of Cape Cod. It was winter of 1952. A terrible storm with waves reaching 60 feet tore the tanker the S. S. Pendleton in two. The bow sank, but the stern of the ship with thirty-three crewman rested precariously on a sandbar, in danger at any moment of being swept into the deep.
The coast guard had already dispatched its main force to another rescue when the distress signal came in. The only vessel left to attempt the rescue was a 36 foot motor lifeboat. A line of shoals had to be crossed, near impossible to navigate in the heavy seas. Misjudgment or bad luck meant certain death to those attempting a rescue. Nevertheless, Seaman Bernie Webber and three companions volunteered. Sure enough, their small boat was thrown sideways crossing the shoals. They lost their compass and searchlight, but the boat righted itself and they made it through. Heroically, then, miraculously really, without navigation equipment and with only a handheld flashlight, Webber and his companions found the Pendleton and saved 32 of the 33 crewmen.
But I want to tell you about the return. Webber once more had to guide his small craft across the shoals, in the same raging storm, but now with 32 saved crewmen on a boat built with maximum capacity of twelve. And this time he had to navigate in the pitch of night with neither compass nor search light. How?
The lights along the coast had been knocked out by the storm, but Tougias describes how Webber was guided by the lighthouse off Chatham and a light on a buoy. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light; and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” They made it safely into the harbor where people had gathered. And there was great celebration.
Jesus is like the strong beam from the lighthouse built on solid rock. And you and I are like the smaller light of the buoy, ourselves tossing on the waves but nevertheless pointing the way over the dangerous shoals.
Last year (2016), Walt Disney Pictures released a film of The Finest Hours—and they took some dramatic license with the account in order to illustrate a truth of the story, one of those truths deeper than historical accuracy. What the filmmakers did was modify the ending so that the townspeople lined their cars in the winter storm along the darkened harbor with headlights on so as to guide the rescuers home, over the shoals, safely into the harbor.
I love that ending. It is Jesus’ ending. We are dependent on each other. In Matthew, we see Jesus calling Peter and Andrew and his first disciples to help him spread the good news. He’s also calling us, you and me. Enough of hate. What good deed, what act of healing will you and I do today?