Isa 9:1-4, 1 Cor 1:10-18, Mat 4:12-23
January 23, 2011
The Rev Deborah Magdalene
Two weeks ago tomorrow President Barak Obama gave a eulogy for the innocent victims of the recent massacre in Tucson. He gave words of comfort to grieving families, friends, and coworkers; he summarized the lives of the dead, giving us all a better idea of their common humanity; and he encouraged Americans to refrain from blaming those who think differently from us.
Obama said, “It’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
Those words carried light into my heart, and made me grateful that I wasn’t listening to a political speech, like I’d expected, but a sermon: a crafting of words chosen to illuminate the good news of hope in humanity, and faith in God’s power to help us change old behaviors.
Obama quoted Job to describe the suddenness of the attack in Tucson, “When I looked for light, then came darkness.” The whole verse reads, “But when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came.” (Job 30:26)
The people lined up to meet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that Saturday were there because of an active interest in their representative – to make real their little corner of Arizonan democracy. The last thing they expected was the sudden darkness of senseless tragedy.
In times of shock and grief we have an instinct to do something to make the hurt go away. Obama encouraged everyone to use that ‘do-something’ energy to do the hard work of “[Becoming] willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.”
Challenging old assumptions – sounds strikingly like the language of Martin Luther King Jr. On September 16, 1963, King said in his “Eulogy for the  Young Victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing” in Birmingham, Alabama,
“God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city… The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”
This theme of God’s light breaking-in to transform heartbreaking, evil and unjust circumstances is what runs through our church season of Epiphany.
The first line of the Psalm for today says it well, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” (Ps 27:1) We must always be attentive to the inbreaking of God’s grace in our human history.
God has a habit of breaking-in to the world’s chaos and creating light. In God’s world, “Let there be light,” is not a past event, but an ongoing process of creation. Where there is darkness God will create light.
The rainbow after the flood is the magical light-filled promise of God’s new covenant with his people. The light emanating from Moses’ burning bush and the pillar of light that guides the Hebrew people through the wilderness are examples of the inbreaking of God’s transparent clarity and power in times of struggle. God actions are not obtuse.
God speaks to us with the clarity of light. But we have to walk through some dark, difficult, and depressing times before the light can break through. This is why we repent of our shortsightedness and clumsy self-centeredness before we can feel the inbreaking of light through God’s forgiveness.
Isaiah cries out, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them has light shined.” (Isa 9:2)
Here the prophet is encouraging the Hebrew people who lived in the areas in and around Galilee in the 8th century before Christ. They were overtaken by the Assyrians and had lost all control over their own lives. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were the Assyrian names given to the areas in and adjacent to first Century Galilee.
Isaiah prophesies that the Assyrian oppressor will fall and that the Hebrew communities of faith will be restored. The troubled people of Galilee will gain control over their lives, will be able to worship their God freely, and will have no need to fear any more. “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”
In Paul’s letter to the troubled community of Corinth, he warns of the same dissensions that trouble Americans after the shooting in Tucson. Different factions are trying to gather momentum and overpower each other in their bids for supremacy. The impulse to do something creates chaotic and pointless posturing and resentment. Human behavior hasn’t changed much in two thousand years.
Paul believes that any factions competing for power are in blatant denial of the light and truth of the gospel. “Was Paul crucified for you?...Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?...Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:13)
Paul is striking them with his sarcasm in order to wake them up and shake them. All that matters to Paul is that they understand the radical message of the cross.
“For 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.” (1 Cor 1:18) This is one of the most famous quotes of Paul that encapsulates the new saving grace of the death of Christ.
Jesus died as a common criminal in direct opposition to the belief that the Messiah was coming as a powerful leader in this world. Jesus in fact came to us as the inbreaking of God’s world into ours, turning everything upside down and sideways. The power of Christ is the power of transformation – not takeover.
Because of the brutal way Jesus died the majority of faithful Palestinian Jews couldn’t get their heads around the transformation of God’s promise to them. They could not reconcile that God’s emissary died the most shameful and public death of an enemy of the people.
Paul emphasizes the cross for a reason. It is only through embracing the complete humiliation of being a fragile human being and dying a death that terrifies the most faithful Jews that he could expose the radical love of God.
This is a love that follows us down into the grave, embracing all that is lost and hopeless, in order to raise us up in the full sunlight of God’s forgiving grace.
Paul knows that if the Corinthians had fully realized what Jesus did for them they would drop all their self-centered arguing and posturing and fall down on their knees in awe. There is no need to follow anyone but Christ. Paul doesn’t want followers, and he ridicules their desire to follow anyone but Christ. He wants believers who know what a precious gift they have been given.
esus brings eternal life to those who believe. The promise that the Kingdom of God is near – that because we believe that Christ is the Son of God and that he rose from the dead – the Kingdom of God has now entered our lives and has the power to change old behaviors. In God’s Kingdom we never have to fight our way to the top of the pile.
Fighting for political power, for human attention, or for religious popularity is another way of saying that you have lost the central message of Christ. Christ came to us in order to bring us the prism of new light. Nothing is the same when you keep your eyes glued to the wisdom of Christ’s saving power.
The ramifications of getting caught up in crowd mentality are nothing short of denying the message of the gospel. Our guide for behavior is our faith that God will guide us in no less a way than God guided Jesus – through the most painful work we can imagine in order to bring us out into the light.
When Jesus called the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John, he was calling them to a new vocation. He called it, “Fishers of men.” But he never tells them, or us, exactly how we go about this kind of fishing.
Do we brag that we have the best church in town? Do we attract believers by inventing new and exciting programs? Do we call all our old friends who used to come here and ask why we haven’t seen them recently? Do we walk door-to-door and share with the neighborhood our stories of salvation?
Jesus never tells us to do any of that. But he does say, “Follow me.” Follow me and I will move you through darkness to a great light; for you are sitting in the region and shadow of death and cannot see that the light has dawned.
It is only through repentance of our old habits that keep us stuck and unable to see the Christ-light in the faces of those who love us – it is through repentance of our inability to consider a radical change in our lives – it is through repentance of our attitudes of hopelessness and our exaggerations of doom and gloom that we can relax and feel God’s blessings and love forgive us and set us free at last.
Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Matthew emphasizes that this was to fulfill Isaiah’s prophesies. Jesus came to Galilee to live as God’s light of justice and reconciliation. When he says ‘Follow me’ he doesn’t promise that it won’t hurt. But he does promise that through our transformed lives we will not only see light, but will bring light to others. “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”
God did not let bad things happen to the innocent people in that shopping center in Tucson two weeks ago. But God can salvage souls by showing us the way through painful times.
Nine year-old Christina Taylor Green was born on 9-11 in the year two thousand and one. She was one of 50 children born in the United States on that day. President Obama wisely used the story of her brief life to illustrate the saving power of hope.
Because Christina had such an unusual gratitude for the gifts God had given her he encouraged us to not let her death be the last word. Christina was fascinated by the world of politics and believed that she could make a difference in the world.
Obama said, “I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us - we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.”
The Good News that Jesus brings us all is that we have to work hard to discern God’s will for our communities. It is through the hard work of doing justice, bringing reconciliation, and acting abiding love that we bring light to our communities and to one another. “The LORD is our light and my salvation; whom then shall we fear?” We need fear no one.