Light into the Darkness
Light into the Darkness
ears ago, I co-led a Youth Group at the church I grew up at. We took the youth to Crieff Hills, the conference centre for the Presbyterian Church in Canada, for a weekend retreat. On the first night we arranged a night walk. There are lots of skiing trails at Crieff, we took a rope and ran it along the trees. Then when the sun had set, we had the youth walk, one at a time, along the trail. The only light they had were the stars in the sky and the light of the moon reflecting off the snow.
At the end of the walk the youth were partnered into groups of two and given an unlit candle. The instructions there were given were to find Bryan the other co-leader of the group. His candle was lit. They were to search for the light in the darkness. When they found him, the youth would light their candle making the light that much brighter.
Now things didn’t go off as perfectly as planned. The kids had a much more difficult time finding Bryan than we anticipated. That’s when something remarkable happened. Bryan started singing. He was a member of the choir and had a remarkable tenor range. The combination of the light and his singing guided the youth to Bryan and it wasn’t long before all the candles were lit. The light was shining and singing out of the darkness.
It was a wonderful evening that brought the community that was the youth group closer together. They began alone in complete darkness and ended together in the light.
Epiphany is the season where we are reminded of the light that is Jesus Christ. Our passages today from Isaiah and Matthew put a particular focus on what the light of Christ means. You will note that the two passages are uniquely paired, as Matthew quotes from the passage in Isaiah that we read today. Specifically, the theme that is being laid out for us is that freedom from oppression comes as a shining light. A light we identify as Jesus, who pierces the darkness.
When we read this section of Matthew’s gospel, we often glaze over the names Zebulun and Naphtali. They are names that don’t mean much to us and they are difficult to pronounce. Even seeing them in Isaiah we may not put together the significance of what they mean. Zebulun and Naphtali are part of the twelve tribes of Israel. The are found in the north and south of Israel respectively and this resulted in them always being the first of the twelve tribes to be attacked by foreign armies. By 772 BCE both were essentially taken into captivity by the Assyrians and Babylonians, leaving them in anguish and contempt (reference).
Concerning this passage from Isaiah Prof. Amy Oden writes, “This particular representation of God’s presence–light–is powerful because it appeals to an almost universal human experience: being in the dark. In the dark, we can’t see where to step, we can’t see the way. Notice, though, that the light in Isaiah is more than being able to see. It is one thing for God to act. It is another for God’s people to recognize it. When the people are in “the land of deep darkness,” they can’t see how the God who has delivered them in the past is at work in the present, and so they seek protection from other gods. When God acts “to break the rod of the oppressor,” the light shines to make it plain. The people recognize God’s saving presence and rejoice.” (Prof. Amy Oden).
Jesus starting his public ministry by coming through the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali is symbolic of the light that Isaiah spoke of. Jesus becomes the physical manifestation of God’s saving grace which has been promised to the people. This is the point that Matthew is driving home to his audience.
Jesus isn’t dealing with violence from Babylon or Assyria. It is the Roman Empire which has been oppressing the people of Israel for years. In this light Matthew is drawing a direct parallel to the plight of the ancient Israelites through to the time of Jesus. As Matthew presents things, Jesus will lead the people from darkness to light. He also represents the end to the power of death that is employed by Rome. That darkness and death are not the manner that we should be operating in.
Prof Raj Nadella makes an interesting comment, he writes, “Coming on the heels of the three-fold temptation where Jesus was repeatedly invited to pursue his own welfare, security and power, one might be tempted to conclude that Matthew 4:12 describes him withdrawing for good. Given the threat of imperial violence, it would have been tempting for Jesus to flee to safety and avoid confronting the empire entirely. But there really was no safe space and avoiding the empire was not an option. This was the temptation after the temptation and Jesus emerges victorious yet again.” (Raj Nadella)
Matthew situates Jesus as the one long promised who will deliver God’s light. Coming through the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali Matthew links Jesus to Isaiah and the plight of those who came before. Coming on the heels of the arrest of his cousin John by Herod, Matthew again places Jesus through an ideological lens as being one who will now stand up to the oppressor. In this instance that is Rome and the Imperial power it represents along with the hierarchies of the Temple and the status quo.
Jesus is the light and he comes to usher in something new. One of the differences that we see in the various Gospel accounts is the way the kingdom is labelled. In some gospels it’s the kingdom of God. However, Matthew has Jesus call it the kingdom of heaven. Prof. Nadella notes that this slightly shifts the focus from God to the people who work to make the kingdom a reality.
This passage represents a transition. The mission of the establishing the kingdom of heaven has passed from John who is now in prison to Jesus, who is the Messiah. However, we note that Jesus does not intend to go about his mission alone. In our passage we witness the calling of disciples and we know that the mission will be passed on to them. Just as Matthew in writing his gospel account intends for his community to pick up the torch. Just as we are also invited to follow in the way of Jesus and do the work of the kingdom of heaven.
And Matthew tells us that this kingdom of heaven, which we are called to work in is near. Jesus says, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” We often think that the call for repentance in terms of moral categories. That the call of Jesus to ‘repent’ requires us to expose and admonish people when they don’t live a ‘righteous life’. Prof. Rolf Jacobson writes that this call for repentance “is more accurately understood [as] something like ‘be of a new mind!’ Or, perhaps as ‘change your way of thinking!’ Or most simply, ‘Wrap your mind around this!’” (Working Preacher – Rolf Jacobson)
So, wrap your mind around this. Jesus said, “Change your way of thinking for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Then Matthew tells us that “Jesus went all over Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the Good News about the Kingdom, and healing people who had all kinds of disease and sickness.” (Matt 4:23) What a beautiful, peaceable kingdom that would be.
A kingdom where the light spreads out from the darkness and all the people rejoice. This is the task of the Christian. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.