Isaiah 9, 1-4; Matthew 4, 12-23.
It’s a common saying that people have ‘seen the light’.
Our readings today are linked by a prophecy from Isaiah that people who are in darkness have ‘seen a great light’. The people he is talking about live in ‘the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali’, the area north and west of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry.
For Isaiah, light is an image of triumph and conquest. He prophesies that someone will be sent by God to overcome the oppressor, (at this time the Assyrian Empire) lift burdens and hardship from the people, and bring them joy.
It is clear that Isaiah is expecting God’s agent to be a human king. The passage we heard continues in verse 6 to talk of the child to be born, the son to be given who will be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Prince of Peace. He is also called Mighty God and Eternal Father, because he will act as God’s agent in bringing light.
Light in the Old Testament is often used as a sign of God’s presence with people: in the burning bush, and the pillar of fire that led the people of Israel through the wilderness, as well as in the psalms and the prophets.
The same imagery continues in the New Testament – in the descriptions of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels, and in the account of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus; and Matthew frequently associates Jesus with prophecies about the light of God shining on both his own people, and the Gentiles.
So, when Jesus leaves Judea and returns to Galilee, Matthew sees this as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the people there will be taken from a dark existence into one filled with light; taken from oppression to liberty, from sadness to joy, from sickness to health. Jesus announces that the rule of God is coming in, and that from that time on, God’s people are under God’s rule.
He calls on those who hear him to ‘repent’. ‘Repent’ has become a religious word, and we tend to hear it in a specific way, meaning being sorry for our sins, but originally it was a word with a much richer meaning. Metanoia means a change of mind, involving going outside and beyond one’s present limited mindset. In modern terms, it means thinking outside the box, thinking big, seeing the light. It involves adopting a new way of seeing the world, and a new way of loving. Of course that might involve being sorry for past sins, but only because our new viewpoint reveals to us how much those sins separate us from God and get in the way of the divine plan.
Jesus also calls specific individuals (Andrew and Peter, James and John) to ‘follow me’. Again, following someone can be understood in a fairly weak sense: “tag along and see what happens”; or in a strong sense. When Jesus calls people to follow him, it is in the strong sense, meaning be with me, learn from me, respond to what I teach you, do what I do, be totally committed to me and my vision for the world. It involves a complete change of mind, priorities, relationships and community, to one which puts the Kingdom of God first.
The last sentence of the reading shows the Kingdom of God being realised in Jesus’ ministry: light breaking into people’s minds through his teaching, light coming to society through his proclamation of the Good News, darkness being removed from people’s bodies through the curing of disease and sickness.
The gospels show the response of the first disciples to Jesus’ call as immediate and unconditional; although they also show that ‘seeing the light’ did not happen immediately, but was a continuing struggle for them. We also see from the gospels that the call to ‘repent’ was a difficult one for the Galileans to respond to, as it has been for people ever since.
We would think, wouldn’t we, that people would prefer to ‘walk in the light’ rather than to continue in the darkness. After, all, darkness can be dangerous and frightening. But light can also be uncomfortable! Just think about why we do spring cleaning: because when the sunlight shines into your house, it shows up all the dust and cobwebs in neglected corners that were less noticeable in the gloomy days of winter. Choosing to walk in the full radiance of God’s light is similar: it opens us up to scrutiny, and reveals all our shortcomings, so that it often feels more comfortable to continue to hide ourselves in the dark.
So, what might the readings say to us today?
Light continues to be an important symbol for us. We no longer need candles to light our homes, but they have become things that are frequently used to express joy, love and remembrance. We use them in our churches, our houses and in public shrines. But what this passage is talking about is not gentle candlelight – it is penetrating searchlight or all-illuminating floodlights.
Isaiah talks about the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light. We might ask ourselves, where is the darkness in our world, and how can we help to move people – including ourselves – out of that darkness and into the light?
When we look on the large scale at the whole world, there are obviously lots of areas of darkness, just as there were when Isaiah wrote: nations at war, countries affected by natural disasters and the changing climate, groups who are persecuted because of their race, or gender, or sexuality or nationality. Perhaps we cannot do a great deal to move those people into the light, except through contributing to public debate and exercising our democratic privileges with care. We can do more, perhaps, to dispel the areas of darkness in our nation and even more in our community. Matthew saw the coming of Jesus as bringing the light of liberation and forgiveness to transform the people of his community in Galilee – a people oppressed by foreign occupation and economic deprivation. Transforming communities – bringing the light of Christ to shine in them – is one of the three priorities of the St Albans Diocesan initiative launched just after Alan Smith became Bishop of St Albans. So, in terms of practical action, seeing the light might mean asking ourselves what we as a church community, perhaps in co-operation with other churches, can do to transform our community in West Watford, to free people in our community from whatever oppresses them and enslaves them, so that people see the glory of God in Jesus shining through us. The coming week, which is Poverty and Homelessness Action Week, provides lots of information and resources for combatting the oppression and misery that homelessness and poverty bring to so many in our community at the moment.
But what of our church? And what of ourselves? The readings challenge us to examine those places closer to home, and to bring them into the light. Ignorance of the true nature and the true demands of God were often spoken of as ‘darkness’ in the gospels. How ready are we to open our cherished beliefs, traditions and practices to the searching light of God? How prepared are we to spend time and effort studying our faith and the Bible, rather than simply accepting what has been passed down to us, or what we learned in our childhood? Our faith might need to change if it is to flourish and grow. The week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which is just coming to its end, gives us an annual opportunity to share with other Christians how we do things, and to learn from the way they do things. How ready are we to take that opportunity?
Jesus calls on us, as he called on those first century Galileans, to repent, to allow our minds, our world view, our relationships to be completely changed, and to put ourselves under the rule of God. Are we ready to undergo that transformation, disturbing as it will undoubtably be?
And finally, how do we respond today to Jesus’ call to “Follow me”? Those first disciples are shown as immediately abandoning everything to be with Jesus. Some of us might look at what they did and say to ourselves “Well, that was fine for them. But what about their wives and children and families? How did they manage? Didn’t God care about them?”
As Christians, we have pledged ourselves to follow Jesus. But we have to work out for ourselves, as people with jobs and mortgages to sustain, and families to care for, how exactly we can do that. And each of us will come up with a different response, that is right for us at this particular time in our lives.
What is important is that, through hearing the Good News proclaimed by Jesus, we commit ourselves to seeing the light, repenting, and following him, and acknowledge that serving the Kingdom of God, however and wherever we can, is our first priority.