Darkness into Light

            Isaiah 9 begins in the dark, with the people in anguish under a burdensome yoke, living in the shadow of death. Isaiah predicted a great light, the light of the world, coming to them. Their lives would be transformed, their joy as at the time of a good harvest or the fun of dividing the plunder that results from victory in a war. I’d rather imagine opening presents on Christmas morning, but you get the idea. The Lectionary would have us stop after verse four, but I have to keep going. Verse six will forever play in my mind to the melody from Handel’s Messiah. “For unto us a Child is born.” I’ve sung that piece in choirs, and the joy is palpable, the music bouncing like a delighted child. Our hearts know where this is leading. Jesus is coming!
            Although this darkness literally refers to the plight of the Israelites in the seventh century BC, it’s a metaphor for humanity’s bondage to sin and evil. There are always places where a tyrannical regime is committing heinous acts of murder and war. Look at the genocide of the Armenian Christians in Turkey around 1916, the Nazi death camps in World War II, the slaughter in Rwanda in the 1990’s, the Native Americans who died on the Trail of Tears, and the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. It’s not often that Presbyterians speak of the devil, but evil is the ongoing enemy of the human race.
            That’s why we need the Child Isaiah predicted, the Son of the Most High, the Light of the World who will make all things new when He comes again. That’s why we have to repent, change our thinking and our actions so the world can become the peaceable kingdom to which Jesus will return.
            In the beginning, God made pure light first. The Big Bang was surely one ginormous burst of light. It’s how the universe began. Science tells us that first there were stars, then those stars died out. Carbon, the very substance of life, came from the dust of those dead stars, then new stars and planets formed. We were created from light.  
            Last Sunday I talked about the calling story from the first chapter of John, about Peter and Andrew. They found Jesus when John the Baptist pointed him out as the Messiah in Bethany by the Jordan River. The brothers took the time to think about it, then sought out Jesus the next day, leaving John, their previous rabbi, behind. This went against the conventional practice of the teacher seeking the student.
Today, we have the same story about the same people told in Matthew, only they weren’t in Bethany by the Jordan river, but in Galilee by the sea, a different geographic location. Another variation was that Jesus, the rabbi, sought out the students there in the everyday world of their fishing boats and nets. They had no idea who he was or why he was there, only that he asked them to follow him. Imagine being at your desk in an office building and having a young man walk up and ask you to go with him, follow him and work with him. Now, these are different times, but Jesus was a stranger. Did they hesitate, take time to think about it? Matthew said they left immediately.
Is one version true and the other false? Not really. Matthew was weaving his story around the passage from Isaiah that takes people from sitting in darkness, the shadow of death, into the dawning light of the new era of God’s redemption and everlasting life, the kingdom of God. Matthew’s particular audience would have responded better to having this described in a more traditional way, relating the events to the prophesy. Matthew also wanted to emphasize Jesus as the light of the world dawning over all of us, not just the fishermen. The whole world will be changed by the love of God in the form of the Christ, the chalice of the Holy Spirit.
This is a good example of how the four Gospel writers designed their narratives with different purposes and audiences in mind as they wrote years apart. Mark’s writings were the earliest, and you can see his influence on the writings of the others. The resulting story is the same. The new disciples left behind the world they were used to and went to learn from Jesus. They sacrificed the love and company of the people who’d been their family and friends until that day, the familiar and comfortable, to follow the One who is common to both versions, Jesus the Christ. He must have been amazingly charismatic and compelling to draw them away instantly. They could feel the Holy Spirit working through Him.
Jesus preached to repent, that the kingdom of God was near. We need to understand that repentance isn’t directly related to sin. To repent means to change direction, reorient your life toward God’s calling. Peter and Andrew, James and John, weren’t mired in sin. They were living normal, average lives. They were good Jews, but none of them had been asked to study to become rabbis when they were boys. They went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and worked the rest of the week. They probably gave up on any childhood dreams of serving God in a direct way long ago.
Jesus’ call was to change course away from a normal and average life and toward the light of God’s plan. By inviting these men to follow Him, to fish for people, Jesus affirmed that they were good enough to be disciples, that they could be trusted with exciting new tasks. He didn’t command them, he invited and encouraged them. Imagine how overwhelming it must have been to adjust to life following Jesus, not knowing what the next hours or days would bring. Light is a good thing, but when you’ve been sitting in the dark, it takes time for your eyes to adapt. Change is complicated.
Following Jesus means you have been called to something bigger, more rewarding and more costly, than anyone can understand. It’s challenging, at times painful, sometimes frightening. But change – repentance – is what the world needs to become the new earth of Christ’s return. The changes Jesus calls us to are radical, positive, and based on love. Love each other, love our neighbors. None of us are qualified to make this kind of change without the help and encouragement of the Holy Spirit. Think about the word “encouragement” – it literally means “to fill with courage.” We must be brave enough to go against the grain of the selfish culture we inhabit to change things for the better. We need to love each other, forgive each other, and work together. The call to follow Jesus is much larger and more complex than just calling other people to follow Christ. Jesus predicted that after He was gone, his disciples would do greater miracles than He did, that we would do great things in His name.
Today is Per Capita Sunday. The annual Per Capita offering of $32 per member supports the larger organization of the PCUSA from the local Presbytery to the international efforts of the national church. That’s about the cost of a fast-food meal for two people. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to focus on the local body of Christ, our church family here in this building. The needs of the nation and the world can be overwhelming to contemplate.
To quote Timothy Hart-Andersen, “Per capita provides the wherewithal for the ecclesiastical democracy of the priesthood of all believers to run smoothly. It fuels the machinery of doing church the Presbyterian way, which is quite different from independent congregational and bishop-based systems. It can also be embraced as one way in which we work toward building a beloved community.”
Did you know that the government of the United States of America was designed based on the structure of the Presbyterian church? We have 50 states that mostly governed themselves to begin with. But we also have a federal government to bring us together and coordinate our efforts for things like national defense and highways. Per capita is a much smaller investment than paying your federal and state income taxes every year, and brings like-minded Christians together.
When our little church needs help, the larger church is there for us with guidance and support based on years of looking at what works and what doesn’t in churches like ours. Their people have been caring and compassionate toward me as I work to be a better pastor and toward this church over the years. Are they always right? Are they always kind? No. Is anyone?
Do their stories always line up? If Matthew and John can tell the same story differently, can we expect the larger organization of the church to be completely consistent? They’re human beings, just like us. They have different opinions on the little things. But we can agree on what’s important based on the teachings of Jesus. Love each other and love your neighbor as Jesus loves us. Help each other. Feed the sheep. Forgive one another. I think unforgiveness is a form of darkness. Remember that Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven. If you have any old grudges toward the Presbytery, or anyone else for that matter, I urge you to forgive and forget. Stop carrying that resentment around like a ball and chain. Continuing in anger only hurts you, not them. Maybe the issue that caused the pain isn’t gone. There’s no shame in going for counseling if you need it. Jesus calls us to love others as God loves us, and that includes forgiving them. Repent, it’s time to change. Let the light of the World remove that darkness from your heart.
Giant redwood trees inspire me with their height and beauty. Did you know they also work together under the ground? Their roots are shallow but widespread, intertwined in a way that gives them added stability in strong wind and floods. Like the redwoods, we need each other for stability and strength, so we can grow tall and reach for the light. It’s a form of pride to assume that we can do just fine without the larger church. We need to see the bigger picture and acknowledge that we can do more together than we can separately, supporting each other and coordinating our efforts toward the world Christ wants to see when He returns. As a larger church working together, we have more resources to follow Christ’s plan to bring people out of darkness and into light. Let’s not just talk about the light. Let’s not just point it out to others. Let’s be brave enough to BE the light that drives out the darkness.

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