The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, 2017 – Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:8-18; Matthew 4:13-22
The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light.
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
On them light has shined.
To know how great the hope is that sounds in these words, you have to know something of the story behind them.
David and I have started reading our way through the Bible together at the end of the day: four pages a night in the King James Version, a translation which is more or less new to both of us. David calculates that this will get us through it in one year. I think this night reading might be a ploy to get me to go to bed before the wee hours of the morning, but I’m enjoying it. What is striking when you read continuously like this is how real and how fraught the story is. Fratricide four chapters in, Cain murdering his brother Abel. Four chapters in and we are already mired in conflict; envy and hurt and the blood that stains the earth. And it does not stop there. There’s Sarah and her handmaid Hagar; Sarah’s bitterness against the woman who bore her husband a son when she could not; Hagar cast out and almost dying, but for the grace of God dying in the wilderness. There are Jacob and Esau; Jacob tricking Esau out of the birthright and his father’s blessing and then fleeing for his life. And there is Jacob’s family, the first family of Israel. Joseph, poster-boy for annoying younger brother, and his brothers’ vindictive jealousy. For Joseph there is a pit and slavery at the hands of his brothers; for his father grief at the sight of his son’s bloodied robe.
And this is just Genesis. The history of Israel continues more often than not on the trajectory set by Cain and by the sons of Jacob until the land cries out from the blood that has been shed upon it and Israel ends up, like Cain, in exile. The people have trouble walking in the way that makes for peace. God sends them prophets and sages and scribes, Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, and more often than not they do not listen.
Fast-forward to Isaiah. Isaiah, prophet to Judah in the time of King Ahaz and the Assyrian threat. Ahaz King of Judah is pressed on all sides; the northern kingdom of Israel has split off from the south, from Judah; it is forming a coalition to attack Jerusalem and Assyria looms in the background. So Isaiah says to Ahaz, just before today’s passage, “Ask God for a sign.” God knows you are hard-pressed; God knows that civil war is erupting, the north against the south, Israel against Judah; Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, the violent rivalry of brothers now writ large upon the land. God knows you are in trouble and he offers you a sign. Thus says Isaiah the prophet to King Ahaz in Isaiah 7.
But Ahaz says, “Oh no, no no no. I won’t trouble Almighty God with my small worries. Who am I to ask God for a sign?”
Ahaz does not want God’s sign, because Ahaz has a plan of his own. Ahaz has already decided to cozy up to Assyria instead. Sure, Assyria is dangerous, and does not know or fear God. But, Ahaz reasons, we can make judicious alliances with ungodly powers so that the temple of God in Jerusalem can survive.
You fool, Isaiah says to him.
The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria…On that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines…will become briers and thorns (Isa 7: 17, 23).
On that day they will look to heaven and earth, but they will see only distress… and the gloom of anguish, and they will be thrust into thick darkness.
That is Isa 8:22, the verse that immediately precedes today’s passage.
And Isaiah is right. Ahaz does not look to God’s sign, and he does seek military help from Assyria, and Assyria becomes a disaster for the whole land. Assyria devastates the north, takes the 10 tribes into an exile from which they have to this day not returned, and makes a vassal of the south. Isaiah speaks the words we hear today in a political and religious situation that was very dark indeed.
And this is what he says.
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.
In the former time God brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.
In the time and place of darkness, Isaiah speaks the sure and certain hope of light.
It is important to hear this, both the real darkness and the real hope, because the world hasn’t changed much since Isaiah’s time.
We are still turning to demagogues instead of to God and hoping in political and military might. We are still seeing armies sweeping down like a torrent over the great and ancient city, and leaving briers and thorns in their wake.
Some of us went with our friends the Berberians last week to the Syria exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum. We saw there the beauty of Syria and its rich cultural heritage; an ancient votive eye from 3200 BC; St Paul in brass with peacocks on an ancient Bible cover; gorgeous silver-gilt chalices from 500 AD buried in the sand as the priests fled from the invaders; pictures of the grand baths in Aleppo, and a charming old street. Mother Tereza and Marika told us about visiting the baths when they lived in Aleppo before the war—how the women on a special occasion would make a day of it, take a picnic lunch and relax and chat and eat together at the baths, all day long. And then at the end of the exhibit, we saw Aleppo today, in the wake of the bombs. They will turn their faces upward, or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, Isaiah says. It was grievous to see.
But there was this too. Also at the end of the exhibit, a floor to ceiling digital image of the ruins of Aleppo. And superimposed on the ruined walls, golden against the gaping concrete, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. Flowers grew out of it, twining upwards along the battered walls: hope in the ruins; one artist’s word of promise.
And it is Isaiah’s word too.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. It is into the darkness that our God comes.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel—which is, God with us. (Isa 7:14)
Isaiah points us for hope in the midst of difficult times to a place we do not expect. Not to Assyria, not to the people in power. He points us to a small town called Bethlehem in the middle of nowhere, and…of all things…a child. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and he is named Wonderful Counsellor,…Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6)
Isaiah points us to a child who cannot wield a sword, who does not lift his hand to harm or to destroy. He points us to a child born in a stable, seen by a few shepherds and some sheep. He points us to a child and he says, Here is the light.
Forget Assyria and Russia and the power of the nations. Your help is not here. Your help is in the Lord who made heaven and earth. Your help is in the child called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace.
God has given us a sign. It shone in the night sky over Bethlehem and stopped above the place where the child was. And when the magi from the East saw that the star had stopped, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. They rejoiced and went in and knelt at his feet.
It is to this we are called, in all times and places of darkness.
We are called to kneel at the Christ child’s feet, because it is here that the light has shined.
First and last, before and in and through everything else, we are called to kneel at his feet.
And then we are called to follow. For Jesus shines in the world for real.
With concreteness the light shines in the dark places in Jesus the Christ. Jesus walks in the villages of Galilee, by the shore of the sea. He goes and lives in Capernaum. Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, way of the sea, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. The light of Christ is as real as the dust on the streets of Galilee, real as the miles etched on his tired feet. He walks with the people who have known darkness, and he stretches out his hand. To the lame man, to the blind man, to the woman who is bleeding and cast out—to the people who are in exile—Jesus stretches out his hand. He takes the child in his arms, the Gospel tells us, and blesses her. The light is known in his outstretched hands.
And he calls us to follow him. He calls us to join him on the way, in the dust of the streets.
Hand in hand, my hand in yours, so that we may walk together. So that I may hold you, in the love of Christ, and you may hold me, and we may walk in the way of peace. Each hand a light, your hand in mine, this gift you have given to me.
Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters.
Come, he says.