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2019-2020

 

J Nichols Adams et al

January 26, 2020, 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, 3rd Sunday of Ord Time

 

 

LectionAid 1st Quarter 2019-2020

January 26, 2020, 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, 3rd Sunday of Ord Time

Looking For The Light

Ps 27:1, 4-9; Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Theme: God’s Preparation of the World

Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON

Starting Thoughts

Light is as important to us today as it was in Isaiah and Jesus’ time. The victims of the hurricanes that often devastate Florida or the fires in California or the sudden blizzards that come to Colorado and the surrounding area no doubt have a new, very personal take on the words “the people who sat in darkness…” Massive power outages suddenly make you realize how deep and dark your world can become.
After all every Christmas Eve we pass the light from one to another as a symbol of sharing Christ. Seeing Jesus as the light of the world is something that we find great joy in at Christmas Eve. That should be a constant source of joy.
Light also retains its old metaphoric meaning for us: who has not entered one of the many political arguments of recent times with the words, “Let me shine a little light on this subject…”? We like to think of ourselves as an enlightened people, especially in comparison to the barbarians terrorizing Iraq. Our children still love to sing the ditty, “This Little Light of Mine.” In a handy book called The Presbyterian Hymnal Complete Concordance and Indexes there are over 80 hymn references that contain “light,” many of them being, like in the children’s song, metaphoric.
The preacher might also help the people of God see themselves as being the light, as Jesus proclaimed to us in the Sermon on the Mount. (See Matt. 5:14). He is picking this up from Isaiah of the Exile, who proclaimed that the Servant, who might very well be Israel, is to be “a light to the nations (gentiles—Isaiah 42:6). Such light as we have, of course, is reflected light, originating not with or from ourselves, but from the One sent by God to be the True Light.
The first approach would emphasize Jesus bringing enlightenment to his people about the true, inner meaning of the law—that the love it taught included enemies as well as members of one’s own group; that what went on inside a person was more important than correct ritual or practice. These teachings are as surprising and as startling when applied by us today as they were when first uttered. They separate those who will contribute to the light from those who add to the darkness. They mark builders from destroyers; peacemakers from terrorists; true Christianity from perversions of it, and, indeed, from perversions of Islam as well.
The preacher choosing the second approach might start by emphasizing that Jesus is the source of any light we might have, and that when the church is at its best, its members bring new understanding of the value of all people and the necessity of sharing in word and deed Jesus’ divine love for all. The preacher could point to the church’s long history of founding caring agencies that come to the aid of victims of war, poverty and disease, all in the name of Jesus, as its means of spreading the light. No matter the denomination, the preacher can point to schools, hospitals and social service agencies founded by one’s church, beacons of light that continually point to the light of the Christ who still comes to those who “sit in darkness.”

Exegetical Comments

The metaphor of light was used frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures, beginning with the statement in Genesis that God is the author of light from the first moments of creation. The Psalmist declared that God’s word is “a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Ps 119:105) Isaiah of the Exile declared that a chosen Servant (who might be Israel) is to be “a light to the Gentiles” (Is 42:6b & 49:6b), a charge that Jesus, whom John designates “Light of the world,” applies even to his disciples (Matt 5:14), perhaps to show the continuity of the mission of his church with that of Israel.
Isaiah of the 8th century, of course, was writing for his day, a dark day indeed when the threat from mighty Assyria threatened to engulf the land. The destruction of the nation was deserved, according to the prophet, because the people, both in the northern section known as Israel and in the southern kingdom of Judah, had forsaken the covenant of Moses. The “darkness” the people dwelt in was their sin as well as the threat of Assyrian destruction. Isaiah wanted to reassure the people that God was very much in control of events, and that their Creator would restore at least a remnant of the people (see ch. 11) to their former glory. Music lovers will recognize our passage as the introduction to the soaring poem to which Handel set such sublime music that many of us cannot read chapter 9:2-7 of Isaiah without his music rising up within us.
In what we call the First Century A.D. the Jewish people again “sit in darkness”—the political darkness of Roman captivity, and still, the darkness of sin. The rich continue to take advantage of the poor; society still is divided between the acceptable and the rejected (the “ins and the outs”); and virtually all are captive to their hatred of the Roman occupiers. The old Advent carol, with its mournful accompaniment in a minor key, expresses well the mood of the time:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lowly exile here,
Until the Son of God appear….
The bursting of Jesus upon the scene, following his baptism and his testing in the wilderness, marks for Matthew the ascendancy of the Light promised long ago by Isaiah. John also employs “light” throughout his gospel, the difference perhaps being that for Matthew Jesus is the fulfillment of the light, whereas for John Jesus is the embodiment of the light.
Soon Jesus settles in Capernaum “by the sea.” This was not by chance, Matthew states, but in order to fulfill an ancient prophecy concerning “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Once more we read in the Sunday service Isaiah’s hopeful promise that light has come to the people “who sat in darkness.” The words as translated in the gospel are a bit different from those in Isaiah, but this is only due to the fact that the gospel writer used the Greek version of the prophecy rather than the Hebrew: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and the shadow of death light has dawned.”
Have things really changed much since Isaiah and Jesus’ day? Don’t we need still the reassurance that God’s light still shines in Jesus, and that when it is at its best in following him, the church; his body on earth today shines forth as his light? Long before the dark events of recent history from 9-11 to the mass shootings in our schools we knew to what depths those unenlightened by Christ could descend. But since then those dark depths seem even greater with the rash of terrorist attacks, and even in our nation at times, a few outraged Americans turning on Moslem neighbors or giving in to desires for vengeance against Iraq or whatever nation is our designated enemy. Needed are preachers able to deal with Matthew and Isaiah’s rich texts and help people to see Jesus as the fulfillment of the light of God for our day, as well as for two thousand years ago.
It is Matthew’s theology, if we can so term it, to assert that Jesus in the splendid entirety of his being is the epiphany of God, the gracious coming forth of the reign of God. This is the central affirmation running throughout the Gospel of Matthew (1:23; 18:20; 28:20). In Jesus the new is here; yet the kingdom is also yet to come in power at the eschatological end (10:23; 16:28; 26:24) when all the nations will be gathered before the throne of God for judgment (25:31–46). It is also then that the brilliant light will shine gloriously beyond all ambiguity and opportunity (13:43). That time is known only to God, let all future visionaries note, and the community is simply summoned to turn from calculation to vigilance of another sort altogether.
This theological note in Matthew speaks to Christians today who do not agree with one another about the time or the nature of the kingdom. As lines were drawn sharply in first-century Judaism over these matters, so Christians today differ and argue. Will the kingdom be an earthly or heavenly rule? Will it be the reformation of this world and glorification of the present Jerusalem, or the fresh creation of a new-world land and the divine gift of a new Jerusalem? Will it involve the slaughter of unrighteous and insolent nations, or their conversion? Is the coming kingdom an inner, spiritual reality, triumphant wherever individual hearts are renewed? Or does it promise the rebirth of the entire universe (19:28), a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells?
Jesus’ announcement of the coming sovereign sway of God prepares readers for the rest of the Gospel all the way through to the declaration of the Great Commission issued by the risen Lord (28:18ff.). Between this initial announcement and that climax, Jesus will everywhere steadily provoke audiences not only by proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom, but especially by challenging dearly held definitions of the kingdom, by implying that the powers of the kingdom are at work in him, and by stubborn insistence that righteousness is the one indispensable and infallible sign of the presence of the kingdom. Ancient Jews and Christians alike envisioned the coming of the kingdom in terms of prodigious crops and astonishing fruitfulness of the earth. Matthew’s Jesus steadfastly fixes his gaze on the fruit of obedience and love as the signs of the presence of the kingdom.
With the call to repentance and the announcement of the kingdom at hand, we expect something spectacular to happen. Yet in Matthew’s next scene Jesus is shown talking to some common laborers! Matthew’s strategy is to use anticlimax to subvert sour expectations, in order to open up new possibilities. In the call of the fishermen Simon and Andrew, the subtle nature of the kingdom of heaven is coming, because Matthew identifies it with discipleship. Here we see Jesus choosing his disciples, the reversal of the normal practice of rabbinic recruitment at the time. He meets these men at their workplace, a family fishing business, yet calls them to abandon their trade for a new vocation. The call to discipleship demands more than an assent of the heart; it invites an uncompromising break with business as usual, which is a truth of high importance for the church in this and any day.
(Lueking, F. D. R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids] Vol 3 pp. 25–26)
Jesus believed that his contemporaries were going in the wrong direction. They were bent on revolution of the standard kind: military resistance to occupying forces, leading to a takeover of power. Part of the underlying theme of his temptations in the wilderness was the suggestion that he should use his own status, as God’s Messiah, to launch some kind of movement that would sweep him to power, privilege and glory.
The problem with all these movements was that they were fighting darkness with darkness, and Israel was called—and Jesus was called—to bring God’s light into the world. That’s why Matthew hooks up Jesus’ early preaching with the prophecy of Isaiah that spoke about people in the dark being dazzled by sudden light, a prophecy which went on to speak about the child to be born, the coming Messiah, through whom God would truly liberate Israel at last (Isaiah 9:1–7). Jesus could see that the standard kind of revolution, fighting and killing in order to put an end to … fighting and killing, was a nonsense. Doing it in God’s name was a blasphemous nonsense.
But the trouble was that many of his contemporaries were eager to get on with the fight. His message of repentance was not, therefore, that they should feel sorry for personal and private sins (though he would of course want that as well), but that as a nation they should stop rushing towards the cliff edge of violent revolution, and instead go the other way, towards God’s kingdom of light and peace and healing and forgiveness, for themselves and for the world.
What would happen if they didn’t? Gradually, as Matthew’s story develops, we begin to realize. If the light-bearers insist on darkness, darkness they shall have. If the peace-people insist on war, war they shall have. If the people called to bring God’s love and forgiveness into the world insist on hating everyone else, hatred and all that it brings will come crashing around their ears. This won’t be an arbitrary judgment or punishment; it will be what they themselves have been calling for. This is why they must repent while there’s still time. The kingdom is coming, and they are standing in the way.(Wright, T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 [2004, London] pp. 29–30)

Preaching Possibilities

We still need to ask that hackneyed question WWJD? realizing that the we might not like the answers of one who taught love of enemies as well as of friends. But how to interpret for our people that love as more than warm, fuzzy good feeling for all (and thus reducing the hard gospel to the level of the sentiment “Have a nice day.”)? Not an easy task, and yet one to which we are called if our preaching is to be relevant. Instead we can point to a real need for light in our lives. The light is Jesus and it shines upon us sometimes harshly but always lovingly. This is well be yon the idea of Have a Nice Day.

Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON

Different Sermon Illustrations

Before dawn, Pacific Gas & Electric flipped the electricity switch off across 20 counties, most of them north of San Francisco, an intentional and highly disruptive hedge against wildfire risk. As California experiences intensifying weather extremes and confronts the sharpening consequences of a changing climate, the power company responsible for starting the deadliest wildfire in state history has undertaken the most extensive planned power outage ever employed.
Favorable weather in Northern California pushed off a second phase of power outages that had been planned for midday. The stiff, dry winds — known here as Diablos — did not whip up as early as had been forecast, though predictions still called for them to strengthen into the evening. As many as a million households — with more than 2 million people — could eventually be affected by the outage.
“It’s ridiculous, all political,” said Gregg Bowman, a 63-year-old architect, as he shopped in Home Depot here in the minutes before the planned noon shut-off. “This company is so screwed up.”
Bowman lives in Calistoga, a quaint resort town in the hills of Napa Valley, where the Tubbs Fire ravaged tinder-dry wine country two years ago. His power was cut intentionally two weeks ago amid moderate winds and, after he exhausted his gasoline supplies, he lost electricity again just after midnight Wednesday.
Clutching two plastic jugs, the last two in the huge store, Bowman said the weather in Calistoga did not support the shutdown, which he has been told could last five days. One of the jugs was for diesel, even though his generator runs on gasoline.
“I just took what I could,” he said. “And this will only hold enough gas to run my refrigerator for about eight hours — that’s all.”
The shut-off could eventually encompass more than half the state’s 58 counties, much of them in Northern California, where two of the deadliest fires in state history have occurred in the past two years. Heavy winter rains followed by extreme dryness and summer heat have created dangerous amounts of natural fuel across the region, increasing the threat that power lines pose. Winds can bring down lines, sparking wildfires, with strong gusts driving the flames quickly out of control and making them almost impossible to contain.
The crisis economy that emerged Wednesday in stores such as Home Depot belied the larger losses that would result from days without electricity as vintners, ranchers and farmers, small restaurants and corner groceries face millions of dollars in lost business.
“We believe this reflects a stark new reality for California as the state grapples with the impacts of more extreme weather — wildfire, flooding, drought and storms — resulting from climate change,” said Rufus Jeffris, a vice president at the Bay Area Council, a prominent business group.
PG&E was found responsible for igniting one of those two disastrous recent fires, the blaze that tore through Paradise last year, killing 85 people and turning 14,000 homes to ash. The company has since filed for bankruptcy in the face of billions of dollars in liability claims. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/northern-california-faces-massive-power-outage-as-pgande-hedges-wildfire-risk/2019/10/09/576facfa-ead9-11e9-9306-47cb0324fd44_story.html)

One of the great Greek hymns of the church is “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright,” written by 4th century Ambrose of Milan. This popular bishop, involved in the fight against the Arian heresy, wrote many hymns for the people espousing the orthodox theology of the Nicene Creed. This hymn, written around 374, addresses Christ as the light emanating from God. It is a Trinitarian hymn of confidence, based on the faith that in God we see Christ and thus will live “each passing day with thoughts as clear as morning ray.”

It must not be forgotten that the first Christmas song was sung in the night…That is a comforting fact. When the world is dark, the light shines, not from among men but from heaven. (Cleland B. McAfee, Near to the Heart of God, 1954)

Although he did not become a Christian, partly due to the racist beliefs and practices of many of its members, Mohandis Gandhi liked Christian hymns, a favorite of which was this one by an Anglican turned Roman Catholic and eventually made a cardinal:
Lead kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
(John Henry Newman, 1834)

Light is an important part of the gospel accounts of the Christmas story, and this is reflected in many of the traditional carols. One of the newer ones, Geoffrey Ainger’s “Born in the Night, Mary’s Child,” in its second stanza calls Jesus “Clear shining light,” whose “face lights up our way.” Echoing John’s gospel, Jesus is also called “Light of the world,” the verse ending with the plea for him to “dawn upon our day.”

I also saw that there was an infinite ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. (George Fox, Journal, 1647)

We would expect one of the several thousand of Charles Wesley’s hymns to use light as a metaphor, and he does not disappoint us. “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” refers to Christ as “the true, the only light,” and the ancient title, “Sun of Righteousness.” The hymn is a prayer for Christ to come into our “dark and cheerless” lives and impart his “inner light” so that we will be filled with his “radiance divine,” scattering all our unbelief.”

Light is absolutely essential in the making of a movie, all scenes consisting of images impossible to capture without reflected light falling upon film passing through the camera. Filmmakers convey much meaning by controlling the amount, color and kind of light they use in a scene. I believe this contributed greatly to actor Tom Hanks’ winning an Oscar for his portrayal of AIDS-ravaged Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia. He is a lawyer pursuing against the prestigious law firm where he had been a rising star, a lawsuit for wrongful job termination. Lawyer Joe Miller (Denzil Washington) at first refused to handle his case because of his own dislike for homosexuals and fear of the mysterious disease, but finally had relented, and slowly is beginning to see his client as a human and not a member of a despised group. After attending a costume party hosted by Andrew and his life-partner, lawyer and client sit together listening to a beautiful aria from an opera. Andrew explains to the opera-challenged Joe what the haunting music is about. Both their faces are shown in darkness at first, with the only light coming from a fireplace, bathing the room in a warm, reddish glow. As Joe comes to understand the opera scene and the passion for beauty that fills Andrew’s being, their faces are slowly lit up, Andrew’s red-lit face exhibiting his fervor for opera and his desire to communicate it to his new friend. The darkness is especially symbolic of Joe’s initial view of Andrew, with the dawning light allowing us gradually to see the lawyer’s features and his growing acceptance of his client. Watching this scene can shed new light on the ancient passage from Isaiah and enhance our understanding of Christ as the Light of the World.

Preparation is key if we are to follow Jesus, because we need to understand the kind of commitment to which we are being called. We sometimes think of those who are unwilling to make that kind of commitment to God as “pagans.” That word derives from the Latin paganus, which originally referred to a “village-dweller,” and carried the connotation of a “country bumpkin.” But that word was taken over in Roman military circles to mean “civilian.” It distinguished those who stayed behind (in the village) during a time of war from those who went out to do battle. Some scholars believe the Christian church adopted that interpretation of paganus. In the view of the early Christians, “pagans” were those who were unwilling to march out into the world as Christ’s soldiers. (Jonathan Kirsch, God Against The Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism [New York: Viking Compass, 2004], pp 14-15)

Some scholars debate whether some light of revelation dawned on the ancient Egyptians, even before the time of Moses. The historical record seems to suggest that the young man who took the throne of Egypt under the name of Amenhotep IV may have been the first ruler ever to introduce the concept of monotheism. His reign concluded in 1347 B.C. To his subjects’ surprise and horror, the pharaoh rejected all of the many gods and goddesses of the land in favor of one god called Aton, a word that means “sun disk.” In honor of that deity, Amenhotep even changed his name to Akhenaton, which is translated as “Splendor of Aton.” Akhenaton then proceeded to close the shrines and temples of all the other deities, banned their sacred rituals, ordered their statues be destroyed, and commanded that the names of those other gods and goddesses be removed from all stone monuments throughout the land. That religious innovation, though, was not received well by the people. Akhenaton was widely loathed and detested by his subjects throughout his 17-year reign. As soon as he died, his monotheistic revolution was quickly reversed by his son. (Jonathan Kirsch, God Against The Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism [New York: Viking Compass, 2004], pp 22-27)

When Jesus summoned the first disciples, there was an unhesitating response to Jesus’ call. Oftentimes, though, our response is more reluctant. Such was the case with John Marshall. When James McHenry, the Secretary of War under President John Adams, resigned, Adams submitted the name of John Marshall to the Senate to fill the post. Adams did that without even consulting with Marshall. Marshall, however, declined the offer. Yet even after Adams received Marshall’s letter informing him of his decision, Adams refused to withdraw Marshall’s name. Therefore, on May 9, 1800, the Senate voted to confirm Marshall to the post. Although Marshall continued to refuse to accept the position of Secretary of War, Adams did not give up on his hopes of adding Marshall to his cabinet. Another opportunity arose the next day when Adams had a heated confrontation with Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, whom Adams had long suspected of disloyalty. As a result of their dispute, Adams demanded that Pickering resign, which he did. Within two days, the president once again submitted the name of John Marshall to the Senate for confirmation, this time as Secretary of State—his second cabinet appointment in a week. This time Marshall accepted (James F. Simon, What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002], pp. 102-103).
Playing a game may be a way of preparing young people for the demands of being part of Christ’s church. That is what some Episcopalians are hoping. According to the Associated Press (1/5/04), the Washington National Cathedral Museum store has developed a board game called “Episcopopoly,” which is loosely based on the popular Monopoly game. The object of the game is not to build houses and hotels, but to build a church. The manager of the Museum store says the game is “all about learning what it takes to run a church in terms of the upkeep or the responsibilities the church has.” The game was created by Deborah Esayian, a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Riverside, Illinois. Instead of the squares on the board being named after the streets in Atlantic City, the squares are all named after various churches and seminaries that financially sponsored the manufacture of the first 3,500 board games. The players’ pieces, instead of being a top hat, car, and thimble, are all symbols related to the church, such as a baptismal font, a lamb, a dove, and a bell tower. Furthermore, rather than there being “Chance” and “Community Chest” cards, players draw cards from piles marked “Time, Talent and Treasure” and “Operating Budget.” The cards tell players such things as to lose a turn if their cell phone goes off during a service or to go back a few spaces if a child pulls the fire alarm or if there is a water balloon incident at the annual picnic.

Jesus commences his public ministry with words of warning for people to repent. Our problem often is that we hear so many warnings that we find it difficult to know when to take them seriously. For example, The Herald-Tribune of Miami, Florida (2/7/04) observed these rather ludicrous warning labels. A certain baby stroller comes with a tag that says, “Remove child before folding.” A snow blower warning reads, “Do not use snow thrower on roof.” A warning on a dishwasher advises, “Do not allow children to play in the dishwasher.” A CD player instructed owners, “Do not use the Ultradisc 2000 as a projectile in a catapult.” And the wheel on a wheelbarrow has a tag saying, “Not intended for highway use.”

We generally think of the Bible as one of the main ways that God shines light into our lives and prepares us to follow in God’s ways. But there have been times in history when people have had to take a second look to make sure that what their copy of the Bible was saying was accurate, because there have been some notable typos in biblical history. One of the earliest involved a mistake in Numbers 25:17-18 so that it read: “Vex the Midianites, and smite them: For they vex you with their wives.” The word “wives” should have read “wiles.” A more serious misprint occurred in 1631 when Exodus 20:14 read: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” The omission of the word “not” was quickly rectified, but not before great public concern arose. Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, the printers of that so-called “Wicked Bible,” were severely fined for their error. A 1682 edition mistakenly titled one of Jesus’ teachings as the “Parable of the Vinegar” instead of the “Parable of the Vineyard,” an error that resulted in that version being nicknamed the “Vinegar Bible” (Alister McGrath, In The Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture [New York: Anchor, 2001], p. 216.

Oftentimes we walk in darkness because of our own foolishness. According to CNSNews.com (3/5/04), the increasing demand for marijuana in the world is causing some African nations to plant more marijuana and less food crops. The result is that food shortages in some regions are worsening. The United Nations International Drug Control program estimates that 147 million people, or about 3.5% of all people age 15 and older in the world—used marijuana sometime between 1998 and 2000.

The lection in the Gospel of Matthew is presenting us with the paradox of light being found amid the darkness. Many well-known proverbs present similar puzzling juxtapositions: Look before you leap/He who hesitates is lost; If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again/Don’t beat your head against a stone wall; Absence makes the heart grow fonder/Out of sight, out of mind; You’re never too old to learn/You can’t teach an old dog new tricks; It’s better to be safe than sorry/Nothing ventured, nothing gained; and Many hands make light work/Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Although many people may consider the abundance of shopping malls and the proliferation of our consumer culture to be bright lights in American society, others think of those things as a kind of darkness. David R. Loy, writing in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, proposes that the “religion of the market” has rendered many traditional religions “increasingly irrelevant.” The problem is that traditional religions have failed to offer a “meaningful challenge to the aggressive proselytizing of market capitalism, which has already become the most successful religion of all time, winning more converts more quickly than any previous belief system or value system in human history. (Jon Pahl, Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003], p 67)

The reading in Matthew reveals that we can only learn to walk in the light if God prepares us to do so: “No man can advance three paces on the road to perfection unless Jesus Christ walks beside him.” (Robert Hugh Benson)

Different people may have different ideas as to what constitutes “darkness.” For example, 87% of Americans say adultery is always wrong, while only 48% of French people say the same thing. (James A. Morone, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003], p 23)

Jesus quotes Isaiah’s prophecy of the day when people will be transferred from the gloom of darkness into the joy of light. Researchers have found that despite what many people may think, joy cannot be obtained with money. According to the BBC (10/2/03), the happiest people in the world live in Nigeria, Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, and Puerto Rico. The least happy people reside in Russia, Armenia, and Romania. Researchers, writing in Britain’s New Scientist Magazine, said the main factors in determining if people feel happy are: genetic propensity to happiness; marriage; friends; desiring less; helping others; and having faith. The authors of the study point out that while income levels have consistently risen in the United States and other industrialized nations since World War II, the reported level of happiness has not moved upward. The researchers suggest that may be due to the consumer culture where people in those countries consistently expect more and more in order to be happy.

Even in the midst of darkness, God’s light shines undiminished. That belief is at the heart of the Christus Victor model of understanding the work of Christ: “No form of Christian teaching has any future before it except such as can keep steadily in view the reality of the evil in the world, and go to meet the evil with a battle-song of triumph.” (Gustav Aulen)

When we sit in deep darkness, we lack the ability to see what other options are available. When God’s light shines on us, we discover the hope we have: “In darkness there is no choice. It is light that enables us to see the differences between things; and it is Christ who gives us light.” (Augustus W. Hare)

When trouble comes and we begin looking for the light remember these six things.
1. Do not be afraid to face trouble.
2. God has created a universe in which he permits trouble.
3. God is in our troubles with us.
4. Be grateful knowing that God will supply the strength we need to face life cheerfully during periods of trouble.
5. God can use our troubles for our own good as well as for the good of others.
6. We are never alone.
(Robert Ozment, But God Can [Westwood, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Co.], pp48-53)

Much of the discussion of Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 911 focused on the political controversies it discussed. Cinematically, however, one of the most striking scenes of the film comes when he speaks of the events of September 11. The screen goes completely dark for several minutes. While seeing nothing, you hear the sounds of screams and crashes and sirens. It must have been very much like that for people caught in the midst of that cloud of dust and debris: all darkness and frightening sounds. For those who escaped, coming out of that darkness and into the light, or seeing the light of a firefighter’s flashlight, must have felt like hope itself.

As Christians we not only look for light, we live after the darkness. In spite of our technological advances, the human heart is still capable of great darkness – any newspaper contains heart-wrenching examples of rapacious greed, unbridled lust and moral ignorance abound. Each of these afflicts the heart and home with profound darkness. Medical advances and human courage may respond to darkness, but only Jesus Christ banishes darkness. This is the good news.

Tragedy has a painfully clarifying way of saying to us YOU ARE HERE! At this terrible crossroad, we make a decision to either continue to commit our fortunes to Darkness or cry out for help. At such a moment we know only the pain of our bondage. In such an instant we are gripped solely by a desire for relief. These texts offer a resounding ‘Yes!’ to our insight at such a crossroads that ‘there must be another way’ and ‘there must be another guide.’

Some of us respond to Jesus in an instant, as though our heart had been waiting for just such a loving light to come upon us. Peter, James and John are typical examples but they are not unique in the history of the gospels. Some of us respond to Jesus after a profound experience of healing where the call of Jesus touches our deepest wound. Whether the wound is visible or not, in our healing we recognize this touch of amazing grace where our gratitude prompts us to follow the one who has the word of life.

Here’s a powerful resource for this theme, available for those with Internet access. This web address will take you to a photojournalistic essay about Bailey House, the first home in Greenwich Village that ministered to those suffering with AIDS. This site does more than ‘put a human face on the disease,’ as the opening page hopes; this site also puts a human face on hope and ministry. (http://www.musarium.com:16080/aidsdecade/intro/)

For the Lord is light; and so far as anyone is not in Him, so far he is in darkness. (Bernard of Clairvaux)

If thou wouldst be a child of God and a believer in Christ, thou must be a child of light. (William Penn, No Cross, No Crown, 1669)

The light which shines from the Crucified is a light shining in the darkness. It is this light which both illuminates the obscurity of being and overcomes the darkness of non-being. (Nicholas Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, 1935)

Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)

Call to Worship

Leader: The Lord is our light and our salvation!
People: The Lord is our rock and our refuge!
Leader: No matter what kind of evil befalls us, no matter what our enemies may try to do, God is our great protector!
People: In our times of need, may God hear our prayers and come quickly to answer us!

Prayer of Confession

God of light and glory, Your brightness fills all creation. You dispel the shadows of evil, and You illumine our lives. Yet there are times when we still allow the darkness to cause us to fear. When sickness enters our lives, when troubles afflict our families, or when tumult rocks our world, we permit those dark clouds to obscure the radiance of Your love. God of compassion forgive us for our lack of faith. Forgive us for failing to trust You as we should. By Your Holy Spirit, restore our faith in You, so that even in those shadowy hours we will never lose heart. In the name of our Savior we pray. Amen.

Prayer of Dedication

Immortal God, as we gather before You in worship, we rejoice that the ultimate victory belongs to You. As we offer to You our gifts, use them to spread Your light throughout all the world. Work through our offerings to bring new hope to those who sit in darkness, empowering them to catch a vision of the glorious future that lies ahead. We ask this in the name of the Lord Jesus. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

God of the ages, every day when we read the newspaper and look at the world around us, we see darkness approaching for every direction. We witness images of war and destruction. We hear reports of murders and robberies. We read accounts of kidnappings and terrorist plots. At times all of that bad news is more than we can bear. But so often it seems that bad news is the only kind of news there is.
Yet in the midst of the darkness, we trust that the brightness of Your love, O God, will never be extinguished. So we pray this day that You would shine Your light upon us and upon all the world. Especially in the midst of the those situations where we might be tempted to think there is no hope, drive away the dark gloom and bring forth the hope that You offer. In those areas of our world where war and hatred seem like they will never end, we pray that Your peace will surely come. In those regions of our planet where poverty and hunger have afflicted generations, we pray for an end to that suffering. And for all the many people in our world who feel weighed down by anxieties and depression, we pray that they might be freed from those burdens and be able to see anew the brightness of Your never-ending grace. We ask all these things in the name of Jesus, who is the light of the world. Amen.