The people living in darkness have seen a great light
Its not often that we experience absolute darkness. The night sky on a clear night is wonderful with the moon, the constellations of stars that make us wonder about creation, where it all came from……
But imagine for a moment complete darkness at night: no moon; no stars…
When I was in the Army, occasionally you would be out on a fighting patrol exercise and it would be completely dark, with high cloud cover. As you walked through a wood or a field, trying to use the very minimal ambient light to see (no torches or flares), almost anything you heard would make you jump out of your skin. Cows were a particular problem. Suddenly you would hear a loud snuffling behind you or a burp, or maybe it wasn’t a burp…..and the danger of firing off a couple of rounds in surprise and giving away your position was considerable. It was difficult to see where you were going; difficult to see what was around you. But even if we could not see the moon and the stars; even if there was no ambient light at all and it was total darkness, we would know that in a few hours time the Sun would rise, ending the darkness.
But what would it be like if we lived in total darkness, with no sunrise in the morning?
The passage from Isaiah which Matthew quotes from the New International Version which reads better than the NRSV is as follows:
“Land of Zebulun and
land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea,
along the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living
in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned”.
The word in Greek ‘to sit’ which you have in verse 16 of the NRSV is kathemenos in the Greek which means figuratively ‘to live’ or ‘to reside’.
To live in darkness. What would it mean to live in darkness?
Of course, speaking literally that is the tragedy of those who are completely blind but we are speaking figuratively here. What does it mean to live in darkness? To live in spiritual darkness?
I believe it means to live……..without hope; to live without hope.
Matthew draws attention to the fact that Jesus went to live in a town called Capernaum in Galilee, a Roman province in AD30, but, in Old Testament times, the land of two tribes of Israel Zebulun and Napthali.
In the first century Galilee was a densely populated area. It was on one of the oldest and most important trade routes in the East. It was known, in Jerusalem, as ‘Galilee of the gentiles’ because it had been subject to all sorts of cross cultural influences. For 500 years it had been ravaged by invasion and ethnic cleansing and transportation of the northern tribes of Israel Zebulun and Napthali by the Assyrians. Then the Greeks, under Alexander the Great and his successors, had trampled all over it. Then the brief Jewish kingdom of the Hasmoneans adopted a Judaizing policy which resulted in a thoroughly mixed population and now the Romans had stepped in.
So Galilee’s racial purity and Jewish faith were severely compromised, even from even the Galilean’s perspective.
The Jews of Jerusalem despised them.
Galilee was a spiritually dark place and yet into this spiritually dark place, the Lord chose to spend most of his ministry. Unlike the self satisfied and privileged Jews in Jerusalem and the southern region of Judea, the Galilean Jews knew they needed a Saviour.
We too are in a spiritually dark place, for many of us have lost hope….
I mentioned at Christmas that a study for the Princes Trust last year had pointed out that 18% of 16-25 year olds do not think that life is worth living and 27% do not think that their lives have a sense of purpose.
Its a dark world where the young are not excited about the future, about their future. Its a spiritual issue. They are effectively living in the land of the shadow of death; Death which makes pointless all our achievements, casts its shadow over them.
Quite apart from the perspective of our young people, it has been pretty tough for all of us over the last three years. It has been difficult to be optimistic about the future, as the Brexit debate has raged on and on.
But into a world in which people lived in darkness, into Galilee in the first century a great light dawned. Jesus was that light. Jesus represents hope. He gives an undefeatable reason for living; an eternal sense of purpose; a sense that we are loved by the Creator of the universe, a sense that he has a purpose for our lives for your lives and mine. Just say to your neighbour “God has a purpose for your life!”
Jesus started to preach with the words ‘repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near’.
The people of Galilee, like the people of today could not find that light, could not find that hope, if they just carried on in the same old way. Jesus represents the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus represents not the old way of doing things: the depressing world of constant slavery to one people group or another or to one addiction or another; to one idolatry or another. Its not those dead sterile things which will provide that light and so we need to repent if we want to see the light. We need to turn away from those futile things we have been doing; those futile things we have been investing in all these years which separate us from God; we need to repent to find the Saviour.
So the first point is that in a dark world Jesus is a great light but how do we fit in?
Right at the beginning of his ministry as we see in this passage from Matthew, Jesus called disciples to follow him, to be witnesses of that light, which had come into a dark world.
As we heard in the passage, he said to Peter and Andrew, who were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee ‘Come follow me and I will send you out to fish for people’
What was it about those fishermen which drew Jesus to give them the most important task in creation: the task of spreading the light of the gospel in a world of darkness?
Theologian Michael Green writes that it was their courage and decisiveness, their perseverance, patience and flexibility, which appealed to Jesus. That may be right. I would add to that; ‘trust’: much of fishing on the Sea of Galilee was done at night, in the darkness when they could not see the fish, they had to trust God as they cast their nets out onto the lake over and over again. They must have been praying every step of the way, it must have been a regular part of their lives, if they were to have any livelihood at all.
However, I want to make another point: Jesus called them to be ‘fishers of men’. Was he just making a pun or was he making a point?
You see if we believe that we have been born for a purpose, which I believe for myself but also I believe for every single one of you however young, however old, then Jesus knows what our talents are. God gave them to us and, of course, we can use them for our livelihoods, for our families, perhaps for our recreations, but I believe that he also wants us to use them for His kingdom: The Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus called those who were good at fishing to be fishers of men.
As my good friend Yann Dubreil who is Rector of Bentley Froyle and Binsted says: when Jesus begins something in the heart of one of his children, what we might consider even quite ordinary skills can become very spiritually significant: fishermen can become fishers of men, because not only has the light dawned in Galilee, but it has dawned in them also.
Sometimes, if we are church goers, we may feel we could not possibly compose and read out prayers in the Parish Communion service: thats for the vicar to do; thats for other more Christian people, we may think. But, instead, we may have the precision and discipline to lay out chairs in advance of our services.
When the light dawns on us that we can pray as we do this task (which we may think is very ordinary), we may pray for each of those who will sit on those chairs at the service that their lives will be transformed by the service.
Or we may not feel that we could possibly lead a service or could not possibly preach, thats for the vicar to do or for Gerry the LLM, or for one of the new BCMs, but we might happen to be very good at making cake….that is how God has made us: good at baking
When the light dawns in us, what was just baking before, becomes a spiritual task. We pray before we start, mixing the ingredients: that those who eat the cake will feel the warmth of welcome in the church and the deliciousness of the baking; that they may know Jesus personally in their lives; that their lives will be transformed! We do it to the best of our abilities; we do it as an act of worship!
So laying up the chairs or baking the cake becomes as significant an exercise in evangelism in bringing people to Jesus, because it is the Holy Spirit responding to our prayers who causes the light to dawn in people’s hearts, as any prayers or sermon spoken at the front; perhaps more so, because we are effectively chair arranging or baking with Jesus and for him as part of the Kingdom of Heaven.
As Yann says, once this is appreciated by those involved; once we see this as a spiritual task (and not just as something that needs to get done, yet another thing to be done for the community, in a hurry) then a journey of discipleship begins which is joy to the person concerned and a blessing to the entire community and will start the process of lives being transformed and a community in which people live in darkness will see a great light
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 4:12–22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.