Wednesday, January 29

A Light Shines on Those in Darkness Through the Cross: Third Sunday After the Epiphany

Sermon for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany, January 26, 2014.
Isaiah 9:1-4Psalm 27:1, 4-91 Corinthians 1:10-18Matthew 4:12-23

According the Prophets of Israel we are told that God engages the ways and powers of the nations to achieve God’s ends in seeking to bring justice in Israel and upon the earth.  God is also frustrated in this tactic since the nations themselves are unjust and enrich themselves from the misery and destruction they inflict.   Some of the prophets say that God has planned a change in tactics, light will dawn, and it will be different from the heat produced by the direct use and engagement of the ways of the nations and empires.  Things will change Isaiah says, light will shine.  God’s tactics will change but God’s desire to restore humanity and creation remains unchanged.  We are in the liturgical time where we remember this change, this new thing God has done and is doing.  This new thing is the incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth, and God revealing God’s self as a community of persons, Father Son and Holy Spirit.

This is what the prophet Isaiah tells us.  God first confronts human violence, greed and desire for domination and control, through these very human means.   This obviously didn’t achieve the transformation of the world, in a sense it deepened the darkness.  God drove us further into darkness by engaging us on our terms.  Isaiah admits this at the top of the scriptures we read today, but Isaiah says this is not what God desires or has ever desired and a light will shine on those driven into darkness.  God comes to those who curse God, who blame God for all the evil in the world, aren't entirely wrong.  Surprised…?  We’d much rather a God whose more historically consistent, or we’d rather a God who changes, but not a God who does and doesn’t change. According to Isaiah God engages our darkness and unenlightened passions and it only deepens our condition. We go deeper into darkness though we are the cause of our turmoil and pain (or rather we inflict it on each other). Put God in that mix and we get the wrath of God that stirs human sin and self-deception into a perfect storm of suffering and misery, all as we attempt to climb out of the hells we create for ourselves, in our darkness.  This is not the final word God comes, not some corrupt, power seeking proxy of god, but God, the light the true light that enlightens the world, something different occurs.  Before this new thing, light had not shown.  

We might wonder why God didn't bring light, why first God’s wrath that was only heat and no light. Perhaps, this leaves us a little uneasy, and faced with a tension between how God acted and the new thing God is doing. Many divergences in Christian opinion and forms of Christianity have resulted in part in order to resolve our discomfort with this revelation of God: God changes and is unchanging.   Some say God doesn't change so we still have the heat of God to deal with.  The logic and ways of human nations and power is in God is an unchanging quality equal part of God’s love.  God has not changed it is just in Jesus Christ we have the light, and outside our Christian group is darkness and wrath.  God doesn't change god simply is wrath and love.  There are of course problems with this solution, most of you here know them intimately, and I will not go into it.  The other resolution is to say that in some way God has changed (some ancient notions go so far as to explain this change by saying our gods have changed, which is the same as saying God didn’t change, but not many these days believe this version of the story).   Wrath is still an essential quality of God, but it is a quality that God grows out of in some way, God learned that wrath didn’t work.  In this from my view then God is kind of like our understanding of human development writ large on human history.  But neither of these is what Isaiah, Matthew, and Paul tells us.  

What our Scriptures today witness to is that God didn’t change but how God deals with the world, human history, and human beings has changed.  Perhaps we could say that God learned, but Isaiah receives a word from God at the time when God is engaging the world on human terms that God doesn't intend to do this forever. This suggests to me that God’s change in tactic was intended even when the old tactic was still deployed (is still deployed?). Even as God is engaging nations and powers on their turf God is saying through Isaiah that this will not always be so.  As Israel and humanity are driven into the heat and darkness of violence, greed, and control, God will shine on those in that darkness.  Something other than our troubled humanity and human relations will come and it will simply shine.  God doesn’t attempt to explain the change, or justify God’s wrath, or claim to turn a new leaf with the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.  The person of the Son is of the same character, quality as the Father (“God of the Old Testament”, if you will), and the Spirit who comes into our hearts and enlightens us with Love, is of the same character and quality, essence or substance to use the ancient philosophical terms.  Even so there is what God did and the new thing God has done and is doing, we find in this a great deal of contradiction, we can’t put it together, it is beyond us.
Jesus comes and sheds light in the world, light is shining on us all who have lived and live in darkness, a darkness that was deepened by God’s wrath, but not caused by it.  God’s wrath is and was a tactic of engaging the world on the world’s terms, but God is Love, the light of the world.  God comes light from light, and enlightens everyone.

Here we find ourselves in a terrible agonizing contradiction: The light has come and yet we still find shadows to live in. Even we who claim to know the light, and bear its name.  From the beginning of the Church this has been so, witness Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.  We fall back into seeking prestige, power, and control.   We the enlightened think we gain some position of authority and prestige because the light of sun happens to shine down on us and we recognize and aren't blinded by the light.  We attempt to grasp and own God’s grace, and we then think it is our job to enlighten others. In the past and even now we fall into seeking to coerce others into our enlightenment.   But God came and shines forth, and that is all.
We, who see and are not blinded by this light, are the called. We are to fish, cast nets gather into the light.  It’s on some level ridiculously simple.  But in its simplicity it reveals a great complexity.  For in the light we see the mess we are in more clearly.  And enlightened we think the ways of the world can be used to control and clean up the mess.  And God keeps shining and saying “A new dawn is coming, this is a new thing, the old things are past step into the light, live in this new reality, step away from your darkness and consuming heat that only devours your soul.”

The sign of this new thing is the cross.  God, true love, suffers from our darkened desires and ways of violence and seeking to control and have power over each other, the world, and the sacred.  The World seeks to control and overpower God!  And God submits, but darkness can’t overpower the light, it can only put up barriers to the light.  This is why Paul lifts up the cross as the thing we are to glory in.  For it is the new thing.  A violent execution is the means to our transformation.  The unexpected newness is that God ceases to engage and use our darkened ways and instead comes and submits to and suffers them.  This is how the light shown into the world.  God comes and shines from within.  Though we use the metaphor of the sun and dawn, what happened is something for which we perhaps have no metaphor.  The Sun of righteousness shines from within the darkness, not external to it.  Unlike the dawn which we can predict, or even the return of the light during seasons of a year, this shining forth still catches us off guard, and we can mistake it as a property of the world and then attempt to live in the light according to the terms of what is passing away.  Yet we do this only if we cease to remember that the Cross is our enlightenment.

Come into the light, come follow the light, accept the way of the Cross.  Let the crucifixion overwhelm you. Let the love of God, the Spirit of god overwhelm you and drive out all darkness.  Fish for people, let the voice of the light call to them, “Repent and follow me.”  It’s really that simple and yet so exceedingly incomprehensible. This is the way of the Cross. Boast in nothing else, seek nothing else but the Cross, for in it the light has come and shown on those in darkness.