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Thursday, January 23, 2014


DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK!—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY (JANUARY 26, 2014)---BY JIM OGDEN

Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, I Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
                
In this epiphany season of light, we talk a lot about the light.  It’s almost as if we are afraid to talk about the darkness.  Are we afraid it will depress us?  Would we rather ignore it?  It certainly seems more uplifting to talk about resurrections than crucifixions.

At our lectionary breakfast this week, we tried to talk about the darkness---with surprising success.  The discussion ranged from childhood fears of the dark to the social darkness of oppression.  We talked about darkness as a feeling that weighs down upon us, about selfishness and self-centeredness, about division and conflict and fear---and many other things.

There’s plenty of darkness around us to talk about.  At the same time, some who would attempt to comfort us remind us that darkness has no substance in and of itself.  When you look up definitions of darkness, most of them define it negatively as “the absence of light.”  When light is shined into the dark the darkness disappears, is overcome.  Sometimes just naming the darkness can make it seem less frightful.

I could fill up several pages quoting scriptures that tell us not to be afraid.  One might argue that the words “Be not afraid!” are a central message of what we call “Good News.”  Since the lectionary Gospel lessons have us now in Matthew, I’ll just list a few of the many times fear is addressed in that Gospel.

When Jesus is sleeping through a storm that is pounding the disciples’ boat, they are afraid and wake him, pleading with him to do something.  His first words are “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26)  On another occasion we read, “ . . . when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified . . . and they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  (Matthew 14:26-27)  When the women come to the tomb to prepare Jesus for burial, an angel appears to them and says, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, . . .”  When Jesus suddenly appears, he greets them and says, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”  (Matthew 28:5-6, 9-10)

This week’s readings can help us understand light and darkness directly or indirectly.

Isaiah 9 is part of one of the great Messianic passages delivered by God’s prophets.  Beyond the four verses of this week’s reading, we have the majestic description of a king who will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:6)  The words have been engraved in the minds of many who have heard or participated in the frequently performed Handel’s Messiah.  The context in Isaiah is one of great darkness.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them has light shined.”  (vs. 2)

If we went back to the end of the preceding chapter (chapter 8), we would read of a people who “will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.” (Isaiah 8:22)  The message to these people is one of hope.  They don’t need to be afraid of the dark.  The very next words, at the beginning of chapter 9, are, “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.”  (Isaiah 9:1)

The Messianic words of Isaiah 9 were probably used as part of the ceremony when a new king came to the throne.  We live in hope that each new leader who comes along will make things better.  Some do; some don’t.  Inaugurations remind us that new beginnings are always possible, and in that is hope.  Eventually this hope got applied to a Messiah who would come to inaugurate a whole new era.

Early Christians looked upon Jesus and felt this hope arise again in their hearts.  It is no accident that our Gospel lesson from Matthew quotes the first two verses of Isaiah 9 (see Matthew 4:14-46), applying them to Jesus.

So, what do we make of the reference to Zebulun and Naphtali in Isaiah 9:1 (and repeated in Matthew 4:15)?  One can find significant commentary on the matter.  The reference seems to be to Assyrian invasions into Syria and northern Palestine.  It describes, as one commentator puts it, “a land where people have been suffering from injustice and oppression at the hands of a foreign power, not to mention their own villainous leaders.”  The darkness here is oppression, a darkness that continues to this day, in Palestine as well as other places.

It’s equally important to notice the reference to “Galilee of the nations’ (Isaiah 9:1) or “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:15).  The Gospel lesson may be calling our attention to the wider, inclusive, scope of Jesus’ message.  The Gentiles are included.  Whenever anyone is assumed to be outside the love of God, it is a dark day indeed.  Light always reaches out to include.

Now, what about the other texts?

The Psalm begins with a declaration of not being afraid.  “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”  (Psalm 27:1)

The epistle speaks of the darkness of division that invades so many of our human affairs.  We claim to belong to this party or that party.  In I Corinthians 2:12, those who follow Paul or Apollos or Cephas seem to be in competition.  In our day, political parties or denominations or nations can sometimes be substituted.  So often, it becomes a matter where we seem to be saying, “If he or she, or that group, are for it, I am against it.”  We lose sight of higher purposes and refuse to seek common ground.

Note that one of the leaders listed is “Christ,” as if some were claiming that it is only they who are the true followers of Christ.  That would never happen would it?  Oh, I guess there are those who go around saying, “I’m a better Christian than you are,” measuring others by their own standards of what it means to be a Christian.  When darkness goes around disguised as light, we are really in trouble.

There are other avenues you may wish to explore.  Here are a few:

1.  Foolishness and wisdom in I Corinthians 1:17-18.  Someone at breakfast suggested that ignorance is a form of darkness, but it’s worth reflecting on what is true enlightenment.  Do we define wisdom and foolishness according to the world’s standards or does a crucified Christ alter our understandings?

2.  The Gospel lesson moves on to tell of Jesus calling the first disciples to follow him.  It is rich in things to ponder and act on.  For instance, the call begins with Jesus’ words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)  What does it mean to repent?  What is the kingdom of heaven and what does it mean to say it “has come near”?  I have my thoughts, but here I’m just offering another opening you might want to walk through.

3.  The invitation to follow is described as fishing for people.  (Matthew 4:19)  When I was a child, we used to sing, “I will make you fishers of men,” complete with the motions of casting and reeling in.  (The fishermen in Jesus’ day used a net, of course, not a rod and reel.)  As a fisherman, that image has troubled me more and more over the years.  One tricks the fish into taking an artificial lure and drags in the leaping and pulling fish against its will, taking it home to devour it.  Being entwined in a net isn’t much better.  What images would you use to stress the importance of sharing the inclusive love of God?  Underlying the passage is a reminder that we are part of a larger mission.  “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”  (vs. 23)

4.  Twice we are told that they “immediately left” (their nets, their boat, their father---Matthew 4:20 & 22).  Immediately seems kind of sudden.  If Jesus issued to us an invitation to follow, how and when would we respond?  Jesus’ call comes to every one of us one way or another.  The light means we can respond without fear.

We are among the people who have walked in darkness and seen a great light!  Of whom shall we be afraid?  Certainly not the dark!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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