On Them Light Has Shined (A Sermon for Epiphany 3A)
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (Cypress, Texas)
January 22, 2017
I had a friend in college from Alaska. And, so to me, she became the expert on all things Alaska. So one day I remember talking about the “winter” in Arlington, Texas. I asked her what it was like living in Alaska during the winter. She said that it’s great once you get used to the long periods of darkness and light.
I looked it up on the Internet, so it must be true. During the month of January, the average number of hours of daylight in Alaska is 4. In July, they average 21:45 hours of daylight per day. Way up north in Barrow, Alaska, one of the northern-most cities in the country, the average hours of daylight during the months of December and January is zero. And in June, July and August, the average hours of daylight is 24.
I remember asking her what that was like, especially the darkness. She said, “once you get used to it, it’s okay. After awhile it just becomes normal.”
For Isaiah, “darkness” is sort of a codeword that stands for life in a world where sin and evil rule over daily life. A life in exile. A life under the rule of someone else.
Zebulun and Naphtali were geographical markers, remnants of the former tribes. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were, in a sense, covered in “spiritual darkness” for a long period of time. The Assyrians conquered the land and forced their gods and practices on the people. They imposed their “darkness” on the people.
But into this darkness, Isaiah promises liberation, a change in the fortunes of the Jewish people which he associated with a new ruler, a righteous king who would rule in justice and equity. Isaiah saw light dawning where previously there had been so much darkness.
So, I wonder how the Zebulites and the Naphtalites reacted to Isaiah’s announcement, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a GREAT LIGHT; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”
I wonder because for eyes that have gotten used to darkness, light can be a painful thing. Think about the last time you were in a dark room, and then walked outside. Or when you turn on the lights first thing in the morning. It can be painful. Your body…your eyes…are designed to help prevent too much light.
Unlike the Gospel of John, Matthew does not identify Jesus as the light of the world. However, Matthew quotes this prophecy from Isaiah makes clear that Jesus’ return to Galilee will be the occasion for those who sit in darkness to see “a great light.” No doubt Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing is the basis for that light.
At the same time, however, as the gospel narrative proceeds, in our Gospel lesson in two weeks we’ll hear that it is the followers of Jesus who bear his light in the world by their own (collective) way of life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the people,
“You…(plural)…y’all…are the light of the world… Let y’all’s light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Jesus, however, doesn’t deal with abstract issues of light shining in darkness, but rather with the coming Kingdom of God or, as Matthew puts it, the Kingdom of Heaven.
Matthew, following Jewish convention, avoids writing “God” and prefers, when talking about the Kingdom, to use “heaven”. Unfortunately, in English, this means many of us tend to think that Jesus was and is talking about how to get to heaven when we die. But that’s not what this is about.
It wasn’t, and isn’t, a call to heaven, but a call to life in the here and now. This is not about “our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming “’on earth as it is in heaven.” We need to be remind ourselves that the call of Jesus in this reading is not to future salvation, but to contemporary action. The disciples were called to fish for human beings. And we are called to action. We are called to be the light of the world.
We often feel like we’re living in darkness. We often feel like we’ve lost hope. Or we’re hurting. Or we’re sad. In these moments we remember that Jesus Christ is the Great Light that has come into the world. But we also must remember that Jesus told us to be the light of the world so that through us, others may see.