Follow the Light
Based on Isaiah 9:1-4, 1Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
I spent much of the last 30 years in close proximity to death. First as a pharmacist in intensive care units and emergency departments, secondly as a chaplain in a hospital and now as a pastor. I have witnessed many thousands of deaths, and I have seen the vast array of approaches to death; from abject fear and denial – fighting for every breath and heartbeat, to the calm and forward-looking approach of those who know they are returning home. I have found that being present at the transition time between this life and the life eternal is mysterious, humbling and very sacred. Many people as they approach their deaths are smiling, some are reaching out to things invisible to onlookers. Many speak of seeing friends and family long departed at the bedside – some talk of following a bright and comforting light. In fact, seeing a bright and comforting light is often experienced by those who have near death experiences.
Our scriptures talk to us today about following the light of God as revealed in Jesus the Christ. Powers, principalities and charismatic leaders will rise and fall and delude themselves (and us) that they are the leaders we should follow. They have all the answers and they will bring us peace, happiness, and a chicken in every pot. Time and time again, however, those human promises are full of heat, but lack much in light. Those of us who choose to believe in something greater than our human resources, return to Jesus because His light shines brightly and leads us along the Way with the Truth that shows us how to live abundantly and well. Let us go now to God and ask the Holy Spirit for the strength and wisdom to follow only the light of God’s Son…
The people of the southern kingdom of Judah have bedeviled the kingdom of Israel in the North. They have aligned themselves with the Assyrian King whose army is about to thrash Israel, at the same time that the Israelites have been besieging Jerusalem. The people of Judah – especially the leadership, are the people that Isaiah references who have been walking in darkness. They have followed their failure of a king while he made alliances which doomed their kinfolk in the northern kingdom. Judah has not been unified with Israel’s king (nor her God for that matter). While their darkness will lift and God will shine a light upon them for a few hundred extra years, their apostasy will ultimately lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile of the leadership. Martin Luther King, Jr, said that we need to find and follow leaders like Jesus who, “…are not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity.” The take home message here is that following the beacon of fallible human leaders who love only worldly things instead of the infallible light of God always leads to ruin.
The good people of Corinth have become fractured, indeed. Instead of following Jesus, they have divided themselves into camps following the Christ, Cephas, Paul or Apollos. This is why the Apostle has to appeal to them that they, “…be united in the same mind and the same purpose….” They are quarreling about some nonsense related to who they are inclined to follow. It has always been the way with humans, seeking the living human leader over the divine and eternal one. As Paul notes, the Christ has not been divided, and no matter who actually baptized you, you are baptized into the Body of Christ, not into some cult of personality of the presiding pastor. Paul reminds them that the power in following the Christ is the power of the Resurrection – and no human enlightenment can ever lead us to a power that is greater than the light of Easter morning.
John the Baptist has gone too far criticizing King Herod, and so he is captured and imprisoned. When Jesus learns of his cousin’s confinement, he wastes no time getting away to the Galilee where he will be able to continue his ministry. He proclaims that the people need to, “…Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near….” In this Gospel, the calling of the first Disciples is different than we heard from John’s Gospel last week. Here, Jesus is among the fishermen and he calls them away from their nets to come and follow His light that they might capture people for the kingdom of God. Suddenly, Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John are all engaged with following this rabbi while he teaches, proclaims the gospel and heals the sick. It says in verse 24 that great crowds brought him all that were diseased and in pain, those with epilepsy and paralysis, those inhabited by demons and he cured them all. No worldly darkness ever escaped his light.
From the ancient time when our ancestors first domesticated fire, to our present time when we deal with light pollution and are seeking “night sky friendly” lighting solutions, humans have sought to keep the darkness at bay. The same is true of our communal and spiritual lives as we try to choose things which will lead to the light of consensus versus the darkness of individualism, tribalism and division. We live in a time right now where we seem to have forgotten that all of us on this planet are interdependent – no person is an island, entire to itself. The latter fact about our predilection to consider ourselves truly independent of one another, the poet John Donne pointed out as folly in the early 1600’s; I suspect he wonders why we have to keep rediscovering the essential light of this great teaching – as does Jesus.
This was the darkness in ancient Palestine when the northern and southern kingdoms of the Israelites broke apart and sought dominion over each other. It was the darkness after the Apostle Paul planted the church in Corinth and then continued on his missional journeys and left the fledgling believers to their own leadership. It was the darkness into which the light of God dawned in the form of Jesus to shine on the people of God, “…who sat in the region and shadow of death…”. It is this light that called the first Disciples and which continued to call countless disciples from that time until the future brings the second coming of the Christ.
There are many in our community who do not know that they are walking in the shadow of death. The slow and inexorable descent into darkness that is characterized by the empty promises of the idols of fame, tribe, family, work, money, acquisition, the numbing effects of alcohol and drugs, or anything else we worship instead of God through Jesus. James, John, Peter and Andrew did not know that there was a light to life other than fishing. It consumed them and their families – all their free time spent mending the nets that allowed their meager existence to continue. Into their dreary lives came the light of something bright, new and healing – and so they followed, these humble fishermen, into a new life.
These Disciples and many others followed the light of Jesus as He traveled about the Galilee teaching, spreading the gospel and healing and curing all who were brought to him. Thus, we can see that the life of discipleship is one for all people, ordinary folk serving and following Jesus within our lives as children, students, bosses, project managers, teachers, cashiers, at-home parents, mechanics, farmers and ranchers, retired folk. Being a disciple means seeing Jesus as the light of the world that scatters the shadows. It means striving to be unified in the gospel as a community of faithful people who might reasonably disagree on things. Unified not in the many issues or opinions that could divide us but by God’s healing and hope-filled good news for the world and for us. Ordinary, everyday people involved in our everyday lives, accompanying those who are dying for lack of light, and traveling to bring the love of God to our neighbors near and far. Ordinary, everyday people who choose to follow the comforting light of Jesus and His message of salvation, rather than the worldly message of darkness and death. For once we were all a people who sat in darkness and in the region and shadow of death. Then Jesus came walking into our lives calling for us to follow His light. We rose from our mundane lives of working for ourselves and began to work to bring people to see what we had seen…the unifying light of God which healed us and made us whole. Thanks be to God for this great light! Amen.