THE SHINING OF THE LIGHT
Sermon delivered on the Third Sunday of Epiphany the
22nd January 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes at St. Alban's Church
of England, 461 Shedden Road, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Isaiah 9:1-4 1 Corinthians 1: 10-18 S.
S. Matthew 4: 17 "From that time Jesus began to
preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand."
LIGHT IN THE DARK
The Gospels record that Jesus began His main public
ministry after He heard that John the Baptist had been arrested and
imprisoned. We might imagine this ominous circumstance putting a
damper on the beginning of Jesus' public work: for John's message
also was one of repentance, a turning to God's way. However, it seems
to be well in character for the ministry of Jesus to start as a light
shining out from a dark backdrop. We see much of this in today's
Scriptures: the darkness and the light juxtaposed, and the light not
being vanquished by the darkness. S. John the Baptist was arrested by
Herod for the precise purpose of overcoming and quenching the message
of repentance, so unwelcome was it within the chambers of Herod's
palace; yet that very circumstance was the signal for Jesus' public
ministry to begin, which took the message of repentance to a new
level. Jesus moved men and women to repentance by the force of the
immanence of God's Kingdom, which was realised through His Person and
His message: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
THE RULE OF HEAVEN
God's Kingdom is not necessarily manifest by good
circumstances or even by familiar circumstances. While it is a
natural human reaction to retreat every so often to the familiar or
to the congenial (as the Faith in Focus feature of our pewsheet
suggests), perhaps to restore oneself with a nice cup of tea or
whatever, to walk the dog or bury oneself in a good book, yet as
Christians we cannot afford to make of such things our heaven. The
true rule of Heaven is where Jesus is and what His message directs,
and that may be in unfamiliar or even inauspicious circumstances. In
all circumstances we are called to heed the words of Jesus, to be
aware that in those extraordinary words the rule of Heaven is at
hand, and to return in spirit, heart and action to the way of God.
For we are part of the body of Christ and we are called to think with
the mind of Christ. Since we are baptised into Christ our
perspectives on everything are called into conformity with His, and
as with Him, we can be given to understand the darkest and the
strangest of circumstances to be the backdrop for the shining of
great light in the churches of this land and their members.
PROPHECY OF LIGHT IN GALILEE
Such a perspective is prophesied
in our Old Testament lesson today from Isaiah Ch 9, in which the
coming Messiah is promised to transform the darkness and gloom of the
defeated lands of Zebulun and Naphtali into something glorious; for
"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." For Isaiah, for all his remarkable discernment that
this salvation would come through the birth of a son whose name would
be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace”, part of the circumstances of it was the breaking
of the rod of the Assyrian oppressor. Yet long after such
circumstances have fallen away, the prophetic words are quoted, this
time from the Greek Septuagint version, in our Gospel from St.
Matthew: "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." The Gospel-writer Matthew sees the presence of
Jesus Himself in Galilee and in Capernaum as the fulfilment of the
prophetic words, because Galilee included the old territories of
Zebulun and Naphtali, and the town of Capernaum, where Jesus had his
home base after he left Nazareth, was smack in the middle of those
regions. There are many indications in the Gospels that the Jews of
Judaea and Jerusalem looked down on these northern territories with
their mixed populations of Jew and Gentile, and the prophecy that
they would be made glorious seems to have been widely disregarded.
Typically, it is recorded of Jesus that He went about all Galilee,
teaching in the synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom and
healing every disease and every infirmity among the people. The dark
backdrop of the place being despised by the cognoscenti
made it peculiarly appropriate for the light of His ministry. This is
the ministry to which we as part of the body of Christ are heirs.
THE LIGHT OVERCAME EARLY DIFFICULTIES
We do not, therefore, look for ideal circumstances or
ideal people to demonstrate the presence and light of Jesus, because
His is a Presence that causes light to dawn in the darkest of places
and circumstances. The truth of this is demonstrated by the
Corinthian church, which we heard about in the second Lesson from St.
Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. The letter shows how upset
the Apostle is by the reports he has received of the quarrelling
among them, and of their division into factions supporting various
leaderships, and he counsels them to consider that the real light of
the gospel is the word of the cross, not the eloquence of the
preaching nor the prestige of the leadership. When one looks at all
the difficulties reported with the early church, it is indeed
remarkable that the gospel survived it, and we may take the courage
to have faith that the gospel can in the same way survive over our
own failures and the grave weaknesses in the Church, worldwide as
well as local, of the present time.
LIGHT IN TODAY'S DIFFICULTIES
Certainly the Church today in the West is beset by a
host of difficulties, not least by the mental climate of unbelief
both around and within, which is so prevalent, and by a herd
mentality with regard to the use of our language’s words and
concepts, a diabolical process magnified by electronic media and
newspapers, and one that was described with force and accuracy by C.
S. Lewis in his writings many years ago. With such internal
fault-lines impeding us we are called to face up to external
circumstances such as worldwide persecution and the Islamists at our
doors. In Nazareth, as St. Luke records, unbelief made it difficult
even for Jesus to have an effective ministry there, so we cannot
minimise the effect of unbelief on the life of the church today. It
is up to us in the churches to provide the antidote for unbelief and
for society’s loss of the Christian mind, even though we might
think we are ill-equipped for such a task. Yet our weakness is, as
always, the backdrop for the grace of God. This is indeed being
illustrated in the amazing renewal occurring in some of the Christian
churches in the East today. The only recourse is for us too to look
to the Cross and the Presence and the mind and heart and the words of
Jesus and rely entirely upon Him as our truest Friend for the shining
of the Light and the moving of men and women to truth, repentance and
faith, even in this our own time, in the Year of Our Lord 2017.
1. Give personal instances of "heaven" being
quite different from peace or comfort.
2. "The real light of the gospel is the word of the
3. Early Christians used to be considered to be
"atheists" by pagans, in the modern West, the mental
climate is unbelief or practical atheism, while in the East, the
mental climate may regard both the West and Christians as atheists
(or infidels). In each case, how has the Church been influenced?