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. Matthew 4:12-23

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.

QUESTIONS

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 cross". Comment.

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?