A sermon preached on January 23rd, 2011.
First, the Gospel lesson, Matthew 4:12 – 23.
“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — 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.’ From that time Jesus began to proclaim,
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
“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.”
Matthew is unique in emphasizing exactly where Jesus began in his ministry. When he came forth from his time in the wilderness Jesus goes away from Judea — the very heart of Israel – and goes to a land Matthew defines as being “of the Gentiles” – the outsiders – the people who — unlike the Jews — are not the ‘chosen’ people. He relies on an ancient prophecy of Isaiah to interpret Jesus’ choice of location:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 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.’
Jesus goes not to the insiders who presume they are walking in the light, rather he goes to the outsiders — the people who are sitting in darkness, dwelling in the region and shadow of death. He comes to bear light — a light that is easily missed by those who assume they are already in the light.
Prior to his baptism by John at the River Jordan, we don’t know anything about Jesus’ adult life. Was their hardship? Suffering? We just don’t know. What we do know is that immediately after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to spend an extended stay in the deep darkness himself. For forty days he fasted and withstood the temptations of the Prince of darkness.
We tend to imagine this time as having been something of a cake walk for Jesus. Hey, he was the son of God, right? No sweat. But it wasn’t a cake walk at all. He suffered it all: hunger, doubt, fear, despair. That’s what darkness feels like.
It was necessary for Jesus to go into the deep darkness in order for him to grow into the authority that had been given him at his baptism, when he heard the voice of God declare him to be the beloved son.” If you’re going to speak good news to people who dwell in deep darkness, you need to have first hand experience of the darkness yourself. Otherwise, they’ll just ignore you.
Life inevitably brings us into the land of deep darkness. There are various pathways to the deep darkness – things like grief, or loss of our health or job, the breakdown of an intimate relationship upon which we’ve relied. To some degree, we’ve all been there. Some of us are right there now.
Naturally, we would prefer to stay in the sunshine, but the darkness comes, nonetheless. And yet Jesus begins his ministry not in the sunshine but in the darkness, which means there must be some value to the darkness; one readily overlooked. It is in the darkness that the great light shines.
My all time favorite sermon illustration that comes from a book comes from Rachel Naomi Remen, a medical doctor who has acquired a great deal of wisdom and light having spent a good deal of time herself in the land of deep darkness. She records some of her wisdom in lovely stories that can be found in books like My Grandfather’s Blessings.
Rachel describes a middle-aged woman named Sara who she got to know who told her how as a young woman she suffered from the eating disorder known as now as bulimia. At the time, little was known about such psychiatric ailments, and she went to ten different doctors before she found one who took her seriously as being afflicted with something more than simple adolescent rebellion.
“Rachel, I was just so alone, I could not stop myself, and at the worst of it I was not sure that it was possible to survive this. I was very afraid. I remember thinking that somewhere there must be someone else who had this problem, someone who has been able to heal from it. If they could live, maybe I could live too.”
Sara never did meet such a person, but she did end up hospitalized for nearly year, which saved her life, as slowly – she knows not how – she made her way back from the edge into a full recovery.
Rachel concludes the story as follows:
A few years ago, she was reading her evening newspaper and came across an announcement for a meeting of a bulimia support group. Sara is a middle-aged woman and has not suffered from this problem for many years, but the idea of a support group intrigued her, and she decided to attend a meeting to see what it was like. It had been a powerful experience. The desperately ill young people there had touched her heart, and while she felt unable to help them, she cared about them and so she continued going back. Other than saying that she had bulimia as a girl she had not revealed a great deal more about herself but had simply sat and listened to the stories of others.
As she was bout to leave one of those meetings, she was stopped by a painfully thin young girl who thanked her for coming and told her how much it had meant to know her. Her eyes had been filled with unshed tears. Sara had responded with her usual graciousness, but she had been puzzled. She could not recall ever speaking to this girl and did not even know her name. As she drove home, she wondered how she could have forgotten something so important to someone else. She was almost home before she understood. Her husband, who met her at their front door, was surprised to see that she had been crying. “Sara, what is wrong?” he asked in concern.
“I have become the person I needed to meet, Harry,” she told him and walked into his arms.
Because Sara had dwelt herself in the same deep darkness that these young women were in, she was able to bear light to them.
Here at the Parsippany United Methodist Church we say there is always room in the circle. We are one big fellowship circle into which all are welcome.
If truth be told there are several smaller fellowship circles within the bigger circle of our fellowship. They are sort of secret societies. Even though we may have some vague awareness of their existence, if we don’t belong we don’t really understand what it means to be a member. At times we might even feel a bit envious of the strong bond the members share, but the initiation rites are a bear, and nobody would willingly choose to undergo one of the rites.
One of those secret societies is made up of women with names like Doris, Lois, Grace, Betty, Ruth, Trudy, Hwa and Rebecca. It’s the fellowship of women who have endured the death of their husbands. It is a beautiful thing to see them reach out to the women who find themselves suddenly initiated. They have a unique capacity to bear light in the darkness.
There are other secret societies.
The fellowship of those who have endured the death of their parents. (It has a pretty broad membership, though I myself am not yet a member.)
There is a smaller fellowship of parents who have endured the death of their children.
But there are other fellowships as well; more than I can name.
There is the fellowship of those who have dealt with cancer.
There’s the diabetes fellowship.
There’s the fellowship of those who have suffered divorce, or the breakup of some other deeply intimate bond.
There’s the fellowship of those who have struggled with addiction.
There’s the fellowship of those who have suffered the peculiar darkness of depression.
There’s the fellowship of parents who have watched helplessly as their children suffered in profound ways.
There’s the fellowship of those who have lost their jobs and stay awake at night wondering how they can pay their bills.
There’s the fellowship of those who grew up feeling as though they didn’t fit in a world where everybody was assumed to be straight — they were gay and assumed they were all alone and didn’t belong here until they finally met others who shared what they had experienced.
And there are fellowships of people who seem to have so much going for them, and yet suffer with a profound emptiness that makes them feel all alone. For instance the fellowship of young stay-at-home moms (or dads) shut up all day with there ever-demanding and often cranky children.
There are more of these secret societies than we can number, but if we learn the lessons brought about by the darkness endured in our particular secret society, we realize that in truth there really is just one big fellowship after all, because all these varied initiation rites express the suffering that is part and parcel of being a human being.
To be humbled and instructed in the lessons the darkness of any kind of suffering has to teach – as Jesus did out there in the wilderness – is to realize that in the end we are connected to every other human being, no matter how the form our suffering has taken.
The Church is the great fellowship circle of Jesus’ love. Until you’ve gone through an initiation rite that brought you low and forced you to sit for a time in the deep darkness, you may not really “get” what the Church is ultimately all about. But life has a way of bringing us to the initiation rite.
It was the great good fortune of the fishermen Simon and Andrew, James and John to meet the person they most needed to meet as they dwelt in the land of deep darkness. And Jesus in turn called them on a path in which they would become “fishers of people,” which is another way of saying a path in which they intentionally sought to become the sort of persons others in their darkness need to meet.
In the fellowship of AA, a key component of the healing journey of each recovering alcoholic is to be involved in supporting those who are likewise on the journey – particularly those who are newer to the journey than themselves. It’s right there in the twelve steps.
The light that shines in the darkness leads us on a path where we are given opportunity to bear light to others who are suffering from the darkness with which we are personally well acquainted. The middle-aged woman Sarah finds herself called to reach out to the young women locked in the darkness she once knew so well. The widow called to bring healing balm to the newly grieved sister.
The voice of Jesus calls to us in the darkness and bids us come and follow; do you hear the voice calling you?