a sermon, based on Isaiah 9.1-4 and Matthew 4.12-23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2017
“There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.” Isaiah speaks to a dispirited people dwelling “in darkness” of war’s destruction and desolation. Worse, they believe themselves afflicted – “in the former time, brought into contempt” – by none other than God. There are times, when despair so relentlessly, ruthlessly overshadows a people that it seems to them that the cosmos has turned against them. So, it was for those to whom Isaiah spoke into the depths of their gloom and, lest they miss the message, emphatically proclaiming twice their coming deliverance and in the present perfect tense:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light.
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness,
on them light has shined.
This is prophetic and emphatic speech; not foretelling, predicting the future, but rather forthtelling, proclaiming what God will do. And because it is a work of God, who dwells beyond time and space, once the word is uttered, it is considered accomplished though it has yet to become manifest in human history.
Reading on, Isaiah declares how God will bring light to this people dwelling in darkness: A child has been born for us…Authority rests on his shoulders, whose name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for…his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness, now and forevermore.
This passage we often read at Christmas as we Christians emphasize our belief that Jesus, in his birth, his coming into the world fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy…
This, too, is the view of Matthew, who, writing about the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee with a people, according to secular history, living in the shadow of oppression by the Roman Empire, and, according to salvation history, dwelling in the darkness of their estrangement from God, recalls, revives Isaiah’s prophecy: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light…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.
What sense do we make of this? We know that history’s pages are replete with sorrowful stories of peoples who have walked in the darkness of war’s destruction and desolation. And, given our demonstrable human propensity to repeat our past, we also know that today peoples do walk in darkness and, doubtless, in the future will walk in darkness.
So, does Isaiah’s prophecy remain to be fulfilled?
Are the glad tidings of Christmas merely wishful thinking?
Is John the baptizer’s question of Jesus, which Matthew also recounts, sadly still operative: “Are you the one to come or shall we look for another?”
I pray not, for another way to look at Isaiah’s prophecy of what God will do is to see it as a sign of hope. Throughout history, people dwelling in the darkness of war and oppression still could conceive of the light of peace and justice; stirring their cold hearts, strengthening their weak hands to labor to bring the vision from the light of their imagination into the life of their reality…
And another way to look our Christmas proclamation of Jesus’ birth is to see it as a sign of what God does. God’s will of peace and justice is revealed not in bold strokes of fearsome cosmic portents, much less by overruling force or overriding violence, but rather in the weakest, helpless flesh of a baby; therefore like our flesh…
And another way to look at Matthew’s testimony that Jesus and his ministry fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy is to see it as a sign of how God does what God does. Through us.
Jesus demonstrated that in his ministry. Jesus called Simon and Andrew, James and John, saying, “Follow me. I will make you fish for people.” Immediately, they followed Jesus.
Those first disciples, already with their livelihoods, their lives, were in no obvious desire for a new vision, much less a new vocation. Yet when God calls, especially with the claim of discipleship, “Follow me”, almost always it is invasive and disruptive.
Near January’s end, we stand on the threshold of a new year. We dare not stand still, failing to see what God may do with us and through us in this world. What is it that Jesus is calling us to do to bring the vision of peace and justice not to light – for that, in prophetic proclamation, Christmas celebration, and Matthew’s narration, already has happened – but to life?
Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy
The Prophet Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902), The Jewish Museum, NYC
The Calling of Saint Peter And Saint Andrew (Vocation De Saint Pierre Et Saint André), James Tissot (1836-1902)
 I recall the Apostle Paul’s encouraging rhetorical question (Romans 8.31), “If God is for us, who can be against us?” As I read Isaiah 9.1-4, apparently for Zebulun and Napthali, if God is against you, who can be for you?
 Isaiah 9.6-7a
 Matthew 11.3