by Linda Rex
January 22, 2023, 3rd Sunday in Epiphany—Recently, my husband remarked about my preference for darkened rooms. I’ve always preferred a more dimly lighted room to one that is filled with bright light because of the sensory overload that I experience from constant intense brightness. When the Scriptures speak about the light which is Jesus, I often wonder if our experience of Jesus can also make us prefer a less intense experience of the truth and grace which he brings. For some of us, hiding in the darkness of our human experience is preferable to facing up to the reality that we may have aspects of our person which need redemption and healing.
The good news is that this is the reason Jesus came. He did not come to condemn us, he said, but to save us and give us eternal life (John 3:16-17). His purpose is not to shame or diminish us in any way, but to bring us into the fullness of all that he intended from the beginning, from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:3-6), when light first touched this cosmos—life in relationship with God in the Spirit.
In our gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 4:12-23, the apostle quotes a passage from Isaiah 9:1-4, saying that Jesus’ life and ministry in the Galilee area was a fulfillment of this particular prophetic word. When looking back at the history of ancient Israel, we see that this area of the country was constantly invaded as a consequence of their repeated infidelity to God. Because they chose to continue to live in the darkness of sin, they ultimately experienced invasion and deportation by the Assyrians.
In Matthew’s day, the area of Galilee was distained by the people in Jerusalem and much of Judea, for the area was filled with Gentiles and surrounded by Hellenistic Jews who had in many ways assimilated into the Greek culture of their day. That Jesus would grow up in Nazareth and spend much of his life and ministry in the area of Galilee is remarkable and a telling witness to the grace and love of God for his people.
The dawning of the light of God in his birthplace of Nazareth, though, was met with ridicule and disbelief. So, Jesus went to Capernaum to live and work, and traveled around the region of Galilee, preaching, teaching, and healing the people. Here the light of God, Jesus, announced the present reality of the kingdom of God, calling the people to repent. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he was present and active in the lives of those who lived in darkness, calling them into his light, into life in relationship with his Father in the Spirit.
What is our experience when the light first dawns for us? What is our experience and response when first encountering the reality of Jesus and his claims upon us and our lives? Are we one of those who walks over to the light switch and shuts off the lamp because it is blinding us, or are we so blessed by the invasion of light in our darkness that we welcome it?
The issue may simply be that we are not clearly hearing or intently listening to and heeding what Jesus is saying. Perhaps we might want to look a little more closely at this simple message that Matthew puts forth as Jesus’ gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In that brief statement, there is a blinding light being projected, meant to illuminate the darkness which had covered these people for centuries. All of their messianic expectations needed to be revised, and all of their preferences reexamined. And this is why, perhaps, some may simply have preferred to turn the light back off rather than allow it to penetrate into their darkness.
Jesus didn’t focus on the benefits of being one of the chosen people. He didn’t celebrate the religious activities of the elite or promise blessings for obedience. At the same time, Jesus’ call to repent wasn’t a call to shame or guilt. It wasn’t a ridicule or a criticism. Instead, it was a call to a change of mind and heart—an invitation to turn around and go the right direction.
When in a darkened room, it is hard to see another person. If a person lives in darkness long enough, they lose their ability to see anyone or anything. If someone else is in the room with them, they wouldn’t know it, unless perhaps they heard them, because they wouldn’t see them. Jesus was inviting those who heard his message to see the reality that God was with them (in him) and they needed to turn around and get back into the face-to-face relationship with God they were created for. Jesus’ call to repent was a call to come back home, to live in the truth about who they were. Repent, Jesus says, and invites them into warm fellowship with himself, and thus with the Father in the Spirit.
Having reminded his listeners to come back into relationship with God through him, Jesus tells them that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven is Matthew’s euphemism for the kingdom of God. In Jesus, God’s kingdom was present and real, being established in a new and real way in his person. As the one through whom and by whom all was created, the Word of God in human flesh, Jesus was the one who ruled over all that was made. As the king of the kingdom, present in person, Jesus was calling all people to turn around and participate with him in the reality of God’s reign over all.
And that’s the catch. That’s where we get up and reach for the switch to turn off the light. We don’t want God invading our space or telling us how to run our world or our own lives. We don’t want anyone dictating to us. And we most certainly don’t want to admit that perhaps we need a power beyond ourselves in order to solve our problems, fix our world and our relationships, or even to change ourselves. We dive deeply into anything we can get our hands on that might possibly solve our problem, or at least anesthetize us from the pain, because we certainly don’t want to have to surrender to God.
What is sad, is that we as Christians are often the most guilty about avoiding the light. We find so many ways in which to bury our heads in the ground or rewire the light switch so that we don’t have to face the reality that we have turned our backs upon our relationship with God or have abandoned our dependence upon the One who has redeemed and saved us.
The good news is that Jesus comes to dark places, places like Galilee, where for a time, darkness reigns. Jesus is the Son of God who temporarily set aside the privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity in order to turn us back to God. Jesus says to all of us, “Follow me,” and invites us to live and walk within his own personal relationship with Father in the Spirit. He encourages us to live life in relationship with him day by day, in the humility of total dependence upon him, and daily welcomes us come home. As we are willing, he shines his light into our dark places, bringing renewal, healing, and restoration, and a deeper experience of God’s love.
Thank you, Father, for including us through Jesus in relationship with you in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to turn away from ourselves and this world and to turn again to Jesus, allowing your light to penetrate down into the deepest and darkest places within ourselves. May we discover that in the blackest places, the light of Jesus already shines. Amen.
“Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who were sitting in darkness saw a great light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a light dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him. Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.” Matthew 4:12–23 NASB
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