Text: Matthew 4:12-25 (Is 9:1-4, 1 Cor -18) ô3rd Sunday after Epiphany
The Darkness Within
In the name of him who is the Light shining
in this world’s dark places, dear friends in Christ: Among the major themes of the season of Epiphany
is the light of Christ shining out from its place of origin in a Bethlehem
stable in successively larger circles until it reaches out to the heathen
nations, and how it draws people from every land and race into the fellowship
of God that was once pretty much the exclusive privilege of his chosen people
Israel. We see this already with the
wise men who come from far off
But in studying today’s lessons I
have to admit that I had something of an Epiphany myself. It happened as I was pondering the phrase
“land of Zebulun and
And it would have been at the time. But under the inspiration of the Spirit
Isaiah was writing about a time in the future when unfortunately his bleak
description would fit these lands only too well. That is to say places once bathed in God’s
holy light and inhabited by his faithful people were going to be overshadowed
with gloom and populated by unbelievers and the adherents of false religions. As it turns out, it didn’t take very long for
this particular prophecy to be fulfilled.
Already in Isaiah’s lifetime the lands he spoke of were conquered by the
invading armies of
And this we see is where Jesus chooses
to launch his ministry. This is where he
begins his campaign to bring light to those dwelling in darkness; not in far
flung mission fields where the Word of God has never penetrated, but rather
where darkness has encroached upon and overcome God’s chosen people in the
Promised Land. Jesus begins his teaching
and preaching in places that once had the Word of God and then lost it in whole
or in part on account of their unfaithfulness, or their apathy, or their wandering
from the truth, or their being seduced by sin, or their being deceived by the
philosophies of the world, or their making compromises and concessions with
false religions, blending various pagan elements and ideas with the truth of
God. It was all going on there in
And the reason that this is
significant for us is because of our understanding that what was once the
And things have got this way because wherever the truth is, it comes under attack. Be it through the intrusion of the world and its ideas, the deceptions of the devil, or our own sinful tendency to wander away from God, darkness is always trying to overcome the light. And it doesn’t usually come neatly packaged with a warning label that says “Danger: Darkness ahead. This is spiritual poison. Ingestion may cause loss of spiritual sight and sound judgment, and may lead to everlasting death.” Would that it were so simple; but no, it comes subtly with reasonable arguments, sweet temptations, and what appears to be wisdom and virtue. It comes concealed in the best of intentions. The shadows of darkness usually creep up slowly; but when they’ve done their work they leave people in the dark. And the thing of it is, people in the dark can’t see – they’ve lost their sense of spiritual sight – so they don’t know that they’re in the dark. They may even come to the point that they deny that the darkness exists at all.
Let me give you a couple examples of
what I’m talking about, one that’s local and another with much broader
impact. And let me say in advance to
anyone who may be offended that that’s not my objective here. But it is my job to declare the whole counsel
of God even when it hurts to hear it.
Anyway, an article appeared in the Clarinda paper this last week in
which one of the local pastors wrote about praying for unity in the Christian
Church. “Well, that’s a good thing to
pray for”, I thought. But in reading the
rest of the article, it became clear that the kind of unity he was talking
about wasn’t Christian unity at all. He
wrote, “I used to believe that the division of Christianity into so many
denominations … was a bad thing.
Experience and aging have changed my mind. There’s no reason for all of us to worship
alike, to sing alike, to govern ourselves alike, or [and here’s the kicker] even to interpret the Bible alike.” Now, on the surface that sounds pretty
good. It has a very nice appeal. It’s very egalitarian and democratic and
nonjudgmental – so it has all the politically correct attributes we crave. But it’s exactly the opposite of what
Which, by the way and leading to my second example, is usually where this sort of thinking eventually takes you. I mean, if differences of faith within what calls itself the Christian church don’t matter, if any one interpretation of Scripture is just as good as any other even when they are diametrically opposed, then there really is no such thing as God’s revealed truth – or if there is, it cannot possibly be known. Either way, if no one can say for sure what a Christian should believe in order to be saved, why draw the boundary line at the edge of Christianity? Why not say that every religious idea is just as valid as any other? And why not say that in the end everyone will be saved?
This teaching is called universalism. It says that since God is at heart basically
a nice guy in the end he’s going to take everyone to heaven regardless of their
faith. And it may surprise you to know
that in the past several weeks I have heard radio broadcasts or read articles
by leading spokesmen of a number of mainline protestant denominations that we
would call Christian and also one from that well-known great big non-protestant
denomination headquartered in Rome that we would also call Christian that said
exactly that: in the end everyone goes
to heaven. No exceptions. And I don’t know how else to say this: these are people speaking within the
very different though is the example we have before us in today’s Gospel
reading in which Jesus goes into spiritually darkened “
And the same is true today. The first priority of Jesus is to speak to his Church. And to the degree that in any church building or denomination his Word is being heard and expounded upon in truthfulness – without denying, degrading, or attempting to explain it away – there Jesus is bringing his light to those who are sitting in darkness. For we all have some of the darkness within. We all have sin. We all have doubt and unbelief. And to various degrees we all deceived by the world and the devil. Which is precisely why we need the light of Christ and his truth to shine on that darkness within; so that we can identify it, confess it, and allow him to drive it away with his blood bought forgiveness and replace it with his wisdom and truth.
Okay, shifting gears here a bit, there is in our synod a standing argument between two extremes. On one hand you’ve got those who are fanatic about missions. They say, “Let’s not worry so much about having our doctrine straight. Let’s put all our effort into making converts for Christ. That’s the only thing that matters.” Opposing them on the opposite end are those who are fanatic about making sure everyone already in the church is properly trained and comes to full maturity in the faith. They act like they won’t be happy until every member has a master’s degree in theology, and they sort of leave missions to take care of themselves. Anyway, the two sides are constantly at each other. The missions side accuses the other of not caring about the lost, and the doctrine side accuses the mission folks about not caring about the truth.
Fortunately we who are not on the fanatic fringe recognize that it’s a false dichotomy. It’s not like we have to choose between doing one or the other. Obviously a healthy church will be doing both: bringing more of the light of Christ to those already in the church so that they can continue to grow in Christian faith and life and at the same time reaching out to those who have yet to receive the Good News. But let me suggest that even though we don’t want to choose one or the other, we can see in today’s lesson a priority. Jesus goes first to the Church. There he speaks to his people to confront and drive away the darkness in them. And it makes sense: we’re not going to be effective as fishers of men if our own vessel is in disorder and our nets need mending. And it will do no good to make converts if we haven’t got a firmly grounded and nurturing church for them to continue to grow in.
So what I’m saying is let’s make Jesus’ top priority ours as well. Let’s keep meeting with him here so that he will continue to bring us the light of his truth to overcome the darkness within. In that way he will make us to be his lamps that shine his light brightly before the world. In his holy name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!