Year A Isaiah 9: 1-4; Matthew 4: 12-23
Grace and peace to you this morning. I find myself reflecting on my sermon today with an awareness of context. Many years ago when I had been only a short time in parish ministry I was looking for a priest to supply for me on a vacation Sunday and a friend gave me a piece of advice. “Don’t invite anybody too good,” he said. “You want your people to be glad to see you when you come back.”
And I guess just lately I haven’t been paying much attention to that advice. Certainly last Sunday, at morning services with my friend the Rev. Lucia Lloyd, who is such a fine preacher, and her really wonderful sermon with us on the story of John the Baptist and the conversation that lead to calling of the first disciples of Jesus, with that great reflection on the art and practice of improvisational comedy. I received an e-mail from a friend who said, “it’s about time somebody quoted Stephen Colbert in a sermon around here.” I'm not sure if the problem there is my social and political orientation, or if it just has to do with the fact that we don't have cable. But in any event, it's always good and important to hear a diversity of voices and from a diversity of perspectives and experiences.
And then last Sunday afternoon at Evensong Bishop Sean Rowe from Erie joined us to preach what I thought was really another great sermon on the passage from Isaiah 43, focusing on the words of God spoken through the prophet: “Behold, I am about to do a new thing.” Interesting to me and inspiring actually to hear this young man, the youngest bishop of our Episcopal Church, in a time when the generation of church leaders before him, pretty much my generation, has led the wider church into a long period of struggle, conflict, deconstruction, and decline. Exciting to hear him talking with such energy and enthusiasm about how the gospel comes fresh in a new generation, alive with possibility, creativity, energy, passion.
Actually in many ways I thought both Lucia’s and Bishop Sean’s sermons converged thematically, working together in a very powerful way. It was a privilege to hear them, and to be inspired by them about a hopeful future for Christian life and mission and ministry. I suppose every generation in one way or another makes a mess of things, and I suppose every new generation rises up with a spiritual gift and vocation to move ahead through that mess. Because there is still so much good and important work to do.
It was great to hear those sermons. And then to say, just as a matter of anticipation and foretaste, that Carol will be our preacher next Sunday, as she has been so very generous to share her time with us this month while I’ve been trying to sort out how to keep things moving while Deacon Chess is away on her leave. And Carol is one of my favorite preachers too. Always great and full of insight and pastoral experience and wisdom. So the preaching bar is set pretty high this morning in terms of context, and I more or less did it to myself by extending all these invitations.
In any event, perhaps I would do best just by keeping it simple and reminding us again something of what we heard last Sunday. As certainly both of those sermons could have been based as easily on this morning’s readings. First from Isaiah—the God who tells the Prophet as we heard last Sunday at Evensong in Chapter 43, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” And now here this morning in Chapter 9: “In former times he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 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.” From judgment and punishment, from exile and estrangement, from loss and despair, from darkness-- to light. To light. God in a new and powerful way lifting the burden of oppression, and the night gives way to a new dawn of restoration and renewal, forgiveness, healing, reconciliation. A way forward, a new beginning. The promise of a hopeful future.
And then Matthew quotes this same passage as he tells of the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus after the arrest of John the Baptist. The words of Jesus ring out across the landscape to announce the good news that God’s kingdom is now drawing near. Disciples are gathered. Momentum builds. And again, there is fulfillment of hope, there is healing, there is new life.
Matthew is saying: what we have yearned for from ancient days, what we have known in a kind of symbolic way in the stories of the past, of the deliverance from Pharaoh, of the return from exile, now that is all becoming real for us in the person of Jesus. We are not left behind, to remain on the sidelines. Like Peter and Andrew and James and John, we are invited to be a part of it, to be ourselves in and through Christ the instruments of God’s new work.
Sometimes I do think about the mess that we’ve made and the mistakes and the problems and all the ways we could have done better, in the church and in the world. To some extent I’m thinking about my own generation, this particular time and place. But it could roll on about as well in the context of pretty much every generation, I suppose. Things fall apart. It would be sometimes easy and sometimes it is easy to be depressed or cynical. But that’s not the end of the story. It really isn’t.
The Steelers didn’t pack it in last weekend at halftime against the Ravens. They knew they still had 30 minutes to play, and that there were all kinds of possibilities out there for new and different things to happen. (At the end of the game last Saturday I did think to myself—“Now THERE is a sermon illustration!”)
And that’s the word we are in fact finding before us Sunday after Sunday through this season after the Epiphany, this “bridge time” between Christmas and Lent and Holy Week, as we stand up from the time of awe and wonder at the manger and turn our attention to what comes next on that hill outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Because the meaning of that Manger and the meaning of that Cross is always going to be that God isn’t finished with us, he doesn’t walk away. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! The story seemed over. Signed, sealed, delivered. But it turned out, there was more to come. There is more to come.
And as Lucia said last Sunday morning, as Bishop Sean said last Sunday afternoon, what a great and exciting and inspiring and fun invitation this is. For the disciples, as they meet Jesus for the first time. For us as we meet him, for the first time and every time, every day of our lives. To know Jesus and to make him known. Jesus lifted up in our hearts and in our lives. To enter into his gates with thanksgiving, to come into his courts with praise. In Word and Sacrament. In prayer, in beautiful music, in deep silence, and as we come into his presence in the service of those in need, or as we speak and act as agents of God’s truth, justice, mercy, and compassion in this broken world of ours. What a great and exciting and fun and inspiring invitation this is. That wonderful invitation to exploration and improvisation, when Jesus answered the disciples’ question, “Come and see!”
And as Bishop Rowe said in reflection on Isaiah, sometimes people in the Church, all of us, in our parishes, in our dioceses, in wider contexts, and in our personal life stories look back, to the Golden Age, the “good old days.” But when it comes to what God can do, there isn’t any moment better than this moment, and there isn’t and never has been any better time than this time, to be right here, you and me and all of us together, in this time and in this place, with this bunch of people. It’s still mostly mystery to me, but it is a great and wonderful mystery, to think that he has hand-selected us, called us, brought us here, each one of us, to be a part of it. And here we are!
Making the way glorious, light shining for those who walked in darkness, and forgiveness and healing. Something fresh and new.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.