‘The people of God must decide what reading of their experiences they will live by’ (Motyer)
Christians, Jews and Moslems are called ‘the people of the book’ in the Koran. It’s a very true expression. All three faiths and the cultures that sprang from them are shaped by our holy book in a profound way. The Bible has shaped and formed us in the Christian church and members of western culture in so many ways we don’t even know it. This year of course is a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publishing of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611. Many words and turns of phrase have entered our language: ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’, ‘he’s a real good Samaritan’ for example. Our weeks follow a biblical pattern; our years are marked by the seasons of the church: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost. Our liturgy in the church, our hymns, our prayers are soaked in scripture. Some of us read it every day in devotion, or every week at our home groups. For all of that, it is possible to let it just rest on the surface of our lives. To live our lives – go to work, come home, visit, go on holiday, do the shopping – with the words and advice of scripture just bolted on. Here is a quote from Alec Motyer’s commentary on Isaiah that really struck me: ‘The people of God must decide what reading of their experiences they will live by’.
Our OT reading is from Isaiah. Incredibly, this book is about 2,700 years old. What on earth has it got to say to 21st century man and woman? The back story to the reading is the domination of the northern states of Israel, Zebulun and Naphtali, by foreign powers. While the southern kingdoms of Judah and Israel were squabbling and fighting with each other, these two northern areas were having a terrible time with Assyria. Eventually they were taken into captivity in 722 BC and experienced the brutality, poverty, hunger and slavery that came along with it. To these people Isaiah made this prophecy: ‘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…for the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian’ (Is 9:2-4). These are stirring, powerful words and I am sure would have brought hope to those desperate, unfortunate people. But for all that, their release and restoration did not happen. The northern tribes of Israel did not return from captivity. The southern tribes did; but not the north. So are these just empty words?
Before we move on, it is worth reflecting that there are plenty of people in the world who have suffered identical experiences. Millions of people have fled from their homes or been driven out from Iraq, Zimbabwe, Congo and other countries. Plenty of people live in social and economic deprivation today. And there are people who live not a stone’s throw from this church, perhaps who are here this morning, who know pain, who ‘walk in darkness’, to use Isaiah’s words. It is the ‘sharedness’ of experience like that across nearly 3 millennia that means that Isaiah’s words can still speak. And perhaps Isaiah, living as he did before the printing press, before radio, TV, mobile phones and the internet could, in the silence, hear God’s word more clearly than we can. ‘The people of God must decide what reading of their experiences they will live by’.
And so to our gospel reading. It is Matthew’s account of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. As an aside, Jesus was a refugee. Born in Bethlehem, his parents fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s murder of all Jewish infants. The family came back to Nazareth, where he grew up but then Matthew tells us he withdrew to Capernaum in Galilee – that is, the land of Zebulun and Naphtali – when he heard that John had been arrested. It is Jesus’ third home. Matthew tells us that Jesus himself is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘Jesus 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 and 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.’ (Mt 4: 14-17). The reading finishes with Jesus calling of the first disciples – Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John – and the beginning of his ministry of healing, exorcism and preaching (18-23).
Matthew’s explanation, then of the unfulfilled prophecy of Isaiah is that its answer is in Jesus. He is the light shining in the darkness. So what was it that happened, how exactly was Jesus light? It’s worth remembering what did not happen. The occupying power of the time – the Romans, rather than the Assyrians – were not kicked out. Israel did not become an independent kingdom. Jesus did not lead a political triumph. Jesus did not die a peaceful death at a ripe old age. Poverty was not eradicated. The followers of Jesus did not have a very wonderful time.
And yet…something started that has still not finished. A ball was set rolling that rolls on today. A light was lit that continues to shine in darkness. A story of transformation rather than political victory, of seeing things a different way, of living a different way, of dancing to a different tune, reading from a different script, a different way of reading our experiences. It is everything to do with Jesus and what he came to proclaim, the kingdom of heaven. Matthew places the quotation from Isaiah bang next to Jesus beginning his ministry by proclaiming that people need to repent, to think differently, to tear up the old way of doing things and read from a new agenda because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven is not a place you can go to, a country you can live in. It’s not even the church. The kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God as it is called in Luke and Mark, is the single biggest topic about which Jesus preached and yet I find it an elusive thing to pin down. I m not going to succeed in the few minutes I have left but here are some thoughts. Firstly, it’s a community. But one unlike any other. Jesus’ first action after proclaiming the kingdom of heaven was to call the first disciples, the beginning of a physical community. We who try to follow Jesus are members of that community. It is a community that stretches backwards and forwards in time and transcends all barriers of race, education and class. It is eternal. It has Jesus as its leader and is inhabited by, and filled with, God. It differs from the kingdoms of the world in these ways: forgiving, not vengeful. Healing, not harm. Loving, not hateful. Hopeful, not despairing. Confronting evil, not giving in to it. Generous, not stingy. Trusting, not suspicious. Humble, not proud. For those with eyes to see it, this is profoundly attractive. Jesus, by his life, death and resurrection has settled what you might called the ‘big questions’ of life and sets us free to live in the light of this kingdom. By the ‘big questions’ I mean questions about our relationship with God – it is established, settled. About eternal life – fixed up. About death – not the end. About the purpose of life – it is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever. I know these are short answers but it’s all I can do. If I had to use a visual image to express all that it would be this: the kingdom of heaven is like living in the light.
Let me come back to where I started, this quote from Motyer: ‘The people of God must decide what reading of their experiences they will live by’. What it means is this: what script do you read from? What compass do you refer you to decide the direction of travel of your life? The people of Zebulun and Naphtali back in Isaiah’s time were challenged by the prophet to believe that God had got a plan for them, he was in control even thought it did not look like it, and shape their lives accordingly. The people of Israel in Jesus’ time were challenged by Jesus to do the same thing. The whole of the sermon on the mount, for example, is a blueprint for living your life with God at the centre of it. It is a way of living that is in direct contrast to the way people usually go about things.
Some of you will know that a few brave souls from St John’s meet every couple of months to discuss theology. This little group was Hamish’s brainchild and we have waded through a few books and papers to try and make sense of them. By the way, anyone is welcome to this group, it’s not exclusive! A couple of weeks ago we read a chapter from a book called ‘Resident Aliens’ by Hauerwas and Willimon. Here is a quote I cannot get out of my head. Hauerwas interprets Barth, the great Swiss theologian of the last century. Get this: ‘Barth taught that the world ended and began, not with Copernicus or even Constantine, but with the advent of a Jew from Nazareth. In the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, all human history must be reviewed. The coming of Christ has cosmic implications. He has changed the course of things. So the theological task is not merely translating Jesus into modern categories, but rather to translate the world to him. Our job is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel’ (Resident Aliens, p.24)
In summary, the challenge of Jesus to us is simply this: to live in the light. To recognize that the light has come, that it is Jesus, and to regard him, his teachings, his life, his Spirit as the light by which we travel. To view the world from the perspective of Jesus. ‘The people of God must decide what reading of their experiences they will live by’
I can find no better way to close than by reading the prayer of St Francis of Assisi, a man whose life was deeply transformed by Jesus and who acted as a catalyst for change in mediaeval society right up to the present.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy; O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.