Pat Conover: Seeing a Great Light

Sermon for Seekers Church
January 27, 2002
Pat Conover 

Seeing a Great Light

Please forgive me for I seem unable to begin this sermon without making the Tolkien connection. Trish and I have been reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy to each other and we are almost done with it. A lot of the symbolism in the books is about lightness and darkness, with the traditional simplistic assumption that light is good and darkness is evil. We have the same kind of symbolism in the fourth chapter of Matthew, which Matthew borrows from the ninth chapter of Isaiah.

Lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, the way to the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the pagans!
You who have languished in darkness have seen a great light,
you who have wasted away in the shadow of death,
for you a light has risen.

Isaiah has a grandness of language and vision that appealed to Matthew for interpreting the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Indeed, Matthew spends a lot of energy trying to connect the sagas of the Hebrew people to the triumphant moment of Jesus. The Sea of Galilee in the land of the pagans reminds me of Tolkien’s sea of Nurnen in Mordor. After the power of Sauron the evil is ended, Sauron’s slaves are given the fertile land around the sea of Nurnen for their home. What is to be given to the slaves and the marginalized of Galilee and the Roman Empire?

There is quite a dramatic tension in Matthew’s story. Jesus the weak, born in questionable circumstances, hunted by King Herod as a threat, saved and given gifts by the Magi, refugee to Egypt, grows up in Galilee in a nowhere village, son of a construction laborer. Jesus is like Bilbo and Frodo, who from humble beginnings go on to accomplish great tasks. Matthew continues to weave magic and miracle around the life of Jesus and returns to the theme of darkness and light to make magic of the death of Jesus on the Cross in the 27th Chapter.

Beginning at noon darkness blanketed the entire land until mid-afternoon. And about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Jesus shouted at the top of his voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabacthani" (which means, "My god, my God, why did you abandon me.?")

And suddenly the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth quaked, rocks were split apart, and the tombs were opened and many bodies of sleeping saints came back to life. And they came out of their tombs after his resurrection and went into the holy city, where they appeared to many. The Roman officer and those keeping watch over Jesus with him witnessed the signs and what had happened, and were terrified and said, “This man really was God’s son.”

Wrapping the story of Jesus in an epic saga with a magical ending has caused enormous damage to Christendom down the ages for so many have wanted to believe it in literal terms, as if it was history rather than story. I have long been so mad about the magic and the distraction from the importance of Jesus that I have fumed and fretted whenever this kind of imagery comes around. The simple story of Jesus is quite good enough to stand on its own without the backdrop of supernatural clashes of good and evil, of light and darkness, to spice it up.

Nevertheless, for this sermon at least, I am going to build on the sense of awe and significance that led Matthew to want to write the most glorious story of Jesus that he could manage. Something special was going on. Lives changed. People became reoriented and healthy. Community was established. Stories were told. Even though some hopes were dashed by the death of Jesus in public shame, the cross cleared away misconceptions so that followers came to clearly see why the life of Jesus matters so much. The magnificence and magic is not so much a lie as a testimony to the importance of the truths that Jesus made available. You cannot hear the story, the true story; I mean really hear the story with its true meanings, without being changed. If you back away then, after true hearing, you turn your back on life.

Sadly, though, many who have heard the telling of the story of Jesus repeatedly have become numb to it, often resistive to it because it is so fancifully told. Our son Patrick was just explaining to us why he could not believe in the Bible because he did not believe that Jesus really walked on water. How could Patrick be around Seekers and come away so damaged! Sadly, Patrick’s story is the story of millions of young people who have turned away from Christianity because we tell the story so badly.

Putting down the ruffles and flourishes, but remembering the excitement and awe of many who came to know Jesus, what can we learn of Jesus in the lectionary passage from Matthew.

There are four key bits of the simple story of Jesus in this passage.

  1. Jesus began his ministry after John the Baptist was put in prison and the lead theme of his preaching was the same as John the Baptist.
  2. Jesus was in the same area where John the Baptist was a well-known prophet and Jesus gathered disciples just like John the Baptist.
  3. Unlike John the Baptist, instead of staying in the wilderness where there was relative safety, Jesus preached in the synagogues. This meant that he was accepted enough by the people who went to the synagogues to get an audience with them.
  4. Unlike John the Baptist, Jesus was a healer and not only a preacher.

I have preached on the links between Jesus and John the Baptist before, but it has been awhile and it can help to remember a few things.

Jesus was in Galilee, several days of walking from Jerusalem. The temple was far away. Samaria, which was closer to Jerusalem than Galilee was considered a district of heretics because they did not honor the temple in Jerusalem and instead settled for worshiping in their own towns. Jesus, like John, challenged the meaning of the temple and the magic of sacrifice as a way to win God’s forgiveness for one’s sin. John gave forgiveness away free with the ritual of baptism. John and Jesus were preaching an unmediated connection to God that was based on the qualities of spirit and commitment rather than ritual and the magic of sacrifice as propitiation of an angry God.

Different translations of the Bible offer different language for the core theme of the preaching of John and Jesus. It matters. The Revised Standard Version I grew up with uses “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The King James Bible, The New Revised Standard Version and the Jerusalem Bible present Jesus as preaching the good news of the kingdom without any additional reference to either heaven or immanence. The translation of the Jesus Seminar scholars is, “Change your ways because Heaven’s imperial rule is closing in.” This translation puts the emphasis upon the relevance of the eternal for everyday life. The action is here and now.

The story of the calling of the disciples tells us that Jesus was well known in Galilee. He was also well known in the Capernaum section of Galilee, which was about a day’s walk from Nazareth, almost at the Jordan River. Focusing the story of Jesus in Galilee is important because the bits about Jesus in Jerusalem could lead one to think that his confrontation with the temple authorities was the biggest element. Galilee was part of the Roman Empire but it was not under the rule of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. There was more breathing space in Galilee and there was an incredibly rich cross-cultural life there. The wilderness was close to Capernaum. When Jesus went to Jerusalem, he ran out of space and it cost him his life.

John the Baptist was arrested for his commentary on the marital impropriety of Herod Antipas. There was no freedom of the press. For Jesus to take up his ministry after John was arrested, emphasizing the same message, meant that Jesus had the courage to speak up in a dangerous time. It was not hard to see that he was likely headed for death just as John was. It is such courage, to say what needs to be said and to do what needs to be done, that brings awe to any story.

To say that the imperial rule of heaven is closing in is treasonous. It strikes at the political heart of the Roman Empire and the rule of the Herods as stand-ins for Rome. The authorities had reason to be nervous about religious uprisings. Shortly after the birth of Jesus, a Jewish rebel named Judas, the son of Ezekias, captured the nearby city of Sepphoris. Then Herod called on the Roman General Gaius who recaptured the city and took away its inhabitants into slavery. All this happened just a couple of miles from Nazareth. There had been numerous Jewish uprisings going back to the Maccabees, before and after the establishment of Herod the Great, including one by Ezekias, the father of Judas. The Zealots were alive and well as a movement, carrying swords and attacking Romans in terrorist activities. At least two Zealots were disciples of Jesus, obviously hearing something that drew their allegiance.

The point is that the simple story of Jesus is not a playing out of some pre-ordained supernatural saga. It is the story of a desperate search for meaning and significance in difficult times, with the odds stacked against John and Jesus.

This is a morally grounded story, not some saga based on honor and great deeds, not a quest story as in Tolkien, but a story of truth telling, of loving and healing, of the courage to embrace meaning in the midst of deadly opposition. Jesus does not develop as a character in this story. He bursts on the scene as a disciple of John, takes up John’s message, adds his own elements and follows the same path as John to a painful end. It is a simple story but it changed the world.

This simple story of Jesus is accessible and I hope you are not bored to hear it told without the ruffles and flourishes. Above all, it is a story that you and I can pick up and emulate. Nevertheless, be warned, telling the unpopular truth is still dangerous.

How important is it to have a place in society where truth is boldly proclaimed? Should I tell you the story of Redpath Press in Turkey, the work of a Christian missionary family that figured out how to survive for decades in the midst of great religious oppression, when no Christian ceremony or gathering was allowed outside of their own modest home? Redpath Press was not a free press, but it still was able to hold up the standard of objective truth telling in the books it was allowed to publish and was one of the agents of change as Turkey emerged as a more modern nation.

How important was it in the 1960's to burglarize the safe of the Chicago Public Schools and steal the actual budget that was used to distribute resources and take it to the Chicago Tribune? Even the money that Chicago got from the federal government to promote reading in low-income areas was being diverted to special programs in the wealthiest areas.

How important has it been for religious leaders who oppose the School of the Americas to uncover a decades-long conspiracy of the United States government to support repression and torture in Central and South America? Several Christians are in prison right now for participating in this effort.

Let Seekers be always a place where we are unafraid to tell any truth and let us be part of telling the truth throughout the United States and the world. I am talking about the truths of the Bible, all the secular truths we are carrying, the political truths that stand against the spin-doctors, the public relations firms, and our personal truths, starting with our confessions. Telling our truths must always include the truth of our own limitations in knowing the truths we tell. Committing to the truth is a life-long journey of growth and transformation. Moreover, let us be a community to support each other when the pains that often come to whistle-blowers and prophets come to one of us. Let us be a community where our common commitment to the truth allows sharp disagreement without the loss of loving engagement.

A real commitment to the truth has consequences.

In personal terms, a commitment to embrace the truth means that we must measure our callings and commitments against the standards of untold truth and ungiven caring. Jesus did not hoard his truth, did not withdraw with his truth, did not cut corners with his truth. Jesus said what needed to be said and that was part of his healing as well as his prophetic challenges.

Why do you suppose Simon and Andrew left their fishing to follow Jesus? They had to have known things about Jesus that led them to understand and be ready for the call he offered. They knew that Jesus was aligned with the living history of the Hebrew people and not defined by the Roman Empire or the official Jewish cult of the day that looked always to the Temple in Jerusalem. They knew he was not withdrawing like the Essenes. They knew he was not a Pharisee although he was knowledgeable about Hebrew scripture and story. They knew he was aligned with John the Baptist and had the courage to stand up after John was arrested.

Perhaps Simon and Andrew were personal friends of Jesus. Perhaps they had heard the testimonies of Jesus among the gatherings with John the Baptist. Whatever the friendship and shared experience, some hope had been kindled that life could have meaning beyond the daily routines of fishing and life under oppression. Simon and Andrew heard not merely truth but saving truth. In the call of Jesus, they knew they mattered to someone who saw deeply, cared deeply and acted with courage. They left their nets to share in tasks that lifted up the truth Jesus was carrying. Are you likewise willing to leave your distractions to take up your tasks in a community that carries the larger truths? Is that a dramatic enough challenge to make up for a lack of ruffles and flourishes? Are you willing to live out of hope even when you do not see the end of the path, even when you fear the end of the path?

Many Christians believe Jesus was selling a life in heaven or an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. It seems to me that the simple story of Jesus was that he was offering enough light for the next step, hope in the midst of hopelessness, a meaningful life that could not be bound and defined by the authorities – not even when they oppressed with the power of the cross. Is it awesome to realize that its length or its comforts do not define life? Is it awesome to be able to contribute even a small part to a story that really matters, to carrying and sharing a story that is good news for the whole world? If you embrace meaning in the life moments you have been given, if you are willing to embrace life with full courage and humility, if you are willing to give your best and are willing to change and grow to be of greater service, the issues of heaven and the end of the world are seen for what they are, speculation, often a speculation that distracts from everyday growth and service.

Do not misunderstand me; speculations about heaven and the end of the world carry an important spiritual truth. In the face of meaninglessness and oppression, even brutal torture, the human spirit cries out to God that such darkness must not the last word. Even if no path can be seen, heaven and the end of the world promise a truth that cannot be obliterated by oppression and desecration. Many Christians have lived and been martyred in the midst of such oppression and the visions of heaven and the end of the world have helped them name and claim their faith.

Jesus did better than heaven and the end of the world. Jesus showed us how to walk with light and joy in the midst of pain and misunderstanding. Enough light for the next step is enough light. Sharing the love at hand is enough love. Caring for one another, serving one another, is enough direction.

In some ways, life is harder for us than for Jesus. We have resources, education and power that Jesus did not have and that brings responsibilities and opportunities that were blocked by the oppression of the Roman Empire and the temple hierarchy. We are not poor fishermen and fisherwomen. Even the poorest among us are wealthy in ways that Simon and Andrew could not even imagine. To give away whom we are and what we have means a greater volume of giving. Simon and Andrew did not tithe. They gave everything, risked everything. Jesus did not tithe. He embraced a life that included the cross. There are no boundaries between what is ours and what belongs to God.

We live in a time of democracy and mixed capitalism that allows unprecedented opportunities for social change, non-violent social change. We do not need to do the things Jesus did. We need to follow the path Jesus began. We need to be thankful we have enough light for our next steps and then we need to take those steps.

To define ourselves by caring and serving, by justice and peace, by humility and commitment, to hold our gifts as gifts and give them away, is just as awesome for us as for Simon and Andrew, as for Mary and Martha. It has just as much revolutionary potential.

Is this a sufficiently awesome story for you? Is the light great enough? Do you need the magic of Tolkien or Matthew to feel that this story matters?

Maybe you are thinking, “I don’t need awesome light.” Maybe enough light for the next step is enough light. What is your next step?

Matthew 4: 12-23 (from the Scholar’s translation in the Five Gospels)

When Jesus heard that John had been locked up, he headed for Galilee. He took leave of Nazareth to go and settle down in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that the word spoken through Isaiah would come true.

Land of Zebulun and Naphtali, the way to the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the pagans!
You who have languished in darkness have seen a great light,
you have wasted away in the shadow of death,
for you a light has risen.

From that time on, Jesus began to proclaim, “Change your ways because Heaven’s imperial rule is closing in.”

As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he spotted two brothers, Simon, also known as Peter, and Andrew, his brother, throwing their net in the sea, since they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Become my followers and I’ll have you fishing for people!" So right then and there, they abandoned their nets and followed him.

When he had gone on a little farther, he caught sight of two other brothers, James, Zebedee’s son, and his brother John, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he also called out to them. They abandoned their boat and their father right then and there and followed him.

And he toured all over Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the news of (Heaven’s) imperial rule, and healing every disease and every ailment the people had.

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