A SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY – 26 January 2020 – Revd Joy Margerison

Readings: Isaiah ch.9 vv.1-4 and St Mathew’s Gospel ch.4 vv.12-23

Text: Isaiah ch 9 v 2: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them has the light shined.”

Introduction: Those words from the Old Testament Prophet were reiterated by Jesus as he began his ministry centuries later. Change was to come, hope was to be offered, both to individuals and the nation – change, hope – that God’s Kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven. The composer, Handel, in his great oratorio “Messiah” set those words to paced, sombre music which eventually rises to an exhilarating crescendo as the bass soloist sings the line more than once, “have seen a great light.” It lifts the heart and leads into the lilting chorus, “For unto us a Child is born.” The Jesus narrative has begun and with change and hope for all.

When the prophet Isaiah was writing, those who “walked in darkness” were those living without and away from God. He cited Zebula and Naphtali as examples – tribes and provinces lost to Israel in the 8th Century BC. Jesus also used Isaiah’s words in his time to signify those living without God and to whom his presence and preaching were to be a call for people to return to their roots in faith and living according to the ways of God. Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Nazareth, his home town was far from the quiet backwater we might imagine. At the time of Jesus, Galilee was the most populated province of Palestine. Over the centuries, Galilee had received immigrants from neighbouring countries including Syria and beyond. It was a place of mixed cultures, absorbing the influences of places beyond its borders. The first century historian, Josephus, stated that Galileans were open to new ideas. They were not isolationists. (Is that a lesson for us today?) It was, in every way, a fertile area in contrast to the more barren wilderness of the south and the conservative city of Jerusalem. So it would be a good place for Jesus to begin his ministry. He moved to Capernaum, making it his centre of activity – Capernaum – a busy town. The Roman tax office was there and the main trade route from the Far East to the Mediterranean coast passed through the town. And it was there that Jesus took to the people the message of John the Baptist – a call to repentance in preparation for the coming of God’s Kingdom. In other words – take a new look at your lives, get your priorities right. Place God and his commandments back at the centre of life as a guiding light. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Even the people of Zebula and Naphtali might hear and be changed.

Following this introduction, our Gospel reading moves on quickly as Jesus calls his first disciples to join his mission. As we look at history, it is clear that any human endeavour, any innovative or radical movement, begins with the coming together of a small group of people inspired by the same idea or concept. William Wilberforce, for example, and his campaign against the slave trade; the suffragette movement on behalf of women; and the Trade Union movement calling for justice and fairness in the workplace; all started from small beginnings which gained momentum. Today, we have our own examples of the same phenomenon – movements for change, beginning maybe decades ago, now are global issues.

Jesus called his first disciples to share his vision of God’s love, forgiveness and grace, there for all people whose hearts were open to receive the gift, this small group were to be foundational to the spreading of the Gospel and, over time, the creation of the Church. It is surely no accident that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel follows the call of the disciples with the block of Jesus’ teaching described as the “Sermon on the Mount” – a blueprint, if you like – the basic guidelines for all who would follow the Christ-like way. Taught by Jesus, this core group of disciples would take the Gospel message far beyond Palestine. The life, death, resurrection of Jesus – their personal experience – would be a preparation for this, that people and the world might be changed. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

As we take an overview of all this, we see how one of Jesus’ parables came to fruition – how the smallest of seeds, the mustard seed – would grow into a tree with wide-spreading branches. And of course this is highlighted as we read on in the New Testament to the Acts of the Apostles. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gave the charge to the disciples to, “Go – into all the world and make disciples of all nations.” The disciples fulfilled their calling and did just that. And with Paul, the great Apostle, responding to his call, we have an inspiring read in the Acts of the Apostles.

Across the centuries, people from all walks of life have felt the call to faith and service. People – using their God-given gifts in countless ways to live out the Gospel – in the community, through the Church, their work and in everyday life – bringing change and hope to others. As Christians today we are part of the long line of believers beginning with the disciples, called by Jesus on Galilee’s lake shore, until now – today. Yet, as we know, it isn’t always an easy road to follow. The journey  of faith can present us with its joys but also its challenges – sometimes involving conflicting loyalties. On occasion, the call of Christ (especially at times of challenge) has to come to us again afresh, to renew our confidence in what we have pledged to do. Reading about Mother Teresa recently it is clear that, so often over the years, as she worked amongst the poorest of the poor that she felt Jesus absent in her life. Yet she also felt called again and again to work on in obedience and trust. A visiting American businessman once remarked to Mother Teresa, “I wouldn’t do this for a thousand dollars” – to which she replied, “No, neither would I.” While David Jenkins, once Bishop of Durham, use to say to anyone called to ministry of any kind – “If you feel you’re not up to it, God is already down to it.” God’s love and grace go before and alongside us when we are called to follow the way of Christ.

Conclusion To bring all those thoughts together I would like to share with you a tradition, special to me as a Methodist and to all Methodist people. January is the month during which we have our annal Covenant Service, when we renew and re-affirm our relationship with God, whose love calls us to worship, prayer and service. It is a moving, inspiring yet challenging service – and I miss it. the Covenant God makes with us and we with God is both for the individual and the whole Church community – the Church family. I always see this service as another step in the journey of faith and life; another opportunity to get life in balance as we all endeavour to follow the Christ-like way. I close by reading part of a longer Covenant prayer.

Let us pray:

Christ has many services to be done;
Some are easy, others are difficult;
Some bring honour, others bring reproach.

Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests,
others are contrary to both.

In some we may please Christ and please ourselves;

in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.

Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ who strengthens us.

Therefore, let us give ourselves to him,
trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.

So be it.
And the Covenant we make on earth,
may it be fulfilled in heaven.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.