Sermon - 26th January 2014
Liberation in ordinary
Scripture - Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Over the last few months it's been fascinating, and worrying, to watch the news from Ukraine. It's been worrying due to the level of violence bound up with response to the demonstrations, fascinating to watch a country move decide how far it wants to move away from its recent history of dominance by Russia.
Ukraine is caught up between a desire to be more aligned to the European Union and the West and the political reality of it's integration, until 1991, in the Soviet Union with both Khrushchev and Brezchnev coming from Ukraine. It's the largest country in Europe with Russia to the North and Europe to the South West. Many Russians live in Ukraine and, for most of its history over the last 700 years, it's been fought over, divided and conquered by other countries – Poland, Lithuania, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and Russia. Leaders in Ukraine have had the thankless, and dangerous, task of treading very carefully in their foreign policy knowing that any slip could result in removal, revolution, violence and prison.
It's an interesting parallel with the political situation in Isaiah's time that is alluded to in both our readings today. The background to this part of Isaiah is one of great political instability for the Jewish people. They were divided into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the South – the division came about due to the very unwise rule of Solomon so that, after his death, the kingdom split. The divided people were, of course, less able to stand up to the various powers that surrounded them. Just like Ukraine they had some powerful, and dangerous neighbours. To the south of the Jewish kingdoms lay Egypt, to the north the great power of Assyria – in what we'd now call Iraq.
We know from looking at our world that superpowers like to have their client states. In the era when I grew up the superpowers were America and the Soviet Union and, after the end of the Second World War each developed areas of the world which they believed should come under their sphere of influence – broadly what we'd call East and West. For some time it seems that Russia has been trying to regain the influence it had in the Soviet days and China uses its economic might to buy influence in, particularly, Africa. Power games are nothing new – indeed the British did it through the Empire and trade for many years.
In Isaiah's time Assyria and Egypt jostled for power and influence and the smaller nations were very much at their mercy. Isaiah lived through the disaster of the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel as the Assyrians invaded, carted off its elite and destroyed it as a country. The lands of Zebulun and Napthali were in the north – and came to be called, Samaria. Isaiah's words foretell light coming to these lands – the land which had been invaded, destroyed and placed under military occupation. To these people who had walked in great darkness was coming light. It's as if he'd said to the the people of the Ukraine:
“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Ukraine, but in the latter time he will make glorious the breadbasket of Europe, the land beyond the Black sea, the great nation of the East. 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. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 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 Stalingrad.”
That's the power of Isaiah's words. He promised liberation, a change in the fortunes of the Jewish people which he associated with a new ruler, a righteous king who would rule in justice and equity. In his own context Isaiah saw light dawning where previously there had only been darkness.
Matthew is good at taking passages of the Old Testament and weaving them into his narrative. He does this as he writes for Christians who are Jewish and he wants to show that everything he believes about Jesus is deeply rooted in the Old Testament – the Jewish Bible. Matthew has Jesus walking in Samaria – the area referred to by Isaiah. The Assyrians have long gone – just as the Soviet Union has. However, there were new reasons for the Jewish people to be walking in darkness. No longer occupied by the Assyrians, they had endured the pain of national resurgence, the occupation by the Greeks and then, by the time of Jesus they were occupied again. Now the Romans were the superpower and would remain so for the next 400 years or so until their great empire fell. The Jewish people were subject to a pagan power which didn't understand them nor their aspirations. Of course Matthew wants to associate the ruler that Isaiah longed for with Jesus.
Jesus, however, doesn't deal with abstract issues of light shining in darkness but with the latter part of the text about the rod of oppression being broken when he sets about proclaiming the Kingdom of God or, as St Matthew puts it, the Kingdom of Heaven.
Matthew, following Jewish convention, avoids writing “God” and prefers, when talking about the Kingdom, to use “heaven”. Unfortunately, in English, this means many people think that Jesus was talking about how to get to heaven when we die which is not really what he meant by his proclamation of the Kingdom. It wasn't a call to heaven, but a call to life in the here and now. As Anglican Bishop and theologian Tom Wright notes, these are not about "our escape from this world into another one, but to God's sovereign rule coming 'on earth as it is in heaven.'" We need to be remind ourselves that the call of Jesus in this reading is not to future salvation, but to contemporary action, to fish for human beings.
Liberation in Ordinary
The proclamation of the Kingdom is always about liberation. Isaiah's great vision wasn't about an emotional feeing, a religious experience or a wonderful worship service (good as all these things are). It was, instead a promise of actual liberation – the people in darkness would see a great light, the rod of oppression would be broken, they would be free.
Jesus shied away from being seen as a political leader – which was what the Jewish people then expected from the Messiah, but he also talked about setting captives free, proclaiming good news to the poor. The Kingdom is about liberation. We're liberated from sin – our sin that drags us down, that makes us behave in ways which are bad for us and others but also from the sin found in social structures, the sin of racism, the sin of prejudice, the sinful love of power, the sin of sexism, the sin of homophobia, the sin of prejudice. These sins have a personal component – ask anyone who's been the victim of them – but they also affect the structures and institutions of our society and this also requires liberation.
Jesus didn't work alone though – he called others to work with him and still calls. He called the disciples in the midst of their ordinariness of their lives, using their existing gifts and talents as fishermen to make them fishers of people. Jesus still calls us in the ordinariness of our lives to announce amazing things, to do amazing things as we too proclaim the coming Kingdom which makes a difference in the hear-and-now.
A Call to adventure
Often we're confused a bit when we say that we're called. We wonder what Jesus calls us to – often we're tempted to answer in other ways. Some say that we're called to belief, others say that we're called to Church membership, others to service of some sort. I'm reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer - the German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was killed by the Nazis for his radical stance against Hitler. He said that the call to "follow me" was a call "to absolute discipleship," and that only in surrendering ourselves to Jesus' command could we, paradoxically, know our greatest joy.
Jesus calls us to follow him – it's a radical call and covers every aspect of our lives and our loves. Our response needs to be radical too. Just as we reminded ourselves in the Covenant Service a few weeks ago, when we're committed disciples we offer our all to Jesus on an open hand so that he can continue to make his Kingdom come through us.
God our light and our salvation,
Jesus announced the nearness of your Kingdom
and called his disciples to be fishers of women and men.
Give us the courage to follow in the way of Jesus,
that our lives may bear witness to the good news of the kingdom at hand
and our vocation serve to draw people to your salvation; through your son, Jesus, Christ,
in the power of the Holy Spirit.