“Light, Life, Darkness, and the Shadow of Death”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
People often say that it’s always darkest right before the dawn. It’s meant to be helpful. It’s said to people who are struggling, or grieving, or suffering. And often it is true. Perhaps you’ve experienced a darkness so deep you thought you’d never come out, and then, right when you think it can’t get worse, the sun is rising, and it’s a new day. Perhaps it’s true. St. John Chrysostom said, “For in truth the condition of men was at the worst before Christ’s coming” (Homily XIV:1 [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf110.iii.XIV.html]). Even in the book of the prophet Isaiah, right before the section Matthew quotes, Isaiah says about the people of Israel: “They will pass through the land hard-pressed and famished, and it will turn out that when they are hungry, they will be enraged and curse their king and their God as they face upward. Then they will look to the earth, and behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be driven away into darkness” (Isaiah 8:21-22, NASB). Not only that, but Matthew quotes Isaiah not that the people are walking in darkness, but sitting in darkness. If you’re moving, at least you have some hope of getting out of the black, but if you’re just sitting there, blind and motionless, what hope is there until morning comes?
And if it is dark before the light dawns, how much darker is it where the light is rejected and extinguished and forgotten? In these latter days, the darkness is great. The shadow of death grows long. Our culture has been described as a culture of death. All around us life is being cheapened, and mocked, and devalued, and taken. Old, young, dying, being born. And we suck in the air of this death-shadow; we can’t help it. Maybe you think you’re immune to it; maybe I think I am. Maybe you’d never have an abortion or inject too much of that drug into the I.V. Or maybe you would. Or maybe you have. Or maybe you don’t see what is the big deal. But it’s everywhere, in the way we use each other to squeeze some pleasure out of life; in the way we divorce that pleasure from the God-given possibility of life; in the fact that we cannot sustain our anger at injustice, unless it hits close to home; in the way that we numb the nerves of our souls at the murder of born and unborn alike. And the darkness creeps in on you; sometimes when you see it coming, and sometimes when you least expect it. It has spread throughout this entire creation, spread like ink in water, over every body and every soul, every piece of flesh and bone that inhabits this world. And maybe in your dark, you’ve done what Israel did: looked up at the sky and cursed your king and your God, famished and hard-pressed. Then you looked back at the earth and all you could see were distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And if you can’t quite get rid of God, you can’t help but think that He’s responsible for all of this. But you don’t know, because He won’t answer. At least not as a disembodied voice from the sky. And you wonder whether the dawn will come, after all, especially when it’s so dark.
Perhaps Chrysostom was right, that the condition of men was worst just before Christ came. At its worst just as it is now, and as it will be next year, and in ten years, if Christ waits that long to come again. We may have more ways of denying and destroying and darkening life, but every person who has every lived has known the darkness, intimately. Not precisely like yours, but their own. The shadow of death has always loomed over every second that ticks away and cannot be recovered. So it is today and so it was in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, in the town of Capernaum. Then, all of a sudden, John the Baptizer is in prison, and Jesus has taken John’s words in His own mouth: “Repent, for the Reign of the Heavens stands near!” But John’s preaching of repentance is the voice of one preparing the way for the Lord; Jesus’ preaching is the announcement to any and all that the light has, in Him, actually dawned upon the dark world. The light has come, and it is spreading. Notice that those disciples do not hesitate, or delay, or argue; they follow. Christ simply confiscates people for Himself, by the sheer might of His Word, by which He elects them to salvation. They leave everything and follow, and it hardly matters where. Whether I live or die, all is Christ. This is the call of Jesus to all people, to you and to me: “Repent! For the Reign of Heaven stands near” (Matthew 3:17) and “Come after Me” (3:19). And “the disciples knew, or surely sensed, that in Jesus’ ‘Follow Me’ the great light of God’s new creation, the light which brought the life of God to men, was falling across their paths; and they knew too: ‘We must walk in this light or die’” (Franzmann, 32). “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12, ESV). The call to follow, the call to repentance, is the same as when Jesus says, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light” (John 12:35-36, ESV).
St. Paul puts it this way: “Therefore do not become partners with [the sons of disobedience]; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’” (Ephesians 5:7-14, ESV). The light of the world, dawned once in Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Galilee of the Nations, has been shining here for over 100 years. It has spread to young and old through the preaching of Christ’s Word of repentance, through water that kills and brings alive with Christ, through the life-giving Body and Blood of Christ; at one time you, too, were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. And as long as the light shines in the darkness, there is hope for you and me, for our families and friends, for this world—hope that will change to sight when we are raised incorruptible in the glorious light of the returning Christ. And then the darkness will be completely banished from the Lord’s creation: the darkness in you, and the darkness in me, and the darkness in the world. Life will dawn, and the shadow of death will be erased. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of [Yahweh] has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1, ESV). This is the Epiphany of our God; O come, let us worship Him!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/22/11