Light is used throughout the Bible as a metaphor for knowledge and understanding. From the first page of the Bible where “God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis 1:3 KJV) to the last page where “the Lord God giveth them light” (Revelation 22:5 KJV), this figure of speech communicates growing spiritual awareness and perception. In Psalm 119:105, The Bible says, “The word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 119:105 KJV).
Jesus brought the light of the Gospel and its healing power.
And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people. (Matthew 4:23 KJV)
Manuscript of the sermon preached on January 22, 2023, for Briensburg UMC [Audio Podcast]
Ecumenical Sunday Bible Readings:
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
Throughout the Christmas season, we celebrated the proverbial light coming into the world in the form of the Baby Jesus and the events surrounding the Nativity. In today’s Gospel reading, the narrative shifts to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, the “land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,” as Isaiah prophesied, far from the Jewish religious and political power center of Jerusalem. There the light began to shine as Jesus invited people to repent and join him in the Kingdom of God. He began calling disciples to follow him, using another metaphor “fishers of men” to describe their role (and ours) of bringing people into the light of God’s love. The light intensified as he taught and preached and healed.
Isaiah envisioned the light that would shine in the darkness.
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. (Isaiah 9:2 KJV)
In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:4-5 KJV).
Comprehended: Oxford Languages Dictionary defines it as “grasp mentally; understand.”
This is how the judgment works: the light has come into the world, but people love the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil. Those who do evil things hate the light and will not come to the light, because they do not want their evil deeds to be shown up. But those who do what is true come to the light in order that the light may show that what they did was in obedience to God. (John 3:19-21 GNT)
The light came to those who were in darkness, in “the shadow of death.” This “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” as Mark phrases it, is reminiscent of the 23rd Psalm, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4 KJV).
Jesus’ purpose was not to condemn anyone, but to bring light and salvation to everyone.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1 KJV)
There seem to have always been leaders of every age and culture who have imposed darkness on the world in the name of religion. They misinterpret sacred writings and events in the harshest terms to stir up fear in people and manipulate them to do all sorts of things to appease what they were and are led to believe is the wrath of a God seething with anger and abhorrence for humanity. Even today, we see, often in the news, reports of religious leaders using these fear tactics to mislead people for their own political and economic purposes.
But the Psalmist in today’s passage foreshadows what Paul wrote to Timothy, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7 NKJV). John wrote in his letter, as worded in the New American Standard Bible, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18 NASB).
Most famously, in the verses we frequently share together as a congregation, in John 3:16 & 17 Jesus assured Nicodemus that he did not come to punish, but save humanity:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3:16-17 KJV)
We are called to work together in love and unity.
Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10 KJV)
By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ I appeal to all of you, my friends, to agree in what you say, so that there will be no divisions among you. Be completely united, with only one thought and one purpose. (1 Corinthians 1:10 GNT)
In our United Methodist theological heritage, we share an anonymous challenge that has been attributed to various church leaders throughout history including our own John Wesley, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Today is Ecumenical Sunday among all the churches that believe in the unity of the Body of Christ and cooperation among Christians of various beliefs and practices and religious affiliations. The day marks the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The unity we seek is less about merging institutions and more about people engaging together for prayer, study, worship, and service, especially where common beliefs and interests intersect.
Although the vast majority of Christians around the world support and encourage love and unity, a large and vocal minority works hard to undermine Christian unity. The only kind of unity they support is one where everyone else acquiesces to whatever their beliefs and practices are, and perhaps most importantly whatever their polity and leadership demand.
The “Dark Ages” were notorious for the Christian fundamentalism that required everyone to profess what they were ordered to believe, with even the slightest nuance punishable by severe brutality. The Enlightenment and Great Awakening that followed broke people free from one form of mental and spiritual bondage, only in many cases to be forced into submission under different fundamentalists with their own agendas and views on what the “essentials” were.
Today in our country and community, and in our denomination, there are many who insist that only their rigid brand and perspective of Christianity is valid and that anyone who doesn’t agree with their ideas is a “Christian in Name Only.” Such groups splinter in all directions as they come to discover more areas of disagreement among themselves and create more forms of exclusion in the name of purity and orthodoxy.
Paul encouraged people to replace their divisions with unity and consensus and love. We are all part of “one body, and members in particular” as he wrote later in this letter. This is not the forced tyrannical unity epitomized by the Inquisition. It is the universal spirit John Wesley preached about, repurposing the terminology from 2 Kings 10:15, ” Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? … If it be, give me thine hand.” (2 Kings 20:15 KJV). In his sermon on this text, Wesley said,
I do not mean, "Be of my opinion." You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, "I will be of your opinion." … I do not mean, "Embrace my modes of worship," or, "I will embrace yours." ("Catholic Spirit," Sermons of John Wesley).
Wesley went on to preach of the sincere love of “a fellow citizen of the New Jerusalem,” praying for each other and encouraging each other.
Paul wrote to the Galatians: Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. (Galatians 5:1 KJV). In other words, don’t get free from one religion dominating your thoughts only to subject yourself to another. That would be something like “jumping from the skillet into the fire.”
Our theological heritage encourages freedom of thought. This doesn’t mean that we don’t believe anything. It means we don’t impose our beliefs on each other. We study together, worship together, work together and have fellowship with each other. We learn together. We do have a distinct theological framework in our church but we validate and support those whose spiritual paths lead them to live within some other framework, even those with whom we very much disagree. We are all God’s family, and One Body in Christ. Eliza Hewitt wrote as the refrain for her hymn,
How beautiful to walk in the steps of the Saviour,
Stepping in the light, stepping in the light;
How beautiful to walk in the steps of the Saviour,
Led in paths of light!
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.