Sunday, January 27, 2008

Christ Lightens Our Darkness, Calls Us to Follow

[This sermon was shared today during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Matthew 4:12-23
The call came late in the afternoon on a bleak day for Ann and me. We had learned earlier that day that Ann had miscarried. I was in seminary at the time and when Ann called me with the news, I sped home to be with her. That’s when the call came. The caller was a faculty member from seminary. “I understand you’ve had some troubles,” he said. “What can I do to help?”

Other than praying for us, I told him, his call was help enough. It was a little light in our momentary darkness, a reminder of the love and care of God that reaches out to us even in dark, sad times.

We need that light always, but some times more than others.

Our first lesson for today, taken from the book of the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, addresses a people living in darkness. Written in 733 BC, Isaiah’s homeland of Judah was all that was left of the larger land God had once given to His people. Their national life was darkened by the awful prospect of invasion from countries to their north or domination by the Assyrian Empire, the regional superpower. On top of that, their religious life was not what it could be, many of the people having wandered far from God.

It was a dark time. But Isaiah said that God was on His way, bringing light for their darkness, light that would help them to see God’s love, provision, and power, light that would help them to see their way through the darkness. He writes: “…There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish…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.”

Our Gospel lesson for this morning recounts events that happened more than seven centuries after Isaiah gave his prophecy. Judah, His homeland, was, in many ways, still in darkness. The country was occupied by a foreign empire; in this era, it was the Romans. Violent puppet kings, with no legitimate claim to the crown, drawn from the Herod family, were on the throne. The people were horribly overtaxed and forced to endure all sorts of indignities. Some shortsightedly thought that the solution to their problems were political. But God had other ideas.

It’s then that Jesus began His public ministry. Our lesson tells us that Jesus did two things as He began.

First: He brought God’s long-promised light to people’s lives. He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Of course, we’ve talked about that word “repent” before. It means more than simply being sorry for one’s sins. It also means that we’ve turned away from our sins, repudiating its power over us, and have turned back to God, asking Him to be the Lord over all our lives and our decisionmaking.

But, look at what Jesus says He’s bringing to us: the kingdom of heaven. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as using that phrase, kingdom of heaven. If we’re a bit lazy in our listening, we might think that Jesus is talking about a place, far-off, a sweet-by-and-by heaven. But that isn’t what Jesus means when He talks about the kingdom of heaven. Whenever anybody in His time talked about heaven in this way, they were talking about God. In Jesus, God’s kingdom comes to us. In Jesus, God Himself comes to us.

We need God come to near to us, don't we? There is power and there is comfort when we know that God is near. In the movie, The Color Purple, one character tells another, “When you walked into the room, I knew there was a God.” We long for that assurance! In Jesus Christ, the world comes to see that God isn’t content to stand far off, watching His children suffer or wallow in sin. He comes near to us!

Many of you may know the story of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian alive at the time that Nazi Germany overran her land. Because she and her family were Christians, they were horrified by the death camps to which the Nazis were sending. And so, they allowed their home to become a hiding place for Jews seeking to escape the Netherlands. They were found out and sent off to the very camps out of which they were trying to keep their Jewish neighbors. During the course of the war, incarcerated in the camps, Corrie’s father and sister and the members of her extended family all were killed. Only Corrie survived.

One of the things that sustained Corrie through that dark time was a place that she and her sister set up in a section of the camp reserved for garbage. Nobody else wanted to be there. But in the midst of the refuse and the maggots and the stench, Corrie and her sister had established a kind of sanctuary. It was there each night that they went to pray, to praise God for the forgiveness of sin and new life that belongs to all who believe in Jesus Christ. In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom writes that in time, that horrible garbage dump was the place she most wanted to be. It was the place where the light of God, fully revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, came to her darkened life.

Christ's light is still coming to us. About ten years ago, a friend of mine was dying. He lay for some time in a Cincinnati hospital, under the care not only of the nurses who worked there, but also of his wife, who is a nurse, and of hospice. It was, in many ways, a most remarkable scene, one that plays out in scores of hospital rooms and bed rooms every single day. But my friend and his wife were also deeply trusting followers of Jesus. For as long as my friend remained conscious, he would spend time talking with Jesus, worshiping Jesus, listening to his wife read Scripture.

In the last days of his life, employees of the hospital would ask if they could come into Sig’s room. They wanted to pay their respects, of course. But many of them said that they wanted to be in that room with him because they felt, as they never had in their lives, the very presence of Jesus. Even though Sig was dying, the place also seemed to be pulsing with the very life of Jesus. In that room, the Lord assured us that He was still the light of the world and that death is not the end of the line for those who follow Him!

As Jesus began His public ministry, He brought the light of heaven into our darkened world. He’s still doing that for those who dare to believe in Him.

But, according to our Gospel lesson, Jesus did a second thing as He began His ministry: He gave His followers a ministry.

In our lesson, Jesus approaches four fishermen—Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John—and tells them, “Follow Me. I’m going to make you fishers of people.”

This incident is so familiar to us that we may miss what’s really going on here. We may think that to be really faithful to Jesus, we have to leave our nets, or leave our computers, or leave our desks, our trucks or assembly lines, our cash registers, classrooms or kitchens. But the fact is, although Jesus calls all Christians to spread the light of His love, to invite others to worship and follow Him, not all of us are meant to be preachers who venture far from home.

This is a good thing because, as people told me when I visited Germany a few years ago, there can sometimes be too many preachers. There, they have the saying that preachers are like manure. Spread around they do a lot of good. But too many of them brought together stinks. The fact is that God calls us to all sorts of ministries.

Several years ago, I remember reading an article in a magazine by a woman who, filled with a desire to spread the Good News that all who turn from sin and follow Jesus have everlasting life, was sure that God wanted her to become a missionary. She told her husband, who was a bit skeptical. “Honey,” he said, “in all honesty, you really haven’t made much of an effort to share the Gospel with people you know. Shouldn’t you try doing that before you take me off to Africa or Asia with you?”

He had a point, the woman realized. And so, she prayed, asking God to show her how she could share Christ with her neighbors. Then, it dawned on her. Any time a new family moved into her neighborhood, she would bake bread for them and welcome them. That’s it. In time, she became “the bread lady.” The new neighbors would call the bread lady to ask about good mechanics, reliable doctors, and so forth. But they also talked with her about other things and in the course of her conversations with these neighbors who became friends, she was also able to share the light of Christ and invite them to worship with her.

And we are never too old for doing our ministries. At a conference I attended a few years ago, the speaker talked about how her daughter, who was going through a terrible divorce after her husband had left her, one day got a strange phone call. "Mrs. Smith," the elderly woman said, "I was wondering: Do you love Jesus?" "Yes," Mrs. Smith, the conference speaker said, "I do love Jesus. But I sometimes wonder if he's abandoned me. I still love Jesus, though." "I'm glad to hear that," the woman responded. "I don't often get that answer."

Now, Mrs. Smith was curious. "Who are you?" she asked her caller. The woman explained that she was an elderly widow, losing her eyesight. Saddened over the deaths of so many of her friends and frustrated with her more limited physical abilities, one day this woman had poured out her heart to God. "What good am I?" she asked the Lord. "What can I do but sit around and wait to die?" The answer popped into her head in the form of two words: telephone and Jesus.

She priced a special line for telephones and learned that for a certain budgeted amount, she could make so many calls a month. She had the phone installed, pulled out the phone book, and started with the A's.

Making calls every day, over the course of several years, that elderly woman who thought that she was no good to God or anybody else, gently called hundreds of people to faith in Jesus Christ!

Now, that may not be our style as Lutherans. But the lesson is clear: Jesus, the Light of the world, calls all of us to fish for people, to serve God and neighbor. We may not even have to leave our living rooms to follow!

Jesus began His ministry, declaring that He had brought the light of heaven to our darkened world and calling four people to become fishers of people.

You and I who are privileged to be part of Christ’s Church today are a band of sisters and brothers with a message and a ministry. The message: Jesus is the light of the world. The ministry: To share Jesus in whatever ways we can.

May God empower us and bless us as we bear the light of Christ into every dark place we encounter.

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