Sunday, 26 January 2014

Epiphany 3: The people who sat in darkness

The woman and child whose faces look out at us from the picture I’ve printed on your pew leaflets today are a familiar sight. They are refugees from the civil war in Syria, and we’ve seen many more like them in recent months.  The mother’s name is Bushra and she arrived at camp run by UNHCR sometime last year. She’d escaped Syria in the middle of the night with her son and when she crossed the border and saw the sign saying she’d arrived in Lebanon she was immensely relieved. "I realized that we had escaped death." As it turned out, she was the millionth refugee to register at the camp, which is why she is holding up the sign – one in a million.

The scale of the problem is vast, but Bushra’s sign reminds us that each of those refugees is an individual, with their own story to tell.  Bushra’s story, to judge by her words, is a story of hope despite the hardships of the refugee camp. Coming over the border was an escape from death for her, a new beginning. Who knows what the future holds, but as far as she is concerned, it is a cause for rejoicing that there still is a future. 

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” When Matthew quotes Isaiah’s words at the beginning of his account of Jesus’ ministry, he is talking about the same sort of experience; the dawn of hope in a time of despair. As it happens he is talking about the very same region that Bushra lives in too.  “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.” If you look at the map I have given you, it is the area at the top he’s talking about. Frontiers have moved to and fro over the centuries, but today these are the borderland areas of northern Israel, Southern Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. It’s a region which was fought over often in ancient times, just as it is now, a place where people have often “sat in darkness”, the darkness of conflict and occupation.

That’s no surprise. Many ancient trade routes passed through it – from Asia to the seaports of Tyre and Sidon, and the north/south route between Europe and North Africa. Every empire in the ancient world wanted to get their hands on this gateway. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome had overrun it in turn. In Jesus’ time many Roman soldiers were garrisoned in the area, and the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee were home to many Greek speakers living in the ten towns – the Decapolis – founded by Alexander the Great. The Jewish people called this area Galilee of the Gentiles, or Galilee of the Nations, because that is what you’d find there, all nations, all cultures, the influences of many religions.

So it was the last place many observant Jews thought the Messiah would come from. Surely he would come from Jerusalem, from among the Temple hierarchy, from the heartlands of their faith, not from up there on the borders. The fact that Jesus came from Galilee and conducted most of his ministry there was a problem for them.

In today’s Gospel we see the very start of that ministry, as he calls the first of his followers, and that raised another problem. Peter Andrew, James and John were fishermen, people with no real religious training, just ordinary working men, who up until then didn’t seem to have had any more interest in spiritual things than the next person. As far as we can see their priority was making ends meet, staying out of the way of the Romans, and minding their own business.

So why does Jesus call them to follow him and eventually to become leaders of the church?  What qualifications do they have? What special aptitude?
None, so far as we can see.
And those Jesus goes on to call are even stranger; people like Matthew, the tax-collector – tax-collectors were regarded as Roman collaborators - Simon the Zealot, a member of a fanatical political movement who would have to give up violence to follow Jesus. There were women too – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary and Martha of Bethany – women who  followed Jesus right till the end and were entrusted with the news of his resurrection before any of their male colleagues. Why choose women in an age when their words counted for very little? No respectable rabbi would behave like this.

Matthew is telling us that in Jesus we see an unlikely Messiah, from an unlikely part of the country, with unlikely followers. The whole thing should be sunk before it starts. If Jesus were to pitch his project – the building of the Kingdom of God – to some first century Dragon’s Den, he’d have no chance of getting it funded. What was he thinking of?

The answer is that he was thinking of the ways of his Father, a God who had always had given special honour to those who were overlooked, vulnerable, battered by life.  He was thinking of the ways of a God who stuck with his people when things went wrong, who rescued them from slavery and brought them back from exile. He was thinking of the ways of a God who had a habit of choosing the least likely people to do his work; the little shepherd boy, David, who defeated Goliath, or Moses, the stammering runaway murderer, who confronted Pharaoh, or Ruth, the foreign widow who became mother to a dynasty of rulers. The Bible is full God’s strange decisions to choose the weak, the shamed, the outsider to do his work. There turns out to be sense in it though, because these people, who know what it is like to “sit in darkness”, are usually the ones who rejoice most in the light when it eventually dawns.

It seems to me that the message of today’s Gospel can be summed up in two questions.
The first is “What? – here?” and the second is “Who?– me?)

 “What? - here?” asked those who first knew Jesus.  “God at work in Galilee? How can that be? Here, in this unholy, mixed-up, frontier land where there are Gentiles around every corner? Here, where any day an army might march in and turn us out of our homes? Here, in this land of deep darkness?”

Yes, say the Gospels – right here.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” not in the hallowed confines of the Temple, but in the ordinary villages of Galilee, in its leper colonies, among its prostitutes, in the graveyards of a Greek speaking Decapolis town, where a man who called himself Legion was chained up because of the demons that possessed him, as unclean a setting as it was possible to imagine. And ultimately, of course - yes, God dwelt among us in a man hanging on a cross outside Jerusalem.

Those who first knew Jesus asked,  “What – here – in Galilee?”, but it is a question that we often ask too. “What? Here? In our own lives and communities?. Are you sure?”  
“Yes” is the answer. And not just in church on a Sunday or in the beauty of a sunset but in the mess of a relationship that’s  breaking down, or in a business that’s failing, or in the shame of a sin we never thought we were capable of committing, or in the grotty torrent of painful memories we wish we could forget but somehow can’t. “What – here? Can God be at work in these things?” Yes, say the Gospels– here most of all, when we find that we are “the people who sit in deep darkness.”

And the answer to the second question “Who? Me?” is just the same. Just as those first disciples couldn’t really take in that God was calling them, we often struggle with that idea too.

Our first calling, like theirs, is simply to follow – to learn, to grow. That may be something you’ve been doing all your life, but for many that call comes later, and perhaps it’s a surprise. The call to follow can come through a chance conversation, a strange coincidence, an act of kindness which makes you curious, or a tough time that makes you realise you can’t do this thing called life on your own anymore. “Who? Me?” we ask – “I never thought religion was my thing at all.”

But the call to follow isn’t the end of it, because following Jesus inevitably leads to service too. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people…” says Jesus. I don’t much like this imagery, frankly. It sounds a bit predatory, as if we are going to haul people in and serve them up with a side order of chips… But we get what Jesus is saying. We aren’t just called to receive his light, to bask in its nice warm glow for our own sake; we are called to pass it on to others too.

“Who – me?” we ask.” But I don’t know enough. I’m not strong enough, or young enough, or old enough to be any use to anyone… “ Yes, you”  says God. “If fishermen and tax-collectors and prostitutes can be channels of God’s love in the world, why not you?”  Just as we needed people to open the door for us so we could see God’s presence, so we need to open the door for others as well. If we were hungry for the gifts that we have found here, a sense of community , a sense of peace, of assurance, of challenge , then surely others are hungry for them too, and who will invite them to find those gifts if we don’t. Each of us is called in different ways, for different tasks, but each us is called.

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light”. People have seen that light in the person of Jesus as he taught and healed in Galilee of the Gentiles. They have seen it in the welcome and safety of refugee camps as they fled from conflict. And they see it , too, in the day to day acts of kindness, and  community involvement of ordinary people like you and me as we respond to God’s call to us to follow, to love and to serve.
“What  - here?
“Yes, here”
Who – me?”
Yes, you” says God.

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