3rd Sunday after the Epiphany (A)
January 22, 2023
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Gospel from Saint Matthew.
A common affliction for the totally blind is called “non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder”. This mouthful simply means that since they’re blind, their circadian rhythms are off. Our circadian rhythm informs us when to sleep, and that’s partially controlled by the coming of night. Unfortunately, those who are blind don’t know that night has come, so their circadian rhythm doesn’t respond appropriately. This can have a significant impact on their work, sleep, mood, and appetite.
Darkness is described as the absence of light, but for the blind the dictionary definition falls short because it doesn’t accurately describe their situation. The dictionary definition likewise falls short when it’s applied to Matthew’s Gospel. Saint Matthew writes, “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Matthew’s definition of darkness isn’t physical, it’s spiritual. It’s not the absence of light, it’s the presence of evil. When Jesus called Saint Paul, He put it this way: “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:17-18). To live in this darkness is to live “in the region and shadow of death” but like the blind who don’t know when it’s night, so many around us don’t have a clue they’re living in spiritual darkness.
Matthew, who’s quoting Isaiah, mentions two nations: Zebulun and Naphtali. Because they were both in the north of Israel, they were frequently invaded by Israel’s enemies. In time, the men and women of Zebulun and Naphtali began marrying the men and women of their unbelieving invaders, and these mixed marriages allowed pagan worship and beliefs to influence, and eventually overcome, the worship of the true God. The signs of their sin were all around them, and yet they didn’t see them, and why? Because they were trapped in the dark! They couldn’t see, or didn’t want to see, the evil and spiritual darkness which enveloped them.
Isaiah writes that in Jesus coming “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light.” This doesn’t mean however that the darkness has ceased to exist. Brazen idol worship and child sacrifice were clearly signs of the darkness in the day of Isaiah, and there are clear signs of the darkness in our day: war, violence, crime, abuse – the terrible things we see on TV every, single day.
Some of the darkness is revealed in the cultural changes that are occurring at a rapid pace in the Western world. Now, I know I’ve mentioned these things before, I also know that some of you disagree with interpretations of the Bible which condemn these behaviors. But we cannot ignore the effect these issues have on the expanding spiritual darkness. The deliberate confusion of gender identity and the transgender movement drag more and more young people into the grotesque darkness. Those who worship at the altar of abortion are no different than the pagans who used to sacrifice infants on the scalding arms of a bronze statue. The rampant depiction of nudity and sexual activity in shows like Game of Thrones and the pornography that’s so pervasive on the internet have darkened the minds of at least two generations of young people, and other ages as well.
The translators of the version of the Bible we use, used the word “dwell” to describe those in the darkness. The word for dwell can also be translated as sit, and sitting can suggest being at ease and relaxed. To sit in the darkness, especially as a Christian, means that that darkness has been accepted, and perhaps approved of. To sit as a Christian in the darkness means that the Christian has become indifferent toward Sin and sluggish towards Christ. It shows a disconnect between a disciple of Jesus and their faith.
Some signs of the darkness are known only to those experiencing them: anxiety, depression, feeling a lack of purpose or meaning to life, feeling alone even when surrounded by friends and loved ones, feeling emotionally and spiritually lost. These can be hidden within the darkness of the heart and mind, and while those experiencing them know they’re in the dark, they just don’t know how to get out of it.
The spiritual darkness is a direct result of sin. The sin that infects every bit of creation, the sin that corrupts our hearts and minds, the sins we commit, the sins others commit against us, all work to keep you in the darkness. And sometimes, we choose the darkness for ourselves by choosing not to repent or by ignoring the Holy Spirit who whispers in our conscience. This spiritual darkness is inescapable. You need help to find your way out of the darkness, and that way is Jesus, the Great Light which bursts into the darkness and brings you out into His marvelous light (I Peter 2:9).
In the Gospel Matthew writes, “So [Jesus’] fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought Him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and He healed them.” These miracles weren’t simply magic tricks meant to astound the people. Look at it this way: what caused all these ailments Matthew mentions? Sin, right? By healing the demon possessed, paralytics, and the like, Jesus clearly demonstrated His total power over Sin. The whole point of the miracles is to show that Jesus controls the overwhelming darkness; He is the Light that won’t be stopped.
He is the Light which shows people a way out of the darkness, He is the one who changes hearts through His light. He is the light to whom we look when the spiritual darkness threatens to overcome us and our world. He is the light who will help us endure our anxiety, our depression, and our fear. He is the one who shines the light which gives us purpose and meaning in life. And one day the light of Jesus will dissolve the darkness of this sinful world into nothingness.
You don’t always feel that way though, do you? You feel trapped in sin or unable to escape the darkness because you can’t stop sinning. When Isaiah says, “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light”, he’s talking to you. He’s not talking to the perfect or the sinless or the holier than thou, he’s talking to the sinner, to the one who struggles in their faith, to the one who feels like they just can’t do anything right, he’s talking to you. Jesus comes into your darkness and shines His bright and comforting light of forgiveness. He dispels the darkness of your sins through the light of the cross. I know we don’t usually think about His crucifixion that way, but it fits. During His suffering the world was plunged into darkness, but in that darkness, His light came to those trapped in spiritual darkness, His light of hope and peace.
I’m not sorry to tell you that you can’t find your way out, because there’s a better way and it’s the grace of God which sustains you as you feel yourself getting dragged back into the darkness. His grace, His sacrificial love for you leads Jesus to plunge back into the darkness and lead you back by His light. And He’ll do this no matter how many times you find yourself surrounded by the inky blackness. Jesus says, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”, this is His invitation to come out of the dark. Repent of your sins for Christ is at hand to forgive you and to guide you to Heaven where there is no sun, but only the Light of Son.
This world is a very dark place, and for many there seems to be no escape. It’s not because there isn’t an escape, it’s because they’re blind to the Light. And then there are those who love the darkness and all the things that shouldn’t even be considered, let alone done. This darkness, coupled with the darkness in our hearts, may be overwhelming at times. But remember this: you don’t have to lead yourself out of the darkness or try to find a source of light. Christ is your light and when all seems dark and lost remember what you’ve heard: “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Christ has brought you the new dawn of the Light that will not and cannot ever be extinguished.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen