Sunday, January 13, 2019 –
At that time, when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 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.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
It started off as one of THOSE kind of weeks. Many of you know that I work in the home loan business here in middle Tennessee as I have for the past 21 years after our return to the states from where we were serving as missionaries in Taiwan with my family. Oh, the business world! Much like your job, I suppose. I have my ups and my downs and they affect me – sometimes pretty deeply. Even after 21 years in my industry I’m not immune to disappointments and discouragement. Just like you, I suppose, sometimes I feel misunderstood, overlooked, unfairly treated, used, misused and mistreated. Working with people can result in those kinds of feelings by all of us from time-to-time, I suppose. This week, however, was different. I had been working with a customer for 2-3 months collecting a whole stack of documents from him to tell his financial story to those who would make the final decision on whether or not he was worthy of receiving a home loan to buy a big, beautiful home. Oh no, HE was not treating me poorly and he didn’t do anything to intentionally bring any harm to me or to our ongoing relationship. Matter of fact, he indicated that he was very grateful for my help. What made working with this customer so unique was that as I worked to get his file all put together for him, he gladly began to raise his desired price-point in what he was interested in buying – ultimately even doubling it! His loan was going to be the largest and most profitable transaction of my entire 21 year career. We were getting along great. He said he really liked me and my response to his needs and questions and then – it happened. He emailed me that they found a house and were ready to move forward with their pre-approval and purchase agreement for a house with a sales price larger than I had ever yet seen on a file in my pipeline. He emailed me with the great news late last weekend that they had found the perfect house to meet all of their criteria within the price range I had cleared for him. My wife and my boss knew of the detailed and meticulous energy I was putting into this deal. I didn’t want to miss a beat. I wanted it all to go as smoothly as possibly so there would be no way I could miss out on this deal. I had carefully been checking and double-checking all of my notes and documents to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything on THIS deal. And came the blow – He excitedly informed me in one of his casual comments that this very expensive house they had located was actually in CALIFORNIA. Well, I’m licensed in 6 states in the southeast where I am allowed to conduct business and, needless to say, California is NOT one of them. The previous house they had hoped to buy was just up the road near Franklin and he told me in a number of conversations of his desire to move from California to Tennessee to raise his kids here in middle Tennessee. I had no idea that buying a house in California was even a possibility for this family. We had never discussed it. However, in the midst of their joy of finding the perfect house of their dreams to care their horses with plenty of room for their kids meant that they were making an offer on a huge house in California and I was giving this loan away to a co-worker of mine who was licensed in California. My week started with my energy level nearly sucked out of me and I was slogging around in self-pity and discouragement for a day or two. I could feel the darkness sinking in on me and I was quickly trying to figure out how to climb out before I would slide into self-defeating talk and shadows of gloom. You’ve been there. A random conversation with a co-worker, a supervisor, a student or a family member and then you find yourself questioning why you work so hard to try to make a difference in the lives of others or for your family. The pattern is almost predictable. A hurt or disappointment results in shock and then in our recoiling we become angry or withdrawn or even vengeful. Our feelings of hurt cause us to move into unproductive patterns of self-protective behavior which benefit no one. Our world becomes dark, destructive, and full of doubt.
How does my lousy start of a week tie into this week’s gospel lesson? Last week Jesus and those with him had just experienced a glorious epiphany – “a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something”. Last week we saw the miraculous baptism of Christ in the Jordan – 1) The Holy Spirit descending on Christ in the form of a dove, 2) the voice came from heaven which proclaimed to all present, “Thou art My beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased.” And 3) the river Jordan is said to have reversed its course on the day Jesus was baptized. One of the hymns from Orthros last week on the Sunday of Theophany says: “Today Christ is come to be baptized in the Jordan; today John toucheth the head of the Master. The powers of Heaven are amazed, looking upon the marvelous mystery. The sea beheld and fled; Jordan saw and turned back; and we who have been enlightened cry out: Glory to God Who hath appeared, and hath been seen upon earth, and hath enlightened the world.” Its purported by those living near the spot where Jesus was baptized by St. John on that historic day that every year on the Feast of Theophany, the river reverses its course just as it did on the day of the baptism of Christ. Pilgrims gather each year on the banks of the Jordan River and take videos of the river actually reversing it course as they sing the hymns of Theophany just as we did last week and this week. What a glorious and miraculous day! A mountain-top experience in the life of Christ even before he began his public ministry at the age of 30. And now, just few days later, Jesus receives the news that his relative, St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner of Christ, had been arrested and most of your know what Jesus knew, that story would not have a good outcome for St. John. Jesus didn’t lash out at the unjust arrest of his kinsman. He didn’t arrange for protests or fight back against those who detained and then ultimately killed the man whom Jesus said was the greatest among those born of a woman in Matthew 11. It’s recorded that Jesus “withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea.”
The withdrawal of Christ mentioned in today’s gospel lesson is one to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that proclaimed that He would base his ministry in the area in and around the Sea of Galilee – the prophet said “the Galilee of the Gentiles!” Like you and me. He didn’t base his ministry in Jerusalem, although he visited there several times in accounts recorded in the gospels. Jesus, who experienced sorrow, disappointment and discouragement (just like us) based his ministry in and around those the prophet called a “people who sat in darkness”. The feast we celebrated last week is sometimes called Epiphany (“appearance,” or “manifestation.”) or Theophany (“appearance of god”) and sometimes it is referred to in the church hymns as the Festival of Lights. Generally, Orthodox churches are adorned with many candles to celebrate this Great Feast of the Church. This Feast is only one of the series of feasts we celebrate during this time of the year which are those feasts of the Incarnation – God became Man. The fact that God became man is foundational to our faith and our understanding of the love of God for us as his sons and daughters. He emptied Himself and became one of us to show us who He was and His love for us. The great church father and writer St. Athanasius said God became man so we could become god. This feast brings light to the darkness which surrounds us and those with whom we live. Without the light of Christ we would not know that darkness exists. When we get discouraged or feel beat up from the pressures and trials of a normal week (like I did this week) we might find ourselves slipping into the darkness of misdirection and despair until we come into contact with the light of Christ and the epiphany or manifestation of His light. It is recorded in John 8 that a woman who had been found in sin by the local scribes and Pharisees was brought to Jesus and they were about to stone her to death. He had compassion on her and told them that the one without sin should cast the first stone to begin her execution. It is recorded by the evangelist St. John the Theologian that “When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” When you find yourself in darkness, rest assured that Jesus also says to you – “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” If you are belittling yourself for your failures, and feeling condemned by the words and actions of others around you, rest assured that Jesus also says to you – “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” When you have dug yourself into the darkness of despair, defeat and discouragement, rest assured that Jesus, who is the light of the world, also says to you today – “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” We are “people who sit in darkness” and we live among “people who sit in darkness” and we now have experienced a miraculous epiphany and we “have seen a great light”. After Jesus spoke those words to the accusers of the sinful woman he looked up and saw no accusers. If we make a habit of also looking up when we find ourselves “sitting in darkness” we will also find no accusers but only the eyes of the compassionate and “beloved Son of God; with whom [God is] well pleased.” The manifestation of Christ – the Incarnation (God becomes man) means that we no longer need to live in darkness. He brings light to our world of darkness.
Secondly, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that Christ would come to those in the “shadow of death [where] light has dawned.” It’s been said by some that our culture is a culture of death. Death of the unborn. Death of the unproductive. Death as a response to feelings of despair or depression. Loneliness and separation leading those to choose death rather than life. Death in games and as a response to those living out those games glamorizing death. Death for revenge and death out of anger. We are surrounded by those living in the shadow of death and who are unaware of the dawn of light. In the Gospel of John Jesus boldly proclaims (John 10:10), “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” The manifestation of Christ – the Incarnation (God becomes man) means that we no longer need to live in death. He brings life to our world living in the “shadow of death.”
The arrival of Christ, the long-awaited Messiah was prophesied by Isaiah over 700 years before the birth of Christ in the humble cave we celebrated less than one month ago. The whole course of history was changed with the arrival of the light to the darkness and life to those living in the shadow of death and he began his public ministry with these words – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Heaven has arrived! A new kingdom is here! The Messiah is among you! He who brings light to the darkened and life to those living in the shadow of death is in your midst! What was the first word of the message of Christ? “Repent!” Repent means to “Turn around”. You were going in one direction and now He tells you to turn around and go in the opposite direction. Stop going that way! It’s very simple – just like the man who tells the doctor that it always hurts to lift his arm and the doctor tells him to quit lifting that arm. We know what to do. Jesus told the women caught in sin to “go and sin no more!” The good news is we don’t go by ourselves. Christ has told us that He “will be with [us] always even until the end of the age” in Matthew 28. In John 14:18 Jesus promises that [He] will not leave [us] as orphans; [that He] will come to [us]. He doesn’t abandon us in the darkness and in the shadow of death and simply tell us to get on with our self-improvement plan or New Year’s resolutions.
Again on the banks of the Jordan River, but this time 1,600 years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Moses spoke to the wandering nation of Israel as he was close to his own death and he told those who had been wandering with him for 40 years in Deuteronomy 31 “6 Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid…; for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.” God’s children have the promise of His presence in the midst of their repentance. We are not asked to repent on our own or to make our own way out of the darkness. Just as He guided the children of Israel with fire by night and with a cloud by day as they made their way to the Promised Land, He will never leave us nor forsake us in our obedience. We travel with marvelous guides along our path of repentance – the scriptures, the church, the saints and one another. Repentance, however is the key to peace, harmony, forgiveness, and loving relationships. Our Repentance must be a daily action. We don’t repent once and move one. We repent “early and often”. We repent before the sun goes down. We repent even when it’s not our fault. We repent when we feel wronged and we repent when we feel slighted. Repentance is a lifestyle not a once-in-a-while activity. Repentance will heal marriages. Repentance will make a job worthwhile. Repentance will re-unite families. Repentance will rescue those out of darkness and bring life to those living in the shadow of death. The message of Christ at its core is Repentance – turning from darkness to the light and from the shadow of death to life.
The discouragement we face in our jobs, our families, our self-evaluation, our relationships and our own response to those around us can be overcome by the light and life offered to us by the Incarnate God who was born in a cave and baptized by John in the Jordan – the very Christ who felt pain as he heard of the arrest of His kinsman. He came to give us peace, contentment and courage even when we lose big customers and give us the strength to repent from our self-destructive paths of pity, disappointment and shame.