Here in the Western hemisphere this is the darkest time of the year, yes the days are slowly growing longer and have been since just before Christmas, but with the celebrations and the twinkling lights gone it can seem very dismal and dark. Just to add to the cheerfulness I don’t know if you know that last Monday being the 3rd Monday in January is officially designated “Blue Monday”, apparently it is the most depressing time of the year! Now there might be all kinds of reasons for that that we aren’t going to unpack here such as credit card bills coming in for the Christmas overspend, but the fact remains, January can be a difficult month for many people physically, spiritually and emotionally.
So in my efforts to cheer you up even more I am now going to talk about politics ( yes I know all the nonsense about religion and politics never mixing, I just don’t hold to it). It is impossible to ignore what is going on, both in this country as the impact of the Brexit vote continues to unfold, and also across the world as the ripples of what it means to have President Donald J Trump in Office roll out more like shock waves than ripples and there have been marches and demonstrations, protests and prayer vigils not just in the USA, but across the globe. It must be said that there are justified fears of racism, sexism, of homophobia, of segregation and of course while this continues in many places we must ask how it can be right for this to return to places where it was once undone, and I am not simply criticising Trump here, the nationalistic, separatist, fear-filled rhetoric can be heard in here in the the UK too, and seems to be spreading across the world.
We could say we live in extraordinary times, and we do, but perhaps they are not as unique as we might think, both of our readings today, one quoting the other have contained the words ” the people walking in darkness have seen a great light…” hope is alive!
Isaiah was writing from a kingdom under oppression probably in this account from the mighty Assyrian Empire, whose cruelty and injustice were well documented, but as he points out there have been times before and there will be times to come when darkness returns and oppression and injustice are present. Matthew too tells us Jesus story in a time of oppression, Israel is under Roman rule, the people are hard-pressed and again there is a groaning for freedom and release.
Probably the easiest thing for us all to do when faced with the overwhelming nature of all of this is to run and hide, we might hide in TV programmes or books in spending or in overeating, (all of which are known to be comfort seeking strategies, which may be even helpful for a while) or we might hide in pretending that nothing is happening and we are living life as usual, and I guess in many ways we probably are, but we cannot ignore the news for long, nor our oppressed, terrorised, and threatened sisters and brothers all across the globe, so what does it mean for us as disciples of Christ to live out the gospel, the good news of hope in these days? How do we live our lives that his light and life might shine through us into the darkness and gloom around us?
First I want to say that ours is a message of hope, of hope and great love, a light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot and will not overcome, if we cannot see that then perhaps we need to seek God in prayer until the dimness of our light flickers into life again, from there we can respond…
What was Jesus response in the light of oppression? On hearing that his cousin John has been arrested by Herod he did not form a march ( though there is nothing wrong with marching) or a protest movement, not in the way that we would understand them anyway, though I suspect that it could be argued that he began the greatest protest movement of all time, no, he withdrew leaving Nazareth he moved to Capernaum and continued to preach the good news, the kingdom of God is at hand. Opening the Scriptures and telling stories he drew people to himself, showing them another way, the way of vulnerability and peace. He did not go to those who were in power but to the marginalised, the poor, and the outcast. This was not just a nice thing to do, but a real response to people in a time of crisis, people in the region were suffering under Rome, nutrition was poor, some were pushed below subsistence levels, social stresses and a sense of insecurity were high. Into this culture Jesus went, not only preaching and teaching but calling others to follow him as he healed and helped those in the greatest need!
He went and he began to make a difference, the light of love was shining through him and people thronged to him, he did not grab at power but allowed the power of the divine to flow through him despite his apparent weakness, he certainly did not have huge resources or political clout, this it seems is the way of the rule and reign of God, to live in love, to speak out for the marginalised, to bring hope and healing to the stressed, the sick, the bereaved and the hopeless, and it is to this that he calls the first disciples, to this he calls us.
We may feel overwhelmed by the call, but we are not being asked to take the weight of the world upon our shoulders but instead the yoke of the one who calls us even when we are weary and burdened. He calls us to be salt and light, to bring out the God colours and God flavours of this world and to allow the light of love to burn within us, so that the rule and reign of the divine, the lover and creator of our souls does not just suddenly appear around us as if by magic, but through us as we choose to join in. As our small lights begin to shine together the light grows, as our choice to live lives of love grow, the love grows and flows, this is discipleship, this choice to follow.
There are so many ways to follow, to speak out for the oppressed, to feed the hungry, to visit those in prison, to seek peace to work for justice, and our world cries out in need, but we must not forget that the way of the disciple is the way of the cross, the way of laying ourselves aside, our selfishness and greed, our apathy and our fear. In doing this we discover the upside down power of Christ who through the resurrection calls us into a new and empowered life where what seems foolishness has great impact, where we do not cling to status or even our desire to be right but become like him who gave all for all. Let us be those who seek to cross divides, to build bridges not walls, to bring light into the darkness.
To quote Barbara Brown Taylor from her book ” Learning to walk in the dark”;
“New life begins in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb or Jesus in the tomb, it begins in the dark.”
Or to quote African American, theologian, educator and human rights activist Harold Thurman:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.