Nicodemus Visits Jesus (Epiphany +4) – January 28, 2018 (NL Week 21)
Complementary Text – Psalm 1:1-3
Preaching Text – Matthew 5:1-20
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
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. (Matthew 4:16, NRSV)
These powerful and hopeful words appeared back in chapter four to describe what was happening as Jesus’ ministry began. Having bested Satan in a battle of wills, Jesus began to travel throughout the Galilean countryside north of Jerusalem, calling disciples, bringing healing and wholeness to many, and proclaiming to all the good news that would be his life’s message – Turn your lives around! The Reign of Heaven – or Heaven’s Rule – has drawn near!
This morning, we get our first chance to hear Jesus unpacking that message, revealing just what it means for us to live in a world in which Heaven’s Reign has broken loose. Today’s reading includes an excerpt from one of the most important bodies of religious teaching ever assembled – the so-called Sermon on the Mount. Specifically, we hear the well-loved words that have come to be known as the “Beatitudes”, a description related to the Latin word for “blessed”. If Jesus’ coming represents the dawning of light for people who live in a region of shadow and death, then the Beatitudes are an expansion on that theme. What has generally happened in this world – in Jesus’ day or in our own – to “the poor in spirit”, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, and the thirsty? They aren’t often celebrated. Often they are all but invisible. The world’s attention centers far more often on those who are contented and self-assured, who see the world as their oyster and scheme to seize their place in it, who are unsatisfied unless their own will is done on earth. Jesus’ words to that assembled crowd of disciples and seekers (and, by extension, to us), reveals who will receive acknowledgement and celebration in Heaven’s Reign. In Jesus, light has dawned – not on those who have it all together, but on those who pine for acceptance even as they wonder if there is a place for them anywhere. Light has dawned – not on the happy and satisfied, but on those who lament that this world does not reflect God’s design. Light has dawned – not on those who wield power for their own sake, but on those who yearn for justice and peace to be done and for God’s reign to be realized on earth. This dawning light has arrived to lift up those who are despised or ignored by the world, and to reveal God’s steadfast love for those who seek God’s will by granting them the promise that they will receive what they could only dream of: Heaven’s reign, a word of comfort, a place to call home, and a thirst for justice satisfied by God’s righteous hand.
That incredible message of hope is also a message about discipleship. After giving words of encouragement to those beaten down by the world, Jesus charges his followers to support the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, and those who are yearning for God’s will to be done. Suddenly, congratulations are due not to those who give people what they deserve by the world’s standards, but to those who do the hard work of revealing God’s merciful love to all. Congratulations are due, not to those who astound us with their wide variety of skills honed to impress others, but to those whose single-minded focus on God reflects God’s desire to make the world “right”. Congratulations are due not to those who rule by might or deception, but to those who seek to bring peace and renewed relationships to their families, their communities, and our world. Whether you are downtrodden yourself or you seek to lift up the downtrodden, Jesus offers a hopeful word of grace that allows us to see our world with new eyes.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Matthew adds a word of encouragement to this message of hope and vocation. As we seek to serve one another and the world around us, Jesus teaches that the light of Christ that has dawned upon us is also reflected to the world through us. We, as individuals and as a community of faith, are the light of the world, a light that shines with the hope and joy and love of the good news of Jesus. Through our daily calling to be the hands and feet and voice of Christ to a world in need, we have the opportunity to be messengers of that good news in a thousand different ways that are mostly unseen, but are sometimes unmistakable. Sometimes that light shines through nothing more than a kind word spoken to a friend or neighbor. Sometimes it shines when we let ourselves leave center stage and regard someone else’s needs as more important than our own. Sometimes it shines when we rally together to provide shelter or warmth or welcome to people in need in our community and beyond. Sometimes it shines when we remember our partnership with brothers and sisters around our state, our nation, and our world, and we join in tackling the most vexing problems that exist in the globe today. In all kinds of ways, both large and small, we have the gift and the calling of being light for the world, serving others so that God might be glorified by what we say and do.
As we gather today following worship for our annual congregational meeting, I can think of no better image to keep before us in our deliberations. The Bible speaks often about the actions of people as illuminating or shadowing God and God’s purposes for the world. Through the word of Scripture, the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, and the support that we grant to one another in both joy and adversity, we who have been joined to the death and resurrection of Christ have been brought from death into life, from darkness into light. Our words, our deeds, our relationships with one another and with the world around us, all of these can reflect the light that has been poured out on us in Jesus, or they can obscure the Sun of Righteousness that shines in our midst. We who enjoy the grace of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit have a choice this year: will we choose to be the light of the world so that God might be glorified, or will we allow our own wants and desires to hold us back from the Spirit’s leading? It is my prayer that we will commit ourselves once again to the difficult but rewarding task of being Christ for the world, showing by all that we say and do as a congregation our trust in and love for our Lord Jesus. May our light so shine before others that they may see our good works, give glory to our Father in heaven, and glimpse for themselves that Heaven’s Reign has drawn near. Thanks be to God for granting us the light of Christ and calling us to spread that light today and always. Amen.
On Sunday, December 21, the Falls City Area Ministerial Association hosted “A Service of Lament for the Holy Season”, sometimes called a “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” service. Pastor Andrew preached the homily at the service; the text of his reflection is posted below.
Scripture for the Longest Night:
Old Testament Reading – Psalm 142
New Testament Reading – 2 Corinthians 4:6-10
Gospel Reading: John 1:1-5
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
If you look back at the call to worship that began this evening’s service, you’ll see that the words of that lament are excerpted from Psalm 88, one of the so-called psalms of lament. With your indulgence, I’d like to read that psalm in its entirety, because on this longest night it expresses a depth of sorrow that is really unparalleled by any other passage of Scripture:
Lord, God of my salvation,
by day I cry out,
even at night, before you—
let my prayer reach you!
Turn your ear to my outcry
because my whole being is filled with distress;
my life is at the very brink of hell.
I am considered as one of those plummeting into the pit.
I am like those who are beyond help,
drifting among the dead,
lying in the grave, like dead bodies—
those you don’t remember anymore,
those who are cut off from your power.
You placed me down in the deepest pit,
in places dark and deep.
Your anger smothers me;
you subdue me with it, wave after wave.
You’ve made my friends distant.
You’ve made me disgusting to them.
I can’t escape. I’m trapped!
My eyes are tired of looking at my suffering.
I’ve been calling out to you every day, Lord—
I’ve had my hands outstretched to you!
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do ghosts rise up and give you thanks?
Is your faithful love proclaimed in the grave,
your faithfulness in the underworld?
Are your wonders known in the land of darkness,
your righteousness in the land of oblivion?
But I cry out to you, Lord!
My prayer meets you first thing in the morning!
Why do you reject my very being, Lord?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Since I was young I’ve been afflicted, I’ve been dying.
I’ve endured your terrors. I’m lifeless.
Your fiery anger has overwhelmed me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
They surround me all day long like water;
they engulf me completely.
You’ve made my loved ones and companions distant.
My only friend is darkness.
(Psalm 88, Common English Bible)
Does any of that sound familiar to you? The questioning? The longing? The feelings of being distressed, subdued, drowned, afflicted, engulfed, or distant from others? Some of it does to me. Perhaps some of these feelings resonate with you this evening. It’s sort of incredible to read about emotion this raw in Scripture, isn’t it? So many of our friends and neighbors get nervous when they start hearing this kind of talk. By and large, they’re good Christian folk who want us to make the turn from grief to hope because they’re afraid that faith can’t stand in the face of this sort of despair. They’re unable to fathom sorrow so deep that it can’t abide the thought of praise, yet here it is in our holy book. In Psalm 88 there is no acknowledgment of God’s goodness, there are no feeble attempts to paper over the pain. There is only this stark truth: sometimes we truly feel that darkness is our only companion.
On this longest night, perhaps it is all that you can do to sit with your grief and name the pain that has defied your attempts to comprehend it. Psalm 88 ends where it does because sometimes we just can’t make that turn quite yet. If that’s the case, then I pray that you find some small measure of comfort in the fact that you are not alone in dwelling with that grief, that you are gathered with others who understand what it means to be in pain, even though it can never be exactly like yours.
At the same time, I pray that you hear anew this word from John’s Gospel. You don’t have to understand it. You don’t need to acknowledge its truth. You’re not obligated to lay your grief aside because of it. Just listen to it again:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:5, CEB)
You might feel like you’re trapped in the shadows, but the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
You might wonder if you have any friends besides the darkness, but the light shines into that darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
You might wonder if the night will ever end, but the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
The light may not be strong. You may not even be able to see it at the moment. But the light is there, this light that sometimes flickers and falters but is never mastered by the murk and muck and mire of this world. The light is Christ, the one who came in weakness and vulnerability to drink the overflowing cup of human sorrow and pain and loss. That light is Christ, who himself suffered death and from the cross wailed that he, too, felt that he had been abandoned by God. That light is Christ, who rose again to break the grip of sin and death and hell and who bore our humanity in all of its brokenness and loss to the heart of God.
Dear friends, on this longest night, may these words take root in your own hearts: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. May the Spirit of God rekindle your hope, renew your faith, and strengthen you in love, and may the peace of God which surpasses our understanding guard your hearts and minds as you continue your journey toward healing and wholeness. Amen.