john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Epiphany: Light in the darkness

    St Christopher's Norris Green 23/01/2005 (Communion Service)

    Isaiah 9.1-4, Matthew 4.12-23

    To some, God is the transcendent power waiting for us in everything;
    To others, God is an oppressive power used to bind and blind the wretched of the earth.

    To some, God is the creator who breathes the breath of life into our bodies;
    To others, God is the creation of an infantile humanity, superstitious and scared to grow up.

    To some, God is a motherly parent, birthing creation and holding her people to her breast;
    To others, God is tyrannical father, never pleased enough, loathed and feared as he traps us in dependence.

    To some, God is a liberator, hearing the cries of the oppressed and moving to help them;
    To others, God is a collaborator, deaf to the cries of the oppressed and siding with the powers that be.

    To some, God's hands were split open by violence in suffering love for women and men;
    To others, God's hands are stained with the blood of the countless atrocities and needless human suffering.

    To some, the praises of the church rise like incense to be breathed in by the God of love;
    To others, the smoke of Auschwitz and Hiroshima rises like a finger accusing God, like smoke which blinds God's eyes.

    Some of us find all our hope and sense of meaning in God;
    Others have lost all faith in God.

    We are here because God means something to us,
    to our worship or our doubt,
    to our trust or our fear,
    as lover or as tyrant,
    as ultimate reality or grand illusion.
    We are here to face up to what we do and don't believe about God.

    And this is how it has always been for God's people. Especially those living in places which have had turbulent histories, chequered histories, times of triumph and troubled times.

    That was how it was for the place called Galilee of the Gentiles, where Jesus chose to begin his ministry.

    In the year 734 BC Israel's enemies, Assyria, who Jeremiah called "the foe from the north", conquered most of Israel and divided the land into three regions. An area which had been called Zebulun and Naphtali was split into three and renamed as 'the way of the sea', 'the land beyond Jordan' and 'Galilee of the Gentiles'.

    And the people there had to face life under the control of foreign forces. It was a time of gloom, a time of darkness for them, having to give up many of the things precious to them - their ways of life - to fit in with the new ways of their conquerors.

    Like the people of central Europe under Soviet domination in the 20th century, or like Palestinians today, the people of Galilee of the Gentiles under the rule of Assyria, would have felt crushed. And would have different views on God, from that place. Some would have felt that God had abandoned them; others would be holding onto a hope that God may yet save them.

    Isaiah was the voice of hope. "There will be no more gloom for those in distress," he said. "In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and Naphtali; but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan."

    Isaiah had a vision of what it would be like for the people in the future, in that glorious day of freedom and release:

    The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned, he said.

    Thank God for people like Isaiah, who will stand before a suffering people and give them words of hope. Thank God for people like Isaiah, who will stand before a downtrodden people and encourage them to seize the day. Thank God for people like Isaiah, who will stand before a faithless people and turn their eyes back onto a faithful God.

    One such person today is Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Christian working for peace in Jerusalem through the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. In a Christmas message last year he wrote [2]:

    Some of our people ask how can we celebrate Christmas
    with all the closures and checkpoints,
    with all the injustice and oppression,
    with all the violations of human rights,
    with the presence of a wall that separates families and friends,
    and a multitude of hardships that the occupation imposes to make people's lives miserable,
    how can we speak of love, peace and joy when most of our people and millions of others around the world do not experience liberty and peace?

    The questions are legitimate. Yet Christmas and New Year must be a time of renewal, of hope and anticipation, of determination and zeal to work for a better world where people can experience these essential qualities of life. Therefore, wherever empire exists and the powers that be are in control through domination, there is a greater responsibility for all of us to take a stand against all that dehumanises people and to work for their liberation.

    The Christmas story is a story of a liberating God who comes to join an oppressed people in the work of liberation. God's message through the angels is a message of defiance. In spite of the presence of empire, human arrogance, and oppression, God is announcing peace and goodwill. This is God's agenda. Glory belongs to God and not to the emperor nor to the powers. Once that is genuinely acknowledged, peace is not far away.

    What does he mean when he writes about "A liberating God who comes to join an oppressed people in the work of liberation"?

    Isaiah's hopes were answered in Jesus - when he chose to begin his ministry in Galilee of the Gentiles - the place which had suffered the most during the enemy occupation; when he chose to begin his ministry to the people of Galilee of the Gentiles - the people Isaiah said were walking in darkness ... living in the land of the shadow of death. Some of them hoping to see a great light; some of them hoping that a light will dawn on them.

    It wasn't a coincidence that Jesus did this. It was very deliberate. Not for God the easy choice to make himself known in Rome or even Jerusalem, in the attractive places, in the corridors of power. No, the place God chose was occupied territory, a difficult and broken land. Naim Ateek again:

    It is in the midst of the Roman occupation that the Incarnation took place;
    it is in spite of the occupation that Mary and Joseph found joy and love in the birth of Jesus;
    it is in spite of the occupation and in the midst of economic hardships that the shepherds came to visit a family of modest means and discovered great joy and peace;
    it is in spite of the occupation that the Magi came to offer their gifts to the child.

    This is God's way; to come alongside people humbled, struggling, suffering. To bring light into their darkness and give them the chance to see a brighter and better way ahead. In Palestine they say,

    We celebrate in the midst of the occupation and in spite of it.
    Through our celebration we defy the occupation;
    we defy the injustice;
    we defy the oppressors;
    we defy the powers.

    They do not possess the last word,
    they can build high walls, but they cannot take away our hope,
    they can put us in jail, but they cannot take away our joy,
    they can prevent us from visiting family, but they cannot take away our love,
    they can stop us at checkpoints and impose all kinds of restrictions, but they cannot take away our pursuit of freedom and liberation,
    they can prevent us from going to Bethlehem, but they cannot prevent the spirit of Bethlehem from reaching us,
    they can treat us as nonhumans, but they cannot crush our spirit nor can they take away our God-given human worth and dignity,
    they can act with hate and disgust but, by the grace of God, we can always refuse to stoop to the level of hate and maintain our love of God and neighbor that includes them.

    I know that Isaiah's Israel and Jesus' Galilee seem like worlds away to us. And Naim Ateek's Palestine too. But we don't have to go that far from here to find people walking in darkness; those living in the land of the shadow of death.

    Whether that means something hidden, like the darkness of depression or fear or loneliness; or something very visible like living in the shadow of dereliction and decay, next door to a wasteland, a forgotten place, we see that every day. And we see some hold onto faith in God even in the midst of all this darkness; and we see others angered, doubting or given-up on God.

    When Jesus came to Galilee of the Gentiles his message was clear - the light has come into the darkness, the kingdom of heaven is near. His message to the people was repent, turn to him, and receive the good news in your lives, in this place.

    It is still the message today. And for those who choose to accept it, life can be transformed. Even in the darkest places, light, love, hope can shine. As shown in the words of Naim Ateek again, with which I close:

    Therefore Christmas makes us defiant.
    We defy the evildoers because we believe in the goodness which they are capable of doing,
    we defy hate because we believe in the power of love and forgiveness,
    we defy despair because we believe in life and hope,
    we defy violence and terror - both state and individual - because we believe in the power of peace and nonviolence,
    we defy war and the occupation of other people's lands because we believe in the power of  peaceful methods based on international law and legitimacy,
    we defy and challenge those who humiliate and degrade others because we believe in the dignity of every human being.

    The Incarnation took place when God took on our humanity, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This happened in Palestine under Roman occupation. Then as now and in spite of all the hardships, we celebrate Christ's birth, Emmanuel, God with us, giving us hope, joy, peace, and love

    We are defiant. We are full of hope. We will continue to work for peace through justice.

    [1] Doug Gay, An Approach to God - Losing my Religion, from Alternative Worship [slightly altered]
    [2] Naim Ateek, The Defiant Spirit of Christmas, Sabeel's Christmas message 2004