The first job I had was answering phones at the parish church where I grew up. One of the jobs, in addition to passing messages along to the priests, booking masses, and greeting those who rang the doorbell was locking up the church each evening. The six pm bells would ring and that would be the signal for me to get the master key and walk over to the church, locking and rechecking each door to make sure that everything was secured. The only problem with this project was that I would need to walk to one end of the church, lock the doors, turn out the lights and then walk back the length of the church in darkness to lock the final door as I let myself out. And so every time, I’d walk through the church that I knew so well – the church that I walked through every Sunday – as if I were a stranger: tripping over a wire, bumping into a pew, nearly falling over a chair that someone had left out from choir practice. There was nothing I could do: the only way out was to muddle through the darkness.
And you know, darkness like that doesn’t only happen when the lights are on. We all – no matter where we are walking – know darkness time and again.
It is exactly to us, then, that our first reading speaks to. Well before the birth of Christ, Isaiah comes to people in exile, proclaiming that those who were taken over first will be the first ones to see the glory of the Lord: Zebulan and Naphtali were towns in the north of the Kingdom of Israel. Because they were so far north, they were also the first ones to be taken over when enemies invaded. Isaiah prophesies that when God begins to set things right, it’s not going to only be for those who are closest to the center of the action: not just the richest and most powerful. No: it is also going to be the ones on the outskirts, the ones who bore the brunt of despair. When Isaiah predicts “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” he is promising that when God comes, God will rid the world of darkness, clearing a path for us to walk directly to Him.
And so we have today’s Gospel: Matthew cites this exact passage because he wants to make the point very clear: the one who is going to light up the world is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. After years and years of tripping in darkness, Jesus is the one who comes from Zebulun and Naphtali, preaching that the Kingdom is at hand: he is preaching that all of the promises that God has been making his people for the longest of times are about to fulfilled.
Yet, I think we could all be forgiven if we miss the greatness of Jesus’ message; most of the people of his time certainly did. The Israelites didn’t want light: they wanted freedom; they didn’t need a wandering preacher and miracle worker, they wanted a politician who could pull it all together; they didn’t need a man who got rag-tag fishermen to follow him, they wanted a strong leader to throw the Romans out!
But in Jesus, we don’t get the person we want, we get the God we need!
We don’t get the Jesus who approves of everything we do, but the one who calls us to be better than we thought we could be.
We don’t get the Jesus who fights back for what is rightfully his, but the one who turns the other cheek right up to the Cross.
We don’t get the Jesus who turns on the lights so that we have an easy path, but we do get the Jesus who is himself the light!
All of us here to one extent or another know about darkness. If we pick up the paper, check our email or just check out Twitter or Facebook, we know that there are many people in darkness. We ourselves likely know about darkness too. And so, just as Jesus said to Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, “Come after me,” he says the same thing to us: Jesus doesn’t promise that following will be easy, but what we are all promised is that in following Jesus we will be following a light that will never be extinguished.
Let’s not kid ourselves: this is the light that we really need. (It’s the light that I need!) I think we’re here, because in one way or another, we know that our lives may not have as much light as we want. This week, let’s try to ask God in a special way to lighten us up.
When we walk into a dark room, or a dark church, all we need to do is find some source of light: open the shade, flip the switch, or walk into another room. But, when there’s darkness in our lives, there’s only one place to look: the light that never goes out, the light that not even death – death on a cross – can put out: Jesus, is the light. We are God’s people, we have seen a great light!