Sermon delivered on Epiphany 3A, Sunday, January 26, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 9.1-4; Psalm 27.1, 4-12; 1 Corinthians 1.10-18; St. Matthew 4.12-23.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We all know what it is like to live in the darkness. But do we know what it is like to live in Christ’s light in the midst of the world’s darkness? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
Every one of us is afflicted by some form of darkness, whether imposed from the outside or from within. So what forms of darkness do you struggle with? For some it is the darkness of alcoholism or drug addiction. For others it is the darkness of pornography or gambling addiction. For still others it is the darkness of loneliness or alienation or the loss of important relationships and people once held so near and dear. Others live in the darkness of fear: we fear losing what we have, be it family and loved ones, or a culture and country we once loved but see crumbling around us. We fear bankruptcy, sickness, and death. The list is almost endless. For the people of the ancient northern kingdom of Israel it was the darkness of impending foreign invasion with its resulting destruction and displacement from the promised land, a sure sign that God had abandoned them. Many of us who live today have a similar fear of being rejected by God. We look at the good we’ve done but we also see the evil we’ve committed. Every one of us knows we have the capacity to betray ourselves—our highest values and all the good that we hold near and dear—along with others in pursuit of the various idols our disordered hearts seek, even as we know we are capable of showing true sacrificial and noble love for the sake of others. To use the language of Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares, if we have the courage and humility to be honest with ourselves, each of us would be forced to admit that we are both wheat and tare in the field of God’s world.
At its root, the darkness that afflicts us, whether internally or externally, finds its origins in our alienation from God that resulted when our first ancestors rebelled against God in paradise. It makes us afraid and diminishes us as human beings, God’s image-bearing creatures who were designed to reflect God’s goodness and justice and love out into his creation to nurture and sustain it. It makes us sick and causes us to die. It makes us cry out to the Lord in desperation and pain, pleading with God to do something about it, and it makes us wonder if we really matter at all to God. End our alienation from God and the various forms of evil Scripture calls “darkness” must go away. But how to do that since none of us has the power to fully extricate ourselves from the darkness? Reality notwithstanding, we keep on trying and the problem is exacerbated when we try to self-medicate and/or find healing through our pursuit of various idols, just as God’s people Israel did all those centuries ago. We try to drown our sorrows to forget them. Or we pursue the idols of power, identity politics, security, wealth, and prestige to name just a few, thinking if we just make enough money or have the right connections and/or influence we can fix our various problems. We can’t. It’s not in our spiritual DNA as fallen human beings. We still remain alienated from God and each other.
There is only one hope for ending the darkness that afflicts us and it is announced by the prophet Isaiah and realized fully in Jesus Christ, God’s healing light to the world. Despite our ongoing rebellion against God, despite our relentless pursuit of self-help and its accompanying idols, God in his great mercy, love, and wisdom has acted on our behalf to end the root cause of our alienation from him so that we can one day be fully healed and freed from the power of darkness. And how did God do this? God sent his own Son to die for our sins, for the ongoing darkness that our rebellion helps create and sustain. In the cross of Christ we see the wisdom and power of God to save for those who believe in this kind of unheard of power. On the cross, God took the collective darkness of the world, your darkness and mine along with everyone else’s over time and culture, and condemned it in Christ’s body nailed to the tree. Doing so allowed God to condemn the darkness without condemning us. St. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Colossians:
You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world.Colossians 2.13-15, 20a, NLT
Did you catch the breathtaking promise in St. Paul’s bold proclamation? God himself has acted unilaterally on our behalf to end our alienation from him. On the cross God has broken the dark powers’ grip over us. We are no longer enslaved to the darkness because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us. Death is no longer our destiny. In Christ we are set free to be truly human beings.
God used an instrument of shame and human degradation to heal our relationship with him and restore us to himself. God broke the power of darkness in this manner because to fight darkness with darkness is to already be defeated by the darkness and God could not let that happen. Shock and awe along with a final fearsome judgment will come, but not before God gives us time and a real chance to be rescued from his final just condemnation of the darkness that has plagued and corrupted God’s beloved creation and creatures. God did not wait for our approval or for us to ask him to help us in this way. In fact, as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, God acted on our behalf to break the darkness while we were still his enemies, hostile and alienated from God (Romans 5.1-11). There is no greater love than this and it shows the depth of God’s love and mercy for us, along with God’s desire for real justice to be executed on all the darkness perpetrated against God and his people. This is why St. Paul was so adamant that God’s people in Christ make the cross our central focus and purpose of living. Without it we are dead men and women walking, alienated from God and utterly without hope. With and through the cross, we are forgiven and reconciled to God the Father with the expectation (hope) of being fully forgiven right now and the complete restoration that accompanies eternal life in the future. This is the power and wisdom of God made known in the cross.
But here’s the thing. While we have been rescued from eternal death and destruction, and while God has broken the enslaving power of darkness on the cross, the powers have not been totally vanquished. They are still quite active. Neither are we fully healed, even though we have been fully reconciled to God the Father through the cross of Christ. Remnants of sin still remain in us. The promise of new heavens and a new earth are yet to be fully realized. We call this living in “the already-not yet.” Christ has won the victory for us and we are no longer God’s enemies and children of hell (the already). But the victory is not yet fully consummated and won’t be fully realized until our Lord’s return (the not yet). This can create some interesting ambiguities in us and our lives, and apparently those ambiguities have been with us from the get-go as our epistle lesson attests.
In the church at Corinth various destructive factions had formed around its leaders that threatened to tear apart the church. Christians there were reverting back to their various idols, in this context striving for the idol of human power to impose their will on their fellow Christians. This idol is often driven by human pride and St. Paul would have none of it. Don’t you know that you are emptying the cross of its power by seeking other idols, he roared? Christ died for your sins and has stripped away your slavery to the darkness. You are rescued and restored to God. It’s a free gift to you won by God himself and given to you in your baptism when the free gift was fully bestowed upon you. When you look at the cross you must see that humility and love must rule your lives, not self-gain or the delusion of self-help. The cross demands that you seek to put to death your darkness (the only darkness you have control over) in the power of the Spirit, not to win the light of your salvation, because it has already been won for you and you are freed from your slavery to sin. You must instead make the cross the focus and center of your life because it is the only way God can break the power of darkness over you and use you to be his light bearers. One day you will be fully healed and you will not be able to sin any longer because your bodies will be powered by the Spirit, not by your fallen nature. That’s in the future though. Right now, you have to fight the fight against the darkness and sometimes you will lose. But the war’s already been won for you when Christ died for you. Don’t throw away the victory God won for you. Don’t reject God’s great love and mercy for you.
St. Paul would tell us the same thing today and so did Christ in our gospel lesson when he announced that God’s kingdom was at hand, i.e., God’s promised light had finally appeared, but surprisingly in the form of Jesus. The proper response is to repent. Since our thinking about repentance is quite muddled, let us be clear about what repentance is and isn’t. Jesus wasn’t telling us to feel terminally rotten about ourselves. Why would he want us to do that, especially since the kingdom of God with its healing and exorcisms had come near? Repentance doesn’t mean a call to self-condemnation, my beloved, because self-condemnation is categorically different from feeling remorse over our sins and transgressions. Repentance is about changing our way of living and our orientation of life. Instead of focusing inward and making it about us, Christ calls us to focus again on the love and goodness of God made known in him. In other words, repentance is about doing, not feeling. Christ calls us to focus on his life-saving death and resurrection, along with the many signs of power he did in his earthly ministry. Doing so reminds us to have the good sense and humility to acknowledge our utter helplessness to free ourselves from our slavery to the darkness and acknowledge that God through Christ alone has the power to free, to heal, to restore, and to save. Repentance also allows us to live with the ambiguities of the already-not yet, believing the promises of God made known in the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And to further help us live in the already-not yet, we take another cue from our Lord when he called his first disciples. In doing so, Jesus reminds us that discipleship is always to be lived out together as his newly-formed family so that we can love and support each other. In doing so, we are helped to remain confident that the power of darkness is broken over us even as it remains abundantly active in the world. And so we continue to act faithfully, even in the face of multiple ambiguities, knowing that we are rescued and healed and loved and restored by a love that simply is beyond our full comprehension. We believe this because we believe in the power and wisdom of God.
So what does that look like? When we keep the cross as our central focus, we are reminded that each of us has good and evil in us and that Christ died for the ungodly, for all of us. When we take this to heart with the Spirit’s help, it must change how we interact with others. No longer can we hate anyone since Christ died for those we despise and who despise us, and so we must treat them with circumspection and charity. What if Christians in this nation took that mindset into the political arena this year? Instead of posting hateful, shameful things about those with whom we disagree, we greet them with charity and a willingness to openly debate issues rather than lobbing ad hominem attacks on them. Think what would happen if instead of blaming and shaming our enemies, we seek to find real justice and solutions for them, remembering that Christ died for them as he did for us. If the Church would behave this way in the secular world, we are promised that the light of Christ will shine through us to bring God’s healing to bear. What an Epiphany proclamation that would be! As we near the end of this season of Epiphany and prepare for Lent, let us as Christ’s holy people resolve to focus on the power and wisdom of God made known in the cross of Christ by taking up our own cross, denying ourselves, and following him. Only then can we beacons of Christ’s light and not bearers of darkness. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.