Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 9:1–4; Psalm 27:1, 5–13; 1 Corinthians 1:10–18; Matthew 4:12–23
I am intrigued by today’s message of light in the darkness, being called to be that light and, on top of it all, standing as the light amidst division and challenge. I am mindful of our Easter Vigil liturgy … if you have never been part of that liturgy here, I encourage you to consider coming this year, on the eve of April 11th. The liturgy powerfully reminds us of not only the centrality of Jesus Christ in our lives, in our worship, but of how Christ actually acts as a light that chases away the darkness of sin, division, and all of the things that hide in the shadowlands of our spirits. The service begins as the great Vigil Fire is lighted; the Christ–fire that the tomb briefly extinguished is brought to life and that light is processed into the church. Three times we stop in the darkened church, the lighted Paschal candle showing the way, and sing “The light of Christ.” Then, we hear the story of salvation in the darkness, that reaches us even in the murkiest places, and, finally, as Christ’s resurrection is acknowledged the lights come on, the altar candles are lighted, and we sing alleluia over and over again. We celebrate that in Christ we have passed from darkness into the light of God’s grace and we are, forever, living in the knowledge and light of all Christ is and has done.
Today, I want us to observe and live more and more into the reality of Christ’s light and what that means to and for us. I hope we might see how we are called, even as Christ’s disciples were called, to be the light of Christ to the world. And finally, we are called to be the light even in the midst of difficult (even dangerous) divisions and by doing that, living into the fullness of our call as disciples, the light of the world or, at the very least, the servants of the light – Jesus.
On the night of 26–27 March 1996, seven monks of the Trappist order from the Atlas Abbey of Tibhirine near Médéa, Algeria, were kidnapped during the Algerian Civil War that had begun four years prior. They were held for two months, as the GIA, the terrorist group that had taken them, negotiated for the release of a comrade in exchange for the monks. Talks apparently stalled and the remains of the monks were found in late May 1996; they had been executed and the GIA claimed responsibility.
The Tibhirine monks were Trappists, you know the monks who wear the white alb with a simple brown apron–looking thing over it. They were entirely integrated into the little community of Médéa nearby. Though inside the monastery they spent much time in solitude (outside of prayer and meals), and silence, outside they served people in the village in various ways; one of the monks was a doctor and ran a little clinic. Algeria had gained its independence in 1962 after an eight–year war with the French. A war had broken out in 1992 when the military effectively took over the government nullifying a democratic election. The monks were all French. Most French nationals and diplomats had been pulled out of the country. As the militant groups became more active in the interior – the monastery was about 100 km from Algiers, the capital on the coast – the superior of the Trappist order encouraged the monks to leave. They chose to stay and continue to serve the villagers, who were entirely Muslim, as they had for many years. On the night of March 26–27, the terrorists came …
I am always moved by the story of these monks which is told in a wonderful movie with English subtitles called Of Gods and Men. The story of these monks is not a story of heroes or extraordinary people but of men who were called by God to be engaged in ministry with their fellow humans. They were called to be not only priests, monks, but disciples of Jesus. But more than that, they had been called to be the Light of Jesus in a time of darkness, a time of division, and a time of violence. “And on those that lived in deep darkness,” says Isaiah who is quoted by Matthew today, “on them light has shined.” We are called people, or we would not be here. What are we called to be and to do? We are called to be followers of Jesus which means we are automatically called to be some of the people who shine in a dark world, in a time of deepening division.
We just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr Day, last Monday. And the most compelling thing about Dr. King for me was that he was not perfect. He was a flawed human, just like the Tibhirine monks. But he had been called by God to be a light of Christ in the dark division of American segregation and racism. He was not the light – even though he shone very brightly indeed – he was the one who pointed to the saving light of Jesus Christ. That is what we are called, as disciples, to do and be: beacons that guide the weary seafarers of this life toward the loving and saving shore of Jesus Christ. We are all called, my brothers ands sisters, to be a hopeful light, even when the world seems to want it some other way. These monks of Tibhirine did not take up arms against the terrorists of Algeria. They continued to be a light of working love and peace amongst the non–Christians they ministered to. Dr. King did not fight a war of violence but did fight against the ignorance of racism and the injustice of segregation, using the instruments of peace and the Gospel of Jesus Christ as his weapons.
The light of Christ. The light that shines in every darkness. Jesus calls to us from the shores of our current, busy lives. We are – like the disciples John, James (our patron), Peter and Andrew – engaged in work, raising families, keeping appointments and finding real joy, oftentimes, in our daily living. From our places of busyness, relative comfort, and safety Jesus calls us to be his disciples. Being a disciple does not mean that we have to leave everything, our fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, children and work, friends…to answer the call to be Jesus’ light in the world. Remember, we are not being asked to be the actual light; we are called to become better and stronger pointers toward, witnesses of, the true and never–failing light that is Jesus. Jesus shows us how to do that; how to follow Him. He teaches us what is true, and holy, and worth proclaiming. And He also shows us that following him means sacrifice. Being a witness to His great love and purpose, in the midst of divisions, requires a great deal of patience, too.
[Remember Paul’s words to the people of Corinth. Last week he was blessing, just a few verses back, but now he is speaking to a people embroiled in divisions. He is reminding these people who have heard the good news of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection that it was not he (Paul) or anyone else who died for them: it was Jesus alone. Corinthians speaks to the idea of division that can break us apart. We so want to be right. To be seen. To be heard. To be angry. And listening to each other can be so difficult and yet, so very crucial and vital. What part can we play, as people called to follow Jesus, in being little lanterns to illumine the pathway and truth of His Easter fire, in this time of division? We need not agree with people because we believe in the saving power and love of Jesus. But we ought to love each other, no matter the difference. We are called to listen which can make a big difference actually. But above all, we are called, as Paul reminded the Corinthians, to remember who is the Light to which we are obedient, loved above all by…remember who we follow and why. Armed with the Light of Christ, he who passed from darkness to light for our sake, we can stand in the midst of division or joy, and shine the Light in that place].