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The reading that you have just listened to is from the Gospel of Mathew which embedded the prophetic message of Isaiah in the Old Testament. It is the version in Contemporary Language.The theme is reflected also in Psalm 27 with these words: “Light, space, zest — that’s God! So, with him on my side I’m fearless, afraid of no one and nothing.” Paul’s message to the people in Corinth was this “God did not send me out to collect a following for myself, but to preach the Message of what he has done, collecting a following for him. And he didn’t send me to do it with a lot of fancy rhetoric of my own lest the powerful action at the centre – Christ on the Cross – be trivialized into mere words.” The emphasis is not proclaiming the word but using words to tell the story of what Jesus has done and not just what he said..
This contemporary rendition of the Biblical message seems to me to be a dazzling display of light illuminating the way for the followers of Christ. It is like the laser beams piercing the the darkness and enlightening us. The light and sound shows at night in a number of tourists spots often feature a light display or a scintillating light show. We have the Christmas lights on Orchard Road, the lantern lights on South Bridge Road, the flickering flames in Little India, the glittering displays in Sentosa and Marina Bay. When I was a teenager and just before I left to further my studies in 1948 my favorite haunt was along the dimly lit Kinta River in Ipoh. You don’t need to know what I was doing there. When I visited that spot last year they cleaned up the river and planted artificial trees and lighted them with different sets of colour bulbs and it became a tourist attraction and for those who are dating.
This is as far as I want to go. Let’s us make the U turn in our train of thought and go back to serious reflection of our Biblical messages this morning. The Lectionary passages has suggested the theme for my sermon – From Darkness to Light. We retreat to dark places because of our fear and seem to find safety in deep darkness. The ambience in this place consciously and unconsciously express our inner deep feelings. I remember a conversation I had with Zihao about his creative work as an architect. What is the living environment that is desirable and helpful peculiarly for the LGBT community. I am glad that subsequently he has the assignment to create one with that in mind when we move to One Commonwealth. I am looking forward to his creative effort along with that of Eugene.
When light appears it changes the situation in which we are in. Light transforms. We speak about the light of knowledge for our darkened minds. With light we can see the road where we are to go. Light illuminates. Whenever we preach we also ask that the lights be turned up higher not because the preacher wants you to see him or her. It has the practical use for me to see my script and to make some eye contact with you. With a brighter environment you will not fall asleep that easily and more ready to pay attention to the message.
Now for the context of the account in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel. John the Baptist whom Jesus was following was arrested and imprisoned when he offended King Herod for he had denounced him for seducing his brother’s wife and married her. He was subsequently put to a brutal death.The tragic beheading was further dramatized by placing severed head on a platter for display.
This event cast a blanket of fear and gloom over the heads of those who followed John the Baptist and that included Jesus. The narrative goes on to track the flight of Jesus from Nazareth which is his hometown to new town of Capernaum in Galilee. It is not easy to leave one’s familiar home to go to a different place. But it was no longer safe for him to remain in Nazareth. His life is in peril and his future is bleak. He decided to take flight and escaped to Galilee and started his own ministry.
Galilee was a deliberate choice of destination. It was safe and he need not be fearful. Josephus the Roman historian who was once a governor of the province wrote: “It is throughout rich in soil and pasturage, producing every variety of tree, and inviting by its productiveness even those who have the least inclination for agriculture; it is everywhere tilled; no part is allowed to lie idle and everywhere it is productive.” It looks like an ideal rural society. Contrast it with our present urban situation where we build structures of every shape and form upon every available strip of land to produce at the end money. From rural to urban we uproot vegetation and raise up concrete structures. From opening to sunshine to shutting the sun and very soon we will burrow under the ground without sunlight. This is the price we pay for progress and modernity and we can only lament of the good old days and try to survive in the present.
Galilee at that time attracted people all around and the population increased. There was diversity. It soon surpassed the Jewishness of its origins and was known as Galilee of the Gentiles. It became a cosmopolitan town and crossroads in the region. From uniformity to diversity was the direction. We in Singapore are familiar with that manner of historical development. More importantly was its distance from the political power of the Roman rule and the religious power of the Jewish Temple. It was most certainly a safe place for Jesus with His new mission.
Later history tells us that after the stoning of Stephen the followers of Jesus took the same route to flee to Antioch another important town in Galilee. It was the place that the Gentiles were brought into the early Christian movement without undergoing the Jewish rite of circumcision. It was the opening act resulting to separation of Christianity from Judaism. It is reputed that it was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called Christian. Scholars tell us that it was in Antioch that the Gospel of Mathew was written decades later.
What is the first lesson we learn to deal with the fearful situations that come into our lives. It is obvious that we have to deal with them. Those are the moments of darkness. We see Jesus moving from the familiarity of his hometown of Nazareth to Capernaum in Galilee. We remember how the Holy Family fled from the birthplace of Bethlehem to Egypt. The the Jesus followers moved from Jerusalem to Antioch. I just received an autographed copy of his memoir from Tan Wah Piow, the alleged leader of the Marxist Conspiracy in the early seventies. He had to escape from the land of his birth Singapore to London.
We don’t ignore our fears or divert them with other activities. We do not retreat deeper and deeper in our dark closets that we have created for ourselves and for our community. We have to recognize them and deal with them. We deal with them frontally and find ways to overcome our fears. We must step out and begin our journey from darkness to the light. We have to discover our own Galilee.
Matthew goes on to narrate that Jesus began his ministry of repentance and this is a familiar theme within our Christian history. It has primarily been associated with the the traditional call of “Repent and be baptised.” Are you saved?’ is the the traditional evangelistic question. You are expected to declare the traditional formula of “I believe and I accept Jesus Christ.” If you do the evangelists will declare that salvation is assured and heaven is the destination.
Repentance, baptism, heaven-bound is the order in the life of the believers. In the realm of darkness of the religious faith of most people they see salvation as that of saving them from hell on earth and gaining entry in the realm of heaven. This is so in the goal of entry to paradise or gain merit to achieve nirvana after death. Even among Christians we view death as the journey through the darkness of the tunnel towards the light of the arms of Jesus in the heavenly realms.
Therefore the early believers speak about the kingdom of heaven in the hereafter and images of God in Christ on the heavenly throne and others on the right and left hand of God. What about the life on earth in the meantime? We suffer and bear the pain and sorrow in our efforts for survival in this evil world. We say we cannot in our good works gain salvation and we don’t bother to be engaged. We may express some compassion and help the poor and needy. But the work that we must do is to be faithful and just worship and pray to God and ignoring the injustices in the world. Instead,we must begin to realise our religious duties in involving the task of seeking justice and restoring the flourishing environment which we have destroyed.
Let me at this junction help you to realise the different interpretations of the Bible embodied in the different versions currently used. There is a need to choose which one to guide us. It is not for casual readers. It is for those who want serious and careful study with the various interpretations that expect us to choose from.
Matthew 4:17 The New International Version which most of you states: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” King James Version “at hand.”
The Revised Standard Version which I normally use says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The contemporary version interprets the call in this manner: Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.
Just in these three versions we find the difference – Near, has come near, here. There is the variance of time and distance between us and the kingdom called heaven or God.
Take your pick.
Allow me to chart my own spiritual journey to religious faith. I was spared of that baggage of the traditional way of salvation. Like many people I come from a traditional Chinese family. I was led by my mother to visit the Chinese temple faithfully on the first and fifteenth day of the month in the Lunar Calendar. We the different altars in the homes where we offer sacrifices of food and joss sticks and paper money. Incense was spread around the house near sunset to ward off evil spirits who come out more in the darkness of the night.
Then I recited the mantra of just one word “amitofu” before a picture of Buddha following my mother in her act of daily devotion. And take part in Buddhist practices, we released live tortoises and birds. As a teenager I started to attend the Christian Sunday School in ACS Kampar and the Sunday services in the small Gospel Hall where a local doctor was the preacher. A Christian friend invited me to accompany him to Church. Then it was in Ipoh ACS that I enrolled as secondary school pupil immediately after World War II. I was moving from darkness in my early childhood to the light in my youth. It was my good fortune that the missionary pastor had a social passion and and the sermon that inspired me most was that from Amos. In fact his daughter discovered the original text with his handwritten additions and sent me a copy of it a few years ago. I did not go in the direction in which most of you moved in your faith journey that I described earlier with the emphasis of sin and salvation. For me it was a trajectory of faith and responsible discipleship and I did not waver in that direction in my college and seminary education.
Matthew recounted the invitation of Jesus which he issued to the simple people to become disciples. Significantly it is “Follow Me” which suggests a way of life. I recall how from the beginning of my Christian pilgrimage I saw my acceptance of Christ implies a way of life and not a set of doctrine. Mathew did not record that Jesus preached the message of repentance only. He associated it with the Kingdom of God or the reign of God in our lives. He did not stop with repentance alone and extended to teaching and proclaiming the good news and conducted the acts of healing. We know he did not stop at healing the diseases of the people and become a Healer only in his ministry. He went beyond to the way of life of people as reflected in his Sermon on the Mount. He participated in the confrontation with the political and religious powers in Jerusalem which led him to be crucified as a subversive seeking to overthrow the government which was the form of punishment for that crime. Jesus moved from the darkness of oppression and exploitation to the light of sacrifice and fulfillment.
The pilgrimage to heaven or life after death to be precise must necessarily pass through this world of strains and stress, pain and sorrow, and that is what to follow Jesus entails to us in our contemporary setting. The invitation that Jesus made to Peter & Andrew, James & John is to follow Jesus. That means a new way of life.
They belong to the lowly class of fishermen. That is the group that is most responsive. Can you imagine the life of the simple fishermen. The life of those who depend upon their livelihood from the sea is a hard one then and a hard one even now. If you visit those places we see those especially in the developing countries the misery of their lives mending their nets, repairing their small boats, sailing out to the open sea and facing the the dangers to try to make a living.
When they were confronted with the invitation of Jesus they must have said that anything is better than this. Those like me around the middle class level find it more difficult to leave our jobs, our house, our cars, and our relatively comfortable lives to be a disciple of Christ. We are settled in our comfort zones and will not take the risk. And the rich and the famous will continue just to thank God for their blessings upon them and care less for those whom they regard as those who are not in favour with God.
These simple fishermen were called to become fishers of men. They experienced a tremendous transformation and became leaders of a movement which in turn transformed the world. They like Jesus were were moving from darkness into the light. The impoverished rural people found life difficult under the heels of the Roman Emperor and the control of the Jewish religious leaders in the Temple of Jerusalem. After the death of Jesus, Peter and the disciples recognized the leadership of Paul the Apostle who brought the Gentiles into the Jesus movement. This was a significant movement from darkness to light. From dark days of domination by those in authority to the bright days of liberation in promoting the Jesus movement which surpassed Judaism, the religion of the Jews.
When we read the Bible we seem to have domesticated the Jesus followers Jesus was perceived to be at best a Rabbi or a religious teacher who had nothing to do with the what we know as politics in his time. He was going about doing good and healing the people and teaching them to lead a moral life. He did more than that if we examine the context of his mission. There were persistent resistance and vicious rebellion. There were subversive and terrorist groups much like those that we know. There were revolts that the Bible did not feature but secular history has recorded. For many years before and after the ministry of Jesus the oppressed people launched protests and revolts against Roman Rule. There was the reaction by Rome and the people were persecuted, fed to the lions in the arena and crucified and killed. Galilee has its share of rebellion. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, rebuilt and finally razed the ground without ever being rebuilt until today. The faithful Jews continue to weep in the remaining wall of the sacred building in Jerusalem today.
More often when Christianity became the religion of the Emperor beginning with Constantine we have given a different interpretation of the Jesus Movement . Jesus was portrayed as a religious teacher un-involved with the social problems of his people. He was seen to be meek and mild and render to Caesar the things that are Caesar and to God the things that are God. This actually meant that all things belong to God. There is nothing left to offer to Caesar. There are other passages especially in the writing of the social prophets, Isaiah, Amos and Micah which described the domination of the Jews by foreign powers. Faithful followers of Jesus refused to bow to worship the Emperor. The Christian movement grew out of the flow of the blood of the martyrs.
Jesus and the prophets in Biblical history declared God’s condemnation of the rulers for their political and economic domination of the Jewish people. He offered help in embracing the Kingdom of God which including healing of the illness because of disorders brought about by Roman imperialism. He was building what in our day a movement for an alternative social order of caring and compassion and cooperation with justice and equality for all.
These are some of the interesting aspects that most churches miss which a renowned Richard A Horsley wrote about ten years ago entitled “Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder.”
This is one of the books that influenced my life and challenged my ministry.
Horsley ended one of the chapters which described God’s judgement of the Roman Imperial Order with these words: “Jesus of Nazareth belongs in the same context with and stands shoulder to shoulder with these other leaders of movements among the Judean and Galilean people, and pursues the same general agenda in parallel paths: independence form
Roman Imperial rule so that the people can again be empowered to renew their traditional way of life under the rule of God.”
We have forgotten our Christian past and its roots about the struggles of the common people living in darkness when they were dominated. They struggled for the liberation from the injustices of their time. We have become comfortable and compromising in the lap of our luxury and comfort. We show no responsibility for the darkness in the misery of the people in our time. We neglect the duties of following Jesus Kingdom of Heaven or God is not about angels and archangels and their music and rejoicing. This reign of God is about the people who are oppressed and suffering and their moans and groaning. There is no rejoicing in earth or heaven with the tears and cries down here or up there.
The path to fulfillment – from darkness to light – is the nature of our discipleship in follow the way of Christ – repentance and willingness to change – worshiping in the Temple – teaching the faith – healing the sick – rebelling against oppressive powers and struggle for the reign of God in our common life. This is the nature of salvation, personal piety and social holiness. This is what being saved entails, this is what accepting the call to follow Jesus is all about. Jesus says to you now as he called his disciples of old “Follow Me” from darkness to light.