The Parish Churches of Ranworth with Panxworth,
South Walsham, Upton and Woodbastwick

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Epiphany: Stepping Out

Isaiah 9.1-4 I Corinthians 1.10-18 Matthew 4.12-23

Are you afraid of the dark? I never have been but I know plenty that are. There are some who fear to venture out at night for that reason and that is sad because it must be rather self-restricting. Perhaps what follows might help.

Today’s readings take us on a journey that begins in Galilee and, to a certain extent, in the dark but the journey heads towards the light. Isaiah is addressing the northern lands of Galilee which had suffered from invasion when the wolf had come into the fold and harried the flock. The Assyrian invasion had removed ten of the twelve tribes of Israel and only the twin tribes of Judah were left. This was a time of great political crisis. The people of God had thought that having entered the Promised Land they could settle down and enjoy it. The problem was they had become complacent and had wandered off from their devotion to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and as the Authorised Version has it, gone ‘whoring after other gods’.

The result had been the Assyrian invasion. This had left a deep trauma on the Children of Israel who had thought they were inviolable. The prophets had warned them but they had not heeded. In today’s lesson, Isaiah is encouraging a downtrodden people that the Lord will restore them. Galilee, this crossroad of trade, this ‘land of the nations’ has a future. It will be the setting for a new glorious opening. The Via Maris, the way to the sea, will provide an opportunity for growth and regeneration. It will be a forum for exchange not just for the trading of goods but of ideas also. ‘Galilee of the nations’ will be the setting of a dialogue with the rest of the world. Those who have walked in darkness have now seen a great light. What was a setting for disaster is now to be an opportunity for growth.

Matthew’s gospel begins in the same setting. A revival has started in the northern Jordan valley. John the Baptist had been preaching renewal and repentance. The political masters had not liked it and he had been arrested and silenced. Jesus sees this as the cue for his ministry to begin. The darkness of oppression and despair had to be lifted. ‘There will be no gloom for those who had been in anguish’. Jesus steps out of his hidden years and onto the world stage and again it is Galilee.

Forty years ago Paulo Passolini, the controversial filmmaker made a startling film called ‘The Gospel of St Matthew’. It is in black and white and looks as if it was made on a home video recorder yet it is a film of such dynamism and passion that it leaves those who have seen it speechless. The film is a faithful representation of this Gospel which will occupy most of our readings in Church for the rest of this year. The Jesus it represents is nothing to do with the ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild’ some of may remember from Sunday School. The Jesus in this film, and more so in this gospel, is uncompromising and authoritative. He is aggressive and forceful. He has a radical agenda of conflict and constantly challenges the mores, values and assumptions of the establishment.

‘Repent and believe in the gospel’ is the message and the fishermen are so astonished that they leave their nets and follow him. Where did he get this compelling authority? What enabled him to make disciples of ordinary tradesmen, publicans and zealots? What excited them to follow in his footsteps so readily; footsteps that took most of them not to a pension but to death and martyrdom?

The answer must have been they recognised the voice of God in him. His personality must have been so charismatic that not to follow would have seemed like betrayal. Perhaps too the time was right. The people had too long sat in darkness and it was time for them to switch on the light. Next Sunday we will see the consequences of this as the manifesto of Jesus is announced in the Sermon on the Mount.

Tuesday will be the feast of the Conversion of St Paul. Paul never met Jesus. He began his journey with feet covered in blood, having consented to the death of the first martyr St Stephen. He would encounter that blinding light that would temporarily blind him on the Damascus Road out of Galilee. He would become that apostle to the Gentiles that our Old Testament reading foreshadows. The journey from darkness to light continues today.

Are we afraid of the dark? The nights are getting shorter, the days longer. Despite sadness and setback, we believe in a God who has a plan and purpose for his people. Death is not the end but another stage of that journey that will lead us all into the light. The net is cast and we are employed as God’s fisher folk. We have a mission here to those who walk this Via Maris seeking and searching the light in a dark world. Do not under estimate the power of God to work through you as you step out into the light. You are called to follow Jesus on this journey and rejoice with those who have completed that journey and who have thrown us the mantle and the staff to continue in the same footsteps of faith from darkness into his glorious light.

Phillip MdFadyen

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