Jesus begins his public ministry shortly after John the Baptist is imprisoned by Herod. He proclaims the nearness of God’s reign and calls four fishermen to be his first disciples.
12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Isaiah speaks of a dark time for the land and for the people – and he doesn’t just mean January. Isaiah describes threats and oppressions and violence. The people carry heavy burdens. We know that times were tough for the kingdom of Judah in the 9th century – the audience Isaiah speaks to – but we feel burdened today as well and hear threats and see violence all around.
We do what we can to try to chase the darkness away. To ease the burden. We elect new politicians and send soldiers to chase off tyrants. We install more security systems and build larger prisons to try to control the violence that stalks our neighborhood. We rally and we march. We vote and we pray. But the darkness remains.
There are many who sit in darkness. For some it is the self-imposed darkness of guilt or shame. Others have been isolated by others and forgotten. There are many in our world who sit in the shadow of death. Not dying. Just living under the shadow. Living under the fear of death, that they cannot escape or come out from under. Fear can rule us, closely guarding our every move. It is a kingdom all its own, built on lies we believe to be true about ourselves and about others in this world in which we live.
For those who sit in darkness, light might not be comforting. Shine a bright light on someone’s fear and darkness and they might retreat into the comfort and relative safety of the darkness. But the good news that we proclaim is that Jesus goes into the darkness himself, to the cross and beyond, to the deepest darkness. To bring all into his kingdom. Jesus has gone to the darkness.
It’s not the darkness which is evil – it is the fear it harbors – the isolation it breeds, the panic and paranoia which so easily slips over us when we feel like we have lost our way and lost our bearings. God reigns in the darkness; darkness is not darkness at all – the night and the day are both alike.
The funny thing about light in darkness is that it can still be just as dark around you but seeing a light—any light—relieves the anxious fear of the darkness. Like walking home in the dark – and knowing you’re ok because you can see your porch light on waiting to welcome you. Just the fear of darkness can influence us in powerful ways. Fear can make us think that whatever we fear is our true reality even when nothing could be further from the truth. It can make us miss the reality of God’s presence, the good news that God’s light is always there to lift our burdens and dispel our fear, that God loves us no matter what may happen, and nothing can separate us from that love.
However, we must reckon with the fact that light doesn’t always dispel the darkness. But what it can always do is dispel the fear of darkness. In the same way, God’s presence doesn’t always change the circumstances of oppression or injustice that create fear—at least not in the way we might anticipate. But God’s presence does lift the fear itself and remind us that whatever we may have to suffer in this life is not the ultimate truth of our lives. And when we are not paralyzed with fear. Then we can act. Then we can follow.
Jesus proclaimed the good news that the kingdom of heaven is “near.” We may wonder why there’s still so much darkness around if God’s light has come. But the good news that the kingdom is near is that God is not finished yet. While the darkness has been defeated, there are still shadows. God will continue working in this world to bring light and love and peace and freedom and justice and goodness and mercy and grace and joy and life to all people and all things until the promise Immanuel is fulfilled. And you are called to work too.
To live into your call to be a disciple starts with nothing more than a willingness to follow and reflect the light. Have confidence in your call to be a disciple – and in your baptism as you are claimed as a child of God. Even if you don’t know exactly what God is calling you to do – even if you are exactly sure what being a child of God means. It starts with reflecting the light of God – the peace, the grace, the love, reflecting that into any space where the fear and isolation have spread unchecked in the darkness.
The disciples don’t know yet what Following Jesus will entail. Jesus didn’t have a brochure for them to peruse, nor did he lay out his whole plan in a powerpoint presentation. But as they followed their rabbi, as they did what he did, they learned and followed more closely. Setting people free from what was holding them down, sharing good news, healing wounds, questioning unjust practices, and standing up for the oppressed. Whatever glimmer of light they saw – they leapt at the chance to follow.
Our call to follow Jesus means that God goes before us: healing, teaching, and proclaiming good news. Where our Savior has gone may we have the courage to follow. Amen