Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 22 January 2023.
• First Reading: Isaiah 9: 1-4 (The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light)
• Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1: 10-18 (For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God)
• Gospel: Matthew 4: 12-21 (John imprisoned. Jesus withdrew to Capernaum. The first disciples called)
There was an advertising campaign for a certain personal grooming tool which stressed its anywhere, anytime uses which would render the owner independent of power points. The user would be ‘independent’.
The same theme was used in these isles in 2014, 2016 and is in use today as a political rallying call. I make no comment – at least not here – on the identity or merits of these campaigns.
The desire to be independent of the judgment and decisions of others is something we have all held – and indeed it was there when most of us left home to find our living in the world.
And yes, we all have memories – and sore ones at that – of being under the harsh and arbitrary decisions of others, who in our eyes were ignorant, stupid, or just plain arrogant. Maybe all three and more besides.
But our lessons show us something else. Isaiah writes of God’s plan to lift the gloom of those in darkness and those humiliated by life. Those in darkness have seen a great light; there is a new light for those living in deep darkness.
God was going to change things – there would be an unquenchable joy, and the yoke that burdened them would not be lifted: it would be shattered beyond recovery.
And I find it strange that among the nations of the world, many covet and even desire to suppress the freedom of other nations, over which they fancied a right to control their destinies.
But our mighty God speaks of lifting burdens and not imposing them; of bringing light and joy while other regimes look to impose darkness and misery in order to enhance their sense of power and importance.
Far from imposing a rule, God seeks to release His people within a commonwealth of His love and deliverance. It is a regime of enhancing His people to become what He had always wanted them to be. To fulfil the potential that was always there, waiting to flourish into their fullest expression.
The commonwealth of God was never about imposing a demanding and tedious regime – it was always about releasing people into a realm of finding themselves without imposing on others.
In the same way in the gospel, Matthew tells of how Jesus selected a passage about the people living in darkness have seen a great light – and this was the basis of His message of repenting for the Kingdom of God was at hand.
It was time to lay aside the burdens and regrets, the demands of self in order to receive the greater things that were at hand.
It was time to set aside the resentments at life and the compulsions to self in order to make room for that new kind of life.
And this was not just about one wandering preacher. Jesus’ first disciples were practical men, who knew their craft of fishing and boat management as well as about finding and satisfying their customers.
Men from the middle of society – not rich landowners, nor poverty-stricken. They would in time present the gospel to both aspects of society, but now they were to set aside their independence and learn not only Jesus’ life, but also His lifestyle.
Instead of hustling and living by their wits, they would learn to depend on God – and receive His bounty without grasping or cheating or sharp practice.
But they would also learn that life was about far more than survival of the fittest in which the weakest would be allowed to fall away. It was about the welfare of all and the salvation of all.
This was where the economy of God was going to become more demanding. The cross of Jesus would be profoundly shocking, even insulting to godly Jews while its theme of self-denial and self-giving would be utter madness to the Greeks. And the Romans would never unaided, even begin to understand the power of God being shown in human weakness – let alone the resurrection.
The mystery of the provision of God would be there for all to receive and to learn about. There would never be any concealment – only a sense of wonder that the author of the world had chosen such extreme measures to demonstrate His power and His love.
Death would never have the final victory, and sin or anything that came short of the utter purity and holiness of God would never have any place within His realm.
There would be no negotiating with the holiness of God any more than there is with the principles of gravity or electro-magnetism.
And so Paul writes that the message of the cross of Jesus is foolishness to those who have already rejected it, yet to those who have received it, it is the power of God in action in day-to-day lives.
In choosing His disciples, whether in Capernaum, on the Damascus Road or in Glasgow, Jesus has the same agenda: His love and mercy really do outclass anything that the mirk and the despair of the world have to offer, whether to the wealthiest or the poorest or those just struggling to get by.