holy cross sermon for the third sunday after the epiphany, year a, january 26, 2014

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Every morning after I wake up and put the coffee on, I take Jeb for a walk. It always depresses me a little bit, immediately after Christmas, to walk past Christmas trees out on the curb. I am a big proponent of observing the 12 days of Christmas – from Christmas Eve through the feast of the Epiphany, and even through the week following the Epiphany, what the Church calls the feast’s “octave.” So it always makes me a little sad to see Christmas stuff being taken down and thrown out in the days immediately following Christmas. By now just about everyone has taken down their Christmas stuff, although I did see a couple of trees that had only just been thrown out, out on the curb this past week.

The spirit of Christmas has a tendency to linger. And it lingers in the Gospel reading this morning – and in those of the past weeks. The theme inaugurated at Christmas is the kindling of a light in the darkness, which is one of the reasons that the first mass of the Nativity has for many centuries been celebrated in the middle of the night, Christmas Eve. And this theme of light-in-the-darkness is cited explicitly by St. Matthew in this morning’s Gospel reading:

Leaving Nazareth [Jesus] went and dwelt in Caper’na-um by the sea, in the territory of Zeb’ulun and Naph’tali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zeb’ulun and the land of Naph’tali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the 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.” (Matthew 4.13-16)

The light has dawned, and it is beginning to creep over the horizon and across the land. Last week we heard about the enlightenment of two of John the Baptist’s disciples, one of whom was Andrew, and how the flame kindled in Andrew was passed to Simon Peter. And this week we hear of Jesus going to dwell in Capernaum by the sea, in order to enlighten those who sat in darkness and in the region and shadow of death.

A few weeks ago I mentioned one of my favorite paintings, by Rogier van der Weyden, of the deposition of Christ: the taking-down of his body from the cross. I talked briefly about how, in the painting, the blood from the wound in our Lord’s side flowed down and under his loincloth, and how van der Weyden thus ingeniously connected our Lord’s final wound with his first wound, the one received at his Circumcision, eight days after his birth. This artistic trope draws our attention to the deep connection between the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, how the babe lying in the manger already has a destiny, a vocation from his Father: he is the Lamb without blemish, who will take away the sins of the world by dying on the cross.

And the story does not end there either. The mystery of our Lord’s cross is intimately linked to the mystery of his Resurrection. On this score we may remember the word of the angel to the holy women at the empty tomb on Easter morning, how the angel identifies the risen Lord as the Crucified One: “You seek Jesus who was crucified: he is not here, for he has risen.” This too is an enlightenment, the light of life shining in the darkness of the garden tomb. And that is why, at the great Paschal Vigil every year, the first thing we do is kindle a flame in the darkness. And from that flame we light the Paschal Candle, and from that candle we each light our own candles, and the light spreads through the darkened church, from person to person, as the deacon sings: “The light of Christ!” and we respond, “Thanks be to God!”

Through a process of association, we can see how each of the at-first seemingly disparate facets of our Lord’s life and ministry are in fact connected at a deep and very fundamental level. They form a unity which, in the end, is nothing other than the person of Jesus himself.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. (John 1.5-9)

And, as we heard this morning:

Leaving Nazareth [Jesus] went and dwelt in Caper’na-um by the sea, in the territory of Zeb’ulun and Naph’tali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zeb’ulun and the land of Naph’tali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the 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.” (Matthew 4.13-16)

Just so, in today’s Gospel reading, we can see the light beginning to spread, like it does on Easter Eve from the new fire to the Paschal Candle, and thence person to person, to each worshiper in the congregation. This morning St. Matthew tells us of Jesus summoning Andrew and Peter away from their nets, and then James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Last week we heard another story of Andrew encountering Jesus, and how he went and told Peter. And the astute reader will be reminded of a similar episode from the first chapter of John, how:

[Jesus] found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Beth-sa’ida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathan’a-el, and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1.43-45)

And when Philip brought Nathaniel to Jesus, Nathaniel immediately confessed him to be Israel’s long-awaited redemption: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1.49).

Philip, Nathaniel, Andrew, Simon-Peter, James and John. Each of them was enlightened by Jesus, and all of them spread their light to others. Eventually setting the whole world ablaze with the light of Christ: thanks be to God. Each of them was so affected, so changed, by his encounter with Jesus, that the encounter overflowed his consciousness, his life, into the lives of countless others. Each of them spent his life proclaiming Jesus to others, and each of them did so faithfully to his dying day. Countless people were transformed by their proclamation of Jesus in word and deed – or maybe, in our time, we should place the emphasis the other way around: in deed AND WORD. Peter preached the Gospel in Asia Minor and in Rome, bearing witness on a cross after the example of his Lord. According to tradition, Andrew preached along the Black Sea, going as far as Kiev, and eventually also being crucified. Philip preached in Phrygia, Syria, and in Greece. According to ancient tradition, he was beheaded in the town of Hierapolis, in what is now Turkey. In July of 2011, Italian archaeologists announced that they discovered his tomb in an ancient, ruined church in Hierapolis, seemingly verifying our tradition. Nathaniel gave his life proclaiming Jesus in Parthia, and eventually in Armenia, where he was beheaded.

Each of them spent the rest of his life proclaiming Jesus, spreading his light in the darkness. And each of them was murdered on account of it – along with all of the other apostles, save John. The light shines in the darkness – but the darkness could not overcome it. The light has come to you too, across the world and down through the centuries, from those same men who first carried it out of Galilee into the darkness two thousand years ago.

Jesus concludes one of his parables with a haunting question: “Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18.8). Faith abides in the hearts of men and women. Or it doesn’t. The darkness seems often to be menacing our world in unprecedented ways. Lawlessness is multiplied. Love grows cold. Weary voices wonder in the darkness: where is God? We claim to be the custodians of The Answer. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find us to have been faithful custodians of his light, faithful proclaimers of his Gospel?

I will leave you with an exhortation, a challenge. The next time a world-weary friend unburdens his darkness to you, tell him about Jesus. I will wager that that is something most of you have never done. Episcopalians are a lot better at resting on our laurels. But our laurels are withering. The very next time you find the darkness manifest to you, in whatever form – sickness, loneliness, perplexity, sinfulness, whatever – let your light shine in deed AND WORD. Use the words of your Master when Andrew came looking for he knew not what: Come and see.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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