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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on Jan 23, 2005

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A Sermon for January 23, 2005

Sermon preached by

The Right Rev. J. C. Fricker

January 23, 2005
Isaiah 9:1-14; 1Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23


This week marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation by the Red Army of the last 16,000 prisoners of Auschwitz. Around the world Auschwitz-Birkenau have become symbols of terror and genocide, surely the darkest, the deepest, the worst experience the 20th century records, of people living in the land of death. Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who has written prolifically of his personal experience in concentration camps during the holocaust, described that land of death in terms more graphic than we can bear, of the experience of Jews in the Nazi camps, as "kingdoms of night", giving a desperate tone to the image of night and of darkness.

The experience of darkness can be a terrible thing, terrible if its cause by the prevailing, overpowering political climate; terrible if its imposed by the pains of disunity in any community or institution; terrible if it's what clouds individual thinking and emotion and robs us of any hope. These are, all of them together and each of them separately the grim possibilities threatened by inference in all of today's readings. They focus separately and together on "people who walk in darkness", to use Isaiah's phrase. It is Isaiah who has started us considering those grim possibilities of being a people who walk in darkness. He's referring to the people living in Galilee, a dark land, a land of shadows. Galilee was a district at the northern tip of the kingdom of Israel. It was border country, where Jews shared the land with foreigners of another speech and culture. The Galileans were examples of the terror and darkness to which Isaiah referred. They were troubles not only by a foreign presence, but by a foreign army which had invaded their border and brought terror to them.

Centuries later when Herod arrested John the Baptist, and Jesus could see a police net closing on the prophetic movement which was inspiring the common people, Jesus quietly moved to Galilee where most of his ministry was to take place. Matthew seized on Isaiah's description and speaks of the people of Jesus' time who lived in darkness, who lived in the land of death.

Well, the experience of being a captive in the darkness of the land of death is not confined to those who live in the reign of political terror. Those who suffer emotional depression in any age are aware of the kingdom of night, this land of shadows. The most extreme example, I suppose, are those who have tried to kill themselves because the experience of darkness, living in what they perceive to be a hopeless world, seemingly without any answers to life's perplexing questions is just too much! A century ago, the French painter Paul Gauguin possessed by this darkness decided to take his own life. Before his attempt at suicide, he completed in a frenzied fever of work what was to have been his last testamentary painting. When he completed it, instead of signing his name to it, he wrote at the bottom of the bottom of the canvas three questions: "Where have we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" To these he had no answers.

Jungian psychology suggests that a dimension of our personality is the shadow side; the dark self which, finding no answers to life's questions, can cause a lapse into demonic desires and impulses. Well what of this darkness? Is it the experience of only the politically oppressed, or the clinically depressed? While there clearly are far greater depths of darkness for some than for others, I believe it still is a human experience, common to us all, either ongoing or episodic. It can be ruthless aggressiveness, a hatred, a malice, an uncontrolled jealousy, or an unrelenting distrust of people. Or it could be despair, fear of the future, or guilt for the past, These are pretty dark things, and they thrive not in sick people, but in perfectly normal, nice, friendly, likeable people like me, like you.

But Isaiah doesn't leave us in the darkness. "The people who walked in darkness", he said in his vision, "have seen a great light". It's a powerful image of unending peace, of lasting tranquility, occasioned by a new reign of peace in Israel. Its an image conveyed by those ancient throne names solemnly bestowed on the pharaohs of Egypt upon accession, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. They are celebrated in the unforgettable line sung repeatedly in Handel's Messiah, "And the government shall be upon his shoulder." It's Isaiah's frankly militaristic image which Matthew skillfully applies to his vision of Jesus, the light of the world, the light which shines in the darkness. Jesus intentionally went to Galilee, to the land of darkness. He knew what he was doing. He chose to do what he did. That's the nature of the incarnation. Jesus inhabits the darkness. The darkness remains, but Jesus is there, sharing the darkness with those who inhabit it, but illumining it, bringing the light of hope to it so that we can accept it and offer it for transformation. Darkness can be transformed into light, Evil thoughts can be transformed into compassionate thoughts. Sexual promiscuity can become faithful and caring love toward another. Deception and theft can become respect and honesty. But only as these shadow qualities, these works of darkness are claimed and owned and offered for redemption.

That's the becoming what by baptism we already are. A whole person, redeemed by Christ. It's a life long journey, and for it we need the grace of God

 

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2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York