I’m a great fan of TV detective shows, like many others here I suspect, but there’s one recurring moment in almost all of them that drives me nuts. It is the moment when someone decides to venture into a pitch black basement or a darkened warehouse, apparently entirely unaware of danger, and when they do so, they never, ever seem to think of turning the lights on as they go in. There can be a perfectly visible switch on the wall by their heads, but no… they won’t even consider it. We all know that the villain is bound to be hiding there. “Switch on the lights…” we shout…, but of course they don’t. Are they trying to save on the electricity? Do they make a habit of wandering around in the darkness normally? If they did switch on the light I suppose there wouldn’t be much of a story, but all the same, it drives me nuts…
The point is that light reveals what is there. Light shows us the things we need to be aware of, whether that is the axe-murderer lurking in the shadows, or simply the everyday obstacles that might trip us up. In real practical terms we need light to see where we are going: it simply isn’t natural for us to stumble around in the darkness if we have a choice not to. Light can be many things – decorative, comforting, exciting like fireworks, dazzling, splendid… But the main reason we need it is to show us what’s there, what’s real, how things actually are.
This season of Epiphany, which ends next week with the feast of Candlemas, is all about light, the light of God, revealed in Jesus, the light that shines in the darkness which the darkness does not overcome, as John’s Gospel puts it. Epiphany literally means “shining forth”. Here is God, says each of the stories we hear in these weeks after Christmas, at work in Jesus, this unlikeliest of Messiahs who starts life in a manger and ends it on a cross. The stories reveal him, like a spotlight picking him out in the crowds where he might otherwise have gone unnoticed. The light of the star proclaims his birth to the Magi, the voice from heaven at his baptism acclaims him as the Son of God, the miracle of water turned to wine causes those around him to realise that this is no ordinary carpenter.
These signs and wonders say “Look at this man! Here is God.”
But today’s story has no miracles, no heavenly voices or wandering stars. It can seem a bit of an anti-climax after what we’ve heard in previous weeks, but the truth is that the light of the Epiphany season isn’t just there to make us say “Wow – here’s someone amazing!” As I said earlier, light can serve many purposes; for decoration, to impress or dazzle, but its basic function is to reveal things, to show us what is there, what is real and true. The stories of the Epiphany season are not just meant to impress us with the realisation THAT Jesus is the Son of God. They are meant to show us what SORT of God he is the Son of, what the priorities of that God are, what he longs for, delights in and weeps over. We may say that we believe in God, or that we don’t believe in God, but the important question is, “what kind of God do we believe in, or not?” It matters, because our answer shapes the way we live and behave. I don’t believe, for example, in the God of the Incas, whom they thought demanded human sacrifice; if I did I suppose our worship might look rather different… It is the God revealed by Jesus whom I believe in and try to follow, and the stories of the Epiphany season give us clues about what that might mean for our daily lives.
The light of the star reveals Jesus to be a special child, the Messiah, but the point is that it reveals this first to the Gentile Magi – God is for everyone, everywhere, it says. A heavenly voice announces him as Messiah at his baptism, the beloved Son of God, but the point is that nothing in his background would have made him look like a potential Messiah to the religious establishment of the time, and his eventual death on a cross would have challenged that even more. God’s view of the world might be very different to our, it hints. The wedding at Cana reveals the power of God at work in Jesus’ life, but it is a power used not for his own glory, but to show us that in the midst of trouble, when we feel we are running out of hope, joy or strength, God can fill us with abundant blessings.
So what does today’s Gospel story reveal about God?
Jesus is in his own home town of Nazareth, among people who have watched him grow up, an apparently ordinary child in an ordinary family. As far as we are aware, no one has noticed him much till now. But all of a sudden stories start spreading from neighbouring towns. He’s been teaching and preaching there, and what he says has transfixed people. His own folk want to see what all the fuss is about, so when he comes to his own home synagogue they are all ears. They give him a scroll to read from. It is the prophet Isaiah, one of the most popular, well-known and oft-quoted prophets at the time of Jesus. But it’s a big book. Which portion will he choose? There are all sorts of different messages he could bring out of it. It has words of lament – the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon at the time it was written . It has words of comfort – God promises that he will one day lead them home. It has words of challenge, confronting them with the behaviour and attitudes which contributed to their downfall. It has words that speak of mystical visions too, of glimpses of the glory of heaven. Of course, like all books of the Bible you need to read it as a whole to get its full meaning, and in context too. But there won’t be time for that in the synagogue in Nazareth, any more than there would have been here this morning, so which bit will he choose?
Jesus has no hesitation. He goes straight to chapter 61 and begins to read. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” he says, and he goes on, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” And there he stops. People are probably a bit surprised at that, because actually that’s halfway through a line – it should finish “and the day of vengeance of our God.” But Jesus doesn’t say that. He just stops. And he rolls up the scroll, which probably takes a little while… And he gives it back to the attendant, which probably takes another little while…And then he sits down, in the centre of the synagogue in the place where you’d expect the preacher to be – Jewish teachers sat down to teach…And everyone watches…And everyone waits… And finally, after what must have seemed like a suspenseful age, he opens his mouth to speak…
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing…” God’s kingdom is coming to be, here and now, he is saying, right where you are. They are amazed - is he claiming to be the chosen one of God this prophecy talks about? Yes, he clearly is. But he is also telling them that this is what it looks like when God is at work – the poor start hearing good news, the oppressed are liberated, captives are freed, people see anew… It’s not just that God is at work, but that this is the work he is at.
Faith can mean many different things to people. They can come to it, and cling to it, for many different reasons. It can be about having a place to gather and a community to relate to. It can be about having mystical experiences. It can be about finding personal reassurance and comfort. It can be simply a matter of habit, a soothing ritual which helps to mark out the times and seasons. It can also be used for darker purposes, of course; as a tribal marker to divide us, who believe this, from them, who believe that, or to reinforce power structures, or make people conform.
But what Jesus reveals here is that none of this – however good or bad – is really at the heart of what God calls him and his follower to live for and to die for. We can have all the mystical experiences we like, and the best and most beautiful worship. We can get involved in every activity going, and turn up at every service faithfully, but if what we are doing doesn’t end up with the poor hearing good news, captives being released, sight being restored, freedom for those who are oppressed, people knowing that they are loved by God, then we are missing the point. There are many ways of fulfilling that mission – it is as much about the way we treat others in our everyday, personal lives as it is about political campaigns - but God’s primary purpose, says Jesus, the non-negotiable bottom line, will always be about love, love which leads to justice and healing, integrity and wholeness. If what we do doesn’t lead to that, it doesn’t lead to anything worth having.
That’s the Epiphany light that shines from this story. Perhaps we’d rather it didn’t. The gentle starlight of the Magi and the voice from heaven at Christ’s baptism tell us things which are appealing and affirming. The abundance of wine at Cana is something I can always be doing with… But we need this message too, which sets us on the course of costly service and courageous justice-making, otherwise our faith can easily become no more than twinkly window dressing, nice to look at but never really revealing the things which lie in the shadows, and need to be set right.