Epiphany 3A Sermon (1999)

3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Texts: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18;
Matt 4:12-23; Is. 9:1-4

GRACE TO SEE THE DARKNESS

This is one of those hard-to-believe true stories, but I’m told it is an actual dialogue from the WordPerfect helpline about a person who needed help with the word processor on his or her computer. Joel is going to help me, taking the role of the helpline person, while I’ll play the person calling for help:

WordPerfect: “Ridge Hall computer assistant; may I help you?”
Caller: “Yes, well, I’m having trouble with WordPerfect.”

WP: “What sort of trouble?”
C: “Well, I was just typing along, and all of a sudden the words went away.”

WP: “Went away?”
C: “They disappeared.”

WP: “Hmm. So what does your screen look like now?”
C: “Nothing.”

WP: “Nothing?”
C: “It’s blank; it won’t accept anything when I type.”

WP: “Are you still in WordPerfect, or did you get out?”
C: “How do I tell?”

WP: “Can you see the C: prompt on the screen?”
C: “What’s a C prompt?”

WP: “Never mind. Can you move the cursor around on the screen?”
C: “There isn’t any cursor: I told you, it won’t accept anything I type.”

WP: “Does your monitor have a power indicator?”
C: “What’s a monitor?”

WP: “It’s the thing with the screen on it that looks like a TV. Does it have a little light that tells you when it’s on?”
C: “I don’t know.”

WP: “Well, then look on the back of the monitor and find where the power cord goes into it. Can you see that?”
C: “Yes, I think so.”

WP: “Great. Follow the cord to the plug, and tell me if it’s plugged into the wall.”
C: “…….Yes, it is.”

WP: “When you were behind the monitor, did you notice that there were two cables plugged into the back of it, not just one?”
C: “No.”

WP: “Well, there are. I need you to look back there again and find the other cable.”
C: “……. Okay, here it is.”

WP: “Follow it for me, and tell me if it’s plugged securely into the back of your computer.”
C: “I can’t reach.”

WP: “Uh huh. Well, can you see if it is?”
C: “No.”

WP: “Even if you maybe put your knee on something and lean way over?”
C: “Oh, it’s not because I don’t have the right angle – it’s because it’s dark.”

WP: “Dark?”
C: “Yes — the office light is off, and the only light I have is coming in from the window.”

WP: “Well, turn on the office light then.”
C: “I can’t.”

WP: “No? Why not?”
C: “Because there’s a power outage.”

WP: “A power… A power outrage? Aha, Okay, we’ve got it licked now. Do you still have the boxes and manuals and packing stuff your computer came in?”
C: “Well, yes, I keep them in the closet

WP: “Good. Go get them, and unplug your system and pack it up just like it was when you got it. Then take it back to the store you bought it from.”
C: “Really? Is it that bad?”

WP: “Yes, I’m afraid it is.”
C: “Well, all right then, I suppose. What do I tell them?”

WP: “Tell them you are too stupid to own a computer.”

Wow! Talk about sitting in the dark! That poor person really didn’t get it. Isaiah was much kinder than the helpline person. He didn’t call his people stupid, though he may have wanted to. At a point of frustration, Isaiah did say a couple chapters earlier that his people had eyes but couldn’t see, ears but couldn’t hear. In chapter nine, he simply says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Matthew tells us that Jesus begins his entire ministry by quoting these words from Isaiah. Jesus has just been baptized and then battled the devil in the wilderness. Now, he is ready for ministry, and his first sermon is on this text: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,” he says, “and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” But Matthew goes on to tell that, “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'” Repent. Is Jesus trying to say, “Hey, come on people, it’s finally time to open your eyes and see the light.” After all, Jesus is repeating these same words from Isaiah a good 800 years after him. Were the people still walking in darkness had the seen the light yet? Our poor phone caller seemed awfully stupid sitting in the dark with his or her computer, wondering why it wouldn’t work. But to walk in darkness another 800 years … what gives?

And the trouble is that we might try to honestly ask ourselves the same thing after almost another 2000 years! Today brings the end of the close of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And what do we read in our second lesson today? St. Paul is basically scolding the church at Corinth for what? For their disunity! And two thousand years later he would still be scolding us. We’re praying for unity this week because two thousand years later the Christian church is still marked by disunity. At least we’re praying for unity. And Pastor Mary is even preaching at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church today. Those are big steps forward. Perhaps we’ve at least reached the point that we are aware that we walk in darkness and are in need of the light.

I began with that dialogue [read with son Joel] to help give us a sense again today of God’s amazing grace. That helpline person did what I would have done: I would have lost my patience and gotten rude. Here was a person who apparently wasn’t even aware of what it means to sit in darkness! Yes, I would have lost my patience, and perhaps you would have, too. So there’s something satisfying about his or her response.

But what about God. Has God lost his patience? Isaiah proclaimed light to the darkness of a broken and splintered people 2800 years ago. Jesus came proclaiming the same light 2000 years ago. And here we still sit in the darkness of our brokenness and disunity. I would have lost my patience; you would have lost yours. But has God? We might imagine God to do so, and I think we often do. We imagine a God who would do what we would do. There’s a story about that in the beginning of the Bible, in fact, the story of the Flood. God apparently lost patience and decided to give up on us. Except God couldn’t just pack us all up in a box and take us back to the manufacturer, because he was the manufacturer. So God destroyed the world with a flood and started over with Noah and his family. No doubt, will hear plenty of those kinds of stories this year as we approach the new millennium. There will be plenty of folks to imagine God losing his patience with the lot of us and bringing major destruction upon us.

But we have to notice the ending of the Flood story. Yes, at the end of this story where God supposedly loses his patience with us, God makes a promise. He sets a rainbow in the sky and promises never again. Never again will God lose his patience with us, no matter how stupid we seem walking in the darkness when God has shown us the light of his grace.

And God proved that promise of the rainbow with his Son Jesus Christ, in whom we finally see a light that shines in the darkness of our disunity, and the darkness cannot overcome it. For the light that shines in that darkness is the light of forgiveness, an eternally patient forgiveness. It is the light that began shining three days after that dark day outside Jerusalem as Jesus’ dead body hung silhouetted on a cross. His disciples whom he had hand-picked three years earlier had all deserted him. Yet with the first light of that Easter morning, there he was among those same disciples again. Did he lose his patience? Did he tell them off and desert them right back, going out to find a new group of disciples? Did he scold them, yell at them, saying, “You imbeciles, how could you have not gotten it after all these years? I told you over and over again exactly what would happen, but you just didn’t get it!” That’s what I would have done. But, no, Jesus came to stand among them that first Easter — with them no doubt shaking in their sandals, filled with guilt and remorse — and Jesus says to them, “Don’t be afraid! My peace I bring to you.” In other words, just in being there with them, Jesus forgave them. He still wanted them to be his disciples. He had already lived a life showing them how to live as sons and daughters of God, how to live in unity with each other. He needed them to show others. And when they, when we fail to live in unity, he still called them to bring this word of forgiveness to others, now more than ever. For he promised to be with them always, even to the end of the age. In others words, he promised to be with them, to be with us, as long as it takes for this forgiveness to fully sink in. He promised to be with us until the light of his forgiveness makes us fully aware of the darkness we walk in, so that we might finally be God’s children with him and live in unity. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, January 23-24, 1999

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