Sunday, 22 January 2017

Third Sunday of Epiphany

Some years ago, Disney Pixar made a film about my life. As always with films that are “based on true events” there was some artistic licence employed. Yes, I lost (misplaced) my son. No, I am not a fish. No, my wife had not been brutally murdered; she was away at a conference. Be that as it may, yes, she does call me Marlin.

There is a scene in Finding Nemo where Marlin finds himself in a deep, dark trench. Disoriented, he moves from desperation to despair. And then, a light appears; but I’ll avoid any spoilers.

We all know that fish don’t talk. But we also know that Finding Nemo isn’t about fish. There are layers to the story, which is why it can engage children and adults. I’ve never been in a deep, dark trench at the bottom of the ocean; but then again, perhaps I have.

In the world of the Bible, everything has symbolic meaning as well as a literal one. You see, the purpose of scripture is not simply to enable us to see the world as it is, but as it really is, beneath the surface, behind the curtain. So, for example, in the Bible ‘the land’ symbolises order and blessing, and ‘the sea’ symbolises chaos and curse. ‘Light’ means more than just light, and ‘darkness’ means more than just darkness.

Isaiah describes the territory that had been allotted to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali after God’s people had crossed into the Promised Land as ‘the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.’

Isaiah declares that God has chosen to make this territory glorious. Many centuries later, Matthew takes up these words – ‘on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles’ – and declares that God makes this place glorious in and through Jesus. But where is this place? These landmarks are features of a physical geography – Jesus moves to Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee – but they are also features of a spiritual geography.

The way of the sea, or the road by the sea, runs along the edge where the land and the sea meet. At the level of physical geography, Matthew makes it the shore of the lake. The Sea of Galilee is large enough to be tidal, and so this border is always shifting: the land and the sea taking turns in making marginal gains neither can hold. The road by the sea is that place where life is lived on the fine line between coping and being overwhelmed. You may have seen images on the news last week, of massive spring tide waves, and evacuated homes. That too is an outward illustration of an inner reality. If I can be honest with you, and if you can hear what I am saying, this is where I live. I’m not talking about Sunderland – though I suspect that I am not alone in living on the road by the sea.

The description continues: the land beyond, or across, the Jordan; Galilee of the nations, or Gentiles. Beyond or across the Jordan places it in the Promised Land. As the hymn has it: When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death, and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side. But, something has gone wrong. Galilee has been claimed by the nations, by the Gentiles, those who were not God’s chosen people. In Isaiah’s time, the Assyrian Empire swallowed it up, later followed by others. In the time of Jesus and Matthew, there are Greek towns and Roman towns there. Everything good that has been called out to flourish by God has been overwhelmed, or at least compromised. Things haven’t turned out as expected. Life is confusing, draining.

Isaiah addressed those who walked in darkness, who lived in a land of deep darkness. But by the time Matthew writes about, things have got even worse. In his retelling, ‘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.’ They’re no longer walking, no longer moving around: they’ve given up and sat down. Because it is hard to move around in the dark. You can only do so very slowly, and only for so long.

And to the people who sat in darkness, Jesus comes doing something truly remarkable. He walked by the Sea of Galilee, and he saw two sets of brothers. At the surface level, there is nothing remarkable about seeing fishermen as you walk along the shore; but that is not the point. Here is one so glorious, so luminous, that he can walk confidently along the shifting border between blessing and chaos, and call people to follow him.

To underline the point, the first people he calls are fishermen, whose lives are lived right on the edge. They draw life out of chaos, in the sense of harvesting food from the water, but also in caring for the stock of fish in the lake, balancing the needs of today with the needs of tomorrow. They also know that the sea makes widows and orphans: it always has done. Jesus says, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’

As the story unfolds, sometimes we find them on the beach, and sometimes we find them in their boats in the shallows. Some days we find ourselves more-or-less on solid ground, and some days we find ourselves just about keeping afloat. Sometimes Jesus takes the disciples further inland, and sometimes they are out-of-their-depth far from land on the middle of the lake. Some days we know ourselves to be blessed, and some days we feel like we are drowning. But for over half of the Gospel According to Matthew, the sea and its shore is the central setting we keep coming back to: the darkness where the light of Christ shines.

I am not a Christian because God has seen to it that my life is victorious, has moved me from being one of life’s losers to one of life’s winners. I am a Christian because I live on the road by the sea, because I live with rising and falling anxiety all the time, and depression some of the time, and in that place I find myself drawn to the light of Jesus. I am a Christian because some days I have only the strength to turn to face that light – that turning is what it means to repent – and some days I have the strength to walk in the light; and because I see in the stories about Jesus that he intends for these things to be done with other people, not on our own. I am a Christian because, with others before me and around me, I can testify that I need Jesus, I need his light, that I have no other hope, that he is glorious and his glory is enough. My testimony is that his light has dawned on me.

There are other reasons to be a Christian, of course. For you, it might be that in Jesus you have found forgiveness, or healing, or companionship, or direction and purpose. These are all aspects of his glory; and it is his glory that draws us to this place. Whatever your circumstances, whatever your story, let us rejoice in that glorious light today. And let us follow Jesus along the shore, and invite those we find there to turn towards him too.

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