We stepped away from our lectionary readings last week to look at that haunting question of Jesus asking what I’ve suggested is the most fundamental question of our faith as well as, probably, every faith journey: ‘Just who do you say I am?’ This week we’re continuing that conversation by going to the text which the lectionary does suggest for today, Matthew 4, set right at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew names at least these three factors that always influence who we say Jesus is. We’re looking his recalling of Isaiah’s prophecy of a ‘great’ light. We’re looking at what Jesus says about ‘repentance’ and what that means. We’re looking at Jesus’ invitation to us to follow him.
Our text begins by Matthew quoting a ‘light’ prophecy from Isaiah 9: …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.” His point is that the light came on for them! Remember how light isn’t something that we ever get to see, so much as it is that by which we get to see things. It illuminates. The dimmer the light, the more compromised and distorted our vision.
The clearer the light, the clearer and more accurate our vision
But light, however bright, doesn’t change our reality so much as change our perception of that reality which, of course, is everything to us. We can only see what we perceive – leaving perception to become our reality. But just because it’s what we see doesn’t make it so! If what we see is distorted by too little light, well, what we are seeing is a distortion!
In the fullness of time, Isaiah was prophesying, people would see reality as it is, because it would be all bathed in this ‘greatest’ of light. This was to be a light great enough to be able to replace what Isaiah had called the darkness of the shadows for those sitting in the region of death – powerfully poetic language describing the exposure of God’s most real reality!
One of the profound implications of this is how, before Jesus and the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, God’s sacred reality already still existed in all its complete perfection. The problem was/is that ‘people sitting in the region and shadow of death’ were and still are unable to appreciate it – the light not yet being bright enough to do so. Dark distortions in our perception of reality makes this world seem very different to what it is. We’ve all experienced how dark & distorted things may appear to be when our contexts close in on us – perhaps as our hearts are breaking with some intense sadness, depression… But then, what a difference when we sense the light coming on!
We are those people who so easily find ourselves sitting in the darkness of whatever has been distorting our perception of reality, and who are now just beginning to glimpse something of God’s great light as it is allowed to pierce into our gloom, revealing all as the sacred it is!
The second point for us today is Jesus’ call for us to repent. From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” ‘Repent’ – metanoia – meaning ‘to turn’ or better yet ‘to change one’s mind’. What Christ’s great light reveals to us (in his birth, work, teaching, life, death and resurrection) is a wholly different, upside-down way of reality. God is revealed not as this ‘thing’ we tend to create in our own image.
God is not the pedantic, rule-demanding policeman who, somehow, rewards those who do right and punishes all who don’t. What are some of the distortions that we associate with God?
Repenting allows our minds to be changed, and we get to see something so much more beautiful, but it’s something that doesn’t make too much sense in this dog-eat-dog world of where we are. Christ’s ‘great’ light reveals God to be a force not of demanding domination but of suffering love, not manipulating our obedience so much as always just quietly and so-powerfully alongside us – awaiting our receptivity and awareness.
And the world? Matthew Fox quotes Albert Einstein who was once asked, ‘What is the most important question you can ask in life?’ He answered, ‘Is the universe a friendly place or not? Matthew Fox goes on: …To that same question the early Christians had a definite response: Jesus represented the smiling face of God, the benignity of the universe and all its powers…
How clearly are you able to see all of this creation for what it is, and to what extent has your perception been distorted by your experiences? If you’ve been hurt by people, betrayed perhaps, disappointed… If you’ve known injustice, discrimination, rejection, well, all of that must influence our perception. What has been your experience?
To what extent do you sense that you are being urged in this text to have your mind changed – that you may come to see this creation for what it has always been, is, and will always be by God’s grace? Because, unless we are given to have that repentant change of mind – however religious or not we claim to be – we will continue to be driven by a distorted, me-first, domination-focused world view that will frankly just spin everything to whatever we believe is good for just us, allowing all we touch to become quite toxic.
I’m thinking here about how we tend to perceive ourselves, how we treat one another, and our planet. It even affects how we read scripture. Scripture is devastatingly harmful when read by an unrepented, unconverted mind – it invariably becomes ammunition for feeding our distorted egos and agendas. But with repentance – as Paul writes in Romans 12:2 (paraphrased from GNB) – as we are not conformed ‘to the standards of this world, but let God transform us inwardly by a complete change of our mind, so we will come to know the will of God—what is good and is pleasing to God and is perfect.
Richard Rohr writes that ‘Only converted people – people whose minds have been changed like that to be…in union with both the pain of the world and the love of God, are prepared to read the Bible with the right pair of eyes and the appropriate bias, which is from the side of powerlessness and suffering instead of the side of power and control. This is foundational and essential conversion’. [i]
That’s what Jesus was calling for with his call to ‘repentance’. It’s as if he is telling us to ‘see reality as it is revealed by God’s ‘great’ light in Christ to be, then allow your mind to change/ to heal/ to repent – to come back to what it is intended to be, that you may see your reality properly!!!
And then we have Jesus’ invitation to those brothers Simon and Andrew, and James and John, to leave their fishing, and the mending of their nets, to follow him. ‘Invitation’, then, as the third point of today’s meditation…
And immediately, we’re told, they followed him! εὐθέως: Straight-way! Instantly! Directly! I’ve always been intrigued by that: Why immediately? To what inner compulsion were they reacting? Clearly, this was no carefully reasoned response on their parts – just Jesus simple invitation and their obedience. Kind of like ‘falling in love’ perhaps, not something we can really control, and probably don’t want to control!
Is that how it happens – our response to Christ’s calling? Has that been your experience as a follower of Christ? I wonder to what extent it is possible for anyone properly ever to be in the ‘way of Jesus Christ’ unless we have been given that prompting – heard that personal invitation?
Is that necessarily what it is like for everyone?
And so, bringing this all together: We have the experience of a ‘great light’ breaking into our perceptions and so giving us the ability to see reality as it truly is! Then there is this call to repentance – the changing of our minds – based on what we’ve been given to believe about what we see. And then the invitation to follow Christ as we engage with God’s most real reality…
Rev Robin Jacobson
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[i] My understanding of Cognitive Behaviouralists teaching is that we cannot help what we feel in response to what we experience. Our feelings are generated by what happens in our minds. As we have an experience, so we go to our minds to interpret whether it’s a good or bad thing. And then it’s our mind’s interpretation that generates whatever we feeling we may have! The point is that while we cannot directly change of feelings, we can change our minds, what we think, and that’s what generates our changed feelings… and so too our changed behaviour.