The Living Word story for the week is woven from words and perspectives spanning a thousand years of God revealing himself in the Bible starting with a prophecy of how the light, love and reality of God’s presence would come to a land characterised by spiritual darkness.
As we read through the Bible, God’s Word, He shows us different things at different points in this journey of faith. By paying careful attention to this timeline, what God is saying for us, today, begins to emerge.
This week’s story is about the kingdom of God: His way, and His order — His truth revealed, and presence experienced. And there’s something unexpected to watch out for. God’s re-ordering comes most strongly in places and situations where there’s a lot of disorder.
Where faith fails, disarray rises up – but God in His merciful love, seems to prioritise His peace-bringing in these very places, situations and relationships. Where there is trouble, we may have confidence that, de spite appearances, God is already at work!
Words from the Psalmist, probably King David, helps us to hear God’s reminder that He is a stronghold of safety and source of guidance. Receiving that guidance takes a little persistence, but we are reminded that, in our dark places, we can find light and deliverance. This is from Psalm 27:
The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid? …For in the day of trouble He will keep me safe… hide me… and set me high upon a rock.
…Hear my voice when I call, Lord; be merciful to me and answer me. My heart says of You, “Seek His face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek.
Do not hide Your face from me… You have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Saviour.Excerpted from Psalm 27:1, 4-9
If we have a relationship with God, we know what King David knew. We can call on God for His help and invite His presence. It is as if the Lord is waiting for our call!
And even if the opposite is true – we are in darkness, or our environment or church has fallen into dry religion, rather than joyful faith – all is not lost! God sees what can be, beyond what is, and the Bible shows us that He has a particular interest, a priority even, of bringing His light and renewal to the situations that need Him most.
Isaiah spoke out what he saw in the spirit hundreds of years before it happened. The northern area around Galilee had spectacularly failed to uphold the covenant, and listen to God – and in Isaiah‘s time, the story was all about conquest and deportation.
But Isaiah was at a different place on the timescale. God was showing him what could be, in fact, what He had planned for this rebellious and spiritually dark and desolate region.
After the exile had run its course, this area was resettled, which is why there was such a diverse population, and why Jews from Jerusalem looked down on it, saying “Nothing good ever came from Nazareth!”.
And this is where God’s Son, Jesus, grew up, and established His ministry – and the result would be to break the historic curse of sin on the region and its people. We’ll let words from Isaiah 9 now take up the story:
In the past He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future He will honour Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.
For …You have shattered the yoke that burdens them …the rod of their oppressor.Excerpted from Isaiah 9:1-4
This prophecy was significant – so significant, that Matthew, in his gospel account, quoted the part about the light dawning in this region that had known so much darkness and setback. Here, in the apostle’s word, Matthew 4, we hear about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and His headline announcement to the towns, villages and settlements of Galilee:
Leaving Nazareth, [Jesus] went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali — to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “[For] the people living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.
“Come, follow Me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed Him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.Excerpted from Matthew 4:12-23
Jesus told his hearers to repent, and be aware that God’s holy kingdom had come near to them. What does that mean?
“Repent“ means, turn, or change course, like a sailing ship going about on the other tack to find a new wind. An encounter with Jesus means a change of mindset – from whatever we think, to whatever He says. That’s difficult at first. We don’t readily take directions or seek help from another. But that is exactly what Jesus asks of us!
Galilee and its towns and villages were not where are you would find the most spiritually aware people. They would be at the centre of things, around Jerusalem. Jesus is in a provincial, rural setting. Many of the inhabitants were not Jews. We know from other stories in the gospels that there were herds of pigs just the other side of the lake.
Higher class Jews looked down on Galilee and its distinctive rural accent. And that is exactly where God placed His Son to announce the new order of God-aware living, provision and justice.
This is where the disciples saw Jesus exercise spiritual power, learned to join Him in it – like taking part in the miracle feeding of the crowds. And later He would send them out in pairs by themselves to the 200 or so villages and settlements, to proclaim the kingdom of God, heal the sick and disturbed, and add to the growing number of disciples.
This was not happening in proud Jerusalem. It was not a movement in nearby Judah. But it was revival time in far off downmarket Galilee — not to mention a work in neighbouring Samaria which took root at this time.
This crazy, unpredictable revival is what Isaiah saw all those years before. Who could believe it? This was the most unlikely place for God to reveal Himself to His covenant people.
And that is what we find God doing today. Where there are disadvantaged people, the ones who are not proudly self-sufficient, the ones who k now their needs — look for signs of God at work.
A generation later, just as surprising for the Jews in the Jerusalem church was the rapid growth of the church among the Greek-speaking people in other parts of the Roman Empire.
Not that it was a smooth ride – there were plenty of tensions, difficulties and relational upsets, as is always the case with moves of the Spirit.
Some people today are scared of Holy Spirit renewal. They equate it with division. And it does surface issues which people have not dealt with, in coming into new life in Jesus. We all carry some baggage from the old life with us – as we see, as Paul addresses a young church in busy Corinth, here in 1 Corinthians 1:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.
My brothers and sisters, some…have informed me that there are quarrels among you… One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptise any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptised in my name.
For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel — not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.1 Corinthians 1:10-18 excerpted
Corinth was large, loud and up itself. This was a prosperous sea-port, possibly numbering half a million – a huge city in the ancient world. Corinthians liked a bit of theatre in life and revelled in debate and rhetoric. So they were somewhat dismissive of Paul, this short, unimpressive Jewish man who brought a strong message, but with no great gift of oratory.
Who would have chosen Corinth for a work of God, growing the kingdom of God? It was a sensuous place, full of slavery and prostitution and pagan religion, all of which brought their own corruption, and added to the immaturity. Not fertile ground for the gospel, you might think. And, as this short excerpt shows, it was an uphill struggle to get those still-carnal believers living and relating together in the new life they shared in Jesus.
This comes as a surprise! We like to think that God is looking for polite, well-dressed, and rather religious minded people, always there on Sunday and with their name on several rotas.
Later on plenty of believers were drawn from the devout of Judea and Jerusalem. But the story reminds us that God also brings His light where light is most needed – the dark places and the situations experiencing strife and difficulty.
However, that light, that call of the kingdom comes with a clear challenge to repent, change course, get right with God and trust Jesus to be the Way, the Life and the Truth.
Why do the least promising people and perhaps downright disobedient ones attract God’s favour – the light that dawns for the people walking in darkness? Perhaps it is because God’s goodness, His love and grace, is so staggering.
God looks for those who are not at all sure of being on the right course, but ready to repent and turn to Him to find it.
In short, it’s a lesson for all of us, to learn to be less self-sufficient and admit our need for more of God’s light in the shadowy bits of our own lives.