Readings: Isaiah 9; 1-14: Psalm 27; 1-10: 1 Corinthians 1; 10-18: Matthew 4, 12-25 When I was a child I was fascinated by a picture that my mother owned. It was small enough to be in a free standing frame that I could pick up and move around and at various times I placed it on a bookcase, window sill and piano so that I could better see it. While I call it a picture it was actually a small picture with an accompanying poem. The picture showed Jesus standing in a forest at night holding a lantern. He was knocking on a small overgrown door. My mother said it was called The Light of the World and I later saw a large copy in St Paul's Cathedral. I now know that it was painted between 1851-53 by the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt and that his intention was to show that God is knocking at humanities door but as the door does not have a handle on God's side it is up to humanity to open up and let him in. As I was not old enough to go to school I struggled to learn the poem but have never forgotten it. And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown And he replied Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way. This is the start of The Gate of the Year, a slightly longer poem by Minnie Louise Haskins. It was quoted by George VI in his1939 Christmas Day address to the Empire and was taken by many to provide inspiration and support through the darkest days of the war. I thought of this picture when I reviewed the readings set for today as they clearly contrast the light that comes from God with the darkness derived from a life without God and also show that while God will knock on the door he will not force an entry into our lives. The reading from Isaiah is one that is often hear on Christmas eve and it has the power to elate and inspire, especially as we usually start with verse 2 “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them a light has shined” This is clearly a reference to the birth of Christ and is often followed by a reading in which the shepherds, who would be huddled round a small fire in the great darkness of a pre-electric light age are suddenly surrounded by heavenly light and glorious angels. However, William Neil suggests that there is much to the prophesies contained in the Book of Isaiah to be considered in more detail. He pointed out that prophets from Isaiah onwards (or more accurately the three Isaiah's onwards) saw the faith of Israel as something to be publicly proclaimed and not a meditative pursuit. He went on to say that not everything preserved from the later classical prophets can be called great but within their words are found ideas that moulded Israel's faith and prepared for the coming of Christ and the institution of his church. Isaiah1 believed that YHWH would chastise a sinful people by allowing them to be over-run by their enemies but he also believed that God would preserve a remnant to rebuild the faith. To quote Neil again “The conception of the remnant is a theme which we have already seen hinted at in the stories of Noah and Elijah and which is basic to St Paul's conception of the church as being built upon the remnant of the old Israel (Rom 9,27: 11,5), is one of the outstanding contributions of Isaiah to Old Testament theology” (p250). Verse 1 of our reading today refers to a remnant people. The prophesy in the reading was one of a series in which the prophet was trying to make people realise that the complexity of the human situation could not be resolved by man alone however well planned the endeavours, but only by reliance on God and his will. This is where the concept of a messiah entered into religious thought and expectation. It was developed as Israel came to be affected by a series of incompetent rulers (p251) and came to fulfilment with the birth of Christ, the time when God came into the world in human form. Today Christians in the western world could be viewed as a remnant and it is very clear that the powers of darkness have had a field day within the various institutional churches. But that is not a new phenomenon. If we look back over the history of the church we can see periods when God was clearly active and in control and great good was achieved. But there were also periods of great evil, periods where one looks in horror at what was going on and wonders how anyone could claim to have been acting in God's name. However, there were always remnant people who realised that they needed to place reliance on God to resolve the difficulties and I feel that we are once again in that position. I think that we, by which I mean us as individuals and us as an institutional church have placed too much reliance on tradition, on human endeavour and on the ability of others to solve problems and not enough reliance on God. I know that there will be many Christians sitting in half empty churches today feeling despondent but we should in fact be seeing this as a time of great opportunity for re-birth. In the gospel reading Jesus heard about the arrest of John the Baptist. John who was the proclaimed herald for Jesus and who was preparing the way for his ministry had been overcome by one of the proponents of the darkness and would eventually be killed by him. Jesus could have taken this as a sign that he should duck for cover, adopt a lower profile, do nothing to upset the status-quo but he did not. He placed his reliance on God and took actions to develop his ministry to bring light to the world and in so doing he called his new disciples to abandon the old and comfortable lives that they knew and forge a new relationship with God and help others to transform their lives and the world. Last year Bishop Richard asked everyone to consider how they could become more active disciples and work to bring light to those in our community who are living in the darkness of ignorance. If we are to do this we need to first ask ourselves if we are people of the light or if we are fooling ourselves and are really people of the dark. Do we place reliance on God's will or are we relying on human endeavour to resolve problems? Are we open to God's suggestions that we take risks and change what we do and how we live or do we so control our lives and hang on to things that give us comfort that we cannot move into the light? I urge everyone to spend some time in the next week to think about the readings today and consider whether we are really people of the light. If not what should we do to ensure that we allow God to work with and through us to spread the light to others in our community? In conclusion I want to come back to the poem that I started with and quote the concluding lines. So I went forth and finding the hand of God trod gladly into the night. And he led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East. According to Isaiah this is what will happen when we allow God to be active and in control. Joan Rodrigues References: William Neil, William Neil's One Volume Bible Commentary. Hodder and Stroughton, 1973. Tom Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays Years A, B & C. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2012.