Matthew 4:12-23

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. Matthew 4:16
This time of year in the northern hemisphere, we are especially aware of the play of darkness and light. The daily experience of being in darkness longer than we are in daylight makes that light all the more precious. We treasure it and celebrate when, after the winter solstice, the days once again begin to lengthen. On this third Sunday of Epiphany, the message of Isaiah the prophet corresponds to our experience: “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.”

The recent ice storm, causing innumerable power outages in our area, thrust thousands of people into literal darkness and cold. For some, this went on for days. Ask anyone who went through this experience and they will tell you, “It was not pleasant!” We know we are like people who sit in darkness; not only physical darkness, but also spiritual darkness. We are people who sit in the region and shadow of death. We are aware that death is too often around us and we fear it. We might even feel like hiding in some dim cave cowering until the darkness passes. Winter can feel that way and we want it to end.

It can be a stretch for us genuinely to hear Isaiah’s proclamation as one of joy: For those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned. But we can imagine the joy and relief as power was restored to homes and businesses, as electricity was restored. We can understand the light and warmth that was produced and feel the relief it brought. We probably have experienced something like this at one time or another. Because life is restored, “Light has dawned” is a proclamation of great joy.

Matthew uses this prophecy to introduce his words about the public ministry of Jesus, which begins in Galilee. As he takes up his ministry, Jesus announces, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is Jesus’ message: Repent, that is, turn to God and God’s ways, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. In fact, we can think of the message this way: Because the kingdom of heaven has come near to us in Jesus, we can turn toward God and God’s ways. Jesus leads the way. Jesus makes it possible. In Jesus, the new light has come transforming the darkness of the world.

In his ministry, Jesus would often say to people, “See if you have eyes. Hear if you have ears” (Matt. 3:16). And he said, “Ask, and it will be given you; Search, and you will find; Knock, and the doors will be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7). See – hear – ask – search – knock! Now, there’s an invitation! It is an invitation out of darkness into light.

From the beginning, Jesus makes it clear this his ministry is not solitary. It is done in relationship. He calls, literally calls, others to be with him. So when Jesus sees two brothers casting their net into the Sea of Galilee in search of fish, he calls them and he calls them by name: “Andrew, Simon, come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Andrew and Peter, James and John and the others who followed Jesus did see something that others at the time could not see. They heard, asked, searched and knocked. While not fully understanding it, they sensed that the kingdom of heaven was indeed very near, and they wanted it! The things that Jesus said and did exhibited the kingdom of heaven. He was the light pushing away the darkness.

Today, we commemorate the faithful ministry of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, patrons of this great Cathedral. We do so on this Sunday because it falls between two great Christian feast days: the Confession of Saint Peter on January 18 and the Conversion of Saint Paul on January 25. During this week, the church everywhere prays with a special focus for the unity of all Christians. This is done in response to Jesus’ own prayer for his followers “that they would be one as he and God the Father are one.” The unity of Christians comes, first and foremost, in their response to be followers of Jesus the Christ who is the true light of the world. We look to Peter and Paul to help us on our own journey as followers of Jesus Christ.

In spite of what the church has done to them, elevating them to sainthood and wrapping them in much legend, both Peter and Paul were very human, and for that we can be grateful. They were so like us, trying to figure out how to get along in life, how to do something meaningful, how to be part of their community and their time, how to survive another day. Their humanity is reflected as we meet them through the writings of the New Testament and in the tradition of the church. Also reflected is their devotion to Jesus, whom they confessed as Lord and Savior.

Peter, a simple, coarse fisherman from the upcountry of Galilee, becomes the leader of the apostles. But this doesn’t happen overnight. It was a lifetime’s work. Peter traveled with Jesus and was with him at some significant times: as a witness to Jesus’ transfiguration, at the raising of the daughter of Jairus and during Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. On one occasion, Jesus asked Peter, “Who so you say that I am?” and Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Recognizing this confession of his true identity as the work of God the Father, Jesus told Peter that he was the rock upon which the church would be built. And hasn’t it turned out just that way? Peter was given the keys of the kingdom of heaven as the church was given, through Peter, the power to bind and loose on earth as it is in heaven. At Jesus’ darkest hour, when he was betrayed by one closest to him, Peter denied knowing Jesus, not once, but three times. Jesus had predicted this would happen and Peter had protested that he was better than that. After the denial, Peter recognized his own continuing weakness and “wept bitterly.” Even as one who had seen and sought God’s light through Jesus, Peter was still caught by darkness. Fearing for his physical life and trapped in his denial, Peter knew the depth of human darkness as never before. Indeed, he wept and despaired. What a surprise, then, that Peter should be one of the first people to encounter Jesus on the morning of his resurrection. Can you imagine the relief and hope that welled up in Peter as he began to see what has not been seen: that life wins the victory over death, that Christ was alive; that new light, a new sunrise has come! Peter became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, a church existing within the context of its origin, that is, first century Judaism.

Paul had other ideas. As a deeply devoted Jew, Paul followed the teachings and practices of Judaism. And, like many others, he was not in the least sympathetic to this new movement carried on by the followers of Jesus Christ. Paul, known originally as Saul, persecuted many Christians and approved of the death of Stephen the deacon, the first Christian martyr. Paul’s story mirrors Peter’s in that God broke into his life in a new way and his life was totally transformed. This in-breaking is spoken of as the conversion of St. Paul. On the road to Damascus, a major city of the ancient world, Saul was struck down by a bright light and blinded. In his ensuing darkness he has a vision of Jesus who asked him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul replied “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul remained in this physical and spiritual darkness for three days. Then a Christian named Ananias came to him, at the direction of God, laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” This is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” Paul was transformed. He knew that the resurrected Jesus was, as Paul later testified, “the Son of God.” Instead of being the persecutor of the Christians, Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles. For the remainder of his life, he traveled throughout the Mediterranean world establishing and strengthening Christian communities. Caring deeply for the people of these churches, he wrote letters to them, seeking to nurture their love and service to Christ as Lord.

Both of these men of faith, Peter and Paul, were martyred in Rome around the year 64.

You and I are inheritors of the confession of Peter and the conversion of Paul, of the transformation they experienced through Jesus Christ and of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in Jesus, which they proclaimed. Peter and Paul came to see Jesus as many others did not; they were able to hear that he proclaimed something more than the merely physical or worldly. They asked, searched and knocked, and they found answers and discovered the door to God’s kingdom open to them. Through their faithful ministry, millions have responded to Jesus’ invitation “The kingdom of heaven is very near” by walking through the door into God’s realm, a realm that joins heaven to earth and earth to heaven, a door that provides access to God and to God’s kingdom.

We give thanks to God for the witness of Peter and Paul. We give thanks to God for those who named this Cathedral for these two great saints, so human and yet transformed by the love and light of God. We ask that we also might be transformed by the light of Christ. That is our prayer on this day when we shout with joy like Isaiah, “On this people in the darkness, light has dawned.” May we have eyes to see and ears to hear for the kingdom of heaven is indeed very near—and in our very midst!