We Shatter Oppression
January 26, 2020*
By Pastor John Partridge
Isaiah 9:1-4 Matthew 4:12-23 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Growing up, many of us watched classic Western’s on television or in the movies and many times there was a tense situation where the good guys were trapped and overwhelmed by the enemy, but just when hope was almost lost, some kind of reinforcements would arrive and rescue them. So common was this that in the lexicon of American English, we have all come to know what it means when we hear phrases that refer to being rescued by the arrival of the cavalry even when the situation has nothing to do with the American west and when it occurs a hundred years after the military went around on horseback.
As we think about scriptures today, I want you to think about how those trapped people might have felt, not just in the American west, but in any number of situations when a very real protagonist appears over the horizon to rescue them. Imagine how slaves in the American south felt when they were freed by Union soldiers, or how the inmates of German concentration camps felt when Allied soldiers arrived (75 years ago this week), or how today’s victims of human trafficking might feel when law enforcement recognizes who they are and frees them from their captors.
Remembering these situations, and thinking about the victims’ feelings, will help us to have a better mental and emotional understanding of what we read in today’s scripture passages such as Isaiah 9:1-4, where we hear these words:
9:1 Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future, he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Isaiah declares that when the messiah comes, he will end the distress of his people and bring honor to the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali that had once been dishonored. The transformation would be not only noticeable, but dramatic. The people who lived in darkness would see a great light, those living in a land of deep darkness would witness the dawn, and those living in captivity and slavery would see the instruments of their oppression torn away and shattered. Even more than seeing the cavalry ride over the horizon, this is a scene of dramatic rescue as distress is ended, joy returned, and freedom restored.
And it is that same dramatic imagery that is used to connect the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with Isaiah’s prophecy in Matthew 4:12-23 as Jesus begins to call his disciples to follow him.
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 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. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
The imagery of recalling the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, and Galilee, and the dramatic transformation of a people living in darkness who see a great light or those living in the shadow of death welcoming the dawn all connects Jesus to the prophecies of Isaiah. In this way, we are told that Jesus is the messiah that God has promised through the prophets, and it is Jesus that is bringing joy, light, honor, and freedom. But Matthew immediately shifts from what was, to what is, from the past of Isaiah, to the present Jesus, and he begins to tell the story of how Jesus called his disciples to follow him.
Jesus first calls Peter and Andrew, who we met last week just a few verses earlier in the story, followed by James and John. All of them were fishing beside the Sea of Galilee when Jesus called them, and all of them walk away from their work, their trade, their families, and their livelihoods at a moment’s notice. And as soon as they begin to follow, they find them themselves walking with Jesus while he teaches, and preaches, and heals the sick. There are two more important points to be made here. First, is that the traditional understanding of the role of a disciple was to not only to follow, but to learn to be like the rabbi that they followed, to pattern and model their lives on the life of the rabbi, and to take upon themselves the mission and purpose of the rabbi that they followed. The second thing we notice is that by declaring his intention to send them out to “fish for people,” Jesus is making a promise to teach, and to train, his disciples to do what he is doing. This isn’t an invitation to watch a show, this is an invitation to an education, and an invitation to become like Jesus, and in a sense, to become Jesus by taking upon themselves the mission of Jesus.
And, in a letter to the church in Corinth, Paul reminds the church who it is that we follow, and why Jesus sends us out into the world. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Paul says:
10 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. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
18 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.
As we begin taking that apart, particularly as our own denomination seems almost certainly headed for some form of division or fracture, it’s worth noting, in this case, what specific kind of division that Paul is talking about. Paul says that there should be no division in the church, but then he explains that what the people of Corinth are fighting over are various cults of personality. Some people are saying that they are followers of Paul or followers of Apollos, or followers of Peter. But Paul stresses that none of them belong to the church of Peter, or Paul, or the church of anyone except the church of Jesus Christ. It was Jesus who was crucified, and it was in the name of Jesus that we have all been baptized.
And, as a disciple of Jesus, Paul has been sent on one single mission, and that mission was to preach the gospel. Paul freely admits that his preaching does sound like the professional orators and speakers that people sometimes heard in the public square. Instead, Paul’s preaching often seems to lack wisdom and eloquence, but it is in Paul’s shortcomings that the power of Jesus Christ is revealed. People are not drawn to his preaching, and lives are not transformed because Paul was such an incredibly fabulous public speaker (he admits that he wasn’t). It was not Paul’s words that drew people in, and it was not Paul that changed their hearts, it was the power of Jesus Christ that had sent him and it was the power of Jesus Christ that was working through him.
When we put these ideas together, we remember Isaiah’s prophecy that the messiah would come to bring light into the darkness of our world, to return honor to the people of God, to bring freedom to the captives, and to shatter the instruments of oppression. As Jesus came, it was revealed that he was that messiah, and that he intended to accomplish the mission Isaiah had written about. But Jesus had no intention of fulfilling the prophecies of God as a performer puts on a show. Jesus called his disciples not to be spectators, but to be learners who would model their lives after the life of Jesus and to take up his mission for themselves.
And Paul makes it clear that Jesus’ mission didn’t end with the first twelve disciples but has been passed on to the church and to every generation of disciples throughout history. Despite our divisions between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, despite our divisions between Anglican, Baptist, Brethren, Evangelical, Methodist, Presbyterian, Nazarene, and any number of other denominations past, present, or future, we are united in following one Jesus and in carrying out his mission. As his disciples, we now carry on Jesus’ mission to bring freedom to those who are captive to slavery, captive to sin, captive to hunger, to human trafficking, to drugs, to alcohol, to uncaring governments, corporate cruelty, bureaucracy, school bullies, and to any other kind of oppression that we might encounter.
We might not wear tights or capes or think of ourselves as heroes, but if we call ourselves followers of Jesus, then we accept that it is our job to carry out his mission. We aren’t here to put on a show. We are here to share the good news, to tell the story of Jesus Christ. We are here to fight for freedom. And we are here to shatter oppression wherever we find it.
Every day, men, women, and children are praying that God would send a hero to rescue them from the giants that oppress them. Those giants may not look like Roman soldiers, or slave ship captains, or Nazi prison guards but those giants are just as real as they have ever been, and their oppression is just as painful.
For them, we might just be heroes they’ve been praying for.
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