“Looking for Light in the Shadow of Death” A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23


“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

The “Shadow of Death.” That doesn’t sound very good, does it?

I asked Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield about the phrase and he said it is quite literally “shadow of death” in Hebrew. He said it is a colloquial saying and means something like “mortal peril.” We are all acquainted with that image from the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

Two of the traditional themes for the Epiphany season are “light shining in the darkness” and the “calling to Christian discipleship,” and I hope to combine them today.

Here’s how: Christian discipleship is what God is calling us to, and “the shadow of death” is the context in which we are called to do it.

Maybe that doesn’t sound quite right to you, so let’s think about the meaning of the “shadow of death.” It is not a re-assuring image, but it is a very real one. For some people in mortal peril it is very literal. We might think of the people of Aleppo, or some young men in gangs in some of our cities. Or, closer to home, we might think of people we know who are dying. They live in the shadow of death.

But for most of us “the shadow of death” is an abstraction that seems far from home. But we need to remember that in the New Testament death is never just death at the end of life. It is that, but it is more than that.

More often death in the New Testament means a power that insinuates itself into our living of these days, and robs us of the fullness of life that God wants for us. For example, when Paul writes that Jesus Christ has saved us from sin and death, he isn’t saying that we are never going to die, rather he is saying Christ frees us from the power of death over our lives.

So I need to talk a little bit about the concept of “the powers” in the New Testament. What are we to make of these invisible forces that the writers of our Bible paid so much attention to?

For help with this I’ve turned to the leading Biblical scholar on this topic, Walter Wink. Perhaps some of you knew him, as he lived here in Berkshire County for many years. He died in 2012.

Who was he? Walter Wink was an ordained United Methodist minister and a New Testament scholar, an activist for human rights and non-violence, and a great human being.

Walter became intrigued by the numerous references in the New Testament to invisible spiritual beings and powers such as angels and demons, and the invisible principalities and powers. For example, Ephesians 6:12 says, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Walter was thinking about these things when he and his wife, June, went to Chile during his sabbatical in 1982 to observe the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. During that time the Pinochet government was imprisoning and murdering political opponents. Many people were picked up by the national police or the army and disappeared, never to be seen again. Walter met with many of the families of the dead and missing. He spent time with many human rights’ activists including priests and nuns. He describes spending an excruciating evening listening to a woman who had been tortured by the regime.

At the end of his trip he became physically ill. He had planned to begin work on a book about the powers, but he didn’t have the strength.

During this time Walter said he struggled to reconcile his Christian faith with the brutality he had witnessed in Chile. His Easter faith told him that Jesus Christ was victorious over all things, but could it be true? He kept coming back to Romans 8:35-39 that ends, “Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” You may recall that on Paul’s long list of things that cannot separate us from the love of God was “the principalities and powers.”

Walter knew that we moderns have a different view of the universe than the ancients who wrote the Bible, but he wondered if perhaps they were onto something real, and, if so, how might we talk and think about whatever that something was in our day and age.

He says his breakthrough came one day as he was reading the very beginning of the Book of Revelation. It’s a strange passage. John the Divine describes hearing a loud voice like a trumpet, and turning and seeing seven golden lamp-stands and in their midst a strange awesome figure he describes as “one like the Son of Man.”

John falls down as though dead, as you can imagine, but the awesome figure tells him to get up and write down his words to the seven churches in Asia, which John does.

While Walter was reading this, he noticed something that he had never noticed before. The Son of Man doesn’t address the churches directly; it is the “angels” of the churches he speaks to. Each of the seven churches had it’s own angel, and the directions that were give to each angel was different.

So Walter wondered, What if this was a way to think about organizations, not just the church, but others, as having an angel, that is a spiritual personification that God addresses with a specific calling?

This became his life project, and through several books he developed a theology of the powers, which might be described as a spiritual organizational theory. His final book, which sums up his argument, is called “The Powers that Be.” It’s a terrific book.

Walter recognized that the ancients believed all entities were spiritual as well as physical. For example, the Apostles Creed says, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible” or, in a newer translation “all things seen and unseen.”

So what about these unseen things? Wink believed that every organization had a spiritual side, which he called its “angel.” And every organization had a distinct vocation from God, just as the Son of Man in Revelation had addressed each of the seven churches.

I first met Walter at a workshop I attended in the 9th year of my ministry in Pittsfield. It was a “Long Pastorate Workshop” at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and at the time I was trying to discern whether to stay in my congregation in Pittsfield or seek a new call.

The workshop was sponsored by the Alban Institute and was co-led by Walter and an able church consultant named Roy Oswald. Roy was using all this research-based data to help us make the decision, but Walter was employing his theology of the powers with some pretty unorthodox methods.

To begin with I was skeptical of what he was doing. Some of it seemed pretty weird to me. For example, he had us lie down face down in the dark on the rug of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Room, as if we were John the Divine falling down as if we were dead. Then he read to us Revelation, Chapter 1, the whole part about the Son of Man speaking to the angels of the seven churches.

He turned on the lights and told us, “I want you to learn about the angel of your congregation!”

He handed out sketchpads and Cray-Pas, you know, those fancy pastels, and he instructed us to draw a picture of our angel. I’m not much of an artist, and I thought this was getting silly. Then it got even sillier. Walter said, “I want you to make your drawing of your angel using your non-dominant hand.”

Then he had us describe the angel of our congregation. And finally he had us write a letter to the angel instructing it about its true calling, its God-given vocation.

And suddenly it all started to make sense to me, because I had always wondered why as a pastor, there was only so much I could do to alter the basic character or personality of the congregations I served?

According to Walter’s theory, the angel of an organization, its spiritual reality, has a calling from God, a vocation, just as each of us do.

So given that, the trick of effective leadership is to discern what the vocation of that particular angel is and be faithful to it. That was how Walter helped us discern whether we should stay or leave our congregations. Not by asking “Am I happy?” But “Am I the right leader to lead this congregation to be true to its angel and its vocation?”

Since revisiting Walter’s work, I’ve been thinking about this church’s angel. I‘ve been on the Vision Task Force the last couple of years, and now that I think about it I realize that that is what we have been trying to do. Not to turn the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge into something against its nature, but to faithfully discern what it is that God is calling this church to be and do.

Walter believed that every organization has this spiritual dimension, its angel, and a particular vocation. From the Boy Scouts of America to the General Electric Company there is a spiritual piece that goes beyond “corporate culture” or “branding.”

And Walter also believed that when an entity strays from it calling, when they are not faithful to their angel, they become demonic, and must be called to repentance, which means turning, in this case turning back to their true calling. He saw this in the authoritarian regimes he had visited, first in Chile, and later in apartheid-era South Africa, where he snuck in. Despotic regimes were countries that had betrayed the calling of their angel. Instead of ruling by consensus and democratic norms they impose their power by violence and the threat of violence.

He also believed that no entity or organization was beyond repair or redemption, because none were outside the vast love of God. Repentance was the means for any entity or organization to return to its true unique vocation.

So how do you do this? Walter decided that non-violent resistance was the way to move social change forward. When the vocation of the angel of a organization was violated and the angel became demonic the way forward, the way to get it to repent, was to challenge its authority through non-violence protest. He had seen the effectiveness of this both in Chile and South Africa.

And as I’ve been thinking about all this during this last week of Martin Luther King Day, the inauguration of a new president, and the extraordinary Women’s Marches yesterday all over our land and the world. Did you see all those women, all over the world, marching in non-violent protest for freedom, dignity and human rights? It was powerful.

When Martha was a girl, about ten years old, her mother took her out of school and took her down to Boston Common to hear Martin Luther King speak.

And yesterday Martha was there again, with her 85 year-old mother, and her sister, and our daughter, Rebecca, in the Boston Women’s March on Boston Common. They represent three generations of peaceful protest (3 ½ if you count Rebecca being pregnant!)

As I watched the marches and worked on this sermon I wondered how Walter’s theory of the powers might make sense of our national life today. Walter would say that the United States of America, like any other entity, has an angel and a vocation.

And this gave me new insight into what was so special about Dr. King. He recognized “the powers that be.” As a minister and a black man, Dr. King understood the spiritual and moral side of America. He well understood that there was a discrepancy between the promise of America and the reality.

The reason the Civil Rights movement was as successful as it was because he appealed to people’s best moral and spiritual instincts. When people saw young people and women and children being hosed and beaten by police on TV they were shocked. “This is not who we are!” And suddenly the injustices, inequalities, and indignities that black Americans had been subjected to, and that had been accepted for generations were exposed and challenged by non-violent resistance.

King knew that America had never been “the land of the free.” He knew that when the Constitution was written, only propertied white men were free, which left out women, the poor, and people of color.

Nonetheless, King, the preacher saw beyond that reality to the promise of America. To use Walter Wink’s model King believed in the angel of America and called us to repentance, called us back to its true vocation.

I think this helps explain Congressman John Lewis’s boycotting of the inauguration and saying that the President was not legitimate. Whether you agree with his decision the meaning of his statement was clear. He wasn’t talking about constitutional authority, but moral authority. The President won the Electoral College, which gave him the constitutional authority to be president. But Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights movement, and a colleague of Dr. King, was saying that things the President had said and done disqualified him morally.

I am convinced that we are at a pivotal time in our nation’s life, when the promise of America could be seriously set back. The vocation of America could be betrayed.

Although that promise has never been fully realized, we have still been regarded around the world as the leader of the free world, as a place of welcome for all people, as a nation of immigrants who come with great hope seeking new economic and social possibilities. The question that hangs heavy over our time whether that vision and that promise will prevail.

But if we live in a time of mortal peril, in “the shadow of death,” then the question of our vocation becomes even more pressing, “How do we follow Jesus in such a time as this?” The truth is that Christians and the church are never called to accept the national life as a finished righteous reality, even when we perceive our leaders as better rather than worse.

I said earlier that we live out our discipleship in “the shadow of death.” So where do we look for light in the darkness?

The answer to that is at the heart of our creed as Christians. “Christ is the world’s true light.”

In the church I served in Pittsfield we had a Tenebrae Service every Maundy Thursday, when we would read the story of Christ’s passion, and we would extinguish candles one by one. The last reading ended with the words from Mark 15:20, “Then they led him out to crucify him.”

Then the last candle would be snuffed out, and the congregation would sit in darkness. What could be darker than that?

Finally in the darkness the choir would sing a response from the hymn we are about to sing:

Christ is the world’s true light, the captain of salvation,
the day-star clear and bright, of every one and nation.
New light, new hope awakes, Wher-e’er we hold his sway;
Freedom her bondage breaks, and night is turned to day.

Whenever the powers of darkness threaten, we have the light of Christ to mark our way.

And as those who bear the name of Christian we have a divine calling as followers of Jesus to be light-bearers. Jesus said to his followers, “You are the light of the world.” We are called to be light against all that would darken the time.

That’s our vocation as Christians, to love as Jesus loved.

Walter Wink lived to see the regime in Chile lose power and the apartheid regime in South Africa change non-violently. I was in a restaurant in New York City with Walter the night the First Gulf War began and we began bombing Bagdad. Walter was anguished by the news and asked us to pray with him.

He knew too well that violence unleashed dark forces. Like Dr. King, he believed non-violence is the answer to violence. Love is the answer to hate. Dr. King wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” And he said, “I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

We are called to do that. To choose love over hate, faith over fear.

We are called to bind up wounds, to live out the reconciliation that Christ has accomplished for us on the cross.

We are called to be faithful to the angel of our church, and to our own angel, and our own vocation. That is what we can do to overcome the shadow of death..

Even if the world dwells in the shadow of death, we know that ultimately the light of Christ will prevail, prevail over the power of death, and all the other invisible principalities and powers of this age. Remember what St. John says of Jesus, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

In the meantime, let your light shine. “This little light of mine; I’m gonna let it shine! Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!” Amen.

(I prepared this sermon to preach on January 22, 2017, at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge. Because our bathrooms were suddenly out of order that morning, I preached a very abbreviated version of it. Photo: R.L. Floyd 2015)

5 thoughts on ““Looking for Light in the Shadow of Death” A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

  1. Not to quibble with a theological authority such as yourself, but King James liked “Yea”, not “Yeah.” “Yeah” is that word your mother didn’t like to you to respond to questions with.

  2. Pingback: Some Recent Watering Holes | Jason Goroncy

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