January 26, 2020
The Third Sunday after Epiphany
(Isaiah 8:23 – 9:3; Matthew 4:12-23)
Before his death in 2011, Christopher Hitchens, the English-American author, columnist and literary critic, was renowned for his disbelief in God.
Called an atheist by some, Hitchens himself preferred the label "antitheist" -- meaning someone who not only is certain that God does not exist, but who actively opposes the very idea that God exists and those who support the idea. He first attracted widespread public attention through his blistering attacks on St. Mother Teresa saying: "Mother Teresa is less interested in helping the poor than in using them as an indefatigable source of wretchedness on which to fuel the expansion of her fundamentalist Roman Catholic beliefs.” Of her beatification in 2003 he said: “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud,” arguing that “even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed.”
Maybe he should tells us how he really felt!
In his book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, he wrote "I'm not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches and the effect of religious belief is positively harmful." And his even more well-known book, one that reached No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list in its third week, was titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Thus, it caused quite a stir in the religious world when Christian author Larry Taunton, who spent some time with Hitchens in the latter's final months, published a book in which he speculated that the dying Hitchens was moving toward belief in God. The two men spent hours together traveling to scheduled debates between Hitchens and Christian speakers, and they talked as they traveled. Taunton doesn't claim that Hitchens actually converted, but based on those conversations, he does say that Hitchens seemed open to the possibility that Christianity was true.
And at least one Christian magazine, reviewing Taunton's book, declared that his comments about Hitchens offered hope that the famed disbeliever found salvation before he died.
But, alas, that apparently was not the case. Several of Hitchens' friends insist that his intellectual tolerance and largeness of heart made him open to discussion and honest consideration of others' views, but that he had no change of heart toward religious belief. And, even more tellingly, Hitchens' wife, Carol Blue, who was with him to the very end, stated that he did not have a late-life or deathbed conversion. "He lived by his principles until the end," she said. "To be honest, the subject of God didn't come up."
Whether or not Christopher Hitchens converted to Christianity before his death, there are people who have "seen the light" later in life and some even near the end of life. The most noted example of the latter is the dying thief on a cross next to the one on which Jesus was dying, who asked Jesus to remember him in the kingdom of God, to which Jesus responded, "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:42-43).
One of our Acts of Faith in the Liberal Catholic world of things reads:
We believe that God is Love, and Power, and Truth, and Light; that perfect justice rules the world; that all His sons shall one day reach His feet, however far they stray. We hold the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of man;
we know that we do serve Him best when best we serve our brother man.
So shall His blessing rest on us and peace for evermore. Amen.
Although, I do not believe in the literal sense, because we do have free will and God will not force himself upon us, therefore someone would need to make this conversion on their own. However, I do believe that God does grant anyone in this state to realize after death, once they see “the light” on the other side to actually make the conversion at that point. Call it purgatory or whatever, but sometimes we need something that smacks us in the face before we believe or change.
Our reading from Isaiah talks of a "people who walked in darkness" who "have seen a great light." Saying it again in slightly other words, the text adds, "those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined."
In the context of conversion, "darkness" is life without God; "light" is our life with God.
The apostle Paul is a case in point. Here's a guy who'd been actively persecuting Christians but who, on the road to Damascus and traveling for just that purpose, was overtaken by "light from heaven" that "flashed around him" (Acts 9:3). Although the "light" here sounds like literal illumination -- one that may have been responsible for Paul's sudden and temporary blindness -- it was also the opening salvo in a process that led to an inner enlightenment and a wholehearted commitment to follow Jesus.
Whatever the case, both the Isaiah text and Paul's Damascus-road experience speak of this light as something God turns on. This suggests that we should respond when such happens to us and not wait for the closing moments of our lives -- assuming our end is protracted and not sudden, and we are in our right minds at the time.
As Jesus puts it, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Matthew 4:17), or as the Bible says elsewhere, "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!" (2 Corinthians 6:2).
"Light" seems the right word for all of this, for the light that God turns on is a means for us to discern -- to "see" -- what is real and true.
But why does it take so long for that to happen for some of us? Perhaps we need to have enough life experience to become aware of the darkness before we grasp the need for the light.
It's significant that some people who have first come to Christ in full adulthood have done so while struggling with certain darkness in their lives. For example, Joy Davidman (d. 1960), an American poet and writer who eventually became the wife of C.S. Lewis, was initially an atheist. After her first marriage broke down, her resistance to God broke down: "For the first time my pride was forced to admit that I was not, after all, 'the master of my fate'... All my defenses -- all the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I had hid from God -- went down momentarily -- and God came in."
Or consider Mortimer J. Adler (d. 2001), an American philosopher, educator and popular author, who was agnostic for most of his life and even described himself as a "pagan." During an illness, however, he sought solace in prayer and accepted God's grace. He professed his belief "not just in the God my reason so stoutly affirms ... but the God ... on whose grace and love I now joyfully rely."
Or think of Christopher Hitchens' brother Peter, who is an English journalist and author, and who is as well-known in the United Kingdom as his brother was here in the United States. He, too, was an unbeliever in his youth and early adulthood. In fact, he says that at age 15, he actually set fire to a Bible his parents had given him. But he explains that later, as he advanced in his career, he lost his faith in politics and his trust in ambition and he became fearfully aware of the inevitability of his own death. He says, "I was urgently in need of something else on which to build the rest of my life." Somehow, in that mood, he "rediscovered Christmas," which, he says, he had "pretended to dislike for many years," and he attended a carol service. He began to be aware of the light.
There can be more examples, but those are probably enough to point out how the darkness of our own struggles creates a place where we can become aware of the light of God. Certainly not everyone who chooses God and embraces Christ does so from a point of need or darkness, but many do, and it supports the truth of what Isaiah said so many centuries ago: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined."
So, what's the point for those of us who are already walking in the light of God?
One takeaway is certainly that God has plenty of light for us as we face the troubles of life and even the routine of life and we should look for it.
Some theorize that it is possible that darkness will not always move people closer to the light of God. It can have the opposite effect. Some people seem to prefer to walk in darkness. Darkness can be a temptation even for Christians, a possibility that concerned both the apostles John and Paul (see 1 John1:6 and Ephesians 5).
On the other hand, it has been said that, the darkness is not always complete denial of God in their lives, but denial of God in certain parts of their lives.
It is also possible to walk out of the light of God, and we may do so even while continuing to attend church, thus celebrating the outer trappings of Christianity without experiencing the reality of God's transforming power. The light of God is real. We can't turn it back on ourselves -- that's God's doing -- but the testimony of Scripture is that God has already turned it on, to help us when we walk in darkness.
Another way of stating this, according to Rev. Dr. Howard Chapman of First Presbyterian Church in Marion, Iowa, is: "We don't hang on to God; God hangs on to us. Any conversion of any kind is the awareness of what God has already been doing in our lives. [We become] suddenly aware of the light that has always been there, to use this metaphor. God is always at work in our lives, even when we are unable to see it. God never gives up on us, even up to when we draw our last breath."
In the end, we followers of Jesus -- who is the light of the world -- can be reflectors of that light so that others may see it.
Let us pray.
As Simon Peter, Andrew, James and john answered Jesus’ call to follow him, may we too will proclaim the word of God in our daily lives. We pray to the Lord.
That we will all today will make a commitment to dispel darkness and to always seek the light of God and remain in it always. We pray to the Lord.
For those suffering from the Corona Virus in China and that the rest of the world will be spared from this epidemic. We pray to the Lord.
That during the impeachment process our senators will be awakened by the Holy Spirit to seek truth and true justice, and not blind faith in the person they are called to hold accountable to the Constitution and the American people. We pray to the Lord.
That as we continue our building and repairs a benefactor or benefactors will be led to our humble parish as we look to obtain the funding needed to finish the rectory and necessary repairs. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list, that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
God of light and love, we come with gratitude to this place of prayer. For family and friends and friends who are family, we offer you our thanks and praise. Especially do we thank you for those who show us your way through the light of their love. We offer our gratitude for our church family, present here for worship. And for those of our church family who worship from home, we ask for the comfort of your presence. In these moments of quietude, grant us the courage to so lose ourselves that we might truly find ourselves. Lead us in the way of truth that we might honestly see the gifts we have and then grant us the strength to share our gifts with others –– without delay. Might the light of your love so shine in our own lives that the dark times in the lives of others might be illuminated. And may this brilliance be a beacon of hope as evidenced by the life of your Son our Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, Ca