One morning this week Nico and I set out for the morning wander, closely followed for a bit by Susan and Nebo (until the variety of smells and warm weather slowed him). I looked up and realised that for the first time in several weeks, the sun and sky were clear. I couldn’t look at the sun, even in the early morning – it was too bright: brighter than it had been for weeks. The sky was blue and clear and even the gentle clouds in the distance stood out clearly and brightly. I recognised that for so many weeks the sky had been hazy, filled with smoke and everything a little darker. Some days there were clouds and smoke and the combination made the day darker still. This day, however, was bright and I found myself squinting through the brightness – it was almost uncomfortable.
We have lived through several weeks of bushfire smoke swallowing the day, darkening the skies and bringing a ‘darkness’ across the land as it has engulfed us in crisis and overwhelming our resources. We have despaired at the stories, even as those caught in the midst of the catastrophic experiences have been enveloped in ominous darkness. The darkness became almost ‘normal’ as we endured the unfolding and broadening chaos that engulfed Eastern and Southern Australia. Story upon story, image upon image drew us into the deepening crisis that, though relieved somewhat through some rain, continues on.
Darkness is a very real metaphor for our days and nights of catastrophic bushfire crisis. A friend described the apocalyptic experience of being caught in the midst of a community threatened and evacuated. The days were dark, eerily and threateningly dark, as smoke thoroughly consumed everything. The only light was the glow of the threatening fire-front and the gloomy glow of a hidden sun that barely broke through. Darkness was physical and emotional as it clung to people and filled them with fear, confusion and impending dread. Darkness consumed us all as we watched on helpless or for those who worked on the scenes, fighting flames or holding people in their despair.
In the midst of our darkness we yearned for light, hope, or something to break through with relief and deliverance. We glimpsed ‘lights’ glowing through in the human spirit expressed in courage, sacrifice, generosity, community, sharing and communities supporting each other and demonstrating resilient determination. We longed for the brighter lights of leadership to help us find a way forward, but our leaders were as confused and overwhelmed as the rest of us. The shadow side of humanity deepened the despair as we realised that many of the fires were deliberately lit, as people looted and stole property of those evacuated from home and business, and in the greed of those who impersonated caring charities and stole donations from well-meaning people.
The metaphor of darkness is pervasive, and I feel its cold tentacles seeping into the recesses of human life and experience across our society. There is the dark side of life that shatters our normality through grief with its long and dark shadow that overwhelms us. The grief of loss, the shattering of our secure and comfortable lives in various ways that rocks our foundations and blocks out light and hope as we are forced to renegotiate who we are and how we live and be in a world that is suddenly so different. There is darkness in poverty as people are caught in cycles that are desperate and run out of control. The powers that be are often part of the problem, imposing restrictions and barriers to people trying to get out of life-denying oppression. Illness, mental health issues, disability or life in minority groups brings obstacles that can darken the experience of human life and deny freedom and hope.
In two readings this week (Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23), we hear stories of hope, light and a courageous response to the powers and principalities of the world. Isaiah claims that people living in darkness have seen a great light. He speaks of one who comes and leads or rules with a different order, a different way, one that is grounded in hope, justice, peace and inclusion. It is a Reign promised time and again and yearned for in every human heart. It is a Light that penetrates through the darkness of human despair, of rampant injustice, and of hopeless desperation. Matthew continues the story of Jesus following his temptations in the wilderness. These temptations are essentially about conformity to the ways of those who are powerful, wealthy and create the story that is seductive but superficial, a story that draws people in and maintains the world as it is – dark. It becomes easier to walk in the darkness, our eyes adjust to the dimness and even become comfortable with the way things are. Sometimes it is just too hard to summon the energy to resist, even if we have the vision and desire.
Jesus proclaims that the Reign of God is here and calls us to turn around, reorient life and hope, desire and being towards this Light that shines. I confess that this Light can be discomforting and hurt our eyes – and being. It calls forth something new and uncertain from us. It challenges me to choose a way of giving up in order to find life in a deeper, richer fullness. This Reign doesn’t mince its words nor deceive through superficial and seductive words. This is no snake-oil salesman but one who is desperately pointing the way to life – for those who have the courage, the wisdom and/or the desperation to follow.
Jesus invites some fishermen to come and follow this way. Fishermen were near the bottom of the social order. They were caught up in a system dominated by the Empire, the powers of Rome, who controlled the waters of the lake in Galilee – all the fish belonged to Rome and high taxes were imposed upon the fishermen. This was their life, their way and it was hard and desperate, but they conformed to the world order because, well there was no choice! Jesus’ invitation was to come and follow his way; to leave their fishing and discover a new way on the road. This is both real and metaphorical – some leave normality of life and ‘go on the road’. Many others will maintain their lives but understand who and what they live for and where their loyalties lie. We will not be governed by economics and our own needs. We will not be seduced by the rhetoric of desperate leaders or marketers who want us to ‘need’ (and purchase) their products. Climate change/the environment, refugees, Aboriginal Australia, budget surpluses, caring for poor and marginalised, inclusive community that respects people, militarisation and many more are the central issues that define whether we follow the status quo that denies life to so many and holds to unjust and often violent structures, or follow a new and different way that ushers in peace, hope, love and life – for all!
Jesus’ invitation is to fish for people, which in the Biblical tradition is about exposing people to a new way, to bring into an uncomfortable ‘new world’ of Light that is challenging but hopeful and liberating. I wonder what this means for us on Australia Day? I wonder what it would mean for us to choose this radically different way for our nation?