It is too light a thing that you should be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation shall reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49.6)
Isaiah foretells the task and role of the expected Messiah. Not only was Jesus' task to call back to God the 'chosen 'people, the descendants of Jacob, but it would be to reach out to all the world's peoples, inviting us to share in his salvation, to be a part of his kingdom. Isaiah's theme of a light for the pagans had been echoed by the old man Simeon as he fulfilled his dream, seeing the infant Christ at the temple and knowing that here was God's chosen one. The Messiah's identity had been revealed to him by God.
John did not know Jesus when he first saw him. It was the message from God, confirmed by the sign of the Dove of the Holy Spirit that opened his eyes to the reality of Jesus' identity. 'Yes I have seen and I am the witness that he is the Chosen One of God.' John was not the light but sent to bear witness to the light. And as a result of that witness we are told that at least two of John's followers came to follow Jesus, the man John had called the 'Lamb of God.' One of these followers was Andrew, the brother of Simon-Peter. Andrew and his friend had already begun a spiritual quest when they became disciples of John the Baptist. But they did not stay with John. It was not enough, once they had been shown the Messiah, to continue to watch from a distance, relying on John for information about Jesus. They followed the Lord until he turned to them saying 'What do you want?' And in replying the two revealed their intentions in the title they used. 'Teacher', they called him. They were hungry to learn, staying with Jesus for the rest of the day, and returning the next day with Simon-Peter to become Jesus' disciples.
The passage from Isaiah is also quoted in the Acts of the Apostles (13.47), where Paul and Barnabus, having failed to convince some of the Jews of Antioch, first began preaching to the 'pagans', those who were not of the 'chosen people'. In drawing the attention of all who listened to them as they revealed the identity of Christ, the numbers of followers continued to grow. Paul, like Simeon and John, had had the identity of Jesus revealed to him, in his case dramatically on the Damascus road, and he began to put all the energy he had previously expended in the quest to stamp out the 'new cult' into bringing more and more people into the knowledge of the Gospel.
The witness of John was vital in the preparation of the first disciples. It was his role to prepare a way for the Lord, and through his witness the first of many started out on that highway, following 'the Chosen One of God'. The witness of Paul was also responsible for the conversion and recruitment of many thousands more, Jews and Pagans alike, setting them off on a road of discovery to grow in faith and to be nearer to the truth of the ultimate mystery which is God. John was not the light; he bore witness to the light. Paul had seen the light but he was not the light. The true light was, and is, Jesus Christ. In our own spiritual journeys we search for the light of Christ that will draw us closer to God. Christ, the way, the truth and the life. As our quest progresses we find that through our faith we begin to be open to God's revelation of that light. We begin to see bit by bit, the identity of Christ, and the unfolding of his message through prayer and meditation, through the example of those who try to live the way he taught and through reading the witness of the many people who devoted their lives to the pursuit of God, recorded in the Bible. And as we continue, through prayer, through scripture and through fellowship with other Christians, we will, like John or Paul, come to be carriers of the light to those around us.
But as Paul had discovered at Antioch the task of witnessing to the light was not straightforward or easy. When the Jews of that town refused to listen to the Gospel he preached his mind may have rested on a further quotation from Isaiah 49, thinking 'I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity', but taking comfort from the accompanying phrase 'yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with God.’ In fact in his letter to the Philippians (2.16), encouraging them for their witness he tells them 'you will shine in the world like bright stars because you are offering it the word of life.' continuing to say 'This would give me something to be proud of for the Day of Christ and would mean that I had not run in the race and exhausted myself for nothing.'
It is the strength of witness in Corinth that was celebrated by Paul in today's epistle reading. Just as Andrew and his friend had eagerly listened to their 'Teacher', learning from him and then bringing Peter and others to meet him, so the people of Corinth, through their 'teachers and preachers' were strengthened by the Holy Spirit who had enriched their lives and were 'called to take their place among all the saints everywhere who pray to our Lord Jesus Christ'. But later the letter draws attention to the way the people of Corinth had strayed from the teachings. Paul was worried that they were becoming divided. Later in that first chapter we find that the Church had begun to split into groups. 'I am for Paul, I am for Apollos, I am for Cephas' (Peter), and 'I am for Christ.' It seems as if, unlike Andrew and John, who receiving the witness of John left the Baptist and followed Jesus, some of these Corinthians were more comfortable staying with the witness than the reality. One thing Paul didn't want was to be worshipped instead of Christ, as had happened to the disciples at Lystra when Paul had healed a crippled man. (Acts 14.10-18). He knew that the role of a witness is to direct attention to the truth, that is the light of Christ, not to direct attention to himself.
And so we have heard about the revelation of Christ's identity to Simeon, to Paul and to John. We have heard about the reaction of Andrew, Peter and the disciples, and the reaction of the early churches of Antioch and Corinth. That's a nice little history lesson, the bit about spreading light to the pagans was very relevant then, there were, after all, rather a lot of them around. So what? What has it got to do with us now?
Is our own situation really so different from the early Corinthian Christians? We live in a Christian community which is surrounded by an increasingly secular society. All around us we encounter people who seem to have no interest in religion, in a spiritual quest, as well as many who do have a strong spiritual hunger, but do not consider the church to be the right place to pursue the search for meaning in their lives. Within our own faith we see many different denominations; baptist, Methodist, protestant, catholic, orthodox... and the list goes on. Each of these churches no doubt bears excellent witness to the Gospel message. People from all denominations have risen above the ordinary level of existence to show Christ's light in the good works and inspiration they give to others. But the church is witness to the light; it is not the light itself. I am convinced that Jesus does reveal himself to us through the fellowship we share, within our church, yes, as he promised to be there when two or three were gathered in his name, but also in our encounters with all those we meet, in the spirit of the parable of the sheep and the goats of Matthew 25. Having been set off on our quest largely through the witness of our Church, we must not lose sight of the object of that quest in the life and example of our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Just as we hear from Isaiah that the task of the servant was to 'restore the tribes of Jacob' to bring them back to God, the cause of Christian Unity asks us to centre ourselves, all our different denominations, once more on the truth of Christ, rather than the differences we have in the form of our witness. But just as the task of gathering the tribes was 'too light' and the messiah would open up God's message to all people, we must not confine our witness to Church, but 'shine as stars in the world' not being afraid to witness for our faith in our workplaces and everywhere we encounter people. God reveals himself to us through fellowship, through the scriptures, through prayer and daily experience. Not perhaps as dramatically as with John, Simeon and Paul. But like those first witnesses, if people like Andrew and the pagans of Antioch, come to us with a spiritual hunger, I hope we are able to help them start on a quest to discover for themselves the true identity and meaning of Jesus Christ, the light of the world.