Today we are looking at the readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 26, 2020. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; and Matthew 4:12-23. Today I’ll be focusing on the first two readings, in particular one verse from each.
First, Isaiah. This text sounds pretty familiar, because we heard a slightly longer version of it just a few weeks ago on Christmas Eve. But there is one line that always jumps out at me whenever I hear it:
“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.”Isaiah 9:2
I can never hear this verse without thinking about depression. I know this was not the prophet’s intention; he was writing not about individuals, but about a people. And the darkness he wrote about was not an individual melancholy, but a communal exile. And yet, it is hard not to think about my own sojourns in the land of deep darkness. I have never heard a more accurate description of what depression feels like: a “land of deep darkness.” When depression rears its head, that’s where I find myself. In darkness. Everything is dark, dim, smudged, and blurry. Nothing brings joy. Some things can bring brief amusement or distraction, but nothing is lasting. And nothing has any meaning. All the crisp, clear edges and distinct colors of daylight are muted beyond recognition. It’s like watching the newest, computer-generated, 3-D Imax movie on a 10-inch black and white TV made in 1960. And this darkness runs deep. Sometimes to the outside, it doesn’t even look like I’m sad. Because on the surface level, like I said, I can find some amusement. I have functional depression, which means that I am able to be productive while I am depressed. I don’t find myself stuck to my bed, though I may fall asleep at my desk. I don’t find myself unable to work on sermons and other projects, though I may find that my work is more distracted and less creative than usual. The darkness isn’t always smothering – it usually allows me to push through and get things done. Yet it runs deep. Because the amusement, the productivity, doesn’t reach my innermost parts. Deep down, the darkness is complete, like the inside of a cave. And it seems to take over everything. When I am depressed, I simply cannot remember what it’s like to feel any other way. It’s like I live here, and always have. All the happy memories I have are painted by the brush of depression, which makes sense: both the memories and the illness are both in my brain. It’s no wonder they interact like this.
So living with depression, at least for me, is indeed a land of deep darkness. Like a landscape painted in all different shades of black. And to hear Isaiah say that light has shined on people who knew this. To hear that people like me have seen a great light – that is hopeful. It’s no cure: I don’t know anyone who has said, “Then I started following Jesus, and I haven’t been depressed ever since!” But it’s hope. Hope that despite the feeling that I’ll never feel better again, maybe I will. Despite the feeling that I’m completely useless, maybe God has plans for me nonetheless. Inside a depression, it’s hard to really believe that I will ever “rejoice as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.” But I’m able to believe that maybe, maybe something will get better. Maybe.
The other verse that spoke to me today is the first verse of our second reading. Paul writes,
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you may be united in the same mind and the same purpose.1 Corinthians 1:10
Again, I hear something in this verse that isn’t there. I know that Paul is encouraging the people of Corinth to settle their disputes, and find a way to get along and do God’s will as one people. He’s talking about divisions among or between people. What I hear today, though, is a little different. I hear Paul saying, “Let there be no divisions within you, that you may be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” For some of us, divisions within our own minds can be devastating. People with multiple personality disorder quite literally are more than one person sharing a body. People with schizophrenia experience hallucinations so vivid that it can be next to impossible to determine where reality ends and the hallucination begins. Even for people like me, with garden-variety depression, there are the “dark voices” we hear that tell us terrible things about ourselves. For so many of us, in various ways, our minds are divided. There might be a way to share the message of Paul that speaks hope to people in these circumstances. For instance, Paul says, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” If Christ has not been divided, Paul says, then he was crucified for all of us, not just certain special ones. And that also means that Christ was crucified for the sake of all of the voices, the personalities, the parts of you that bounce around inside that hoary head of yours. Crucified so that you might, indeed, be united. Again, this is no cure. But it may be a sign that there is hope even for those of us for whom our own mind is often our greatest enemy. Christ can reconcile and redeem anything and anyone. Christ can even reconcile and redeem me, within my own inner turmoil.
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