The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. What Isaiah dreamt of has become real for Paul.
Isaiah (in his or her several guises) is a truly great poet! We may have grown so familiar with this passage that it makes little impact upon us. How did it strike his first audiences? He invites them to stand in the unfolding dialogue between God and his people and experience its power as he does. So, he draws them into a future dawning: ‘in days to come he (the Lord) will confer glory on the Way of the Sea on the far side of Jordan, province of the nations. The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light.’ He speaks of light, an increase of joy like that at harvest time, as those dividing spoils, as slaves freed, as men and women liberated. What causes this unimaginable joy? It is to be found in the divine-human presence to each other: ‘they rejoice in your presence’.
Paul catches the same spirit of universality and equality in his attempts to soothe the quarrelsome Corinthians. Factions and differences must fall away for the sake of Jesus the Christ and in the light of the preaching of the Good News. What Isaiah dreamt of has become real for Paul in the crucifixion of Jesus. The old parameters of the Divine-human conversation have been shattered by the cross. Now there are no real divisions, factions, differences – all peoples of all nations can be united in Jesus at long last.
We are invited by Matthew to turn to the culmination of the dialogue in a particular man in a particular place and time: ‘Jesus went back to Galilee.’ Matthew consciously links this to the passage in Isaiah and says it is being fulfilled. This is unimaginable! But this is precisely the case made out by the New Testament authors in the light of what they experienced about Jesus the man.
So, Matthew records that this man asked people to repent, to turn round. He walked by this sea and called these followers. Matthew does this in some detail, with names and occupations (casting nets from the shore, in boats with their father). At the centre is the claim that Jesus says that the “kingdom of heaven is close at hand”. But the Divine-human dialogue has gone on for centuries and has never come to earth in the voice of someone cutting through earth to bring heaven close! Then Matthew fills in the effects: the disciples leave everything to follow him, the man who teaches, proclaims the Good News of the kingdom, cures diseases and sickness. Something very odd is going on. Of course, after the death of Jesus, Matthew writes in the shadow of the community’s experience of the resurrection of this man. He reads back into the stories the realisation of the underlying meaning – but that does not invalidate anything.
So the Divine Dialoguer has arrived, and we can recognise God – in a human face, and after that, realise God in every human face! Ever been freed from prison, released from slavery, harvested the crops, divided spoils of victory, been overwhelmed by joy, seen a great light shining in a national darkness? They had. Their experience created the writings of the New Testament and Christianity. Was it ever meant to be confined to a chosen few? No – it was as Isaiah and Paul and Jesus intended – to be shared by every person who has ever lived. That Christianity has become one among many religions does not negate the vision. God rests in the hearts of all, in the divine to be found in all religions and visions of the good. Heart talks to heart – all hearts.