Ivan was the greatest Archer in all Russia. No man exceeded him in flare
or accuracy. He was master of the Tsar's archers and travelled the length
and breadth of Russia competing in tournaments and looking for talented
recruits to his Majesty's service.
One night, when travelling across the Steppes, he sought refuge at an
old farmhouse. The old man took his horse to the stable and his wife took
his pack to his room. And while Ivan waited for the evening meal, he strolled
around the farm in the twilight and wandered aimlessly into a barn. And
there he met a sight that astonished him more than any wonder he had ever
seen on his travels. The back of the barn was covered in targets for archery
practise. And as he looked closer he saw that every target had been hit
consistently in the bullseye, not just in the bullseye, but in the dead
centre of every bullseye. Nowhere in all Russia had he seen such accuracy.
He ran out of the barn to find the old man. "Old man, tell me, who
practises archery in your barn."
"Ah, that will be my son, Vasily".
"You must bring him to me."
So the old man brought young Vasily and presented him to Ivan. Ivan looked
him in the eye. "Did you fire the arrows that hit those targets in
"Never have I seen such skill. You must show me how you do it."
So Vasily took Ivan back into the barn and picked up his bow. "The
first thing" said Vasily, "is to make sure you have a good bow.
You need just the right sort of wood, not brittle, but not too elastic."
"Yes," said Ivan, "this I know. What else?"
"Then you string the bow to just the right tension. Too loose and
it will not fly. Too tight and you will not be able to control it."
"Yes," said Ivan, "this I know too. What else?"
"Then," said Vasily, "you pick your arrow. It must be strong,
straight and true."
"But," said Ivan, "all this I know. Every archer does the
same, but what is your secret?"
"Well, I relax, I raise the bow and arrow until I can see straight
down the arrow and I focus on the target. Then I raise the bow to the
required height and look down the shaft and I invest my whole self into
the arrow - my body, my soul, my will - and I let fly
and then, I
go to where the arrow lands and I paint a target around it."
Matthew, the gospel writer, employs a technique not dissimilar to that
of Vasily, the boy archer. This liturgical year, we will be working our
way through Matthew's gospel (it will be rather disrupted because we keep
breaking off for things like Lent and Easter, but essentially it will
be Matthew taking us on our journey through Jesus' life this year). And
one of the distinctive characteristics of Matthew's gospel is that he
is most anxious to make the links between the Old Testament and the life
of Jesus abundantly clear, so that the arrow fired in the Old Testament,
lands squarely in the centre of the target and Jesus turns out to be the
target of each arrow.
And so one of Matthew's favourite phrases is "all this happened so
that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled
That is his way of painting the target around the arrows to show that
this is what the Old Testament was aiming at.
And I have to be honest. Sometimes, Matthew over eggs the pudding and
he treats the Old Testament in a way that would turn the hair of any self-respecting
Old Testament scholar. Take for example, the flight into Egypt just after
the visit of the Magi. Matthew says "This was to fulfil what had
been spoken through the prophet, 'Out of Egypt I have called my son.'"
Matthew knows full well that that quotation from the prophet Hosea refers
to God rescuing Israel from the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus. There
was no intention at all on the part of Hosea to refer to the coming Messiah.
It is not what a prudent biblical scholar would call a Messianic prophecy
at all. So why is he doing this?
Because for Matthew, Jesus makes sense of all our stories and everything
in all creation points to him. And his purpose is to point us continually
towards Jesus as the fulfilment of every aspect of our existence. All
our stories, individually and collectively, find their ultimate destination
in Jesus. Wherever the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune land for
us, Matthew wants to paint the target of Jesus around it and show that
it's not just chance, it's not just wild coincidence or chaos at work,
it's God's purposes being worked out and reaching their climax in Jesus.
Everything points to Jesus.
Now, in today's gospel passage, we catch Matthew at it red-handed. He
refers to another Old Testament prophecy, this time from Isaiah chapter
9 [and our lectionary compilers have kindly provided it for us as our
Old Testament reading today]. This time it is a Messianic prophecy - a
description of what life will be like for us when the Messiah finally
comes. But his reference to Galilee is to show that God's light will shine
even to the very edges of the Promised Land. It is not, as Matthew suggests,
a test for recognising the Messiah - as though we will recognise the Messiah
because he will begin his ministry in Galilee.
And yet, Matthew's use of the Old Testament in this way, has very much
the same effect on us as Vasily's arrow-marks had on Ivan the Archer.
It shows how Jesus didn't just hit the target, but he hit the very dead
centre of the bullseye. Because Jesus fulfils the prophecy perfectly,
but in a completely unexpected way.
Read Isaiah 9 with no knowledge of Matthew, and you would naturally assume
that the Messiah would be a political figure operating from Jerusalem,
but doing such a good job that his light radiates out even across the
rebels Samaria up as far as the outpost of Galilee (the trouble spots
where the Messiah's light is most needed). Read Matthew and you realise
that the Messiah starts in the trouble spots, bringing the light where
it is most needed first and then works his way to the centre. The light
comes first to the people who sit in the deepest darkness, in the very
shadow of death and they respond spectacularly. It wasn't what Isaiah
meant, and yet Jesus fulfils his prophecy far more comprehensively than
he could ever have imagined and it makes an immediate and transformational
impact on the lives of the people for whom Isaiah's prophecy was intended.
Look at it Matthew's way and the arrow hits the dead centre of the bullseye.
And we see its impact of this prophecy in the episode that follows. Jesus
calls four fishermen, Simon & Andrew, James & John and immediately
they leave their nets and follow him. What makes them do it? You can't
help asking that question can you? There's no introduction, no background,
no explanation, nothing. Matthew implies that they may have heard Jesus
say "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near", but apart
from that, all Jesus says is "Follow me, and I will make you fishers
of men" [or "for people"]. That's it. And they up sticks,
leave behind everything they know - business, family and home - and follow.
Because the crucial point Matthew wants us to grasp is that it's Jesus
that transforms them. Nothing else. We cannot point to any other reason
for them to leave their nets. There's no hint of socio-economic conditions
or psychological influences or political motivation. Jesus, himself, is
the only thing that transforms them. Hearing his voice addressing them
personally answers the deepest desire of their hearts and they are compelled
to follow. They suddenly realise that Jesus is the target for slings and
arrows of their lives and they fly to him.
Now how does all this relate to us? Well, in two ways:
1. Jesus is the target for our lives. Matthew wants to paint the target
of Jesus around all the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune may
throw at us. Jesus' voice answers the deepest desire of our hearts, as
anyone who has heard it will testify. Jesus is the answer and the one
who will transforms us if only we can stop and listen to his voice calling
us and follow him.
2. Jesus is the target for everyone's lives and we are called to call
everyone else to hear his voice for themselves, so that they too might
find their destiny in Jesus. Matthew's gospel is the most inclusive of
all the gospels. He makes the gospel accessible to Jews who know their
bibles and to Gentiles who do not. He consciously includes stories of
Jesus reaching out to outsiders and sinners and he deliberately (and shockingly
for his day) gives prominence to women, putting them in positions normally
reserved for men. Jesus, Matthew is telling us, is the target for everyone's
lives. And we are called to recognise this for ourselves and then to help
others to see it for themselves, by painting the target of Jesus around
the arrows of the lives of our friends and neighbours and family - wherever
those arrows may land.
Bishop James was talking about this last night as he unveiled his vision
for our Diocese over the next 10 years. His vision is one in which the
church will begin to grow and we will put behind us all the long years
of talking about decline. But his vision, clever as it was, was not really
his own. He was just copying Matthew. +James said that discipleship is
a key requirement for growth - you and I hearing Jesus' voice, following
him and being transformed by him as a result. And +James then said that,
in our outreach, we need to interpret what God is already doing in people's
lives. Do you see? We need to paint the target of Jesus around where their
arrows land, to show that their stories lead to Jesus in a far more wonderful
and perfect way than they could ever have imagined.
And I believe that the key to all of this is Jesus' voice. We need to
take time ourselves to hear Jesus' voice. And that means reading the gospel
continually. I guarantee that you will never get bored of reading the
gospel, because Jesus' words are miraculously life-giving and there is
always more to discover and take to heart. It also means praying and taking
time to listen. Jesus has left us his Holy Spirit - we all received him
at baptism and he speaks to us continually - Jesus' voice spoken straight
into our lives. All we need to do is stop and listen - then follow.
And then, when we take the gospel out to others, Jesus voice remains the
key. The easiest way to talk to your friends and neighbours about Jesus
is to let Jesus do the talking. Familiarise yourself with his sayings
and his parables and use them. There is a parable for pretty much every
episode of human existence and after a while, it becomes the easiest thing
in the world, when a friend or neighbour presents a problem, to tell them
one of Jesus' stories. Let Jesus speak for himself. I know some of us
will feel about uncomfortable about that, as though we're being super
religious and people will think we're being pious, but I suspect that's
our own lack of confidence speaking. If they know that we're Christians,
in reality, they're probably wondering why we have so little to say about
it. When they're struggling, they may well be desperate to know what it
is that sustains us through difficult times and the answer is Jesus isn't
it? So why not let him do the talking on those occasions?
Now between Epiphany and Lent this year, David Jones and I are going to
try to help you by preaching on Jesus' parables, helping us to re-engage
with Jesus' voice and to find a way to let him do the talking. But don't
wait until then, because Jesus is calling us today. So why not respond
today? Dust down your bibles, open them at the gospels and start reading
and praying and see how the target of Jesus is painted around every arrow
of our lives. Amen.
Preached: Cliburn, Great Strickland and Bolton, 23 January 2011