How many of you think that life is better now in 2020 than it was say at the beginning of the millennium? Better than in your childhood? How many think that things are worse today than they once were; that looking back you feel things used to be better in the good old days?
As we digest news reports and discuss amongst ourselves over coffee at the garden centre or waiting our turn at the barbers, there is a tendency to be glass half empty; to dwell on all the bad news; on how we will be adversely affected by some change in government policy or a dictate of the county borough council than to reflect on the many improvements we have experienced during our lifetimes; the things that have improved our lives.
In my work and experience, I am very aware of the many problems our society faces today. The prevalence of illegal drugs with their pernicious effect on so many people’s lives, the pressures caused by social media especially for young people, the lack of social mobility, those caught in low pay with high housing costs, left high and dry by universal credit when they are made redundant or illness strikes. There are migrants and people traffickers, people living on the streets and caught up in modern slavery. Indeed, many older people have remarked to me how glad they are not to be bringing up children in today’s world.
It was therefore quite a shock to read the leading article in The Times on December 28th last. Headed ‘Reasons to be Cheerful 2010-2019’ it offered a catalogue of examples of how life is getting better for people in Britain and around the world. Statistics from the ‘Resolution Foundation’ think tank www.resolutionfoundation.org report levels of ‘life satisfaction’ in Britain being at the highest levels since records began. About 93% of Britons say that they are either ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ satisfied with their lives. Since March 2013, average life satisfaction in the UK has improved by 3.4 % and anxiety has decreased by 5.3%. Male suicide rates are the lowest on record, cancer survival rates have doubled, the young drink and smoke less, absolute poverty has fallen to 16% of the British population and our educational performance has risen in the last decade from 25th in the world to 14th. Our sports teams have achieved dazzling success in athletics, cycling, tennis, football, rugby and cricket.
Globally, life expectancy has risen from 69.9 in 2010 to 72.4 this year and in Africa, it has increased by 5 years over the last decade. Life expectancy in Asia is the same now as what it was in Europe 20 years ago. So, what’s not to like? ‘Things can only get better’ as D Ream sang for the Labour Party Victory in 1997.
But before we all get carried away, we do need to remember that like all newspapers, this article is selective in the statistics it uses. Indeed, a check on the Office for National Statistics website www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2018registrations seems to indicate a continued high level of suicide amongst men and that amongst women under 24 has risen considerably. While overall life satisfaction may have increased and poverty reduced, it does not feel like that for those having to resort to foodbanks. It can seem as though there is a pit into which a significant minority of the population has fallen that is very hard to escape from. Average figures can conveniently hide the troughs which can appear deeper than ever.
The other great omission from this article is the spiritual perspective. It concentrates entirely on physical indicators of well being such as life expectancy, levels of education and the feel-good factor. These may be easily understood and measured, but do we not believe that there is more to life? The prevalence and importance of religious experience across the world bears witness to a human spirit that looks beyond the material world to be truly satisfied. We will all have come across those brave souls who believe sincerely that the physical world is all that there is, that nothing exists beyond and once they die, they cease to exist. In world terms they are a minority and from my limited knowledge of humanist funerals, it is hard to find the language declaring death to be the end of that person.
Our gospel passage today centres on the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as recorded by Matthew. Having been tempted in the wilderness by the devil to sell himself short, Jesus heads for Galilee. Matthew wants us to be aware that Jesus fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah in our old testament reading today. He is preaching in the northern territories that long before had belonged to the old tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Familiar words follow: ‘the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light and for those who sat in the region of the shadow of death light has dawned.’ Matthew 4.15-16 after Isaiah 9.1-2) In its original context the darkness in the prophecy related to the fall of the northern kingdoms of Israel in the 8th century BC. But Matthew sees it as one of many pointers to the gospel of the Kingdom of God, taught and enacted by Jesus, as a great light shining in the darkness, dawning in a region of the shadow of death. At the time of Jesus, it was still a contested region with Jewish pockets in towns like Nazareth and Capernaum while all around lived a cosmopolitan mix of peoples. By relating this prophecy, Matthew hoped his Jewish readers in particular would begin to see in Jesus and the kingdom fresh hope and a further fulfilling of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Matthew goes on to relate how Jesus calls the first disciples, Simon and Andrew and James and John. They are to be ‘fishers of men’, to fish for people. They are called to leave their fishing nets and boats on the shore and instead go after people who might respond to the good news gospel and so be ‘caught’ for the kingdom. Our passage this morning ends with Matthew telling us how Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. In a multi ethic area, Jesus concentrates on his own Jewish people. The good news is proclaimed accompanied by the healing of sickness and disease. These special actions of God lend credibility to the good news message being preached.
So, our gospel reading today is all about the gospel being shared as light in the darkness. It is on the lips and in the actions of Jesus and will be taken forward by the disciples as they take up the role of fishers of people. What about today? As we have seen, our context is very mixed. For many of us, the material aspects of life, the feel-good factor just gets better and better even if we are reluctant to always admit it. By contrast, for a significant minority, things are not easy. There is darkness, even the shadow of death and average statistics from government sources and elsewhere can easily hide this human pain.
The good news of Jesus is for all peoples. However comfortable or otherwise life may be, sin, rebellion against God’s perfect will affects us all. We suffer its consequences at the hands of others and with our own guilt. In Christ alone lies the hope of redemption through the saving action of the cross and power of his resurrection. If life seems good to us, may that not blind us to our need to respond to that love of God offered in Christ. May it not blunt our concern that all should have the privilege of hearing and experiencing that gospel not least those who in our own society appear to sit in darkness.
Epiphany 3 26.01.2020