Matthew 4:12-25 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26, 2020
“Light for Zebulun and Napthtali”
If you know the story of Jacob, you know that he had a complicated family life. To make a long story short, Jacob had 12 sons and who knows how many daughters. Each son had a family of his own and over time, these 12 families become the 12 tribes of Israel. When Israel crosses the Jordan River into the Promised Land, each family draws a number out of a hat that determines which territory will be theirs. The family of Zebulun drew number 3, which was given a chunk of land just off of the Sea of Galilee (Jos 19:10-16).
The family of Naphtali drew number 6, which was a large parcel of land that occupied the entire western side of the Sea of Galilee and marked the northern border of Israel. Naphtali consisted of 12 cities, one of which was called Capernaum (Jos 19:32-39).
Then there comes a time in Israel’s history when the kings become so weak and corrupt that foreign nations begin to take advantage of her. The Assyrians invade from the north and take some of the territory and deport the Israelites to a foreign land and raise the Assyrian flag. And of course, that territory was the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali. You can read all about it in 2 Kings 15. It’s a dark and gloomy time to say the least.
This forms the background to the Old Testament lesson from book of Isaiah. “In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Isaiah prophesies that a great light will shatter the deep darkness in which the people of Zebulun and Naphtali live.
This is the same prophecy we’re used to hearing at Christmas, continuing with verse 6, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
The deliverance of the people of Zebulun and Naphtali – a light shining in the darkness – will come from a child – a child who is the son of Jacob and his descendants – the tribe of Judah – but who is also the Son of God.
And so it is that in Matthew 4 we hear, fresh from his victory over the devil in the wilderness, “[Jesus] withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.” Hundreds of years after Isaiah’s prophesy, Matthew announces its fulfillment in Jesus as he begins his ministry of healing and proclaiming the kingdom of God. Jesus comes to reclaim God’s creation. And in the person and work of Jesus God’s reign has broken into this dark and sinful world.
Wherever his people are dwelling in darkness, he comes with his light to make you his and set you free. To the one caught in the darkness of sin he comes. To the one dwelling in the land of the darkness of grief he comes. To the one suffering in the darkness of illness and disease he comes. To the one who is addicted and cannot get clean; to the one who is depressed and cannot get out of bed; and to the one who sits in prison and cannot escape his or her past or cannot shake their guilt – to all of these he comes.
It is to all of these and so many more that the Christ comes to when Matthew writes the Good News that “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
This great light comes with a simple message. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and “Follow me.” Repentance and following Jesus go hand in hand. First, Jesus calls people to repentance because the kingdom of heaven is as hand. In other words, the time to come to faith and repent of sin is now. Through the power of his Word Jesus calls all people to come into relationship with the one true God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We see this when he sits and eats with sinners. We see this as he tells the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son – how there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. Jesus first comes to the lost sheep of Israel and then the Gospel will go out to all people.
He then takes those who come to him in repentance and faith to be partners with him in mission to the world catching more and more into his net. First to Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew, he says, “Follow me…” Next, he calls another pair of brothers, James and John. They too leave everything behind and follow Jesus. These four along with eight others will be the ones who will carry his Word to all the nations, preaching the same message that he did, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
In fact, it is from them that you and I have heard the good news that Jesus Christ has come to us who dwell in the region and shadow of death and on us, his light has dawned. We are among the great catch of fish that these fishers of men have caught in their nets.
Yet the great light that calls us to follow him also tells us that we can’t follow him. Here’s what I mean. In the Gospel of John we have this interesting exchange with Jesus and Peter: Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times” (Jn 13:36-38).
The context for this, of course, is that Jesus is on his way to the cross. Satan has already entered Judas and he is on his way to betray Jesus as these words are spoken. When Peter says he will lay down his life for Jesus he thinks he can die to save him. You couldn’t have it any more backwards. Jesus goes to the cross. You can’t follow him there. Salvation is a work Jesus does alone. Our sin and darkness go with him, but we must stay behind. Jesus goes to the cross solo. There is nothing for us to do at Calvary, only something for us to believe and receive.
Now we can leave everything behind and follow Jesus in faith. Because there, from Calvary, we receive his light as he takes our darkness. Our guilt and shame he takes and in return he gives us his righteousness. In the face of pain, illness, disease, and grief we’re given hope. Sometimes the healing comes in this life or we wait in hope for the eternal healing to come when the kingdom of heaven comes in all its fullness and glory. For “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great” and “there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish.” Amen.