January 23, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“And Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”
Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord had made a bold statement of promise. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, the northernmost tribal areas of Israel, would be places of joy and glory: “But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time He brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and 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 promise was bold, because these were territories conquered by the Assyrian Empire in the mid-Eighth Century BC. As the people of the Northern Kingdom apostasized and abandoned their covenantal identity, they would suffer the consequences. The Assyrian invasion was one such result.
With their status lost and being under the oppressive governance of a foreign empire, the lands of Zebulun and Napthali dwelt in gloom. They had been brought to nothing, humbled by their conquerors. The loss of their promised lands brought these people to great sorrow and contrition. But this is exactly where the bold statement of promise comes in: the Lord had not forgotten them. He would act for their benefit. And the promise of future action came to the tribes who would be exiled: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. You have multiplied the nation; You have increased its joy; they rejoice before You as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, You have broken as on the day of Midian.”
For centuries, the people of Zebulun and Naphtali awaited the fulfillment of this prophecy. It came true in part, with the fall of the Assyrian Empire and the convoluted political developments through the decades. Descendants of the exiles would return to their ancestral homelands. But even then, there would be foreign entities exerting control over them: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. The Lord’s fulfillment of His bold statement of promise would be much more than a political liberation by an earthly ruler, but the arrival of the Christ Himself.
This is what the Gospel-Writer Matthew makes known in his account, as you heard this morning: “Now when [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, He 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: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the seas, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—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 appearance of Jesus—the One who was baptized in the Jordan and confirmed to be the Lord’s beloved Son—marks the fulfillment of the bold statement of promise.
But how does Jesus fulfill it? Matthew tells you: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Jesus brings a new order, a new rule into creation, even to those who were governed by worldly pagan and impious rulers, such as Herod Antipas. With the appearance of Christ, the kingdom of heaven is present in the world. He begins an agenda of liberation. But this is not a political rebellion. No, it is a program of conquest against all that afflicts and oppresses humanity, physical and spiritual.
Matthew describes this program of conquest: “And [Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So His fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought Him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and He healed them.” Jesus finds those who are oppressed and afflicted in body and soul, and He brings restoration and deliverance to them. It is part of the light that He brings to their gloom.
The new order that Jesus brings into the world is more than healing. It is wrapped up in the message that He proclaims: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And that kingdom is truly brought into the world in the actions that Jesus executes to bring salvation: His dying in place of sinful humanity and rising again to conquer humanity’s great enemies. This is what fulfills the bold statement of promise: “for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” This is how Jesus’ work is applicable to you. The message that Jesus brings is meant for Zebulun and Naphtali, it will be for all who believe that He can truly dispel the gloom that lingers over all mankind. It is exactly what the Apostle Paul declares: “The word of cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
So not only does Jesus go around acting alone on the behalf of people, He also brings others along to become part of this regime that He is instituting: “While walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. And going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed Him.”
These men are incorporated into the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is bringing. They will be part of the way that the light Jesus brings would be extended to more regions of gloom. As “fishers of men,” these disciples would be sent out to make other men and women of all nations be citizens of the heavenly kingdom—through baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to keep everything that Jesus commanded them.
You are people who are “dwelling in darkness . . . those dwelling in the region and shadow of death.” That is the reality of life in this world. It is not limited to the experiences of Zebulun and Naphtali. What Isaiah described is not simply and effect of being exiled by foreign entities or living under their political oppression. It is a valid description of your situation. There is gloom in this world, in your lives. Every time that sinfulness manifests itself, as imperfection is made known in reality, that gloom arises. Who doesn’t lament over the disasters that sin causes in their lives: broken homes and failed relationships, disease and illness, prevailing mindsets of cynicism and suspicion, betrayal and doubt, death and destruction. These are what oppress and afflict you. And worse than that, they are what you impose on others, as you become agents of misery and pain by what you do.
You have been brought into contempt; you help to bring others into it. You have been brought to nothing. You are not born with any privileged status. No, all mankind is subject to this affliction and oppression that have their source in another entity—Satan, his minions, and his deceptions. The situation you live in fits the description the psalmist gave of his own life: “Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation! For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in. Teach me Your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.”
Yet, the new situation that Jesus brings also stands true: “He will hide me in His shelter in the day of trouble; He will conceal me under the cover of His tent; He will lift me high upon a rock. . . . I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” You are like the people of Zebulun and Naphtali. And the promise spoken to them is spoken to you by the same Jesus who fulfills it: “There will be no gloom for her who was in anguish.” His light comes into your region and shadow of death. The yoke of your burden, the staff for your shoulder, the rod of your oppressor, He has broken. It was broken in His resurrection and as you were made participants of it in your baptisms. When you step back under that oppression, Jesus’ work is present in absolution to break it again. As the shadows of death and the clouds of gloom enter your life again, Jesus extends His pledge that He has saved you and given you everlasting life in His Supper. In these ways, the light of Jesus continues to shine in your darkness.
Because you have the light of Jesus here for you, you can survive in earthly life, the region of darkness and the shadow of death. The kingdom of heaven is at hand for you. You have been incorporated into it, made part of Christ’s rule and dominion. He is a strong and powerful deliverer for you. So you may pray like the psalmist did: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.”
The psalmist’s confident prayer is made yours because what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah has been fulfilled: “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.” It was fulfilled in Christ’s mission of conquest: “And Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” And even more, the bold statement of promise was fulfilled to you in Jesus’ dying and rising again, so that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” So it is for you who part of the kingdom of heaven that is at hand, even here where Christ’s gospel of the kingdom is found and where your sin is forgiven.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.