Monday, January 27, 2014

Sermon on Isaiah 9:1-4 & Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25, for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, "The Light Shines in the Darkness"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. A few weeks ago we heard how Jesus began His public ministry with His baptism in the Jordan River. Immediately after that, Matthew 4 records Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the wilderness, and then our reading today begins. So today we hear Jesus’ first public words of teaching, as He embarks on His ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And Matthew ties Jesus’ teaching debut in with the prophecy we heard in Isaiah 9. He highlights where Jesus began His ministry—in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali—two rather insignificant tribes at the northern border of Israel. The prophecy said: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, 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.” (Matthew 4:15–16, ESV) And Isaiah describes this region having been clouded by gloom and anguish, and that the land had formerly been in contempt.
So what’s so significant about the location where Jesus began His ministry? What was the story of these people living in anguish and darkness, near the Sea of Galilee? Being a border region, the people of this territory had repeatedly suffered the humiliation and defeat of war. Going back generations in their history, they had suffered defeat at the hand of the Syrians, north of their border, and some generations later, they were crushed and deported into exile by the dreaded Assyrian empire. Their little corner of Israel had been the first to fall, still some years before all of Northern Israel was defeated and exiled. Worst of all, they’d brought this evil down on their own heads through godless leadership, turning away from God and His Word, and trusting occult practices to learn their future or seek guidance. And the darkness of warfare and foreign oppression would hang over them for generations, as one by one different world superpowers swept over their land and power changed hands, but never returned to them.
So what is so significant about the location where Jesus began His ministry, was that He planted Himself in the very heart of the most discouraged, down-trodden, and seemingly God-forsaken region of the country. The place where people dwelt in darkness and in the shadow of death. I wonder if it was the kind of place where people were cynical toward hearing any good news, much less hoping for the Messiah, the Promised One. Every country, and every state has it’s regions like this—not only the places where war struck, but the ghettoes and slums, the places where poverty, street gangs, and drugs hang over the community like a dark cloud. Or alternatively prisons or various institutions for the physically or mentally afflicted, can also be places of loneliness and darkness. And while the “collected despair” of such places may seem more obvious, we should also remember that individuals and families also can experience isolated despair and darkness. My point is not that Galilee faced the same kind or depths of despair, but that Jesus could easily have focused His ministry where life was lighter, safer and easier. The kind of places that would never be the butt end of jokes, and where nobody would say, “Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46)
But if that were so, if Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of heaven only among the posh, comfortable upper-class, then how easy would it have been for those suffering real trials, anguish, and difficulty to write His message off? How easy for cynics and skeptics to dismiss Jesus’ message as “fine for them”, but “not for me”? But Jesus was unveiling the kingdom of heaven, right in the midst of suffering, oppression, and affliction. In the midst of “Galilee of the Gentiles”—the mixed neighborhood of discouraged Jews who didn’t get along with the Gentile settlers who lived all through former Israelite lands—especially Galilee and the Decapolis. It was here that Jesus shone His light into the darkness that hung over the land. Just like we heard last week in Isaiah 49, God was not just assigning Jesus an easy task, but was going to send Him as a Light for all the nations, to the end of the earth. He expected great glory from His Son.
From Isaiah’s prophecy that the Lord would remove the yoke, staff, and rod of their oppressor, this may have sounded to the Jews like the restoring of the kingdom of Israel on earth, and driving out the foreigners. But Jesus came, not proclaiming a kingdom of earth, but the kingdom of heaven. And to prepare for it by repenting! Turn away from sins! He identified the problem not first of all as political oppression, or who is in power—but Jesus identified their greatest problem as sin. Sin is the root cause beneath all the various forms of darkness that bring gloom upon mankind. The Bible tells us that sin brought “the curse” onto the world, and all the disease, physical, mental, and spiritual afflictions are the outcome of our sin and rebellion against God. When the apostle Paul spoke about why God sent Him to the Gentiles, he said it was to “open their eyes, so that they might turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Jesus]” (Acts 26:18).
Darkness in the Bible, is not only physical, but also spiritual, and describes the enmity between Satan and God. Jesus’ message opens our eyes, and turns us from darkness to light by the forgiveness of sins and faith in Him. Jesus said that “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:46). Jesus, is the Light shining in the darkness, the Light that dawned on those dwelling in the region and shadow of death. And His light brought glory, joy, and gladness to that seemingly God-forsaken land of Galilee. God alone clearly sees the way in the darkness, to lead us out of it, because as Scripture says, “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” (Psalm 139:12, ESV)
As I struck on this note last week, and after Christmas, Christians have the great privilege of bringing Christ’s light into the darkness. We see both how Jesus intentionally targeted the region that had suffered the greatest darkness in Israel. But not only that, but the end of our Gospel reading shows people pouring out of Galilee, of foreign Syria, out of the Gentile Decapolis, and Jewish Jerusalem and Judea. They poured out to see Jesus, and to bring Him “all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and He healed them.” In other words, they brought people who were in darkness, to Jesus, the Light. And while Jesus’ highest concern was for our spiritual condition—to repent of sin and receive His forgiveness—He did not limit His care to these spiritual needs, but cared for the whole person, in their physical and mental afflictions as well. Because the spiritual gifts of forgiveness of sins and salvation have transforming effects that spill over into our physical life as well. To say that Jesus first concern was spiritual, was not to say He ignored this life.
Are we aware of the darkness around us? Is our own life shrouded in darkness or gloom, so that we need the forgiveness of Jesus to shine in on us, and lead us to faith in Him, so we don’t remain in darkness? Do we see those who are in darkness around us? Those who have never seen Jesus’ Light and God’s love? Those who Paul describes in Ephesians 4, as being “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” (Ephesians 4:18–19, ESV) Wherever the darkness of sin and death and their effects hang over people, there the Gospel light is needed. Jesus’ light thaws hardened hearts, cuts through the chains that imprison people in sin and guilt, and leads us in His way of freedom. And whether we bring the Light of Jesus to them, or bring them to the Light of Jesus, His almighty power gives light, hope, and joy, and releases people from gloom and anguish.
For Jesus Christ Himself descended into the darkest depths of human despair and suffering. He willingly went forward to the anguish of the cross and the pitch darkness of the grave, so that by His death and resurrection, He might conquer sin and death for us. His rising from the dead, as the dawning of the light, brings eternal Light and hope for us. And this hope and increasing joy that Jesus gives is one that endures even through bleak times of physical, mental, and spiritual distress. It’s the victory that endures forever, the conquering of sin and death as our most feared enemies. When Jesus lifted the burdensome yoke from His people, it was to take our sins upon Himself, and give us His light and easy yoke. When Jesus guides us with His staff, it is as the Good and self-sacrificing Shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep. When Jesus “broke the rod of the oppressor”—it was not just liberating us from foreign enemies, but it was breaking the power of Satan so that we could be truly free.
The darkness may be all around us—but Jesus’ Light shines eternal. The darkness of sin and guilt may even lurk within us, but Christ casts the beams of His dawning light on our hearts to purify and cleanse us from all sin. Our human understanding may be darkened, and hearts hardened and cynical toward hope—but the True Light shines in the darkness so that we may believe in Jesus Christ and know real hope and lasting joy. Come Lord Jesus, shine on our hearts and illumine your Church! Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      What was the history of the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali (region of Galilee) that made this a place of gloom and anguish? 1 Kings 15:20; 2 Kings 15:29. Why was it significant that Jesus chose this location to establish His ministry and proclaim the kingdom of heaven? Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25.

2.      Where formerly this land had fallen into contempt, how was it going to be made glorious? What shows that this was not only for Jews, but also Gentiles? Isaiah 9:1; Matthew 24-25.

3.      What kind of gloom, anguish, or darkness do we find ourselves or other people in today? Or what is the cause of such darkness and anguish? Psalm 55; 107:9-16; Isaiah 59:1-13; Matthew 6:22-23; Acts 26:18; 1 John 2:8-11

4.      How does God bring light in our darkness? 2 Samuel 22:29; Luke 1:76-79; John 8:12; 12:46; 1 Peter 2:9-10. How can we bring light to those who are in darkness? Where do we see the darkness around us, and how can we be more aware of those who are suffering and need the light?

5.      How does the light of Jesus result in joy, gladness, and rejoicing? How can this be possible even when sometimes the physical causes of suffering remain? Matthew 11:28-30; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.

6.      Jesus Christ entered even the deepest darkness of death and the grave for us, so that His Light and salvation would set us free. Tell about how this brings joy and comfort to you. Now share that with someone who is in darkness!

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