Light Has Dawned in the Land of Darkness
“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 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 a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:1-2).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
With the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus relocates to Capernaum on the sea of Galilee. It’s the north country, despised by the Judeans in the south, the ancient equivalent of what the political elite today call “flyover country.” It was once some of the most beautiful, fertile land in the region, but by Jesus’ day, it had been decimated by centuries of warfare. Time and again, foreign kings had invaded Israel from the north, making Zebulun and Naphtali their first victims.
In the past, too, the kingdom of Israel had split, and so these northerners were cut off from the temple, the place of God’s presence. Not noted for their extreme faithfulness anyway, the distance just made it that much easier to forget to worship the Lord. So, by Isaiah’s day, the end was near. The Assyrian empire was growing, expanding—and the northern kingdom was a sitting duck. It was only a matter of time until the bloodthirsty Assyrians came to Israel; and a look at the map showed how they would gain entry. Naphtali and Zebulun were living in the shadow of death, because the Assyrians were not known for mercy.
And so, it happened that the northern kingdom fell, and the ten tribes—including Zebulun and Naphtali—were taken into captivity, never to be heard from again. Over the years, boundaries shifted and others populated the area. The Babylonians ousted the Assyrians. Alexander the Great came in and chased out the Babylonians. At his death, his kingdom was divided among four of his generals.
By the time of Jesus’ ministry, it was the northern area of Galilee; and because of its diverse population, it was well described as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” The once fertile land was now mostly desert, and the people had again suffered at the hand of foreign armies; for once again looking at the map, it’s not difficult to figure how the Romans entered Galilee and Judea.
The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, land of darkness and death. It’s not the location that you or I would probably have chosen to start a movement, much less a religion, but then we’re not in charge here. The kingdom of heaven is flipped upside down from the kingdoms of this world. It works bottom up rather than top down. The last are first. Those who walk in darkness get to see the dawning light first. It reminds us that God works by mercy not merit, and that Jesus’ mission is not simply to the salvageable religious of Israel, but the entire world, to Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised. And so, Galilee is ground zero, and Capernaum, a little fishing village, is headquarters.
But it shouldn’t be so surprising. Isaiah foretold it centuries before. Nothing is accidental or incidental when it comes to Jesus. All of this happens “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet.” The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, despised, rejected, the first to fall, on them the light has dawned. That’s the wonder of it—God’s kingdom falls upon the least and the lost and the little. What the world calls insignificant and irrelevant—“the deplorables.”
Which is Good News for you and me today. Here we are at little St. John’s/Trinity/Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Trosky/Jasper/Pipestone, Minnesota. Flyover country, even by Minnesota standards if you would ask anyone near the Twin Cities. Small town, rural congregations trying hold on in a region that has its share of economic, sociological, and demographic challenges, too. Living in a land of darkness, the shadow of death hanging over us as well.
Now, we can talk about the dangers of living in Zebulun and Naphtali all we want; the truth is, though, that no matter how dangerous it seemed back there, back then, they experienced the same mortality rate that we do in the civilized United States of America, and indeed in all the world. No matter how much we want to sanitize and shield, the truth is that we also dwell in death’s shadow: Tornadoes, terrorist attacks, stroke, heart attack, cancer, the car that runs the red light.
Along with all those threats that society does its darnedest to prevent, cure, or eliminate, there are plenty of ways that man has sought to befriend death and reject life. This last week marked the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which determined that the shadow of death could reach into the womb as a matter of convenience. Such contempt for the helpless unborn can only lead to contempt for the helpless outside of the womb. Physician assisted suicide is already legal in five states and efforts for similar legislation are underway in many others. And it’s no coincidence that as life is devalued we have higher rates of violence and murder.
And these deal only with physical death. Remember our Lord’s warning: Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. These many participations of man in physical death are simply symptoms of the greater problem: those who reject the Lord’s grace are already dead in their trespasses, and it is only inevitable that those who reject God will seek death as a helper, a solace, a friend.
In such a dark world, it is easy to become discouraged. It’s even easier when it gets personal. The evening news can be enough to depress, when the shadow of death darkens the lives of people halfway around the world. But sooner or later, death casts its shadow onto your life, too. The onslaught of disease, the loss of a friend, or the near miss reminds you that your greatest enemy stalks you, too. It’s easy to be discouraged, even despairing. That’s why, even as our society does its best to ignore death or embrace it as a solution, it is full of desperate, despairing people. But you need not despair, for God’s Word remains: “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.” Death seems omnipresent, but the Lord is far more so; He has defeated this enemy and risen again, and through His Word He makes sure that His light shines upon those who sits in darkness.
And what is this message that brings light in the land of darkness? The same one that Jesus preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Repent? That seems such a negative word, and it is when repentance is viewed as our work. But in reality, repentance is not our work, rather God’s gift that He grants where His Word does its work. Repent is a command and carries with it the power to do what is required. In other words, “be sorry for your sins and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness that He gives.”
Are you having some difficulty seeing your sins? Here, let the light of the Word shine a bit brighter that you may behold Him who knows all thoughts, hears all words, and sees all deeds. Let the light of God’s Law expose those dark areas of your life of which you are unaware or of which you prefer to remain secret.
Are you having some difficulty seeing your Savior? Here, let the Light of the Word shine a little brighter that you may behold Him Who has taken all your sins upon Himself. Watch Jesus walk from the land of Zebulun to the place of the skull with the sins of the world cast upon Him… where the payment for all sins is paid. Behold the Light of a new day when the disciples of the Lord are shown the empty Easter tomb. To believe that Jesus died for you and to trust that He rose again from the dead, well that, dear friends, is living in the Light.
Jesus stands in Galilee and declares that in Himself, in Christ, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. But remember this, Jesus can be present and the kingdom of heaven at hand, and yet this does not guarantee that everyone present is a member of the kingdom. There were many people in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali who were visited by Jesus but did not believe in Him. They remained in the darkness.
Perhaps another way of saying this might be helpful. The kingdom has come and, indeed comes of itself, but we pray that it may come to us also. How is this done? “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” That, dear people of the Lord is living in the Light.”
While this might seem a natural place to end this sermon, still a point needs to be made and applied to you and me. In relating the events of the descendants of Zebulun and Naphtali, we were reminded that while the Lord remains faithful, His people are, all too often, faithless. Children are not taught the Word by their fathers who are called to be heads of the families. Mothers, in the weariness of the life of this world and the inevitable disappointment, too often neglect their duty of telling the faith to their sons and daughters. So grandchildren grow up with bits and pieces of God’s Word, and great-grandchildren die without knowing Jesus.
Mission work begins at home… in your house and in this House. It begins with you and me in our families and in this family called St. John’s/Trinity/Our Saviour’s, and it involves the stewardship of the Gospel with which we are entrusted. We are called to tell the story of the Light of the world and to share that Good News wherever and whenever we have opportunity. That Light extends beyond the walls of our homes and this Home, and goes to the ends of the earth. Indeed, we pray dearest Jesus, that we, our children, and others who are far off might not be living in the land of darkness, but living in the Light.
Light has dawned in the land of darkness. Your enemies—sin, death, and Satan—have been defeated. The yoke of sin’s burden has been broken. Christ has suffered the rod and staff of God’s discipline in your place. For His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.