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Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 22, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve started to notice that the days are getting longer. The mornings are getting brighter. Every day since December 21 we’ve been adding light to our days – just a few seconds at first, and then a few minutes, until the increasing light becomes noticeable. Soon those extra minutes of light will become hours. By the time we get to the summer solstice on June 21, we’ll go from just under the 9 hours of light we have now to almost 16 hours of daylight. For those of us who are sensitive to the lack of light, this can’t come soon enough!
While the days are getting longer, while we are indeed getting more light, sometimes it doesn’t seem like it. We have added several minutes of light to our days since December 21, but there was at least one day this week where you couldn’t tell at all! The cloud cover was thick, and the whole day was shrouded in darkness.
This can’t help but have an impact on us. Not only is Seasonal Affective Disorder a real thing, but there is also a complex calculation people have used to determine the worst day of the year, the day when people are most likely to be in a funk, and lack of daylight is part of the equation. The calculation includes many factors, including the number of days since Christmas, the amount of debt people have (much of it from Christmas), and the day when it is most likely that people have broken their optimistic new year’s resolutions. Another big factor in the calculation is the weather and the amount of daylight. All these numbers are crunched together in an actual formula to determine the worst day of the year, at least in the northern hemisphere. Do you know when that day is this year? Tomorrow!
At times it seems like the darkness is winning. It seemed like that last week. It might seem like that tomorrow for many people. But make no mistake about it – it isn’t. That glorious, life-giving light is dawning a little more each day.
While they aren’t in the northern hemisphere, the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali are described in scripture as lands of deep darkness. They are described as places where the people sat in darkness. This is a region under a shadow, the shadow of death. This is how these places are described by the prophet Isaiah. This is how Matthew describes them, citing Isaiah’s words.
Zebulun and Naphtali are the names of the two tribes of Israel who originally lived there. They were way out on the far-flung northern border of Israel. These two tribes were far from the center of Jewish power in Jerusalem. They were always the first to be invaded and the farthest from help. They knew of wars and hardships and foreign rule more than any other tribes.
They were also surrounded by Gentiles, by non-Jews. And so Isaiah also calls this region “The Galilee of the Gentiles.” Some of the Jews in this area were influenced by their Gentile neighbors. They started to adopt some of their cultural practices. They drifted from the godly shape of life given to them by their Creator to the unbridled excesses of paganism. Some even started to turn away from the God of Israel to worship the gods of the Gentiles.
This was indeed a land of deep darkness and shadows. It was a land of strife and struggle and sin.
As Jesus began his ministry, he made a beeline straight for this region. This morning we hear how Jesus moved from Nazareth where he was raised to the region of Galilee, about 30 miles north. As St. Matthew tells us, “He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.”
One reason Matthew gives for the move is that Jesus heard that John had been arrested, and so he “withdrew” to Galilee. This could also be translated as “fled” to Galilee. It is the same word Matthew used when he described how Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt when they learned of Herod the Great’s evil intentions to get rid of Jesus when he was just a baby. Now Jesus is engaging in a strategic withdrawal to avoid another Herod, Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who had just arrested John the Baptist for preaching against his adulterous marriage to his sister-in-law.
But there is a deeper reason for Jesus’ move from Nazareth to this region that Matthew wants us to know about. Matthew points us to the promise Isaiah had proclaimed. Isaiah had said that the people of this land, these people who sat in darkness, would see a great light. He said that those who lived in this cold, dark shadow, this shadow of death, on them light would dawn. This is the deeper reason Jesus moved to “the Galilee of the Gentiles.” He moved there to fulfill this promise, the promise that light would dawn in this land of deep darkness. Jesus moved there to bring light to those who sat in this darkness.
And Jesus did just that! Jesus brought the light of God as he began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Jesus brought the light of truth as he told people they needed to repent. They needed to change their minds. They needed to change their ways. They needed to turn from their sin. They needed to turn back to God. Jesus brought the light of life as he told people that in him, God had already turned towards them. The kingdom had already come near! In this concise little sermon with both law and gospel, Jesus was bringing the light. In both his proclamation and in his very person, Jesus was that long-promised light shining in their darkness.
Jesus then called some local fishermen to help him shine this light. He went to Simon Peter and his brother Andrew as they were casting a net into the Sea of Galilee. He said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people!” These two brothers, Matthew tells us, immediately dropped their nets and followed Jesus. In the same way, Jesus called two more brothers, James and John. They too left their boat and followed Jesus. Just as they once used their nets to bring fish up from the depths of darkness and into the light of day, now these fishermen would fish for people, bringing them out of their darkness and into the light of truth and the light of life.
We know what it means to live in darkness. Whether it the seasonal funk of literally dark days or the darkness of discouragement or depression or despair. We know what it is to sit in the shadow of death, mourning for the loss of loved ones and aching for friends who are grieving. We know what it is to live in a culture of death, where violence is common and there is little sense of the sacredness and dignity of every human life. We know what it is to live in the darkness of sin – for just as the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali so often accommodated themselves to the paganism of their pagan neighbors, our worldview and the gods we worship are sometimes more influenced by the world around us than we dare to admit.
But we who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We who sat in the region and shadow of death, on us a light has dawned. The light of Christ has shined upon us.
This is the light of truth. It tells us the truth about ourselves. It calls us to repent, to change our minds and our ways. It calls us to turn away from sin and towards God. This isn’t something we do once in our lives and then things are smooth sailing after that. Martin Luther said that the entire life of a Christian is one of repentance. We are constantly needing to turn back to God! This is precisely what the light of God’s Word calls us to do today as we hear Jesus’ proclamation calling us to repent.
But this light is also the light of life. It is a life-giving light as it tells us that the kingdom of heaven has come near to us. It tells us that God has already turned towards us in Christ Jesus. His gracious, loving, forgiving presence is like light in the morning when there has been only darkness. It is like a break in the clouds after weeks of gloom. It is like sunlight warming our bones after the cold of winter.
This light shows us both our sin and our savior, and just as it brought healing to those who met Jesus throughout Galilee, so too does it bring healing and hope and peace and life to us.
Our Lord Jesus calls us into this light today, to be sure, but we are also called to bring it to others. To fish for people is not to lure them with bait. It isn’t to clobber them over the head. To fish for people is to go deep into our neighbor’s lives, meeting them in their darkness, meeting them in the depths of their strife and struggle and sin, in order to bring them up into the light of the new day Christ is bringing, into the light of his forgiveness and mercy and love.
Sometimes it seems like the darkness is winning – in our world, in our lives. But, my friends, those shadows can be deceiving. The truth is, the light of Christ is shining into your darkness even now. The light of Christ shines for us today through his Holy Word and his Holy Sacraments.
“The people who sat in deep darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” This passage from Isaiah is now about you! Don’t be confused by the clouds. The light of Christ is shining into your life even now, heralding a new day.
There is still a lot of darkness out there. And so as we leave this place, let us go out to fish the deep waters, so that others may be brought into the light of Christ too.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church