Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Yea, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). In this world which C.S. Lewis often referred to as the “shadowlands,” we live and walk our daily lives in that place called the valley of the shadow of death. The world around us—outside of the saving ark of the Christian Church—lives in complete darkness. The world knows no truth other than what each person decides for himself or herself.
St. Paul says the Gospel has been veiled to the unbelieving people of this world. He writes in 2nd Corinthians: “the god of this world [and that is lower-case “g”—false god] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor. 4:4) The people of this world are dominated by their sinful human nature—a nature which makes them see themselves or their possessions as their god.
They have become so blinded, in fact, that Paul wrote in our Epistle lesson today, “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.” (1 Cor. 1:18) The very nature which resulted from Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden still can control us in the very same ways today. As Solomon said, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccl. 1:9) We are afflicted with this propensity to do the things exactly opposite of what we know we should do, and instead we do the very things we hate (Rom. 7:15).
However, in the midst of the shadow of death, the Lord remains faithful. To His people who are all too often faithless, the Lord of all heaven and earth promises with absolute certainty that He will be faithful. “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20) We do fall short in this dark world because of our sin. Fathers too often neglect their duty as the head of the household to teach their family the Word of God. Mothers fail also of telling the faith to their sons and daughters. Children grow up without the true Word of God—or reject it in their rebellion against family and God—and generation after generation decays. From them, the Word of God has disappeared like a sputtering flame as it runs out of fuel to feed it. It slowly dims to nothing over time for many
This is an accurate description of the peoples of the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. The prophet Isaiah describes this people as “the people living in darkness” and then again as “those living in the land of the shadow of death.” These lands of darkness had seen their faith in God disappear over the ages.
The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were on the northern edges of Israel and were therefore the most open to outside pagan influences. Also, these people were the first to be carted off in the first dispersion, when Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. By the time of Jesus’ arrival here, these lands were no longer the pure-blood descendants of Jacob’s sons Zebulun and Naphtali; they were a blended mix of Jew and Gentile, peoples of many regions and different origins.
That’s the context as we enter into our Gospel text from Matthew for today. The table has been set and now Jesus prepares to carry out His ministry on earth. His cousin John the Baptist has just been imprisoned. John has been part of the fulfillment of the prophecy which he himself spoke “it is necessary He must increase, and I must decrease.” (John 3:30) John has decreased into prison and has disappeared from the spotlight so that Jesus may rightfully take center stage. To fulfill the prophecy of the Old Testament from Isaiah, Jesus Christ begins his ministry of preaching in Capernaum, a city of the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali.
Recall, however, these lands are those referred to as people living in darkness. They are on the northern borders—far, far away from the religious, business, and governmental center of Jerusalem.
By today’s standards it would be as if Christ were placing himself in the middle of North Dakota instead of more prominent populated centers New York, Los Angeles, or even Washington. To the conventional wisdom of the world, starting your ministry in a place like Capernaum of Galilee was foolishness. It made no sense. We might even ask ourselves “Well, if Jesus wanted to reach the most people, He should have gone to where the most people could be found, shouldn’t He?” Certainly sounds like good logic.
But that is our earthly, human wisdom at work. Listen to how St. Paul would answer this question as he does a little later in 1st Corinthians: “but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world … so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor. 1:27-31)
Worldly wisdom sees God’s wisdom as foolishness even though the exact opposite becomes evidently true. God’s wisdom seeks not to fulfill the pleasures of the world, or to seek success by worldly measures or standards. God’s wisdom fulfills what is right and proper. God’s wisdom is Holy Scripture, our very salvation.
Capernaum was the starting point of Jesus’ ministry because our God is a God who works from the bottom up, not from the top down. Jesus himself says “so the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matt 20:16) Jesus brings life and light to the peoples. He says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) It sounds a lot like God’s promise to—and through—David in Psalm 23. We need not fear darkness because Jesus Christ is the light which pierces all darkness; the One who turns all darkness into nothing.
And yet, such a promise Christ makes is still denied by His own sons and daughters. The light that is so very badly needed by us so becomes the light not wanted. As silly fools sitting in the dark, all too often we become so self-absorbed that we decide we like things the way they are. Our fallen nature doesn’t care for the hassle of hearing more about this light that saves us, the one thing that grasps us out of the darkness.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are sleeping in your bed during the darkest part of a cloudy, moonless, lightless night. Someone suddenly rushes in on your quiet slumber, shines a bright flashlight in your eyes, shakes you, and tells you to wake up … to rise up, and allow the light to lead your way out of your darkened room! What do you think your reaction would be?
I, for one, am a very heavy sleeper, and I can imagine the discomfort and annoyance that this bright light would cause my eyes. I can picture the even stronger desire to quickly hide my head under a pillow and blankets to escape the light. None of us would like that sudden, disruptive feeling of having a bright light break into the darkness of a peaceful night’s sleep.
But suppose there’s another detail to be revealed in this little story. This brave person who shines a flashlight in your eyes to wake you is a firefighter, and he’s yelling at you to get up and get out, for your house is on fire. Deadly smoke is filling your room, and dangerous flames are closing in, and you have but a moment to get to safety. Suddenly that bright light doesn’t seem so bad, does it? In the smoky, searing darkness, it becomes your only means to show you the path to rescue.
When Jesus Christ came into the world of this spiritual darkness, He wasn’t here to save the people from being burned in a fire in their own home. He came to rescue His people from being burned in the eternal fire of hell. He came to rescue us from the ultimate darkness. The ultimate absence of the true light of God, the only Savior, Jesus Christ. For isn’t that exactly what darkness is—the absence of light? So also then, hell quite simply is that place that is completely absent of God.
Just as light is that which leads us to safety from darkness as the light of a fireman leads you from a burning home, so also, Jesus is our light who awakens us from the slumber of the darkness of sin in this world. He leads us to the safety of His light, the light of life, Himself. The true light, who enlightens everyone, who came into the world, who was in the world, through whom the whole world was made, yet the world did not know him, as St. John wrote.
In fact, Jesus’ own people did not know Him—not in the way that they should have, being given centuries of prophecies and promises about Him. And so He was unjustly sentenced to death for the transgressions of all mankind. He carried his cross to Golgotha. There, possibly the most frightening experience of darkness this world has ever known took place. Matthew writes that during the time Jesus was on the cross, from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. (Matt. 27:45)
This was from noon to 3PM by our time standards. It was midday. The sun would be almost straight overhead, and yet there was darkness covering the land. When Jesus finally uttered the words “it is finished” and gave up His spirit and died, the whole earth shook. Rocks were split, and the thick, gigantic curtain of the temple designed to keep people from entering the Most Holy Place was split in two.
In this event, the barrier between man and Yahweh was torn apart—and not just in the temple, physically. Indeed, the greatest barrier—sin itself—was crushed like the head of the serpent that brought it.
The darkness that arose during the time of Jesus’ crucifixion is an image of what our lives would be like if we were without Him. Apart from Him, we are swallowed whole by a terrible darkness that covers everything. The earth shakes and yet we are asleep in peaceful darkness, like a person asleep in a house on fire, not knowing the impending danger.
Yet, our lives as God’s baptized children move us past the sorrow of Good Friday, to rejoice in the celebration of Easter. Jesus’ death in darkness on the cross was not a loss for us, but actually the very moment of victory. Our salvation was won in darkness by the Man of Light who destroyed all darkness for us.
To those living in darkness in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, Jesus’ arrival signifies a new dawn. Matthew echoes Isaiah’s words and says that they had seen a great light, upon them a light had dawned. The imagery is that of a rising sun at dawn. To the people in Capernaum, Jesus overcomes their darkness with the light that is Himself. He brings hope where there was none. He brings a message of repentance and salvation. The very first words of Jesus’ ministry echo the very words of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” (Matt. 4:17)
As we live our lives in the repentance and forgiveness Jesus works in us, we become beacons of the light. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to the disciples and the Church “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matt 5:14-15)
The Church stands in contrast against the world, just as a light stands out in the darkness. If the Church is truly the Church—if it is to fulfill its purpose of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ—then it will not be hidden, it will shine forth before the world like a city on a hill. The Church will be the beacon of Jesus Christ to the world through the very Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as the star of light led the magi to Jesus in His infancy, the Church as the light of the world is here to lead people to Jesus Christ.
Here at St. Paul, we are blessed to have the light of Jesus Christ not only revealed to us, but regularly placed in us and upon us in Word and Sacrament. We have not yet been brought out of the world, but are uniquely separated from it by the Holy Spirit’s call—called to the faith that forgives and saves. We are gathered together into this parish family. We are enlightened by Christ, the Light, the Word made flesh.
We are also sanctified by the Spirit to lead God-pleasing lives, including making the sacrifices that allow the Word of God to be spread in the darkness by Christ’s fishers of men, here and throughout the world. Kept in true faith, let us be a part of the great joy of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations, so that the greatest disease, the worst affliction, the heaviest oppression—those of sin, death, and the power of the prince of demons—may be healed, relieved, and lifted. Let us share the joy of this light of the world, so that all the darkness around us may be pierced by the light that is Christ crucified, the Word of the cross being the power of God to all who are saved by Him.
In Jesus’ Holy Name, Amen.