Matthew 4:12-17 (Third Sunday after the Epiphany—Series A)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
January 26, 2020
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our text is from the Gospel lesson recorded in Matthew 4:
12After [Jesus] heard that John had been handed over, he withdrew into Galilee. 13And after he left Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali 14so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah should be fulfilled, saying: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations, 16the people sitting in darkness saw a great light. And on those sitting in the region and the shadow of death, a light rose for them.” 17From then Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the reign of heaven stands near.”
Have you ever played that game where someone says a word and you say the first thing that comes to mind when you hear that word? If you have, great! If not, here’s your big chance to play. I’m going to give you a word. I want you to shout out what comes to mind when you hear it. (This is a congregation-participation moment in the sermon, so don’t let me hear silence!) I want to hear from you what comes to mind when I say the word . . . “darkness” . . .
Lots of different images and connotations come to mind when we think about “darkness.” Most of them are negative. Things like doubt, ignorance, uncertainty, and evil. Perhaps we’d rather not think about “things that go bump in the night” when it is dark. Darkness can be physically oppressive. It’s the natural haunt for a host of evil happenings. Darkness is associated with death, imprisonment, and ultimate evil that opposes God’s purposes of order and goodness in creation.
St. Matthew quotes today from the Old Testament reading in Isaiah 9. Here Isaiah speaks of people “sitting in darkness” and “in the region and the shadow of death.” That doesn’t sound happy or pleasant. The prophet wrote by the power of the Holy Spirit, “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” (Is. 9:1 ESV). Why did God bring these most northern tribes of Israel into contempt? Why did He bring punishment upon them? Because they had abandoned Him. They worshiped idols—Baal and Asherah—and offered sacrifices to these false gods. They broke the number one commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” In breaking the commandment, they broke faith with the covenant God had made with His people. Instead of the promised blessings, they would receive the prescribed punishments for transgressing against God and His faithfulness to them.
Their unfaithfulness to God, the people’s idolatry, saw them live their lives in the darkness of sin. And sin comes with consequences and punishment—physical and everlasting death. Picture yourself as the justly convicted sinner that you are. The only righteous and perfect Judge has condemned you to death because you have failed to fear, love, and trust in Him above anyone and anything else. You’ve feared the things of this world. You have loved the things of creation more than Him. You trusted yourself instead of Him to make your life fulfilled. Now, you sit on death row. At any moment, you will be taken away for execution. You sit in darkness and in the shadow of a death that will last forever in hell, eternally separated from the God who made you and supported you and cared for you, even though you turned your back on Him.
Down the black corridor you notice the tiniest speck of light. Steadily it increases as it nears you. Your moment has come. The door of your cell is opened. The guard speaks, “Any last words?” You shake your head. You are justly convicted of your sins. You have no words. The guard says to you, “Good. You are free to go.” You don’t understand. You stammer trying to make words in your utter shock and amazement. “You are free to go. This man has volunteered to die for you.” Behind the guard, the source of the light—a man who has been bloodied by beatings. His body is scarred by whips. On His head is a crown of thorns. Hunched over, He carries a cross.
Silently, the execution party and their criminal pass on their way. The man is nailed to the cross. He bleeds. He struggles to breathe. And then . . . darkness . . . over the whole land. A cry, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46 ESV). Abandoned . . . forsaken . . . by God Himself . . . this man suffers death and hell in your place. He bears your sins in His own body on that tree of death. The punishment He endures is yours. He is your substitute. He dies your death and takes your place in agonizing hell on the cross so that you might never die. This man, this God in human flesh, Jesus Christ, entered into your darkness of sin and death to set you free. Your punishment became His. His innocence has become yours. He died your death so that you might live His everlasting life.
“The people sitting in darkness saw a great light. And on those sitting in the region and the shadow of death, a light rose for them.” That Light—your Light—is Jesus. He is Lord over sin and death. He is Lord over the darkness! Psalm 27:1, “The LORD is my light and my salvation.” John 1:4, “In [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of people.” And 2 Timothy 1:10, “Christ Jesus, . . . abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Jesus Himself tells us, “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 ESV).
What enlightening promises! Jesus is light incarnate, light personified. He came into this world darkened by death, evil, and ignorance. In the darkness of our world, into the darkness of lives, Jesus shines the light of His love, grace, and forgiveness. You no longer live in darkness and in the shadow of death. Christ revives you with the warmth of His light and brings you back to life, back to life forever with Him. Having seen the Light of Christ through His Gospel and Sacraments, you know that your end is not death and hell, but resurrection life in the place where “night will be no more. [You] will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be [your] light, and [you] will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5 ESV).
But until that wondrous day, the darkness of sin and death lurks nearby. While you and I bask in the light, in the life, and in the goodness and wisdom of Jesus’ light, many do not. There remains so many others “sitting in darkness” and “in the region and the shadow of death.” But there’s good news! The Light shines in the darkness. Christ shines His Gospel light through you.
Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John to be His disciples so that they might be fishers of people. Christ shined His light of mercy and grace through their proclamation of the Good News about Jesus, the Light of the world. In Matthew 5, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Christ tells His disciples, including you, “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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14–16 ESV). Jesus calls us who have received the light and life of His blood-bought forgiveness and salvation to share that very light and life with others. Martin Luther wrote, “What [Jesus] calls ‘good works’ here is the exercise, expression, and confession of the teaching about Christ and faith, and the suffering for its sake. He is talking about works by which we ‘shine’; but shining is the real job of believing or teaching, by which we also help others to believe.”
Jesus, our Light, empowers us by the Spirit to be His shining light in our community. We have received the gifts of the Gospel—forgiveness, life, and salvation—so that we might be able to share these gifts with those still in darkness. Jesus wants your witness, your light to shine, in both words and deeds. God grant that we do this with joy. Amen.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 21: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 21 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 65–66.