The Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 22, 2023
Jesus Appears as the Light in the Darkness
12When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee. 13Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea, along the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”
17From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
18As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” 20At once they left their nets and followed him.
21Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (NIV1984)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We were on our way from Miami to the Midwest on our annual trek to visit with family and friends. As we were driving through Kentucky we decided to do something that we didn’t normally do. We stopped at a tourist attraction. To be more specific, we stopped at Mammoth Cave National Park and went spelunking— which simply means we took a cave tour. As we came to an area that was wide and flat and equipped with benches the tour guide had us sit down. Then he gave us fair warning. It was about to get dark— very dark. We were so far underground that there was no way even a speck of light that wasn’t artificially produced could penetrate into our presence. The electric lights that were installed in the cave were turned off and we experienced a period of paralyzing, oppressive, all-encompassing darkness. No one dared to move. Then the guide turned on his butane lighter. That one little flickering flame provided more than enough light for us to clearly see the entire room we were in. In a very powerful and memorable way I learned that light always defeats darkness!
We live in a world that is filled with frightening darkness— whether it’s daytime or nighttime makes no difference. The darkness of our daily lives comes despite the sun rising in the morning. We can’t escape it. No manmade lights can chase it away. I’m talking about the darkness of sin. Because sin has come into this world this world is constantly shrouded in spiritual darkness and death.
Yet, there is hope! The Season of Epiphany is about light— the Light! Today let’s see how Matthew assures us of this truth: Jesus Appears as the Light in the Darkness.
Our text begins with Matthew highlighting a very sharp contrast between spiritual darkness and spiritual light. He writes, “When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’”
King Herod had thrown John the Baptist into prison. Why? Because John was not shy when it came to pointing out the darkness of Herod’s sin! (See Matthew 14:3, 4) John’s incarceration revealed that John’s ministry of preparing the people for the Promised Messiah was coming to a close. When John was no longer able to publicly proclaim the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” Jesus began to publicly proclaim that very same message. Matthew also reveals to us that this is when Jesus left His hometown of Nazareth and established the center of His public ministry in Capernaum. By moving His “headquarters” to Capernaum Jesus was fulfilling the Messianic prophecy recorded in our Old Testament lesson for today. (Isaiah 9:1-4) By fulfilling that Messianic prophecy Jesus was proclaiming that He is indeed the “light” that has “dawned” on “those living in the shadow of death.”
Historically, the people living in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali did indeed live in the “shadow of death.” Since they were the tribes that lived in the northern most part of Israel, and since the enemies of God’s people— most notably the Assyrians and the Babylonians— usually attacked from the north, the area of Zebulun and Naphtali repeatedly endured destruction, death and deportation. When Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria conquered this area he deported many of the Jews to other parts of his empire and resettled people from other parts of his empire, i.e. Gentiles, into the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. That is how this area became known as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” In Jesus’ day this is where the Samaritans lived. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews because they were not only a mixture of Jewish blood and Gentile blood, but they tried to blend their pagan religion with the true religion.
The fact that Jesus, the “light of the world,” made “Galilee of the Gentiles” the central hub of His public ministry has an extremely important application to us and to our world today. The “darkness” of sin has certainly not diminished over the course of time, has it. We live in a world where by nature we are all “walking in the darkness”— it is the “darkness” of sin. This is a graphic description of the way in which we human beings conduct our lives. We aren’t just innocently moving about in the darkness. By nature our very lives are motivated and characterized by the “darkness” of sin. This “darkness” shrouds us with spiritual ignorance and unbelief. This “darkness” culminates in a judgment that is far worse than anything the Assyrians or the Babylonians or the Romans or anyone else could inflict upon us. This “darkness” culminates in eternal separation from God. On our own, by ourselves, we could not escape the darkness or evade its judgment. So what did God do? He sent us Jesus, “the light of the world”!
Through Jesus the “light” of forgiveness, the “light” of faith, and the “light” of salvation has “dawned” in our hears and in our lives. We need to be “walking” in that light, my friend. We need to be conducting our lives in a way which enables others to see Him (Pointing to the cross), the “light of the world,” shining in us and through us. We need to strive with His help (Pointing to the cross) to daily live up to what He has told us, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Striving to let the “light of the world” shine in us and through us leads us directly into the second half of our text. Matthew continues, “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come,’ follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.”
All four of these men had already had some contact with Jesus. (See John 1:35ff) They were with Jesus at the wedding in Cana. They saw Him miraculously change water into wine. They are included in John’s statement, “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” (John 2:11). But, after the wedding feast was over these men returned to their homes and their jobs— fishing. Now this same Jesus calls them to be His full-time disciples. Now Jesus says to these fishermen, “I will make you fishers of men.” Now instead of casting out a draw net, these men would cast out the net of the Gospel. Now instead of harvesting fish from the sea, they would harvest souls for the kingdom of God.
It’s important for us to note, my friends, that these men did not possess any outward special qualifications for being called as Jesus’ disciples. They did not have any specialized religious training like the apostle Paul had. (See Acts 22:3) They were common, every-day, blue-collar workers. But Jesus does not ask them to prepare themselves for this new calling, does He. Jesus promised that He would “make them fishers of men.” He would teach them what they needed to know. He would allow them to see His miraculous power. He would make sure that they were eye-witnesses of both His crucifixion and His empty tomb. And as you and I know, He would promise to send them the gift of His Holy Spirit so that they would receive all the abilities and all the qualifications they needed to become “fishers of men.”
Why is this important for us to note? Because there are clear parallels between Jesus calling these men to be His disciples and Jesus calling us to be His disciples. First, remember that humanly speaking none of these men deserved to be Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is the One who chose them! In the same way, none of us deserve to be Jesus’ disciples. The only reason we are disciples of Jesus is because He used His holy Word and/or His holy Sacrament to send the Holy Spirit into our heart and give us the gift of saving faith. That precious gift of faith automatically means that we are indeed disciples of Jesus.
Second, remember that humanly speaking none of these men were qualified to be Jesus’ disciples. They were ordinary men. In fact, when Peter and John were summoned to appear before the Sanhedrin and called to explain how they had healed a man who was “crippled from birth,” we’re told, “When they (the leaders of the Sanhedrin) saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Jesus fulfilled His promise to equip these “unschooled, ordinary men” to serve as His disciples.
Jesus does the same thing with us and for us. While the Bible does list certain qualifications that a person must have in order to serve as a pastor or a teacher in the public ministry (See 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1), the only qualification that is necessary to share with others Who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for this world is— faith! Faith in Him! (Pointing to the cross) No Christian should ever say to themselves that because they are not trained as a pastor or a teacher they can’t— or don’t have to— share Jesus with others. Just this past week I received a Facebook post from a friend. It very simply said, “Your life as a Christian should make non-believers question their disbelief in God.” Does your life fit that description?
Just as a small light can chase away the deep suffocating darkness of a cave, so also Jesus is the Light— the Light that not only chases away the deep suffocating darkness of sin and death, but He is the Light that has conquered sin and death! By the grace of God that light has “dawned” in your heart. May God grant that by His power that light will shine forth brightly in your life.
To God be the glory!