Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Epiphany, the season of Light, is when we see that Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of Old Testament properties. In today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah speaks a prophetic word of liberty and hope in Isaiah chapter 9 to a people who lived in spiritual darkness. Isaiah speaks of the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali. He says, “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” (v 1).
Zebulun and Naphtali are part of the Promised Land—the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Looking back in Biblical history, we find that each of the twelve tribes of Israel is allotted its portion of the land. Zebulun is one of those tribes, as is Naphtali, and they were allotted neighboring lands in the northern part of Israel. Think of Zebulun and Naphtali like Pennsylvania and New York. They’re both in the north, and they share a border.
Zebulun and Naphtali are beautiful and fertile areas, but their location in the northern part of Israel makes them vulnerable to foreign invaders. Conquering armies and military incursions. For you see, when foreign countries invade the land of Israel of which they are a part, they almost always come from the north because that’s the easiest way to get into Israel. The Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River, which flows south from it, form a natural barrier along Israel’s eastern edge. The Mediterranean Sea forms a natural barrier to the west. Thus, alien invaders who are looking to go south to Jerusalem or even to Egypt are funneled first through the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. Thanks to the geography of Israel, the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali are perpetually on the front lines of war and bloodshed.
In fact, at the time of Isaiah’s prophecy, invaders known as the Assyrians are in the process of conquering Zebulun and Naphtali. Within a few years, the entire Northern Kingdom of Israel will be completely overthrown, and the remaining Southern Kingdom of Judah will be brought to its knees before God’s miraculous intervention.
Zebulun and Naphtali then are rightly identified by Isaiah as a land upon which the Lord brought contempt. They were a land of darkness and shadow. It was so bad that just a few verses earlier Isaiah called them a land with “no dawn” that suffers “the gloom of anguish” (8:20, 22).
And remember, God had brought these invaders upon the land only because the Northern kingdom, Israel had abandoned him, and fallen into idolatry and all kinds of sin. So Zebulun and Naphtali were a land of contempt filled with people who sit and walk and dwell in the darkness of deeds deemed damning by God.
It is to these hopeless people that Isaiah speaks a word of hope. Isaiah speaks of a stunning reversal of fortunes. God intends to make this “land of contempt” glorious. But how? How will this land go from contemptuous to glorious? We know that the people were incapable of changing. The change has to come from entirely outside them. God will bring upon them another invader. Except for this time, it isn’t a nation that will infiltrate the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. This time it will be just one man. And he doesn’t come to them from out of the north like all the other alien invaders.
He comes from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, from Jerusalem. Jesus does not take hostages, he plunders no grain, he exacts no taxes, and he sheds no blood except his own. Instead, Jesus teaches, and he preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
It is this man—and the good news he brings to the nations —who is a great light upon this land of darkness because the Lord isn’t interested in holding this land in contempt. He isn’t looking to extract from Zebulun and Naphtali their greatest resources. He’s looking to redeem their greatest resource— namely, the people themselves, the people he had formed into a great nation.
The more Jesus preaches, the more Jesus teaches, the more Jesus serves, the brighter the light shines. The evangelist Matthew says, “So [Jesus’] fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them” (Mt 4:24). People are flowing into Zebulun and Naphtali, not to conquer them but to be rescued by one in the midst of them.
As the light of Jesus Christ increases, the true source of darkness is exposed. The greatest threat to the people of Zebulun and Naphtali was never the foreign invaders from the north. The greatest threat to the people of Zebulun and Naphtali is their own sin, the specter of death, and the devil’s schemes. These are the things that held Zebulun and Naphtali in perpetual darkness. These were the real forces of oppression in their lives. And these are the oppressors from whom Jesus will rescue them.
Jesus, like any invader, makes a claim upon this people. He’s claiming to be their Lord, and he’s directing them to acknowledge his father as King. He is not going to force his kingdom on them, for his kingdom is a kingdom of freedom. They will not be won over by threats because his kingdom is of grace. They will not be won over by extortion because his kingdom is a kingdom of gifts and love.
And it is God’s love that will break the yoke of their burden. It is God’s love that will break the rod of their oppressor. It is God’s love that will send Jesus south out of Zebulun and Naphtali to the city of Jerusalem to die on the cross. And when Jesus dies on the cross, Zebulun and Naphtali the people who lived in spiritual darkness, will know that darkness, that is the darkness of sin and unbelief, cannot overcome the Light when Jesus rises from the dead.
You and I don’t share the geographical particulars with Zebulun and Naphtali. If you’re living in North America, you’re unlikely to be on the front lines of any foreign army. But the darkness that engulfed Zebulun and Naphtali doesn’t care about geography because it isn’t darkness caused by someone else. Our darkness is local, homegrown darkness. Our darkness is our own sinful flesh.
For that darkness, Isaiah tells us all to look to Zebulun and Naphtali for hope, because a great light has shone. This light is Jesus Christ and his ministry, and it is a ministry for all people of all times and all geographical places. This light is for you. It invades your life. The salvation first seen in Galilee is now coming for you. Indeed, it’s already here. Jesus Christ the Light is here for you. He expels darkness. He forgives your sins, he casts out the devil, and he promises to raise the dead, all with the effect of increased joy.
Where are you today? Have you been shutting the door of your heart to the light of Jesus? Maybe you have because you think that you do not really need his Light, after all, life is good. Maybe you are afraid of what the Light of Jesus would do if you let it fully illuminate your heart and your life.
Whatever excuse you might have for not living your life in the full Light of Jesus, do not be afraid to open your heart and mind to him. Just do it, trust in him, for the Light of Jesus Christ still burns brightly, waiting to illuminate the darkest corners of your life, even the places where the scary things live, the things you don’t tell anyone about. The things you have tried to forget or excuse. Let his wonderful comforting Light fall on you, for only then will you be free to live life to the fullness he wants you to live it, now and in eternity. Amen
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Rev. Dennis Rhoads
Vacancy pastor. LCMS