Rev. Ron Church
Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23
In our Scripture lessons for today, we see the theme of the coming of the light. Our readings for today talk about three different stories from three different periods in the history of Israel.
Our reading from Isaiah talks about Galilee after the Assyrian occupation, but it refers back to the war with Midian in the book of Judges. Our New Testament reading talks about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Obviously, there must be a common thread here. We will see if we can figure out what it is.
We will take them in chronological order so as not to get confused. About 1100 BC, Israel was invaded by the Midianites. Midian was a country across the Jordan River to the east of Israel. Midian was in the region which we call Arabia today. It was the place to which Moses fled when he had murdered the Egyptian. It was in Midian that Moses met Jethro and married his daughter, Zipporah.
Our story takes place during the time when Israel was ruled by judges. It was not a very strong country. This was almost 100 years before the time of Saul and David. The Midianites settled in the Jezreel valley and terrorized the Israelites for seven years. Those seven years were known as a time of darkness for the Israelites.
Finally, God got tired of listening to their whining and decided to free the Israelites. God spoke to a young man named Gideon and told him that he would drive out the Midianites. After considerable argument with God, Gideon took 300 men with horns and large pottery jars down to the Midianite camp.
On Gideon’s signal, the 300 men blew their horns, broke their pottery jars and shouted. The sound scared the Midianites so badly that they took off running and the Israelites chased them clear across the Jordan River. I want to say a word about these horns and jars. These horns were not the brass horn with which we are familiar. These were shofar. They were ram’s horns that were actually military weapons. It was a blast from the shofar that helped to bring down the walls of Jericho.
These jars were not the quart-size canning jars with which we are familiar. These were large storage jars similar to the later amphora jars. We would call these jars crocks.
When I read about the jars, I had this picture in my mind of 300 Israelite wives saying, “Just where do you think you’re going with that jar? I don’t care what Gideon said, you are not taking that jar out of this house. You put that jar down! That jar was a gift from Aunt Esther on our anniversary.” Maybe I’ve just been married too long.
That region of Israel that was terrorized by the Midianites includes Galilee which Isaiah was talking about in our Old Testament reading. In Isaiah’s time, around 733, it was the Assyrian army that occupied Galilee. But, in 701 BC, the Assyrian army was struck by the plague as it was preparing to attack Jerusalem. The Assyrian Army withdrew from Judah and Galilee. Isaiah called the occupation of Galilee as a time of deep darkness.
In our time, light is just light, and darkness is just darkness. But in Isaiah’s time, light was goodness and safety while darkness was evil and danger. If you walked the streets at night, you couldn’t see where you were going, and you might stumble and fall. Or, you could be attacked by robbers or predatory animals, both of which used the darkness to hide and wait for their prey.
It can still seem that way today. If you have ever had to walk to your car through a dark parking lot, you might understand what Isaiah felt. Statistics show that 10 percent of all property crimes take place in dark parking lots. Most big box stores require their employees to park on the fringes of the parking lot so their customers can park closer to the door. When the store closes and the employees are going home, the customers are gone, so the employees face a long walk across a dark, empty parking lot to get to their cars. That is the perfect opportunity for a predator to stalk and attack. Maybe Isaiah was right, maybe the darkness is still dangerous.
Isaiah contrasts the time of occupation with the time of liberation as darkness giving way to light. Hopelessness gives way to joy. Oppression gives way to freedom. Humiliation gives way to glory. This text looks forward to the time of our New Testament reading from the book of Matthew. The people living in the darkness of oppression will receive the liberating light of Christ. Unfortunately, they won’t understand him. They expect him to free them from the oppression of Rome, but he comes to free them from the oppression of sin. Be careful of your expectations and your preconceived ideas, they can mislead you.
Our New Testament reading picks up the story with the arrest of John the Baptist. When John was arrested, Jesus returned to Galilee. Matthew doesn’t say what Jesus had been doing, or the significance of John’s arrest. John’s gospel says that Jesus had been at the Jordan baptizing people along with John the Baptist. He emphasizes that Jesus was not doing the baptizing himself, but his followers were. When John was arrested, that whole ministry of repentance and baptism fell apart. John had paved the way for Jesus and now it was time for Jesus to start his own ministry.
Anyway, Jesus returned to Galilee. Then it says that he left Nazareth and went to live at Capernaum. Matthew doesn’t say why Jesus left Nazareth. But it seems to have been important to Matthew that Jesus move to Capernaum to fulfill the prophesy in Isaiah that the people in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali would see a great light. When the Israelites first settled in Canaan, the land was divided up among the twelve tribes of Israel. Zebulun and Naphtali were the two tribes whose land made up the region that later became known as Galilee. Nazareth is in the land allotted to Zebulun and Capernaum is in the land allotted to Naphtali. I guess it was important that Jesus reside in both of those regions in order to fulfill that prophesy. Remember that the purpose of the book of Mathew was to prove that Jesus fulfilled as many Old Testament prophesies as possible.
What is important is that in Capernaum Jesus began his ministry in earnest. He also began calling his disciples. First, he called two brothers, Peter and Andrew. Then he called two more brothers, James and John. Jesus would go on to call twelve disciples to be his inner circle. He literally had hundreds of disciples, but the twelve would always be the core of his following. But out the twelve, three of the first four that he called seemed to be closer than the others. Peter, James and John were present at every major event in the ministry of Jesus. At some of those events, they were the only disciples present.
Notice that the text does not tell us how Jesus decided who he would call to be his disciples. It also doesn’t tell us why they were so willing to leave everything and go with him. It just says that he was walking along the lakeshore; he saw two brothers fishing; he told them to follow him; they did. He went a little farther, he saw two other brothers mending their nets; he told them to follow him; they did. Discipleship seems to be like that. When the call to discipleship goes out, those for whom it is intended; that is, those who have been chosen for discipleship, will recognize the call and will respond.
But, getting back to the subject of darkness and light; three times in their history, the people of Galilee lived in darkness. They were unhappy. They were discouraged. They felt there was no hope. Three times, God delivered them. Three times, God sent the light to shine in their darkness.
At times in our own lives, we have been like those Galileans. We have lived in darkness. We have felt discouragement, helplessness and hopelessness. But, by whatever means, God has delivered us. God has brought us back to the light of his love and hope.
Well, outside this building there are Galileans. Outside this building there are people living in darkness. They are every bit as discouraged and helpless and hopeless as any of us have ever been. In our calling to discipleship, God has made them our responsibility. Our assignment is to find them and to shine the light of Christ’s love on their darkness. Many of us were helped out of our darkness by the love of someone sent to us by God for that purpose. Now it is our turn to show that love to others.
It is our turn to make darkness give way to light; to make hopelessness give way to joy; to make oppression give way to freedom; to make humiliation give way to glory.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.