Summary: Jesus sheds light on our sin but also highlights God's love for us.
I’ve been obsessed with light lately. First there was the track light in the kitchen that kept burning out until Rob discovered that I probably hadn’t screwed the bulbs in correctly. And then there were the blinking lights on the router and modem for my computer. Blink. Blink. Blink, blink…blink. Is there anything more agonizing than waiting to see if resetting the system will turn the internet light from orange (sorry no service) to green (surf away!)? Yeah, I’ve been obsessed with light lately and so that got me thinking. If I could have only one source of light, what would it be? Sunlight? No other light can match its beauty and intensity and the emotional satisfaction that light delivers. Or would I opt for the sparking light of electricity? With this light I could see at all times, even at night when there is no sunlight. And I could use it to power computer and stovetop. Or would I choose the warming light that natural gas delivers? Which light would you choose if you could only have one? Before you come to a definite conclusion, think back to the words of our Gospel lesson. There we heard about yet another light, a great light that blazed across Israel starting in the north of that country. Jesus is that light and we’ll be reminded this morning why he is the best light, the one light that we dare not be without. For without Jesus we will end up lost in everlasting darkness.
Our text from Matthew 4 describes what Jesus does when he finds out that John the Baptist had been put in prison by King Herod. Like a soldier who rushes to fill the gap when a comrade on the front lines takes a bullet and falls to the ground, Jesus stepped into the breach left by John’s arrest. Jesus moved from the small town of Nazareth where he had spent most of his childhood to Capernaum which was on the Sea of Galilee. It was an intentional decision to fulfill a 700-year-old prophecy of Isaiah that went like this: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 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” (Matthew 4:15).
This area of Israel, the land of Zebulun and Naphtali named after the two tribes of Israel who had settled there, had a dark reputation. Since it was in the north, it was the first place invading armies coming from that direction would hit. This area had become a doormat powerful nations found easy to wipe their combat boots all over. I suppose it would be like living within sight of the Israeli/Palestinian border today; you never know when a stray rocket or bullet will speed your way screaming “Death!”
But there was another darkness covering this land that was even more dangerous than the tip of a soldier’s spear aimed at one’s heart. Since this part of Israel had been overrun so many times by non-Jews, many of them started to settle there and brought their pagan religions with them. This influence as well as the fact that the Israelites who still lived there were far from the temple in Jerusalem had caused many to lose their faith in the one true God so that they went about life on their own terms. They were lost in a spiritual darkness.
It was to this dark place that Jesus went and in the words of the prophet Isaiah it was as if a great light had dawned upon Zebulun and Naphtali. But exactly in what way was Jesus a light? Well look at what he did. Our text says, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus brought God’s light through the message he delivered: “Repent! Turn away from your sins!”
Is this the message the world today wants to hear from Jesus? “Repent! Turn from sin!” Don’t many say that what Jesus came to deliver was a message of peace and acceptance? “Hey everyone, just keep on doing what you’ve been doing, God’s OK with it and so am I.” No! Jesus came as a light to first of all expose sin the way a flashlight shining under your bed will illuminate all the dust bunnies and who knows what other foul things have been hiding in the darkness there.
But we shouldn’t think of Jesus like a flashlight that shines in your face to blind and embarrass. When Matthew quoted the Isaiah prophecy he actually slightly changed the wording to say that with the arrival of Jesus, a great light had risen and was shining for the people, rather than upon the people. Jesus was the kind of light your companion provides when he shines his flashlight down at your feet so you can avoid tripping over the roots and rocks on that midnight walk through the woods.