Third Sunday After the Epiphany

I recently saw a friend and asked him how he was doing. He replied that he was feeling somewhat down. When I told him that I was sorry to hear about it, he added that he was suffering from seasonal affective disorder. You probably have heard of it. Apparently, this is a type of mood disorder associated with the change of seasons, especially from warm and sunny months to cold and dark ones. My friend said that Michigan has more cloud cover than all the states except Washington. Neither one is perhaps the best state for those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder. 


Dark clouds of gloom and sadness hang over a people mentioned in our Scripture lessons for today. 


In our first lesson, the prophet Isaiah addresses an oracle to the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. These lands are named for two of the 12 tribes of Israel. We find them mentioned in Genesis 49. There Jacob blesses their eponymous heads, which are in fact his own sons: “Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships.” “Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns.” 


Jacob has high hopes for his sons and their children. Parents want their children to be happy and successful; they want their children’s children to be happy and successful, and so on through all generations. No one wants to bear children doomed to misfortune, but rather wants them to grow up to be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants after them. Jacob is no different than we are in this regard. 


But it doesn’t always turn out the way we’d hoped. Zebulun and Naphtali were the very first tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel to be conquered by the powerful armies of Assyria under the command of Tiglath Pileser III. This happened in the mid-eighth century BC. 


Later his successor Shalmaneser finished the job. Crushed in the embrace of the marauding invaders, the people were either slaughtered or deported. Survivors scavenged among the smoking ruins of a once proud civilization. They felt devastated by the mess of their world, the mess of their lives. 


But to these tribes walking in darkness and gloom, the prophet offers the promise of a dawning light. He envisions a day when their gloom will be turned into joy. They will see a great light, which will scatter their darkness and gloom. He envisions a day when they will be set free from their bondage. The yoke will be lifted from their shoulders, the rod of their oppressors broken. 


Verses from this Isaiah passage reappear in our Gospel lesson. Those who’ve been watching our video series after the worship hour will remember the professor’s point that Matthew addresses his Gospel to Jewish readers. That is why there are more quotations from the Old Testament in his Gospel than in any one of the other Gospels. Matthew wants to show his Jewish readers that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of their own Scriptures.


“Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.” Do you see the connection? Jesus is that great light spoken about through the prophet Isaiah. The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it, according to John’s Gospel. 


It’s significant that Jesus begins his public ministry in these territories, which have known so much disaster and heartache, so much darkness and gloom. 


What does this tell us about God? It tells us that God is compassionate. God comes to those who live in the darkest and most desperate places. He seeks them out and frees them. This is who God shows himself to be for us in Jesus. 


Martin Luther reveled in the light of Christ: “Don’t you think that this is an inexpressible light which enables us to see the heart of God and the depth of the Godhead?” 


Charles Wesley tells about this God in the fourth stanza of the classic hymn, And Can it Be? 


Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening
Ray— I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.


Some sat in darkness, in the deepest darkness, prisoners suffering in iron chains…Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness,
and broke away their chains (Ps. 107:10, 13,14). 


In the region of the shadow of death, Jesus begins his public ministry. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” 


We expect to hear these words from the mouth of a prophet. Indeed, we have already heard them from the mouth of John. 


But how would the people in those places have heard these words? “Heaven?” one of them scoffs. “I can see that you are not from around here. You must have made a wrong turn. You’re in the wrong place. This place is as about as far south of heaven as you can be, sir.” 


In Capernaum, people can only hear this “kingdom of heaven” language as confused nonsense, or even a joke. 


And in economically depressed towns in American today, including this one, where there are signs of social decay everywhere, people hear this language as confused nonsense, or even a joke. 


But notice that this language is preceded by the command to “repent.” We have to make sure we have a good grasp of this word if we are to avoid the same response as that our imagined citizen of Capernaum, or that of people who live in towns like it today. 


To repent means not only to level up and kick a bad habit. It also means to change your outlook.


Author Chelsea Harmon is right in pointing out that this is far from easy. When you’ve sitting in darkness for so long, your eyes adjust. We have all had the experience of lying in bed in a dark room, only to be rudely awakened, when a parent or spouse opens the door, turns on the light, and loudly announces: “time to get up!” 


The light, while needed to rouse us from sleep, is painfully blinding and disorienting at first. Our eyes need time to readjust to the light. 


When you’ve resigned yourself to your fate, when living under the shadow of death has been the only “living” you have ever known, it’s very hard even to entertain the remotest possibility that change is possible. 


If you’ve ever spent time with a very depressed person, you probably noticed their distortion of outlook. Things look so dark to them they are convinced that tomorrow or next week or next year will be no different than today. You can’t convince them otherwise. They don’t see a future for themselves. 


Persons apart from Christ the light are in a world of night. They live under the shadow of death; they need Jesus to live and see. 


The good news is that when Jesus comes and announces salvation and issues the command “change!” he releases with that command the spiritual power to change, or at least the spiritual power to ask for the power to change (Dale Bruner). He doesn’t leave us to work it out on our own. 


That is why often in the New Testament, “repentance” is described as a gift that God gives to people. For example, when the Apostle Peter saw that the Gentiles were responding to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he praised God and said: “So then even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). 


Author Dale Bruner tells us that God’s Word is performative. That means that it does what it says. 


For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).  


So also with Jesus. “Whatever Jesus says is pregnant with the power to perform it” (Dale Bruner).  


But even when we have, empowered by God’s grace, chosen to make the change, it is often only a first step in the right direction. When we are not making the progress we hoped, and we fall back, we should not get discouraged and give up. 


Perhaps the call of Peter and Andrew here at Sea of Galilee is an illustration. It is puzzling to find them here. Did we not meet them last Sunday at the Jordan River? Was it not Andrew, one of John’s disciples, who heard and received the testimony of Jesus, and then, after encountering Jesus, went in search of his brother Peter to tell him: “We have found the Messiah?” Peter then meets Jesus, who gives him his name, thereby conferring a new status on him. 


And yet here they are, “casting a net into the sea, because they are fishermen.” Did they make a first step in following Jesus, and then decide to go back to their old lives? 


We don’t know. Whatever the case may be, he issues the call to follow him here. We can be grateful that if we have strayed from the path, if we have not continued to follow him, he will come to us again and again with the same call: “Follow me.” 


After Jesus calls Andrew and Peter, he finds James and John. They are mending their nets with their father Zebedee, for they too are fishermen. Jesus issues the same call to them. Their response is the same. The leave their nets, as well as their father, and follow him. 


To be sure, this is a special call issued to special persons destined to play a special role in the ministry and mission of Jesus. But this same Jesus called them to make disciples of all nations, teaching them whatever they have heard from him. Through them, then, this call of Jesus is extended to you and to me. The invitation has not expired; it is still on offer today.  


Let us then hear his call to follow in our own situation. Is there darkness in us? Let us turn to Christ. How do we do that? 


A woman shared with her friend that darkness enveloped her life when her husband deserted her. At first the darkness was so deep that it paralyzed her. She did not walk in darkness; she sat in it. 


Then her friend encouraged her to read in God’s word, the Bible. She promised that through his word God would give just enough light so that she could place one foot in front of the other. She reminded her, in the words of Psalm 119, that God’s word is a lamp unto our feet, and a light unto our path. 


Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on their God, according to Isaiah 50:10. 


When Christ calls us to follow him, we can trust that he will lead us out of darkness into his light. 


Is there darkness all around us? In these gray days of winter, perhaps we become even more sensitized to the darkness that surrounds us. Let us recall that our God can be found in the darkest places, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our community. 


In fact, if we are followers of Christ, it is in those places that we are most likely to find him. He is the one who made his home in Capernaum by the Sea, in the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali, after all. He is present today in territories like these, including and especially in Ionia. 


Let us not be afraid to go out and find him here. The Lord is our light and our salvation! Whom shall we fear? The Lord is the stronghold of our lives! Of whom shall we be afraid? 


In Jesus Christ God enters the darkness of our world. He comes as light. When we follow him, we can trust that he will lead us out of darkness. 


How can it be otherwise? Does not light necessarily dispel the darkness? But that is not self-evident. It depends on faith, which does not come naturally to us. Too often, when we hear the summons, “follow me,” our initial reaction is to ask: “where are we going?” And if no answer is immediately forthcoming, we hesitate at best, and decide to go our own way at worst. 


But so far as we know, Jesus says nothing more to the disciples than “follow me.” They know from now on that they will be fishing for people, but they do not know any more than this. There is no “this is where we are going.” If there were, then there would be no need for faith.  


Responding to the call of discipleship is a dynamic process. It is new every morning, even if we have blown it the day before. The call to follow Jesus accompanies us throughout our lives, even when we are advanced in age. Let us in faith answer the call today. Amen. 

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