Do you enjoy geography? My wife, Julie, is fascinated with it. She loves looking at maps and globes and reading information about other parts of the world – the climate, the physical features of the land, the resources, and the people who live there in their culture.
As one reads through the Gospel of Matthew, it appears he is fascinated with geography as well. Geography speaks quite loudly in Matthew’s Gospel and plays a big part. For instance, in chapter 2, we see Matthew giving all kinds of geographical information about Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth. He talks about how those areas fulfilled the hopes of Old Testament prophecies.
Geography comes up again in our text for today. After John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus moved to Capernaum in Galilee in the territory of Zebulun in the land of Naphtali in the far north of Palestine. It’s named for two of the Hebrew tribes who first entered the Promised Land. We discover some interesting and helpful things as we look at this location where Jesus started His ministry.
The ancient historian Josephus tells us this area was known for its fertility. The soil was phenomenal! Therefore, a lot of people went there to farm to participate in the agricultural economy.
The area had a dense population – 204 villages with at least 15,000 people in each one. It’s location made it a major trade route between the great nations. People traveled in, through, and around it delivering goods to other parts of the ancient world. Therefore we know it was a mixed population with many Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews).
Josephus also described the people as being very open to change and innovation in Galilee. The southern Jews around Jerusalem and Judea despised them and looked down upon them because they had been influenced by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans, who had taken over their land. Henceforth, they were considered a little less in standing amongst their Jewish peers.
The area, according to Matthew, was considered a place of both moral and spiritual darkness, a very unlikely place to do good ministry. Why wouldn’t Jesus head to Jerusalem instead of this particular geographical location to do His ministry?
Matthew tells us why. The move to Capernaum of Galilee was a prophetic fulfillment, so the words spoken by the Prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled. God’s purposes lie behind this move to Capernaum. Listen to these words –
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death,
light has dawned.”
The first thing that jumps out is that this area is called “Galilee of the Gentiles.” It does not mean it was made up of Gentiles, but was surrounded by Gentiles and populated as well with some Gentiles. Right away we get a hint that Jesus is interested in having a relationship with everyone, even non-Jews.
Interesting enough, after the resurrection, Jesus met the disciples up north again in Galilee and told them to go make disciples of all nations. He commissioned them to take God’s light to all peoples. What is the spiritual location of the people who populate the area? They are people sitting in darkness, in the region of the shadow of death.
It’s important for us to look at this metaphor: darkness. How is the world dark? What does it mean?
In the Bible, darkness most often refers to evil and ignorance. It means, first of all, that the world is full of evil, violence, and suffering. Look at what happened, for instance, at the time of the birth of Christ in Matthew chapter 2 when the Wise Men didn’t return to tell Herod about Christ. We see violence, death, grief, abuse of power, homelessness, refugees fleeing oppression, and families being ripped apart. It’s the way the world was, and the way the world is.
Another way in which our world is in darkness, according to Scripture, is our inability to cure the suffering and evil around us and in us. Human resources cannot fix the world. We cannot overcome the darkness ourselves. Some might look to the state and politics, some to the marketplace and the economy, some might look to technology and believe we can end the darkness with our own intellect and innovations. But human resources cannot fix the darkness in the world or the darkness inside of us.
Tim Keller in his book, A Hidden Christmas, talks about this. He says, “Years ago I read an ad in the New York Times. It said, ‘The meaning of Christmas is, love will triumph, and we will be able to put together a world of unity and peace. In other words, we have the light within us, and so we’re the ones who can dispel the darkness. We can overcome poverty and injustice and violence and evil. If we work together, we can create a world of unity and peace.
“One of the most thoughtful world leaders of the late 20th century was Vaclav Havel, the first President of the Czech Republic. He had a unique vantage point from which to peer deeply into both socialism and capitalism, and he was not optimistic either would, by itself, solve the greatest human problems. He knew science, unguided by moral principles, had given us the holocaust. He concluded neither technology nor the state, nor politics nor the market alone could save us from nuclear degradation. Pursuit of the good life will not help humanity save itself. Nor is democracy alone enough. But a turning to and seeing of God is needed. The human race constantly forgets, he is not God.’”
Into this context of evil and ignorance we see Jesus, who has come to be Good News for people sitting in darkness. Here is the description and purpose of Jesus. He is the great light shining on those sitting in darkness. Jesus, the Son of God, has come to be light for us. He’s in the lighting business. He came to light up our lives. Help has arrived!
Jesus says later on, “I am the light of the world! Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” So we need to ask, What is the meaning of light? Well, it’s the opposite of darkness, evil, and ignorance. It’s goodness and knowledge. It’s positive! Scripture tells us, “The Lord is my light, my salvation” (Ps. 27:1).
Notice Matthew’s words from Isaiah, which say, “Upon them a light has dawned.” Here we have a symbol of the sun coming up on a new day. What do we know about the sun and its light? Well, we know the sun gives us life and preserves life. If the sun went out, those of us on planet earth would freeze.
In the book of Acts, we’re reminded that only in God do we live and move and have our very being. We exist only because God is upholding us, keeping us together every moment, shining on us.
This is true not only of our bodies but of our souls as well. The sun shows us the truth. If you drive a car at night without your headlights on, you will probably crash. Light reveals the truth of things in front of you so you will have enough truth to steer the car safely in the light. Likewise, Christ brings us truth about ourselves and God, the truth we need so we don’t end up crashing and ruining our lives.
The sun also gives us beauty. Sunlight is dazzling! It brings warmth and joy. People who live in areas where there are only a few hours of daylight at certain times of the year often suffer from depression. Here in Minnesota, we get long periods of grayness, and a lot of people suffer from what they call “SAD.” They need light to pick them back up again and energize them.
We need light for joy. Likewise Jesus, the Light of the World, brings abundant joy to our lives. He brings new life to replace our deadness. His beauty outshines all else and gives us joy. He is the Wonderful Counselor who gives us the truth and walks with us, even into the shadows of death. He is light for us when all other lights go out. He wants you, my dear friends, to have His light.
How can this light become yours? Well, light is a gift of grace. It is meant to be received when we trust in Him and His work on our behalf – His being wounded for our transgressions, taking our punishment upon Himself, paying the penalty for our sins at the cross – rather than trust in our own moral efforts. God forgives and accepts us. He implants His Holy Spirit in us to make us new from the inside out.
This Light, which flashes upon you with all its new life, truth, and beauty, comes as a gift to be received. It has to be a gift. You see, we were so lost, so unable to save ourselves that nothing less than the life and death and resurrection of the Son of God Himself could save us and bring us into the marvelous light of God. To accept this gift simply means admitting you’re a sinner, swallowing your pride and saying you need to be saved by grace. Believe you need to relinquish control of your life, and give it over to Christ.
The message of the Christian faith is, things really are this bad. There is darkness. There is death. We can’t heal or save ourselves. Things really are that way. But, there is hope! Upon our world a light has dawned – Jesus Christ. He has descended into our darkness in order to bring us into God’s light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it, not even the darkness of death – Jesus defeated it as well! Receive the gift of Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, is the appeal this day.
A number of years ago, a British hymn writer by the name of Graham Kendrick wrote a song, which was very popular in churches around the world. The song had some amazing lyrics! It is basically a prayer asking Jesus to shine on us. We sing it frequently in our own congregation at Shepherd of the Valley. The words are,
“Lord, the light of your love is shining.
In the midst of the darkness shining.
Jesus, Light of the world, shine upon us.
Set us free by the truth You now bring us.
Shine on me. Shine on me.
“Shine, Jesus, shine! Fill this land with the Father’s glory
Blaze, Spirit, blaze. Set our hearts on fire.
Flow, river, flow. Flood the nations with grace and mercy.
Send forth Your Word, Lord, and let there be light.”
May the words of this song be your prayer for the rest of your life. You don’t have to sit in darkness. Christ has come to shine in you. May you be saying in your prayers, “Shine, Jesus. Shine on me.”
Pastor Steve Kramer