The reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew 4:12-17
Last week we celebrated the Feast of Theophany (Epiphany). We celebrated the fact that the Holy Trinity was made manifest, was present at that one place and moment in time. After this event in the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ we hear that the Lord withdrew into the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali. But there is more to the story because the evangelist Matthew tells us that this was done in order to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah which read “The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, toward 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.”
What does it mean that the people sat in darkness? Does it mean that they were in a place of great shade or a cloudy place where the Sun doesn’t give it’s rays? No doubt the darkness that is being spoken of here is a different kind of darkness. We get more clarification as the prophecy continues and we hear these words “and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”
What does all this talk about darkness and death mean? It is related to the fact that Jesus was travelling through lands that were known to be Gentile lands. These were places were Jews did not traditionally live. So Matthew is saying something very interesting here. He is telling us that Jews are not people who are sitting in darkness or death but Gentiles (non-Jews) are. What is the difference?
The difference is primarily that the Jews had already had a long standing relationship with God through the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well as through the writings of Moses and the prophets to name a few. The appearance of Jesus Christ in these regions was not just another detail, it was an important reminder that Jesus had come to the earth to bring all peoples to Himself.
Today we hear terrible stories every single time we read the news or watch the television. Even the shows and movies are tending to focus more on the darker side of things. Series such as “Twilight” or “The Walking Dead” point to this fascination with death as not simply a fad, but a sign of where we are as a people. It should even be noted that just a few years ago Planned Parenthood announced that it had aborted a record number of “tissues” in 2011, roughly 1 abortion every 94 seconds. To some this fact has nothing to do with anything, to others this is a sign that we live quite literally “in the shadow of death.”
However, we are comforted by this gospel reading. We are told that the people “who sat in darkness have seen a great light” and that “light has dawned.” This is a clear reference to the fact that Jesus the Son of God has come into these territories. We are reminded that if people are saturated in darkness and death, legislating new laws won’t bring them out of the darkness. The only way to bring a people, a society, a culture out of darkness and the shadow of death is through an encounter with this Jesus, the light of the world.
Misguided evangelicals have often tried this by telling people that they would go to hell unless they “accepted” Christ. That is not evangelism. That is cheap, graceless fear peddled by men who would accomplish more selling snake-oil. Trying to coerce people into following Jesus through fear is anything but Christian.
We are in great need of true evangelism on the part of all Christians, not simply the clergy. Our evangelism is one that focuses on Jesus Christ as the source of light in darkness and the source of life in the midst of death. Jesus Christ has made each one of us the fishers of men. We are not meant to simply go about our daily business and hope that no one interferes with it. We are meant to make His business our business. That is, we are to remind people that Jesus Christ became a man who dwelt in the flesh in order to teach us and to show us what it means to love. In order to show us unconditional love by suffering for us from the cross. The Son of God didn’t do that to guilt us or scare us. He did that because He loves us and wants to redeem us from death and He has done exactly this by taking death upon Himself.
It is often said that it is better to light a lamp than to curse the darkness. When was the last time that any one of us lit the lamp of someone’s heart with the message of the gospel, with the love of Jesus Christ? If you won’t speak to others and teach them lovingly about your Lord and Master, the one who redeemed you and gave you life, who do you suppose will do it for you? Who will bring them the light of the world? Who will teach them that they are in darkness? Who can show them that they are sitting in the shadow of death before it is too late? We must. We don’t do it to fulfill some obligation or to avoid guilt. We do it because we love Jesus Christ and we want others to know the joy and peace that we have in Him. We want others to have a life filled with light instead of darkness. After all, if you were the one who was lost and sitting in darkness, you would want someone to point you towards the light.
We thank God that our Lord Jesus Christ brought light to Gentiles like us. May God give us courage to pass this great light to our brothers and neighbors. And Glory be to God forever AMEN.
Reprint from January 13, 2013