Many years ago, I had to go to Phoenix, Arizona. It was in the summer, and the temperature was about 114 degrees. When I got there, I rented a car and went into the parking garage to find it. The garage was covered and therefore shaded from the sun. So, when I got in the car and drove out of the garage, I couldn’t see a thing. It was so incredibly bright that my eyes had to take a little time to adjust to the brightness. I thought it was light in the airport and the garage, but once I went outside it seemed like I had gone out of darkness into the light.
Now, in chapter four of Matthew’s Gospel there’s a similar thing going on (Matthew 4:12-25). There’s a contrast between darkness and light. This reading takes place after Jesus’ Baptism and following his temptation in the wilderness of Judaea.
Jesus hears that John the Baptism has been arrested and goes into the region of Galilee. John was arrested by Herod Antipas, who ruled over Galilee as a client king of the Romans. Yet, Jesus goes into Galilee, rather than fleeing from Antipas. He goes to Galilee, because John’s ministry is over and Jesus has come to fulfill it. John had been paving the way for the coming of the Christ, and now he has come.
In fact, Jesus is coming to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 4:15-16, cf. Isaiah 9:1-4):
The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.
Matthew quotes from Isaiah to put Jesus’ actions in context, because Jesus has come to fulfill God’s promises to bring light into a darkened world, beginning in Galilee, the land that was once occupied by the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Jesus, the light who is the life of us, has arrived, in fulfillment of God’s promises.
And Matthew further explains that “Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). Repentance has the sense of turning. That is, “turn from the darkness to the light; turn from the dark path you had been walking to the path of light instead, because the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
When we hear the word “kingdom,” we tend to think of a place. But, the emphasis in the Gospels is not so much on a place as it is on a “reign;” that is to say that it is the reign or rule of a sovereign. It’s the reign of heaven, the reign of God, come near. God’s reign is at hand, because His Son is here. It is Jesus through whom this reign comes, because Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who rules over all things.
Indeed, Isaiah’s prophecy continues (Isaiah 9:6-7):
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
Jesus Christ is the one through whom this reign of heaven comes. He brings the light that casts out darkness, removes the shadow of death, and rules with justice and righteousness. He is the promised Messiah or Christ, the Son of God who comes with all authority to reign over everything. He comes with the zeal of “Yahweh Sabaoth” – the LORD of hosts.
So, if we want to think of the kingdom as a place, then it is the place where Jesus Christ is, because he is the one reigning. So, Jesus calls people to repentance because he has come near. He has come with his light that shines in the darkness.
This is a great thing, but do you wonder if the people in Galilee even realized that they were living in darkness? I figure that for the most part they probably didn’t. They didn’t know that they were in the shadow of death, condemned due to sin, both their actual sins as well as their inherited sin from Adam and Eve. They probably didn’t realize that they were dwelling in darkness. It’s similar to my story earlier about the parking deck. I didn’t realize how dark it was until I got outside of the shadow and into the bright light outside. Similarly, the people of Galilee did not know how dark their world was until the light of Christ dawned on them. It would have taken them a while to adjust to the light, seeing as how they were in the darkness for so long. You can’t expect everything to change immediately.
The same goes for our own day and place as well, don’t you think? Do you think that the people around us, outside of the Church, realize that they are living in darkness? We live in the midst of sin and death and yet how often do we regard this as normal? How often do we not see the darkness around us, when we have nothing brighter to compare it to? We live within a culture of death which celebrates the darkness.
There was a second century Christian writer named Tertullian who wrote about the darkness in his own day. He wrote a book that we call “On the Spectacles;” it’s basically a condemnation of the Roman culture of the time that reveled in death and hedonism, similar to our own actually. Tertullian takes on the Roman blood sports and the theater and points out how humanity corrupts God’s good creation and misuses the things and talents that He has given us. He also points out how those who do not know Christ do not know the truth and therefore are not grounded in anything. They make laws and rules that are arbitrary. They’re fumbling in the dark. I won’t quote from Tertullian, but if you ever want to reaffirm your belief that there is nothing new under the sun, read his book and you’ll recognize in it similar issues that we face today. The darkness always tries to gain back ground and keep people under its shadow of death.
The point is that those who do not know the light of Christ do not even realize that they are dwelling in darkness. The people in Galilee in the first century didn’t know it. The pagan Romans of Tertullian’s time didn’t know it. And many people of our own time don’t know it. It’s not until they encounter the reign of God that they can compare the bright light of Christ to the darkness in which they’ve been living.
So, you see what Jesus does in the text from Matthew to help spread this reign of God and his light. He calls disciples. Simon and Andrew are fishing and Jesus calls them to follow him and promises that he will make them “fishers of men.” Then, Jesus calls James and John, also fishermen, to be his disciples.
Jesus is calling people to follow him so that they too can call people to repentance and shine the light of Christ upon them, just as we also are called to do. We call sin what it is: “sin.” We don’t try to excuse it; we give it the name that it is. And then we forgive it in the name of Christ. As people begin to realize that they are in the darkness, we give them the light of Christ. We call to repentance and then forgive and help people who are struggling with darkness to stay in the light of Christ. It’s about loving them enough to tell them the truth. So, we love the sinner and give him Christ freely, even as we proclaim the truth that we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God, as Paul says in Romans 3. It’s only through Christ that we are saved, and only through Christ that we have the hope of being changed and freed from slavery to sin and death.
Because ultimately Christ is returning to restore everything, to cast out all sin and death and evil and darkness from this world. You see the firstfruits again in Matthews Gospel. Jesus “… went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them” (Matthew 4:23-24).
Do you see what Jesus is doing? He’s teaching, proclaiming the Gospel, or Good News, of the reign of God that comes through him. He’s also healing those who are sick, afflicted, oppressed, and otherwise stricken. He is ushering in the new creation where there will be no sickness, afflictions, oppressions, or any other decay, because he is restoring everything. His light is in the world, at the present time now in Word and Sacrament through His Church and in the age to come directly when he returns. And we see in the Gospels what he has in store for all creation as he heals and spreads his light to remove the darkness and the shadow of death completely and forever.
The ushering in of the new creation will be completed at Christ’s return at the end of the age, and we will dwell in the light for eternity (Revelation 21:23).
Until that day, we rejoice that
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined.
For we were once in darkness, but the light of Christ has shined upon us and we therefore go to bring this light to others so that they too may receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And we trust in the power of God’s Word to do this.
(Image “The Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHunt_Light_of_the_World.jpg).