Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“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.”
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:12-17
It is significant that Jesus’ public ministry began in the land of Galilee, a land of heathenism and unbelief, a land of spiritual darkness, a land of sinners. Modern marketing experts might dare to tell us that Jesus should have gone to a place where people would be more receptive to the Word of God. But then God’s ways are not our ways, are they? So Jesus began telling people the good news of the kingdom of God in – humanly speaking – the worst possible place to begin mission work. He preached to those who didn’t “deserve” God’s love. And his message was not exactly inviting. It was an in-your-face “repent, sinners, the kingdom is near!” This tells us a lot about the purpose of the gospel and the people it is for. Jesus came to sinners with a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus withdrew into Galilee after John the Baptist was put into prison. It was the domain of King Herod who eventually beheaded John the Baptist. It was a land of demon possession, a land of non-Jewish people – the Gentiles, a land described by the prophet Isaiah where the people were “dwelling in darkness, a region and shadow of death.”
How did Galilee become such a dark place? From history we know that this area of the Northern tribes changed dramatically when it was conquered by the Assyrians around 700 years before Jesus was born. The Assyrians took the best and brightest from the land and hauled them away to be used like slaves. In exchange, they settled people from their own land. These people were unbelievers, steeped in the darkness of worship of strange gods. Heathen Gentiles and hard-hearted Jews blended together to create a land of pitch dark unbelief. A land were people lived for themselves without the hope of eternal life.
Our land is not so far off from ancient Israel. Paul once wrote to the Romans words which could very well apply to our land today. He said, “…although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” This is our land, is it not? A land where a woman can abort her child on demand. A land where two people of the same sex can be married. A land where children murder children, a land devoted to carnal pleasures which are destroying families and friendships.
We are aware of this, of course. But let us not only point fingers at the big bad world out there. Because we could just as easily fall back into that darkness. Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature, and following its desires and thoughts”(2:3). And so John warns us in his first epistle: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” (1:6) So, be on your guard against society’s slide into the darkness of sin. Speak out against abortion on demand and gay marriage. But also be aware of what motivates society’s slide into darkness. It’s the first sin, the sin that still resides in each of our hearts, the sin against the first commandment: “I want to be god. I want what makes my body happy. I want to satisfy my carnal pleasures and find self-esteem in the world’s definition of success and achievement.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us acknowledge that except by the grace of God we would slide into the darkness of sin and unbelief, if left to our own sinful desires. Let us acknowledge sin in our hearts that it may be forgiven and our minds renewed in the light of God’s will and promises. Let us heed what Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of the light…Have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness” (5:8-14).
This was Jesus’ message. The darkness is so great, but into this land of darkness a great light shines. Matthew says in his Gospel: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” The greatest need people have in this life is to know that they need to repent of their sin. Forgiveness doesn’t mean much to anyone unless you realize first the depth of your sin. Everyone has that hard-wired into their conscience. Did you ever notice that when a “primitive” tribe is found living in the Amazon River rain forest or the jungles of Africa, – a place where modern civilization has not influenced the people with its culture or traditions or religion—the people always wear loin cloths and worship idols? Who told them that? Who told them they were naked and needed to cover themselves? Why do they have a desire to appease a Supreme Being? It’s because everyone is born with shame and a need to appease God.
We – all people – need the good news of the free and faithful love of God found in his forgiveness in Christ. That is what the kingdom of heaven is all about. It’s about repentance for the forgiveness of sin. It’s about a God who loves the world, who loves you, so much that he gave his Son to atone for your sin, for your dark deeds. Jesus preached about that when he preached the good news of the kingdom of heaven. He told stories about a son that was lost and came home to the open arms of a loving Father. He told the people that the his kingdom was not far away because it was within them through faith. He would tell those who were paralyzed by sin, those who had adulterated their lives with transgressions against God, those who were blind to God’s will, those who were leprous from the effects of sin in the world and their own actions, he would tell them of his Father’s healing, curing, enlightening love shown in his Son’s life and death on their behalf. The placard over his head on the cross would ring true: Jesus is the King and his kingdom is ushered in by his death on the cross. And by rising from the grave he would conquer death itself. Those who believe in him, repenting of their sins, would receive his forgiveness and the hope of eternal life because he would say as he did to Martha at her brother’s funeral: “he who believes in me will never die” (John 11;26).
Someone once said, “Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, ‘you owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.” The light of the world has come into your world of darkness. Jesus came to sinners with a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
+ Pr. Jim Schulz