************ Sermon on Matthew 4:16 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 19, 2010
"A Great Light in Darkness"
Candle Light Service 2010
I didn't sleep very well last Sunday night. I fell asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow. Around midnight I woke up from a bright flash followed by a loud boom. Was that a gunshot? We've had a couple of robberies in our neighborhood; maybe one of my neighbors was defending his property. I walked around the house looking out the windows. I didn't see anything. I went back to bed, was almost asleep, another bright flash followed by a boom. This happened for over an hour. Turns out one of our neighbors was lighting off firecrackers.
Many times when we have guests in our home the smoke detector goes off. I'm not quite sure what our guests do to make this happen but the detector goes off. With an unbelievably loud screech. In the middle of the night. When we are sound asleep. Talk about a horrible way to wake up. The only way to turn off the noise is to pinpoint which unit triggered the warning, grab a step-ladder out of the garage, take the whole thing down, and put it in the garage where we do not hear the beeping/chirping it makes when it is disconnected from the system. Thank goodness this did not happen with all the guests for David's wedding.
Would any of this bother us if it happened during the day? Probably not. It is always twice as loud and twice as scary in the darkness. We learn from an early age to be fearful of darkness. That's why night-lights are installed in the bedrooms of many little children. That little 4-watt bulb chases away some of the darkness and comforts the little one who is afraid of the dark. In the same way, as we celebrate tonight in our candle light service, Jesus is the light that chases away the darkness (Jn 12:46).
I Darkness and Light in Isaiah
A Quoting Isaiah, our text speaks of darkness in the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali. It speaks of those living in the land of the shadow of death. Therefore, to understand our text we have to spend a few moments looking at the prophecy of Isaiah. I want to do so by asking four questions.
The first question: What is the land of Zebulun and Naphtali? This is the land in northern Israel occupied by the tribe of Zebulun and Naphtali by the sea of Galilee. The region was given the name "Galilee."
B The second question: What is the darkness and gloom spoken of by Isaiah (Is 8:22; 9:1,2)?
The darkness begins with the mighty Assyrian army. You need to realize that during the time of Isaiah, Assyria to the north was expanding its empire and Egypt to the south was declining. To offset the Assyrians and to make up for the Egyptians, Syria and the northen kingdom of Israel formed an alliance against Assyria and pressured Judah to join them. When King Ahaz of Judah hesitated to join them, Syria and Israel joined forces to fight against Jerusalem and replace Ahaz as king. Remember the result? I spoke of this last week. In one disastrous battle, Judah lost 120,000 soldiers and 200,000 wives, sons, and daughters were taken captive (2 Chron 28:5-8). If this happened to Presidents Bush or Obama we would all march on Washington and demand their heads.
After this defeat, King Ahaz could only wonder how long it would be before Jerusalem was conquered and he lost his throne? So, Isaiah was sent to Ahaz with a message: "It will not take place, it will not happen." In other words, you will not lose your throne. Judah will not go down in defeat. So, "stand firm in your faith" (Is 7:7, 9). Furthermore, "the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste" (Is 7:16). Isaiah is speaking here of the defeat of Syria and Israel. Remember the sign that was given as proof that all this was true? We heard all about the sign last week in the Sunday School program: the sign of Immanuel, God with us, or – as the Hebrew puts it – with us God.
What did Ahaz do in response? He made a treaty with Assyria and appealed for its help.
It didn't take long before the Assyrian army struck the Northern Kingdom of Israel. And, the first ones to feel the sting of the Assyrian bee – as Isaiah puts it – (cf Isaiah 7:18) were Zebulun and Naphtali. Do you know why Zebulun and Naphtali were hit first? Because their territory lies along "the way to the sea" (Mt 4:15; cf Is 9:1). Matthew and Isaiah are the only places where the Bible mentions this phrase, but it appears often in Assyrian and Egyptian records. This is the major trade route that joins Egypt to Mesopotamia. The Assyrian soldiers took this route when they invaded and conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In fact, this was the route taken by most invading armies so Zebulun and Naphtali suffered most and first in the wars and devastations that came upon the land. That's why it was a place of darkness and gloom.
Foreign domination and destruction was only part of the darkness. Did you catch the name for the area? It was called "Galilee of the Gentiles" (Mt 4:15; Is 9:1). There were a couple of reasons for the name. First, the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali never succeeded in conquering all the heathen in their territory. Second, the area was surrounded on three sides by heathen territories – so there always was a pagan or heathen influence. Third, when the Assyrians conquered the area they deported and scattered the Jews while heathen foreigners moved into the land. It was a place of unbelieving darkness.
For a while after the Assyrian conquest, the land was neglected and uncultivated and desolate (Is 7:21-25). It was a land of darkness and gloom.
Finally, you need to be aware of the darkness of sin. Israel bowed before Baal and Astarte. People consulted mediums and spiritists instead of the light of God's Word (Is 8:19-20). The darkness of sin lay heavy upon the land. As I said last week, things were no better in Judah. Ahaz was a wicked king. He made images for the Baals, offered incense to idol gods, and even burned his sons as an offering (2 Chron 28:2-4).
C The third question: Why did this happen – the foreign domination, the heathen influence, the deportation, the darkness and the gloom?
Let me backtrack for just a moment. I grew up hearing the stories of the Old Testament. As I heard and learned about the judges and the kings and the prophets, I thought Israel and Judah were the most important and greatest nations on earth. From a human perspective, though, the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah were but small players on the world stage – even though they had their own king, armies, wealth, and territory. The big players, the countries that exerted influence, the superpowers, were the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.
It is reasonable to say what happened to Israel and Judah was simply the result of power politics. It was the result of military alliances made and broken. Assyria's power was growing. Egypt's power was declining. Israel and Syria felt threatened. And little Judah was caught in the middle.
However, there is also another way of looking at this. We can look at this in terms of God's providence and might. Scripture tells us that it was God Who punished Ahaz by handing him over to the combined alliance of Syria and Israel (2 Chron 28:5). And, it was God Who punished Syria and Israel by sending Assyria and its army to conquer them (Is 7:18).
Do you realize what this means? This means that before the face of God even the superpowers of Assyria and Egypt are but pawns in His hand. As Isaiah puts it,
(Is 40:15) Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.By God's providence and will, Assyria was growing and Egypt was declining. By God's providence and will, Israel and Syria made an alliance. By God's providence and will, Judah appealed to Assyria for help. By God's providence and will, Assyria invaded Israel by the way to the sea. Isn't it amazing how God arranges everything to fit His plan? The real superpower, we come to realize, is God. He is mighty and awesome, sovereign and great. As for men and nations, they are like pieces on a chessboard that He moves around in order to discipline.
D The fourth question: What is the great light spoken of by Isaiah?
(Is 9:2) The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.This is a promise of God, a prophecy about the future, that the darkness and gloom are not permanent, that light will take the place of darkness, that the glorious Messiah is coming.
II Darkness and Light in Matthew
A We turn to Matthew's Gospel and we see Jesus. We are told He returned to Galilee. He went to the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. Jesus went there, says Matthew, "to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah" (Mt 4:14). Jesus went there so that "the people living in darkness have seen a great light"; so that "on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned" (Mt 4:16). It took 700 years but Isaiah's prophecy was eventually fulfilled. A reminder that no promise from God goes by the wayside and no Word of Scripture can be broken (Jn 10:35). Again, isn't it amazing how our almighty God makes everything fit together?
B We need to acknowledge that at the time of Jesus the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were still places of darkness. Instead of Assyrian domination it was Roman domination. Many of the inhabitants were still heathen pagans. A century and a half before the birth of Jesus (under the Maccabees), the Gentile influence upon the Jews became so strong that the Jews actually withdrew from the area for fifty years. It was still "Galilee of the Gentiles."
Furthermore, it was a backwater region inhabited by the poor and uneducated. It was not an enlightened area.
The people of Galilee were looked down upon by the people from Jerusalem and area. Remember from Acts 4 how the Sanhedrin was amazed with Peter and John? These men obviously were Galileans – unschooled, ordinary men – yet they spoke before the Sanhedrin with such courage and power. Remember, also, what Nathanael said after Philip told him they found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth? "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" (Jn 1:43ff). Do you remember how Peter was identified as one of Jesus' disciples the night he denied Jesus? By his accent! (Mt 26:73). So, obviously, Galileans talked and sounded different than the people from Jerusalem. Just like Canadians sound different than Americans or just like we have regional accents in the U.S. And, remember what Peter was called? "You are a Galilean" (Mk 14:70). Do you hear the contempt, the scorn, the shame of being from Galilee of the Gentiles?
C Now how, in what way, did Jesus' coming to Galilee bring light? Let's start off by remembering what Jesus said about Himself. He said,
(Jn 8:12) "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."Jesus is the light. He brings light wherever He goes. He chases away darkness wherever He goes. Jesus' presence means light. Actually, Matthew and Isaiah say Jesus' presence means "great light." Do you remember how Genesis 1 describes the sun and the moon? There is the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night (Gen 1:16). Jesus is a great light – not like the light of a candle but like the light of the sun.
Do you realize what this actually means? We are being told that those without Christ are in darkness. Not only are they in darkness but they are living in the "shadow of death" (Mt 4:16). Someone desperately sick, someone not likely to recover, someone sent home in order to die, is living in the valley of the shadow of death. That is man's condition without Christ. This is man's condition because of sin. That is the condition of Zebulun and Naphtali, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Visalia and Tulare, Washington and Ottawa if they are without Christ. Everyone without Christ is living in darkness. How sad that so many live this way.
Do you know what is even sadder than those living in darkness? Even sadder are those who live in darkness in the midst of Gospel-light.
How many churches do we have in Visalia? I am told there are over two hundred, maybe even three hundred. Yet, when I read the newspaper and watch the news I have to weep about all the people living in darkness though they are surrounded by Gospel-light. I think of the six people arrested this past week for stealing from elderly members of our community. They come to the door with a pregnant woman or a little child and ask to use the bathroom. What senior member of our community will turn them down? While the woman or child is being helped their associates slip into the house and rob and steal whatever is not tied down. I think of the gang-bangers who kill and steal at the drop of a hat. I think of all the fine outstanding members of our community who don't break the law but also don't have a relationship with Jesus. It may not be evident but they live in as much darkness as any gang-banger.
D Again, we need to ask how, in what way, does Jesus' presence bring light to Galilee? I want you to listen very carefully to how Matthew ends our Scripture reading:
(Mt 4:17) From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."
The light of Christ which is the light of the Gospel, is present wherever and whenever people are called upon to repent.
Let me say this loud and clear: the light of the Gospel begins with the call to repentance. This is not the popular way of proclaiming the Gospel today. In many places, this is not even a common way of proclaiming the Gospel. People have itchy ears and pastors are too eager to scratch that itch with the Gospel of positive thinking or the Gospel of wealth and health or a white-cloud Christianity which emphasizes love and salvation and grace but says nothing about sin and repentance.
The light of the Gospel came to Zebulun and Naphtali when Jesus called upon its people to repent. Likewise, the light comes to our homes and churches and communities when those living in the darkness of sin are called to repent. You see, any preaching that makes us turn from our sin also makes us turn unto Jesus. And, everyone who repents and believes becomes filled with the light of Christ.
On this candle light service I want to ask you something; I need to ask you something: Do you still live in darkness or do you live in the light of Christ? Have you repented of your sins and do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?
Now, it is no accident that the very next story mentioned by Matthew is the calling of the first disciples. Do you know what Jesus was doing? He was passing on the light – like we are going to be doing in a few minutes. He was giving others responsibility to also bring the light. So let me ask you another question: Do you bear witness to the light? Are you a light in word and deed to those living in darkness (cf the next story, Mt 4:23-25)?
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