The Light in the Darkness
Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, January 13, 2019
The Reading is from Matthew 4:12-17
At that time, when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "The land of Zebulun 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." From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
Matthew engages us in a bit of sacred geography this morning as he brings the Land of Zebulon and Naphtali into focus. First, then, what and where is this land?
Zebulon and Naphtali were two of the ten tribes of Israel who settled east of the Galilee in what became known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel as opposed to the Southern Kingdom of Judah which consisted of the two remaining tribes, Judah and Benjamin. Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom which was destroyed by Assyria in 720 BCE. The people became assimilated into the culture and religion of their conquerors so much so that the people of the Southern Kingdom despised them. The famous rabbi Akiva wrote that “the inhabitants of the North, the Ten Tribes, will have no share in the life of the world to come.” The city in the North that you most likely remember is the very place Jesus moved to from Nazareth, Capernaum.
Matthew sees this as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy from chapter 9. Let’s read verses 1 and 2.
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. (that is the people in the conquered Northern Kingdom) In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan…
And then verse 2: "The land of Zebulun 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."
In the eyes of Matthew and the Jews to whom he was writing this move by Jesus was seen as his intention to restore the united kingdom of Israel, the Davidic kingdom, with this one difference. For Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world, this restoration is not geographic, it is apocalyptic. The kingdom of David becomes the Kingdom of Heaven and his movement into the Galilee of the Gentiles, a movement towards the unification of humanity as a whole. Jesus is saving the whole cosmos! I love this quote from the Gospel of Thomas:
His disciples said to Him, "When will the Kingdom come?" Jesus said, "It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying 'Here it is' or 'There it is.' Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it."
The theme does not belong only to Isaiah! “Behold,” writes the prophet Ezekiel, “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out…I will rescue them from the places where they have been scattered on the day of clouds and thick darkness…and gather them from all countries.” (Ezekiel 34) The darkness of the land of Zebulun and Naphtali is introduced to the Light of the Messiah in whom there is neither “Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.”
And here it is echoed in words from St. Amphilochios of Patmos:
I was born to love people. It doesn't concern me if he is a Turk, black, or white. I see in the face of each person the image of God. And for this image of God I am willing to sacrifice everything.
Looking inwardly, the Gospel has rich meaning. For the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali are within all of us. There are parts of us that have been scattered, humbled, wounded, and abandoned, who have been cast out and forgotten. The Lord would bring all of them, too, into the light of His loving embrace. This is the point of repentance, of course, not just the confession of sins, but enlightenment and transformation of our whole person, the two selves spoken of by Evagrius of Pontus, not only the True Self, the image of God, but the legion of other selves that makes up our interior life. The True Self and our parts.
Through repentance we come into contact with our wounded and forgotten parts. As Thomas Merton writes, “The first step toward finding God, who is Truth, is to discover the truth about myself: and if I have been in error, this first step to truth is the discovery of my error.” We must enter into the uncharted regions of our lives into which the light of awareness has yet to dawn, where the swirling clouds of thoughts and feelings hide the sun like fog on a winter morning.
No part of us, no matter how shameful or despised, is to be left out of the glorious salvation God has wrought for us in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 2: But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
Our attitude towards all things is encapsulated in these verses. It reminds me of the wonderful quote by Fr. Iakovos Fauchille sent to me by my friend from UMASS Amherst that speaks of the Orthodox approach to prayer:
“Attend to the silence between the prayers. Listen to God. This is difficult. It takes time. Don’t force, don’t press. We don’t do the work, God does. Open the door; let God work.”
Everything is done. God has done it. All we need do is learn how to “let God do the work.” And as it runs roughshod over everything we think his work should be, to embrace with gratitude, everything that comes.