This text for Epiphany 3 matches the seasons in people’s lives both liturgically and physically. However, before we begin it is important to note the context for this section in Isaiah. Tiglath-Pileser III has come in and separated the western, eastern, and northern provinces of Israel. He has changed their names and transformed them into Assyrian provinces (2 Kings 15:29). Assyria used everything at their disposal to transform Israel into an Assyrian land. Isaiah sees this annexation of Israel and the defeat of Ahaz’s political alliances as an opportunity for the House of David to take back what it can of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. These ideas of taking back what was lost and reclaiming your identity will serve as the homiletical center for this sermon.
It must have been pretty depressing for the people living in Zebulun and Naphtali in those days. After two campaigns from the Assyrian King, Tiglath-Pileser III (734 and 732), they were renamed Dulru, Magidu, and Galazu. Their identity was robbed as a result of the transformation into Assyrian provinces. The loss of their tribal names would mean the loss of their identity with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. More importantly, it meant losing their identity with the story of their faith and the promise of God.
In a season of the year which has most people dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder, this creates a strong, practical connection to the situation of life for the people in our text. It is a dark time of the year. There is not enough light to keep us “affectively” positive. Our people will be exhausted from the holiday “break,” and since we are solar powered beings, this lack of light means limited to no movement, and it just puts people in the dumps. Depression rises as the light fades and is faded. The Christmas lights are down, and the presents have already lost their luster. All the parties are a past-time activity. The bills are finally coming due from the Christmas splurge. People have packed away the tinsel and now the headache and heartache come that cannot be solved by Tylenol. This is the season where darkness has taken us captive, and depression tries to rename us and say things about us which are not true. When depression renames you, it is hard to remember the stories of faith and the promises of God.
When depression renames you, it is hard to remember the stories of faith and the promises of God.
What we need is light to shine into this darkness and remind us of who and whose we are. We do not belong to the darkness, and we need a better word than depression speaks over us. Isaiah speaks that word when he announces there is a way past the “gloom and anguish” (verse 1). Our text speaks of how God “has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (verse 1). With a little help from our assigned Gospel lesson for today, a connection is created for us that assists the gospel preach-ability of our Old Testament text. When Matthew 4:12-25 declares Jesus entered “into Galilee in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled” (verse 12-14), it was fulfilled in two distinct ways. Namely, He was the light which was coming into the world (John 1:5; John 8:12) and He called His disciples by name (not Dulru, Magidu, and Galazu). He identified them and called them to be His disciples. Whoever they were before would not be the same as who they would be because of Him. Being called by Jesus was a life changing experience just as much as being called in the waters of Baptism is a life changing experience for us too. There you were called by name to belong to Jesus. You were called out of the darkness of this world into the life and light of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:9-10).
The coming of Jesus into Zebulun and Naphtali is where people who literally “walked in darkness” could see “a great light” and to “those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (verse 2) in the preaching and healing ministry of Christ. They saw, as Matthew faithfully reported, “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (4:17). It changed (repented) everything about these people’s lives and it was this ministry which changed your life as well, but you would not be changed by being called near the Sea of Galilee (4:18). No, you would be changed by grace through faith in the same way Isaiah’s listeners were. They had to trust by faith that, while they lived in a world full of darkness and gloom, God would keep His promise and bring them light and salvation. It was on the day Jesus died that He took on all the darkness and gloom of sin. There He had the name of every sinner and the label of every form of condemnation affixed to Him on the cross for you. There He cried out in the darkness “it is finished,” and He took the full wrath of God for the sin of the entire world. Then the shining light of the first Easter morning proved the prophecy, the promise, and the Messiah rose to bring us light and life everlasting.
As a result, you and I have the same saving faith our forefather’s in the faith had in the Old Testament (Hebrews 1:1 and Hebrews 11). It is faith in the God who saves freely and fully on account of Christ alone. They trusted in God to keep His promise and we know He kept those promises because of Jesus. In the waters of your baptism, God has given you light and life in the Lord Jesus. So, no matter how dark it gets you have more reason to have “increased joy” and to “rejoice and be glad” (verse 3) because you have the word of promise and its fulfillment in Christ.
On a practical sidenote, during this season I suggest having epiphany parties as much as you can through these physically, morally, and ethically dark times. Find reasons to turn on some more lights. Light some more candles and celebrate the only true “light that has come into the world” (John 3:19), our savior Jesus Christ who has given us light for life and an eternally secure identity in the waters of baptism.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Isaiah 9:1-4.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Isaiah 9:1-4.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Isaiah 9:1-4.