Matthew 4:12–23

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany – 1/22/2023

As you can observe in the décor of our sanctuary this morning, we have moved beyond the Christmas season. The Christmas tree, the nativity banners, the candles, and the poinsettias are gone. We are now and have been since January 6th, in the season of the church year referred to as Epiphany. A shining upon, a revelation, or the making known of what was hidden or unknown is what epiphany means.

The emphasis of this Third Sunday after the Epiphany is to point out that as momentous as Jesus' birth was and is, the coming of the Man Jesus onto the scene of our world is an even more defining moment in the lives of all people. As Matthew helps us to see in our text, when the grown-up Jesus showed up on the scene where His cousin John was baptizing and preaching, it was like a new day for the Jews, for the world, or you and me. It was and still is a true epiphany, a flash of revelation.

Now, I don't mean in any way to diminish the incarnation and birth of the Son of God in Bethlehem of Judea. That God became flesh from our flesh and bone from our bone in the womb of a young virgin named Mary and was born into our world to be among us is an occasion worthy of the whole world's celebration. After all, even the angels of heaven understood and appreciated the epic wonder and eternal significance of this historical event for the world. They all came out in the heavens to praise the LORD.

Despite this heavenly fanfare on the day of Jesus' birth, the arrival of the Son of God in human flesh remained, for the most part, unknown, hidden under the cover of the darkness of this world. No one knew this child's true identity as the Son of God except his mother Mary and stepfather Joseph, as well as a few others such as the magi from the east and Simeon and Anna in the temple.

Jesus lived and grew up in relative obscurity, in the shadows, so to speak. His identity as the Incarnate One and His true mission for dwelling among us remained hidden from view.

Jesus' arrival at the Jordan River, however, brought everything to light. It certainly changed everything for John the Baptizer. John had been given a special ministry by God to prepare the way for Jesus' revelation to the world by preaching a baptism of repentance. But on the day that Jesus showed up where John was baptizing to be baptized by him, dawn began to break. As Jesus emphasized to John, this was to fulfill all righteousness. The manifestation of Jesus as God's Son coming to be the sacrificial lamb for the world shone brightly. God's testimony was given with the opening of the heavens, making visible the holy place of God, the visible anointing of Jesus with the Holy Spirit, and the clear, audible voice of God the Father declaring, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17).

Matthew notes for us, however, that shortly after Jesus' baptism by John, John was arrested and thrown into prison by Herod. He also points out that after he heard about it, Jesus withdrew into Galilee.

This does not mean that Jesus went north into Galilee simply to avoid trouble for himself. On the contrary, John's removal from the scene was a further sign that Jesus' public ministry was about to get rolling. Jesus had been in Judea. He'd just finished the torturous 40-day devil's temptation. He needed to get his ministry off the ground and his message front and center. John and his ministry were not dispensable, but they had already served God's purpose. Jesus knew it. John's arrest confirmed it.

John seemed to understand that his ministry was merely preparatory for Jesus' ministry. He confessed, "That One must increase but for me to decrease" (Jn 3:30). John knew he was the "friend of the bridegroom" and that Jesus was the "bride" (3:29). John was not the one who brought light to a darkened world, but rather the one who introduced the world to light! After all, John had been sent by God to prepare the way for God's Messiah. The time for preparation was over. The kingdom itself was coming in the person of Jesus. As Matthew reports: "From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

When Jesus heard the news, he immediately went up to Galilee. He did so because it had been prophesied that in Galilee the light of the Messiah would first begin to shine. Isaiah had said, "Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles—the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned." Mark further notes in His Gospel that "the appointed time had come" (Mk 1:14).

Galilee was the most appropriate place for the true light of salvation to shine. Of all the provinces of Israel, the province of Galilee was without a doubt one of the most spiritually darkened. It was a hodgepodge of Jews, Gentiles, and the half-breeds known as Samaritans. The Northern tribes of Israel had gone their separate ways hundreds of years before Christ, abandoning their fellow Jews and the true temple worship in Jerusalem. They disobeyed God by intermarrying with the local Canaanite populations and establishing their form of religion, incorporating the worship rituals and the gods of the Canaanites into the traditions handed down to them from Moses. In short, they had wandered from the truth and no longer lived in the light of the life and salvation offered them by the God of their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But with the beginning of the public preaching and teaching of one of their own, Jesus of Nazareth, the bright light of truth began to enlighten the land of Galilee, and in fact, the whole world. Jesus is the true light, who is to shine the light of the knowledge of salvation into the hearts and lives of all men (John 1:4–9). Jesus, Himself would testify, "I have come into the world as a light so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness." (Jn 12:46). 

Where better for Jesus to begin to let the light shine? Many of those who lived in Galilee truly did live under the shadow of death. Because of their ancestors' wickedness, they were still living under the curse of God's wrath. How marvelous, then, that they should be the first to be visited by God's mercy in His Messiah!

Jesus picked up the call of John to the people of Judah, and He cried out, "Repent!" The old order of the day would no longer do. There needed to be a turning from darkness to light. There needed to be, literally, a change of mind and a change of heart.

But Jesus' call to repentance came with a new twist. Jesus said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." John's call to repentance was preparatory for the kingdom to come. Jesus' call to repentance included a call to faith as well. Because God was bringing His kingdom of light to the people through Jesus. Those who believed in Him were born anew into life and salvation. "Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become Children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor human decision, nor of a husband's will, but born of God," writes the apostle John.

The "land of darkness" certainly extends well beyond the borders of first-century Zebulun and Naphtali, by the sea and along the Jordan. Today, it is not an exaggeration to say most people's eyes remain blind to the truth.

On this weekend, which has for the past six decades served to mark the anniversary of that infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, legalizing abortion throughout the United States, the very blackness of this darkness of lies is seen in the ongoing push to retain the barbaric practice of the murder of infants who just happen to live in the womb of their mothers. Oh, there has been a bright spot as of late. On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court finally overturned that awful, murderous decision. However, the court fell far short of ending the evil practice of abortion and restoring the truth that, at conception, a precious human life begins. Instead, the court simply kicked the can down the road to the states. Now it's up to each state to decide for itself if it will allow or outlaw abortions. The darkness of untruth still pervades.

We can bemoan the Supreme Court's weakness and refusal to acknowledge the truth, but as with all true darkness, this ongoing allowance for the killing of the unborn has its foundation in the falsehoods, lies, and untruths, and the evil seductions of demons and fallen men, which continually, in one way or another, seek to counter, oppose, besmirch, slander, and eliminate the very Word of God. And, because the Word of God is the Son of God (Jn 1:1), the One through whom God communicates His will, creates and preserves all that exists (John 1), and even redeems and saves mankind and all of creation (Ro. 8), these same opponents to The Truth are truly rejecting and opposing God Himself, thereby placing themselves under God's eternal curse and condemnation.

Apart from Jesus, there is only darkness. He alone is the way, the truth, and the life. Nobody comes to the Father except through Him! (Jn 14:6). Faith that is not founded on Him is a fantasy and a dead-end road. Religious systems that do not worship Jesus Christ alone as God and Lord are simply systems that worship the devil and his demons. All preaching and teachings that do not center on Jesus Christ are simply the blind leading the blind to hell. All life lived without Jesus is simply a life of vanity that will end in the perpetual darkness of eternal death.

As those who already confess Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, that new day has already dawned in our lives. The very fact that we even have faith in Jesus is evidence that we are already in the kingdom of God's light. Through His Word of the Gospel and through Holy Baptism, empowered by that Word, God Himself has shone the light of His grace in Jesus Christ into us and given us new birth as His children. We have been given forgiveness and eternal life through Him. We are children of the light, not of darkness.

Unfortunately, billions of our fellow Earthlings are still in the dark. Just as our work and witness in telling the truth about abortion are still greatly needed, so is the need for us who are of the light to shine the light of the truth of Christ in our world.

Jesus insured that His light would continue to shine in the world even though He was planning to return to His Father and no longer keep His fleshly presence in our world. Matthew records that during His ministry of preaching and teaching the kingdom, Jesus also called four fishermen with these words: "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." With this calling, Simon, Andrew, James, and John were enlisted in the ministry of the light. Jesus was calling and appointing these four men into service as His apostles. He was giving them a new vocation. He was inviting them to join Him in His work of casting the nets of the gospel into the world's sea to bring people into the boat of God's salvation.

The world would never be the same again after the calling of these four men, and later, eight others. The light was extending even farther into the world. A new day had dawned in human history. The lives of countless millions would be changed forever because of the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ that these personal witnesses to all the nations would proclaim. They would turn the world upside down!

Through their ministry of word and sacraments, the nets of the gospel would bulge with souls saved from the darkness of sin and death and into the light of forgiveness and life. Their witness to Christ would be the foundation of the Christian Church. Their calling even meant that we would be saved. Without their witness, who among us would ever have learned of Jesus' passion and atoning sacrifice for our sins? We would have remained in the darkness outside the boat of Christ's salvation!

But what would happen when these so-called apostles died? Was the light of Jesus going to go out? Not at all. God caused their witness to be recorded in the pages of the Holy Scriptures. Wherever those Scriptures are preached and taught in all truth and purity, the light of Christ continues to shine brightly among those who have been gathered by it, and the light of Christ's truth shines brightly through them in the darkness of this world. They have become Jesus' light for the world (Matt. 5).

This includes you and me here at Trinity. Jesus has brought us into the kingdom of His light through the word of the apostles, which they preached and proclaimed to us. In the washing of regeneration in Holy Baptism, He sanctified us as His bride and made us holy. He has caused us to be fed and nourished on the bread of life in the Supper of the Body and Blood of our Lord. He has left to us the witness of the apostles and the Holy Spirit in the Holy Scriptures. He has commanded us to baptize all nations and teach them everything He has commanded us to teach them. He has said to us, "You are the light of the world... "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works (gospel works) and praise your Father in heaven."

He has given us a new vocation. He has called us into His business of saving souls. There is a whole world outside our door that lies in darkness. We have the light of Christ they need. The light of salvation is to be manifested in our giving of offerings, in our witness to our neighbors, and in the ministries, we carry out. It is a new day.

It's Epiphany season in the world, and it's time for us to reveal The Truth! As Jesus preached in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, so He continues to preach today through us: "Repent! "For the kingdom of God is at hand." "The Way... the Truth... Life... has arrived."Turn from listening to the philosophies and teachings of men and demons and listen to the Word of Christ Jesus. Turn from fearing man to fearing God. Turn from a worldly mindset to that of Christ. Turn from living in fear and worry over losing things to living in the comfort and hope of the gains that are yours in the Crucified and Risen Lord Jesus Christ. Turn from the enslavement of serving your fleshly lusts to the freedom of serving the God who serves you! Turn from serving yourself to serving others, as God in Christ has served you. Jesus has brought His kingdom to you in His word and sacraments. "Walk in the light, and you will have true life!"

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