Gospel Reading Matthew 4:12-17

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, after our Lord is baptized in the River Jordan by John, He then goes into the wilderness for 40 days to fast and pray and is tempted 3 times by the devil. After He returns from the wilderness, (at the point we begin our Gospel for this morning) He hears that John has been put into prison. So He goes to Galilee. St. Matthew writes that He goes in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that the saying of the Prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled. The first part of that prophecy is The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. I’ve never given much thought to this quote, until this week. Both the prophecy and its fulfillment are really quite interesting.

Zebulun and Naphtali are tribes of Israel – Naphtali was the second son of the Patriarch Jacob, and Zebulun was the 6th son of Jacob. The twelve sons of Jacob are the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. And if you think about the physical land of Israel, each tribe lived in a certain area. The land areas weren’t equal, and I have no idea how the distribution was decided on. But the “land of Zebulun” and the “land of Naphtali” refer to the land area in Israel where the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali lived. By the time of our Lord, Israel had been conquered many times, and was under the domination of the Roman Empire. So the land of the tribes didn’t hold up under occupation. Zebulun and Naphtali were north and west of the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan. They occupied the same land that Galilee, or Galilee of the Gentiles, occupied in the time of Jesus. So the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali are the same geographical location as Galilee. And by the time of our Lord, this area is predominately Gentile, it’s not part of Jewish Israel any longer. So this is the place our Lord visits almost immediately after His public ministry has begun. A land that once had belonged to the Chosen People of God, but now was a land of Gentiles.

The prophecy of Isaiah finishes by saying The people who sat in darkness [these people of Galilee] have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned. The prophecy is fulfilled in its entirety—Zebulun and Naphtali are the Gentile land of Galilee, and Christ goes to bring these people who have set in darkness the light of Gospel. These people sitting in darkness refers to their lack of knowledge of God. They live in godlessness (not necessarily sin, but without God), darkness, because of their separation from God. They don’t worship the One True God. Isaiah further describes this sitting in darkness as the region and shadow of death. Not knowing God, darkness, is equated with death. The great enemy of humankind is death – so the people who don’t know God sit in the shadow of death. Death always looms.

The Father’s say that the fuel for our sinfulness being continually perpetuated and always getting worse is the fear of death. On one level we know that our life on this earth will end, and we struggle with the temptation to be happy and fulfill physical desires with nothing but our own gratification in mind. Even over us as Christians, the shadow of death affects our actions. The solution for the darkness and shadow and region of death—a Light has dawned. Christ has come. He comes as the Messiah for the Jews, and as a Light for the Gentiles. He comes for salvation for all mankind—salvation and redemption from the region and shadow of death.

On the greatest feast of the year, that’s what we sing: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. And the first place Christ goes to bring this message is to Galilee. A hybrid land. Formerly the land of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Formerly land of the Chosen People, now the land of Gentiles. A place full of Jews, and Gentiles, and a large population of Gentile converts to Judaism. This message of Christ is for all mankind.

He comes to Galilee and he preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For the light to shine, for the shadows and the darkness to withdraw, for this great redemption to come, Christ preaches “Repent.” Turn from sin, turn to God. It’s a very simple message (outwardly). This is our message. Every Sunday and Wednesday and Saturday (and every day of the week) the services of our Church are a constant call to repentance. The Scriptures are a constant call to repentance. One of my favorite patristic quotes, from St. Isaac the Syrian, “This life is given to you for repentance, waste it not in vain pursuits.” We hear this message daily (if we say our prayers and read Fathers/Scriptures). And this is the message of the Church – Christ is risen; repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. This heaven, Christ says, the kingdom of God is within you. We turn our hearts and souls to Christ, and then our interior landscape that lies in sin and darkness, it’s transformed by the love and the light of Christ.

Zebulun and Naphtali are good reminders for us as Christians – they were part of that chosen land and that chosen people of God. The people turned away from God constantly (we see it throughout the Old Testament). And by the time the Messiah comes, these portions no longer belong to Israel, and the rest of the lands are conquered and under the dominion of the Romans. We have to be constantly reminded to live this repentance, to accept and seek the Light of Christ, so we don’t wind up fallen away and dominated by sins and the devil, when once (to use an image Christ uses) we were proud the children of the King. We’ll end with the words of the Exapostilarion of the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity-Our Saviour the Dayspring of the East, has visited us from on high, and we who were in darkness and shadow have found the Truth, for the Lord is born of the Virgin. We have the Truth and the Light; what a magnificent blessing from our God.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!