Sunday, November 30, 2014

Darkness and Dawn

Texts:  Isaiah 9:1-7; 2 Kings 15:27-29; Matthew 4:12-17

“REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM of heaven is near!”

Is this good news for you, or bad news, or no news at all?

The kingdom of heaven is at hand, and every kingdom must have a king.  The King is coming!  Will you rejoice, will you cower in fear, or will you ignore Him and go about your business?

But this King you can’t ignore.  A governor or president serves at the will of the people.  His term ends in a few years and then he has to give up his office.  Dictators usurp power and cling to it until they die, but eventually their lives do end and their hold over the people ends, too.  Modern-day kings and queens hold ceremonial roles.  But the King of the Kingdom of Heaven truly reigns over all, He assumes His power by right, on His own authority, and His rule will never, ever end.  Get ready, repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near, and you are a subject of that kingdom whether you want to be or not.

       Nearly two thousand years ago Jesus of Nazareth returned to His home country of Galilee making just that proclamation.  Gradually He would reveal that He Himself was the King of the kingdom, the one to whom, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, every knee must bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord.  But the people of Galilee don’t know that yet.  That is what Jesus is getting ready to prove.

What kind of king will He be?  Will His reign bring joy or fear, darkness or light?

St. Matthew writes his gospel primarily to Jews, Jews who were expecting the kingdom of heaven.  Because he is writing to Jews, who hold the name of the Lord especially sacred, he avoids the term “kingdom of God.”  But we can assume that Jesus used both expressions and they both mean the same.  The coming of the kingdom of heaven or of God meant that everything on earth would finally bow the knee to God, from the widest galaxy down to the thoughts of every human heart.  It’s Matthew’s purpose to prove that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the King of the heavenly Kingdom, the long-expected Messiah who Himself is Lord and God.

To prove this Matthew cites texts from the Old Testament prophets.  “See!” he says, “The Word of the Lord said the coming King would do all these things, and this is exactly what this Jesus has done!”

And so in our passage from Matthew chapter 4 the evangelist cites Isaiah 9, verses 1 and 2.  He paraphrases, he doesn’t quote word for word, but his message is this: For those who were dwelling in darkness, the light has come.  The King comes as the bringer of daylight and dawn.  So repent!

  The first verse of this passage from Isaiah 9 evoked deep and painful memories in the hearts of the ancient Jewish people.  They are our spiritual ancestors and we need to put ourselves in their place and understand what the problem was– and still is.

For that we turn to our reading from II Kings.  The name I want you to notice first is that of Jeroboam son of Nebat, at the end of verse 28.  Jeroboam was one of King Solomon’s officials who rebelled against Solomon’s son Rehoboam back in the later part of the tenth century before Christ.  Ahijah the prophet, speaking in the name of the Lord, had said that God would give the ten northern tribes to him and if he kept God’s commands he would be granted an earthly dynasty as enduring as the one the Lord had promised David.  But even after God kept His promise and Israel was in Jeroboam’s hands, he didn’t listen.  He sinned by setting up golden calves in the northern cities of Bethel and Dan.  He said to his people, “Here are the gods who brought you up out of Egypt.”  And the people worshipped them there, instead of worshipping the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The great sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat was idolatry.  It was blaspheming the Lord by giving false gods the glory for the salvation God alone had accomplished.

And the Israelite kings after him followed his pattern, down to Pekah king of Israel, mentioned in verse 27, who reigned from around 749 to 730 BC.  He kept up the same old idolatry.  It was politically expedient, you see.  Wouldn’t want the northern tribes going down to Judah for Passover and thinking about reuniting, now would we?  On top of that the people committed all the usual sins we human beings commit when we turn our backs on God.

For their sins the Lord God brought the Assyrians against Israel. He had sworn to Moses that if they did not keep His commands He would wipe them out of the land He was giving them and hold them to account just as He had the Canaanites before them.  So as the writer of II Kings tells us,  “in the time of Pekah king of Israel, about 734 BC, Tiglath Pileser [III], king of Assyria, came and conquered the northern Israelite cites of Ijon, Abel Beth Maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, and Hazor,” in Zebulun and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and you can see their ruins to this day.  “He took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria.”

This was a time of great darkness in the history of Israel and Judah.  Before there had been the darkness of willful sin; now add to that the darkness of war, famine, conquest, exile, and shame.  About this time, down in Jerusalem in Judah, the word of the Lord came to Isaiah the prophet.  God revealed it was not Tiglath-Pileser of his own will who had humbled the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, he had only been an instrument in the hand of the Lord, to execute His just vengeance for sin.

The Lord speaking through Isaiah describes the people remaining in Galilee as “walking” and “living” in darkness.  Matthew in his paraphrase rendered both these words as “living” or “sitting” in darkness.  The point is the same.  Both the remaining native Israelites and the foreign people Assyria brought in were living without the light of the Lord.  They continued on in their sins, or if they were aware of them, they saw no hope of salvation.  The favor of the Lord all seemed to rest on Judah in the south, on Jerusalem.

About ten years later the rest of Israel was deported to Assyria.  Finally in 586 BC Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and Judah went into exile, too.
The Lord had mercy on them, and seventy years later the Judeans, that is, the Jews, were allowed to come back to the land and rebuild Jerusalem.  But things were never the same.  In the days our Lord walked this earth the whole land from south to north was under the control of Rome.  In His day the Jewish people from Judea to Galilee longed for the coming of the Messiah, the One who would save them from the darkness of sin and oppression.

But it was always considered that Judea had the edge when it came to readiness and righteousness.  That’s where the revived religion was the most pure, where the Pharisees were the most righteous.  When God’s Messiah came preaching the good news of the kingdom of heaven, surely He would do it on the streets of Jerusalem, or at least somewhere close by.

John the Baptist preached and baptised in the Desert of Judea, and our Lord was baptised there.  We even read in John’s Gospel that Jesus performed many miraculous signs in Jerusalem during the first Passover of His ministry.  He and His disciples went out into the Judean countryside (John 3:22) and baptised there, at the same time that John was still carrying on his ministry by the Jordan.  Surely it would be Judea and Jerusalem that would be the first to be blessed, not the second-rate, Gentile-infected lands to the north.

But the word of the Lord to the prophet Isaiah came true after John the Baptist was put in prison.  At that time Jesus returned to Galilee, to the land of those dwelling in darkness, to the place traditionally overrun by Gentiles, and made His first formal announcement that the night was over and the dawn had come: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  He didn’t go where people were the most “deserving,” He went first to the place of greatest need.

. . . on those living in the land of the shadow of death,
a light has dawned.

That is the kind of Saviour He is.  But does He say, “There, there, all is well, go on doing what you’ve always done, it’s okay?”  No, Jesus commands the people to repent.  Reject the apathy, the idolatry, the immorality.  Turn back to the Lord your God for salvation and healing.  Stop loving darkness and come into the light.

This is Christ’s message for us today, though the kingdom has progressed since then.  Since then Jesus has died for our sins and been raised for our justification.  Since then He has poured out His Spirit and formed His Church out of all the peoples of the world.  Even so, He commands us, Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is no longer merely near, it is here among us in the Church He has called.  The day is fast approaching when all His elect will be gathered in and the kingdom of heaven will indeed come in its fulness.  At that time every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.  As the hymn says, the Lord our God will surely “come and take His harvest home:

. . . from His field shall in that day
all offenses purge away.

Therefore He calls us His people to live as kingdom citizens, as children of light, as we turn from the sins of this world to the love of Him who died to make us His own.

This world is not as bad as it can be.  But the darkness looms over us and daily it’s getting worse.  Overseas and even in America radical Islamic groups are brutally killing Christians simply because they are Christians. Here in America men we’ve looked up to as models turn out to be the worst of sinners, and our citizens justify riot and murder for the sake of their cause.  More and more, people would rather spend another day shopping and acquiring rather than taking time to give thanks to God.  And it isn’t just other people.  The darkness of sin still keeps a foothold in our hearts, and we, too, need to hear Christ’s message: Repent– for the kingdom of heaven is here.

Jesus the Son of God was born for you, He died for you, He rose for you, that you might come out of darkness and live in the light of His heavenly kingdom.  He is the King who was to come, the King you can’t ignore, the

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Forever He will reign over you, me, and all the universe, and of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

Nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ came like the breaking dawn to save us, that all who believe in Him might live in His light and peace.  He will come again in the full light of His glory to judge the world.  For those who love darkness, that will be a day of wrath and distress.  But for those who love Him, those whose ears are opened by the Holy Spirit and heed His call, it will be a day of joy and celebration that will last forever.

This Advent season, heed the call of your Lord and King.  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come to you.  By His grace, may this be the best news you will ever hear.  Amen.