In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear Brothers and Sisters Baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus:
For eight hundred years the Jewish residents of the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali had vainly attempted to forget the memories of the Assyrian invasion recorded for us in the 15th and 17th chapters of 2Kings. During that military strike, residents who possessed skills that might be of use to the Assyrian Empire were ripped from their family and land and hauled off to the capital of the kingdom of the north. Oppressive conditions at the hands of Babylon followed. Both farmers and fisherman were brutally deported, only to be replaced by settlements of Assyrians who brought with them their distasteful customs and language and religious beliefs and practices.
This northern section of the promised land given to the twelve tribes of Israel was one of the first to suffer at the hands of Israel's pagan enemies. And, in many respects, one of the last regions to begin to recover. Even in the days of Jesus, eight hundred years later, the area was still considered by the rest of the Jewish nation as backward, colloquial, less Jewish, more infected with heathen influences, and, at the end of the day, less important to God and his continuing kingdom. "Galilee of the Gentiles," although predominantly Jewish, was a frontier territory inhabited by many different kinds of peoples, languages, customs and religions; a region of continual temptation to abandon the Word and Sacraments revealed by the God of Scripture. (Remind you of any place in our nation today?)
The region of Galilee, particularly the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, was disdained by much of the southern kingdom of Judah. The northerners dressed differently, spoke with an accent, and their family and religious pedigrees were not as pure as those enjoyed by the Jewish residents in the regions that surrounded Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon.
No doubt that even in Jesus' day, generations —centuries —after the brutal siege that tore apart the Jewish fabric of the these northern regions, the residents of Zebulun and Naphtali had little hope that they would ever regain what they had lost: their status as true children of Israel and the life-giving promises from the hand of Israel's gracious God. A darkness and gloom had settled over these northern districts, and the results upon the faith of their residents was as devastating as that experienced at the hand of the Assyrians.
Nevertheless, even though many had thrown in the towel on God's merciful intervention, the prophet Isaiah was called to send word to Zebulun and Naphtali. Isaiah had a word of hope for those who had given up on God's salvation, for those who had sat down in hopeless resignation. God would surely come and restore his people who lived oppressed in the shadow of death. The Lord had not forgotten these pitiful people, despite their unfaithfulness and failed attempts to resist the temptations presented by their new Assyrian neighbors.
Through his prophet, the Lord of Israel had announced life-giving Good News to hopeless people who could do nothing but sit in their own no-win situation. God's glorious Light had come to break through the darkness of believing that God had forever abandoned his people to suffer the loss of their families, their land, their culture and language — their connection with the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. "The God of your fathers will restore you." Isaiah proclaimed. "The God of David will come through his Messiah to bring back everything you have lost. He will deliver you, just as he did in Egypt. Put your faith in his Word and in his Son — in the One who will surely come for you."
You see, the appearance of being forsaken and handed over to one's enemies by the God who revealed himself to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is nothing new in the history of salvation. Hope — in the midst of hopelessly being "handed over" to evil men — was a saving gift of God given to our first parents and to those who followed them in faith: to men and women such as Joseph and Ruth, Moses and Samson, David and the prophets that followed him.
And so we are surprised, but not completely surprised, when we hear this morning that the public ministry of Jesus is set into motion with the news that with John the Baptist, again, God has allowed one of his own to be handed over, to be seized and arrested and taken by evil men into the land of darkness and despair.
We had a feeling this is the way it might end for John as he followed in the way of the Old Testament prophets of the Lord, prophets who were subjected to abuse at the hands of those who had no intention of receiving their God-given proclamation in obedience and faith. We had a feeling this is the way it might end for John as he pointed to the coming of a Messiah hunted down by King Herod and despised by his sons who ruled after him; the Christ who had to flee to Egypt and then to Nazareth, and now withdraws to Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee.
But just when all hope in rescue from the hands of the oppressor has seemingly vanished, God's trusting people hear that their Lord is on the move. This unexpected Good News, this undeserved Gospel of our God's gracious intervention — his breaking through to rescue and save and restore — was placed in the mouth of Isaiah and fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah, in the coming of Jesus to set up his base for ministry at Capernaum.
John had been handed over, and now, in Jesus, the gracious reign of heaven has come near. His epiphany, the manifestation of his redeeming light, has dawned on a hopeless people who can only sit in the darkness of their despair and wait for the merciful intervention of One more powerful than their sin and doubt and empty promises to remain faithful to the perfect will and law of God.
It is Saint Matthew, guided by the Holy Spirit, who sees the same Immanuel, the same "God-is-now-with-us," manifested to betrothed Joseph in a dream now rising with healing in his wings to the inhabitants of forsaken and despised Zebulun and Naphtali. "God-is-now-with-us" to complete and fulfill all that John the Baptist pointed to, but in a way that takes our breath away.
The Lord of heaven and earth is faithful to what he promises — in his time and in his way. That revelation is written on every page from the inspired pen of Saint Matthew. God is — unexpectedly — faithful. From the inclusion of five unexpected women in Jesus' genealogy to the unexpected visitation of the angels to Mary and her husband Joseph; from the unexpected faith of foreign star-gazers and the unexpected hatred of Herod to the handing over of the infant children of Bethlehem to the flight into Egypt and the sudden appearance of John at the Jordan, God is suddenly on the move to redeem and rescue and save — in a way unheard of, in a way we would never have expected.
Jesus came to do what we did not expect in a way our old nature will never accept. Jesus came to reveal his Gospel light of deliverance to sinners, to those who have not been faithful, to those who have given in to the evil ways of their spiritually heathen neighbors. Jesus has come for all who have given up and now can only hope against hope that an undeserved Champion over darkness and death will graciously arrive.
Jesus is that Victor. True God, that he might conquer forever the forces of death, devil and world, and true man, that he might atone for our sin in our stead. But how he conquers shuts our mouths and brings fear to our hearts: he — the spotless Lamb of God, the innocent One, the righteous One, the beloved One — is handed over to evil men in our place to suffer the separation from God's love reserved for not only the unfaithful inhabitants of Zebulun and Naphtali, but for an entire wayward race, for you.
Christ, handed over and abandoned, that his saving light might shine upon the darkness of your sin.
That is the Christian faith; that is our confession and belief and song:
The people that in darkness sat
A glorious light have seen;
The light has shined on them who long
In shades of death have been. ...
Lord Jesus, reign in us, we pray,
And make us Thine alone,
Who with the Father ever art
And Holy Spirit, one. ... Amen