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Sermon: Isaiah 9:1-4
Epiphany 3 – January 26, 2020 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel

How many of you have heard of the nation of Belarus or know where it’s located? It’s a nation in Eastern Europe lying between Poland and Russia. It once was one of the republics of the Soviet Union. Partly because its identity was swallowed up in the Soviet Union and partly because of its name, Belarus, it was often thought that Belarus was just a part of Russia.

In World War II when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union it was in fact Belarus, not Russia, that the Germans attacked first. And as is often true when armies begin an invasion, the Germans were particularly vicious and merciless to the Belarusians, and they suffered terribly. Their suffering however has almost gone unnoticed in history, simply shuffled aside as a part of the larger invasion of the Soviet Union.

Just as you may not be too familiar with Belarus you may not be real familiar with the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, two provinces located in the very northern part of the Old Testament nation of Israel. Zebulun and Naphtali suffered a similar fate as Belarus. When the Assyrian armies came swooping down from the north invading Israel it was Zebulun and Naphtali that felt the brunt of their invasion. The people of Zebulun and Naphtali suffered terribly too. And the names of these two provinces mostly disappeared from the pages of history.

But in our text today Isaiah has really good news to replace the tragedy and gloom of the people of Zebulun and Naphtali. And we see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise in our gospel reading when Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee.

Today we can be glad that

Assyria is another nation that has largely disappeared from history, or at least disappeared from the map. Assyria was a nation that once occupied roughly the area of present day Iraq. In the 700’s B.C. the empire of Assyria dominated the Mideast and covered portions of present day Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran. There is no longer a nation of Assyria on the map. But there are plenty of very proud people who trace their ancestry back to Assyria.

But in Isaiah’s day Assyria was the power that nations feared. They were vicious and merciless to the nations they conquered.

In about 730-720 B.C. Israel was not exempt from Assyria’s conquest. In their attempt to rule the world Assyria headed south to take control of Egypt. That meant invading armies traveling and through and conquering Israel as well. They attacked Israel from the north, invading Zebulun and Naphtali first, the area we know as Galilee. Like Belarus being invaded by the Germans, Zebulun and Naphtali suffered terribly at the hands of the Assyrians.

There were four or five of Immanuel’s members who are now in heaven who knew what it was like to live in war-torn Europe in World War II. There are still people living today who remember what that was like, people from the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, France, Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. But I don’t think there’s any of us here today who have ever experienced the horror of an invading army and occupation by a foreign government.

We can’t imagine how terrible it was for the people of Zebulun and Naphtali either in the days of Isaiah. The days of invasion had to filled with terror and the days of occupation filled with gloom. But through the prophet Isaiah the LORD held out a prophecy and promise of life and hope for people in this region. God told them, “There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.” God had allowed Zebulun and Naphtali to feel the wrath of Assyria, to be invaded and occupied, but now the LORD would “honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan – .”

In the Old Testament this region was not often referred to as Galilee, but it was the area of northern Israel with the population concentrated near the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. Being on the northern edge of Israel Galilee also had many non-Israelite, Gentile, residents. Thus Isaiah refers to the area as “Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan.”

Have you ever felt gloom? Have you ever felt gloom, sadness, or depression? Have you ever had that experience where the circumstances of life just made you feel miserable? Maybe you’re feeling such terrible emotions right now in life. And it doesn’t have to be an invading army that makes you feel that way or creates those feelings in your life. Those oppressive feelings can invade your heart and mind for many reasons. It might be the stress of life, work, and family. It might be physical or emotional illness. It might be sadness or loneliness. It might be the guilt of sin.

Eventually sin makes life gloomy. Sin may be very tempting and promising at the beginning, but eventually it leads to guilt and gloom, and it can most seriously lead to eternal gloom in hell. Sin is the cause of every war and all the trouble in our world. Sin is the cause of every sorrow or trouble in your life. Sin is the cause of death.

But thanks be to God. Sin and death do not get the final say in our lives. Isaiah promised the people of Galilee, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” Then the LORD goes on to say that he will once again enlarge the nation of his people. He will restore the nation of Israel. He will bring back joy to the people. They will rejoice like people rejoice when there’s a bountiful harvest. They will rejoice like the people of Israel did in the days of the judges when Gideon miraculously defeated the Midianites with just 300 men.

Our text ends there but in subsequent verses Isaiah explains how God will replace the gloom of his people with hope and joy. Those verses are very familiar to us: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” This child would be a descendant of King David. His kingdom would be holy and would last forever.

Last Sunday in our adult Bible class we finished the book of Revelation. Often when we read verses in Revelation we scratch our heads and wonder how is God going to fulfill these words? People in Isaiah’s day must have read or heard these words and been totally confused about how God would fulfill them. A child? A male child? He would be a human child, but he would also be called God. His kingdom would last forever. How could that possibly be, and how could this little child bring joy in the place of gloom?
Seven hundred years after Isaiah God would answer those questions and fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah.

In our gospel reading today we’re told that after Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee. John the Baptist’s ministry was coming to an end. Jesus’ ministry was just beginning. He left Nazareth where he had grown up and centered his ministry in the town of Capernaum which, Matthew tells us, “was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali.” Jesus started his ministry here, Matthew says, “to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: ‘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 the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’” And from that time on Jesus picked up where John the Baptist had left off and preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

Jesus brought joy and hope and forgiveness in the place of gloom for the people of Galilee. It wasn’t easy living in Galilee. Galilee was ruled by the Romans. It was a mostly rural, not so prosperous area. The people of Jerusalem and Judea often looked down on people from Galilee. But Jesus honored Galilee by beginning his ministry there. Some of the most memorable accounts from Jesus’ ministry come from his Galilean ministry – the Sermon on the Mount, the calling of fisherman to be his disciples, the wedding at Cana, raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead, stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee, the healing of the paralyzed man carried on a mat by four of his friends. There were so many people who had come to hear Jesus in the house where he was preaching that his friends tore up a hole in the roof to lower their paralyzed friend down before Jesus.

Many of us remember these wonderful and vivid accounts from Jesus’ Galilean ministry from our Sunday school days. They’re powerful stories. They’re joyful lessons. They’re lessons that tell us that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is our Champion who can still the storm and heal the sick and even raise the dead. Jesus is the one who can bring hope and joy where there is only gloom. The people of Galilee who in history knew and experienced so much gloom, the people of Galilee in Jesus’ day who also knew a lot of gloom, were thrilled by Jesus’ preaching and power.

There will be no more gloom. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” How wonderfully God fulfills his prophesies about his Son Jesus. How wonderfully he fulfills his promises even in our day. As long as we live in this world we are walking in darkness and living in the land of the shadow of death. But Jesus has honored us by coming to replace the gloom of sin and death with God’s mercy and forgiveness. One day he would travel from Galilee to Judea, to Jerusalem, where he would die on a cross to atone for our sins and the sins of the whole world.

In our adult Bible class today we begin a study of the gospel of Matthew that especially emphasizes Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Come and learn of Jesus. When you know Jesus there will be no more gloom. Amen.