Evangelism in the Shadow of Death
Third Sunday after Epiphany
23 January Anno Domini 2011
This is the Epiphany season, Epiphany literally means, "To shine upon." This season of the church year between the celebration of Christ birth (Christmas) and preparation for His death (Lent). This season is all about how Jesus makes Himself known. And here is our hope, that the Lord will make Himself known to us also. For He visits with salvation to such far ranging places as Zebulon, Naphtali, Salem Oregon and wherever else you might be.
I. The Lord of Life in the Shadow of Death
The Words from our Gospel today: The people who sat in darkness have seen great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned (Matthew: 4:16). This is the Word of the Lord.
These Words of the Lord were first spoken by the prophet Isaiah about the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali. They were up at the very northern tip of Israel; and for centuries that had been a blessed place to be. Even so, they were a long way from the temple in Jerusalem; they had some of the most beautiful, fertile land in the nation. But by the time Isaiah spoke, this was not a good place to be. Time and time again, foreign kings from the north had invaded Israel, making Zebulon and Naphtali their first victims. Also the kingdom of Israel had split into two kingdoms and these northerners were cut off from the temple, the place of God's presence. In Isaiah's day, the end was near. The Assyrian empire was growing, expanding-and the northern kingdom was a sitting duck. It was only a matter of time until the bloodthirsty Assyrians came to Israel, and a look at the map showed how they would gain entry. Naphtali and Zebulon were living in the shadow of death, because the Assyrians were not known for mercy toward others.
And so it happened that the northern kingdom fell, and the ten tribes-including the people of Zebulon and Naphtali-were taken into captivity, never to be heard from again. In the course of history, boundaries would shift and others would populate the area. By the time of Jesus, it was the northern area of Galilee; and because of its diverse population, it was well-described as "Galilee of the Gentiles." The once-fertile land was now mostly desert and the people had again suffered at the hands of foreign armies; for, once again looking at a map, it's not difficult to figure how the Romans entered Galilee and Judea.
The shadow of death seemed to darken Zebulon and Naphtali quite a bit. But then again, death always seeks to overshadow us all.
But it is here that the Light shines in our Gospel lesson today. When John the Baptist is imprisoned, Jesus withdraws to Galilee, to Caesarea and the area of Naphtali. He continues to preach John's sermon-the sermon that He had given John to preach: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Oh, listen, you inhabitants, for you are not forgotten. Although you have been the highway for bloodthirsty kings and the horsemen of apocalypse, a different King stands among you. He desires to give you grace and faith and salvation, so that you might live with Him forever. He does not want to take from you your riches and life; instead, He wants to take away your sins and your death. You are not forgotten. Light is shining in the darkness. The Lord has come to chase away the shadow of death. Repent! Turn from those sins that would destroy you. The time is now, because the King is present, not to enslave and kill but to set free and give life.
The Lord of life is with them, for He will find His people wherever they are to be found. Now, as He goes about His saving work, see how He goes about it. For one thing, He's establishing His credentials-He's proving He's the Savior predicted by the Old Testament. Isaiah said He would heal, so He is healing all sorts of diseases. Isaiah said He would do so for Zebulon and Naphtali, so there He is. But beyond the miracles to verify who He is, look at how this King spreads His kingdom.
He preaches. He goes from place to place and speaks. He teaches in the synagogues, walking from town to town. Now, He's also making plans to expand His efforts: in our Gospel lesson, He calls four men to be His disciples, and He'll boost that number to twelve. He'll teach and train them for a while, and then He'll send them out to do the same thing: speak His Word to other people. Those disciples will perform a few miracles on His authority, though the signs and wonders will die down after a while. But even when the signs and wonders are gone, His followers will still be speaking His Word. People will hear about Him, and they'll share the news with one another. By the faith given in the Word, they'll seek out Jesus where He is found, where He is at hand.
That's how the King goes about spreading His kingdom of light and life in the New Testament.
Now, you may well be thinking, "Of course that's how He does it." This is the first century, A.D. It's not a high-tech society-no radio or cell towers or cable or satellite dishes. The quickest that news can travel is the speed of the fastest horse. But I would point out that this King is greater than the times in which He walks the earth: this is, after all, the Creator of all things. And although He has become flesh and become man, He yet remains fully God. If He chose, He could thunder the message of Gospel from the heavens, so that everyone would hear at once. He could write it in the sky, or place the message immediately on every heart if He wanted to do it that way. But He doesn't. Instead, He chooses the seemingly impractical way of walking from town to town, speaking in the synagogues to those who will hear. From a human standpoint, it seems like He could make better use of His time and talents.
Yet, in His infinite and gracious wisdom, this is how the Savior goes about bringing light where there is only the shadow of death. Rejoice, Zebulon and Naphtali, for your King walks among you so humble and merciful that you may miss Him if you're not listening. But be assured, Galilee of the Gentiles-His presence among you guarantees that you are not forgotten. Though you have too often been the highway for death and destruction, the King of Life walks among you now. A few years from now, Titus will bring more Roman armies through, and Zebulon and Naphtali will suffer once again; but before then Jesus will win salvation for the world by His death on the cross. Ironic, isn't it? For proclaiming that all who believe will have life in His name, man puts the Lord of life to death. But although His methods may seem inefficient, His death atones for the sins of the world, and He will make sure that He does not miss a single one who will believe. He will make sure His Word is heard: and that same Word that created the heavens and the earth creates grace and eternal life in you.
II. Normal Evangelism
Now, we can talk about the dangers of living in Zebulon and Naphtali all we want; truth is no matter how dangerous it seemed back then, they experienced the same mortality rate that we do in the civilized United States of America and indeed all the world. No matter how much we want to sanitize and shield, the truth is that we also dwell in the shadow of death. It could be a Tsunamis, dirty bombs, terrorist attack, genocide, stroke, heart attack, cancer, or diabetes. Maybe just a car that runs the red light at high speed, you name it!
Along with all those threats that society recoils against, there are also plenty of ways that man has sought to befriend death and reject life. Yesterday was the 38th anniversary of Roe verses Wade, which determined that the shadow of death could reach into the womb as a matter of convenience to remove a life. We live on the cusp of the all possible carnage made easy by the making of the morning-after pill, available over the counter just to increase the slaughter of the innocent. Such contempt for the helpless unborn will only lead on to contempt for the helpless outside of the womb. Mankind continues to glorify immorality, though it leads to disease and death itself. It's trendier to defend trees or whales than humanity today. The list goes on and on.
And these deal only with physical death. Don’t forget our Lord's warning: do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Mt. 10:28). These many participations of man in death are simply symptoms of the greater problem: those who reject the Lord's grace are already dead in their trespasses and sins. They are living dead, and it’s only inevitable that those who reject God will seek to justify death as a helper, a relief, a friend and not the wages of sin.
In such a world, it’s easy to become discouraged. It’s even easier when this gets personal. The evening news can often be enough to depress, when the shadow of death darkens the lives of people halfway around the world. But sooner or later, that death casts its silhouette into your life, too. The onslaught of disease, the loss of a friend or the near miss each reminds us that our greatest enemy patiently stalks us, as well.
It’s easy to be discouraged, just as easy to despair. That's why, even as our society does its best to ignore death or make it sound like a kind companion, it is full of desperate, despairing people.
Don’t despair, for the Word of the Lord remains: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned. Death may seem ever-present, but the Lord is far more so: He has defeated this enemy and risen again, and He makes sure that His light shines upon those who sit in darkness.
No, don’t despair, little flock. In this world where death reigns because of sin, the Lord faithfully visits His people, be they in Salem or Fallujah or a lone believer in Sweden. He brings with Him forgiveness and victory over death. This victory is missed by many, because again the Lord comes quietly, mercifully. He spread this grace and victory around Zebulon, Naphtali and Galilee by walking from town to town, preaching His Word; and this is how His evangelism still happens today. As people talked of Jesus and Christians told His Word to others back then, so they do today while the Lord can accomplish His will without us, He delights to use us as His instruments in the spread of His salvation. People hear the Word and come to Church to hear more; to be catechized instructed-in the ways of the Lord. Believers gather to hear the Absolution, to be baptized, to receive the Lord's body and blood. It can look ordinary, but know this: The Lord's work will look ordinary. After all, He created this world and set it up to run normally according to His will: therefore, because the Lord's will is the normal way of doing things it should look normal. Rather than have bread fall from heaven each day, He ordains that seeds sprout and grow into grain that is harvested, ground and baked; but as He uses farmers and bakers to supply bread, it is no less the Lord's plan. Likewise, He delights to give forgiveness in His Word and His Sacraments, and they appear quite normal because that's how the Lord normally saves. This is no less a miracle than if the Lord started zapping individuals with salvation via lightning bolts from heaven.
The Lord's way of evangelism will seem ordinary, and it may even seem inefficient as the Church plods toward eternity. But of this we are comforted as well: Christ Jesus will not fail to send forth His Word to save all who will believe. He will not lose one of His beloved children. And as He fulfills that promise, you and I have the privilege of being His instruments.
The Lord continues to visit His people, wherever they are, with life and salvation-because He has shed His blood and given His life to win that gift. And the upshot of the cross is this: while the shadow of death will stalk you yet in this life, death is nothing more than a shadow for the people of God. It is cold and dark, chilling and fearful, but in Christ it passes and is gone. Whether it the Christian humanitarians slaughtered in Pakistan by Muslim terrorist or the personal agony of a loved one in ICU, the Lord declares, "Death, I am the death of you! Grave, I am your destruction! You can kill my Christians, but I will raise them back to life, forever!"
That is the message of Epiphany, and that is the purpose of evangelism. In this dying world, where death is feared, touted as friend or used for convenience, the Lord of life makes Himself known. He made Himself known in human flesh to die our death and set us free. He makes Himself known in His Word even now, to forgive your sins and give you His victory over the grave. Rejoice, dear people of God, for this victory is yours in Christ Jesus. For you are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus name, Amen and amen!
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, AMEN.