“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, two weeks ago, we watched our Lord submit to the baptism of John, the baptism of sinners. We watched as the heavens were opened, the Father spoke, and the Spirit descended as a dove. The triumph, the beauty, the glory of that day was only magnified last week when we heard John cry, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus travels from the river to the wilderness, and there He does battle with Satan, emerging victorious. But the path of the Messiah is not to be filled with triumph and victory. “Now when [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.” This should shock us—after all this triumph, after all this glory, John—John!—is arrested, and he will not leave that prison alive. Jesus withdraws to the backwoods, and He begins His ministry far from His dangerous enemies in Jerusalem. The darkness is still deep, it lies thick over our fallen world. But our text also holds a promise: “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
The darkness is overwhelming in this world of sin, it surrounds us, it fills every nook and cranny, it smothers us like a heavy blanket. There is no light in a world where people commit acts of incredibly cruelty against others, where children are bullied until they take their own lives, where people suffer from poverty of their own making or inflicted by others, where families are shattered by adultery and divorce. Two weeks ago, I stood with many others on the steps of the Iowa capitol, and we declared together that the horror of abortion must end. How deep must the darkness be when the most vulnerable are put to death in the name of ‘choice?’ No deeper than the darkness that dwells in your own heart. The mistake we often make is that we think because our sins don’t make the news, that we are somehow better off than others, that the darkness isn’t nearly as deep. But that’s a deception. Your will never understand the depth of your sin until you see that the darkness in your own heart is as deep as the darkness outside. That is what Scripture teaches us: every sin offends God, each is deserving of death, yes, even eternal death.
“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Into the darkness that surrounds you, into the darkness that dwells within you, Jesus shines the Light. “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Jesus calls on this world, He calls on you, to repent. The Light of the Law shines in the darkness of human hearts, illuminating sin, pointing out transgressions, revealing the deeds of darkness for what they are, and calling on us to abandon them. That is His cry to a world of abuse and cruelty, where every person simply looks out for his or her own interest: Repent! Turn away from your sin, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! That is His cry to you and me today, who self-righteously believe that we aren’t as bad as everyone else, who hide the darkness deep in our own heart: Repent! Repent, sinner! Cast the works of darkness far from you! There is an urgency to His cry: today is the day of salvation, do not tarry, do not cling to the darkness for one more moment. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”
The call to repentance echoes in the darkness. The world has been called to account, its darkness has been exposed by the powerful preaching of the Law. But few listen. The shadow of unbelief lies heavy upon our world. Some is militant unbelief, exemplified by the hardcore atheists, who spend much time and ink attacking the Scriptures. In addition, more and more people are becoming ‘agnostic,’ meaning that they claim to know nothing for certain about spiritual matters, except, of course, that Christianity is wrong. More insidious, however, is a deep apathy that infects so many. They may say that they believe in God if Gallup calls them up, but their life in this world gives the opposite answer. These are all simply different forms of the same spiritual blindness, the darkness that fills our world. But even if a person heeds the Law, there is not yet any salvation. In your spiritual blindness, you may be able to see the Law, but you cannot see any solution, you are blind to any promises, you dwell in darkness too thick to see a Savior.
“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Into the darkness of spiritual blindness that fills this world, into the darkness of spiritual blindness that afflicts you, Jesus shines the Light. “While walking by the Sea of Galilee, [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’” The darkness that afflicts us cannot be broken by any effort of our own, any more than a blind man can make himself see. We need the intervention of another, someone with the power to shine the Light in our darkness and restore our spiritual sight. Only the power of Jesus’ call can destroy darkness in sinful human hearts and bring in the Light. Most first-century rabbis waited for disciples to join them; Jesus seeks out disciples, He calls on people to believe in Him as the Savior of the world. His call creates faith, His call overwhelms the darkness and brings forth children of light. “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
The darkness of sin is driven away by the call to repentance; the darkness of unbelief is driven away by the call to faith—we would expect as believers, as the redeemed, to dwell in the beauty of light. But still the darkness surrounds us. Four fishermen were called by Jesus to follow Him; only one would die a natural death. The followers of Jesus still get cancer, they still have heart attacks, they still get injured. The effects of sin do not spare those who are called by Christ; if anything, it seems that we are afflicted more than those who dwell in darkness. That is just as Christ promised us: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” And everyone, believer and non-believer alike, will eventually die. Death will claim you whether you spend Sunday mornings in worship or at home. John the fisherman turned apostle was not killed for his faith, but he still died. You are a believer, but darkness still surrounds you, choking, thick, and heavy, snuffing out life itself.
“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Into the darkness of disease and death, filling our loved ones and we ourselves, which will one day claim each and every person on the face of this planet, Jesus shines the Light. “[Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought Him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and He healed them.” Jesus entered this world to drive back the effects of sin; to heal the sick, to restore the infirm, even to raise the dead. The power of His Light shines in the darkness of diseased lives, paralyzed limbs, and demon-possessed flesh. Jesus came as the Light of the world not only to illuminate darkened souls, but to shine upon bodies dwelling in the shadow of death. His salvation is spiritual and physical.
His Light heals all the effects of sin, in you, in me, in this entire creation. He may heal you today through the work of a surgeon or doctor, He may save you from death using the instruments He has placed in this world for that very purpose, but even if He doesn’t save your physical body today, you still have the victory for eternity. The healings in our text are the proof and guarantee that one day you will be healed, His resurrection is the proof and guarantee that Jesus has come to destroy all the effects of sin in this world, even death itself. “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The shadow lay thick and heavy upon us; the darkness of sin, the darkness of unbelief, the darkness of disease and death, but Christ has come to defeat them all. He is the One who shines His Light in the midst of the darkness, lifting the shadow of death, all through the power of His cross.
It is on the cross that Jesus is revealed as the Light of the world, for it is on the cross that Jesus pays for sin, conquers unbelief, and overcomes death itself. It is the bright beams of the cross that shine the light of forgiveness into your heart when you fall into sin, it is the message of the cross that you are called by Jesus Himself to believe in, and it is only through the cross that we have the guarantee that no disease, and not even death itself, has a hold upon us or any of Christ’s called saints. At the foot of the cross, the people who are dwelling in darkness see a great Light; before its sacred beams the shadow of death is chased away. With the cross, darkness has no more power over you, me, or a creation which cowered so long under its shadow. There is your light, O people of God, there is the Light of the world. In the Name of Jesus, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,” Amen.