Don’t you think life was really hard for those living the land of Zebulun and Naphtali? It depends, right? It depends on who the people were who were living in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. Do you know or remember who the people of Zebulun and Naphtali were? Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the twelve sons of Jacob of old who were therefore brothers of Joseph – the one who got sold into slavery into Egypt because his brothers hated him – and who had areas of the land of Israel named after them – areas of Israel way up north in the province called Galilee by the great Sea of Galilee. Their location might be comparable to where Superior or Minoqua are in the state of Wisconsin. One of the things that made life rough for the people of Zebulun and Naphtali was that soldiers from other nations kept marching through their place on their way to other places, causing all kinds of destruction and death that is hard for us to fathom, although we can certainly get a feel for it with the many horrible attacks we have had to try to wrap our minds around in the last few years in our nation and in our world.
Maybe trying to picture it on a pretend map can help a little bit. Pretend that where I am standing is the Sea of Galilee – and that this middle aisle here is the Jordan River where John the Baptist did so much of his preaching in preparing the way for Jesus. Way down there by the back of the church is Dead Sea in the southern part of Israel. All of you over there (far south pews) are in the Mediterranean sea along the west border of Israel. All of you here (north pews in front of the pulpit) are in the huge Arabian Desert, which people couldn’t normally cross. You in those back pews (south pews in front of the altar) live in the capital of Israel down south in Jerusalem. And you in these front pews (south pews in front of the altar) are people living in Zebulun and Naphtali. The problem for you in Zebulun and Naphtali is all the bad people who live over there in those pews and beyond the organ (far north pews), because you people over there are the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Those are the enemy nations used by God to punish his people of Israel for rebelling against him by having them eventually destroy the city of Jerusalem, after marching toward Jerusalem time and time and time again for over 130 years.
But since they couldn’t go through you people to get to Jerusalem, since you are the huge Arabian Desert, how did they get there? They came up around here, and marched through the little areas of Zebulun and Naphtali – which meant that the little areas of Zebulun and Naphtali were constantly being crunched and decimated, which must have led them to wonder, “Why do we keep getting picked on? Why doesn’t God give us a break? What have we done wrong to deserve this? Does God have enough power to take care of all this? How will life ever be good again?” Especially those living in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali needed to hear God’s wonderful message at the beginning of the second paragraph: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan…”
In a very real sense, aren’t all of us living in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali? Are our questions when we are in whatever “gloom” or “distress” it may be any different than those people back then when times for them were so bleak and so dark? So where do you look for light? Where did the Gospel reading from St. Matthew that Pastor Casmer read tell us to look for light? Who did Matthew tell us fulfilled these words which Isaiah spoke? Matthew quoted the very same words which Isaiah spoke seven hundred years before when Matthew spoke of the work Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee came to do seven hundred years later. “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.” And then Matthew told us, “From that time on Jesus began to preach.”
Where did Jesus begin his ministry and carry on so much of his work? Those very areas that had suffered so much were allowed by God so see so much when God shined the light of his Son by having him grow up in the city of Nazareth in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali and by Jesus doing so much preaching and performing of miracles in the synagogue and city of Capernaum in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali and by walking on water and causing miraculous catches of fish and by calming the storm and by teaching from a boat on the Sea of Galilee in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. For those living in the land of Zebulun and Napthali, just like for all of us living in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali today, life really turned out to be great, even though we, just, like they, will not fully understand it until we’re in the light of heaven, as long as we see the light that Jesus shined while he was on the earth – and as long as we follow the light that Jesus shined while we are on the earth.
But many times we don’t want to see or follow the light of Jesus and his Word, do we? It’s never been any different. The first paragraph of our lesson mentions people who were consulting mediums and spiritists instead of God. In previous verses the prophet Isaiah had warned about seeking help in living human beings like kings and armies, who, at least, were alive. Sometimes people even try to bring up the spirits of those who are dead. What good can the help of an alive or dead person do for anyone, if they don’t know the Lord? They can’t do any good. They’re dead – whether physically dead or spiritually dead. Yet the devil keeps trying to get us to think that we know better than God about how our life should go or that people today are so advanced that we know better than people back then what’s okay to do with our life and how to live our life.
But it never works. We are thankful for medical advances that allow us to live longer or better; we are thankful for attempts to stop wars that allow us to live with less fear; we are thankful for growing economies that make it easier to get by. But what will always happen? We will always get sad. We will always get frustrated. We will always get disappointed. And we will always die. Always. And if that is the only “always” that we know, there will only and always be much more than gloom and distress on this earth. It’s that kind of empty way of life on earth and eternal death in hell that Isaiah is warning all of us about in verses 21-22 in the middle of the first paragraph when he pictures people who don’t see and follow the light of the Lord: “Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.”
Thankfully that is not anything that a single one of us has to worry about one bit because God promises that there is no kind of gloom and darkness for those living in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, which is exactly where we do live figuratively when we believe in the one who came from there and who went on from there to do in Jerusalem the opposite of what those invading armies came to do. Those armies came to destroy and to cause the death of others; Jesus came to save by going to the death of himself.
And that gets to the heart of what our Lord wants us to remember from his words of warning and his words of promise today. When you feel like you are living in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali because of all the bad things that are going on in your life, don’t go looking to other people or other things or other books for help. Go to the only place that can help – and that does help – the place Isaiah talks about in verse 20 near the beginning: “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.”
“The law and the testimony” is another name for the Bible, the Word of God, which shines the light on Jesus, who in turn shines the light on everything in our hearts so that we understand very clearly that we have not in even the smallest way done what his law demands as to how to live, and who also thankfully gives his testimony that even our biggest sin, not to mention all the rest of them, was taken by him to the cross and left there – left there so we do not have to be afraid of whatever Zebulun or Naphtali our life on this earth has in store for us. The law and the testimony of Jesus helps calm us when we are crying, and the law and testimony of Jesus will help comfort us when we are dying. That’s why God’s Word truly is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path every step of the way. And that’s also why, whether right now you live in the desert or on the sea, there really can’t be any better place to be than the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, because that’s where you see the Light of the World, which means that Jesus of Nazareth is the light of your world, too. Follow him! Amen.