Matthew assumes that his readers know all about why John the Baptist had been arrested and put in prison, and so he doesn’t tell us that story until chapter fourteen. Unfortunately for John, in addition to being a baptizer, he was also a hellfire and damnation prophet. And it turns out that John had become rather prophetic with King Herod by speaking out against Herod’s quirky marital status. This criticism earned John a trip to prison, and it ultimately ended up with John having an appointment with the royal head remover, which he did not survive at all. Head removal will do that for a person. Suffice it to say, though, that even with his imprisonment, that John the Baptist’s voice had been silenced. The voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, was no longer being heard in the land. The Baptist’s work of preparation for the coming of the Lord had been completed. The function of the forerunner is finished.
And so Jesus, when he heard that John the Baptist had been put in prison, moved into the province of Galilee. Galilee is in the northern part of the nation of Israel. It is the area that immediately surrounds the Sea of Galilee. Nazareth, which was Jesus’ hometown when he was a boy, is also located in Galilee, but Matthew tells us that when he became a man, that Jesus did not stay there. In fact, Matthew tells us that he left there. Nazareth would certainly have been very familiar to Jesus, and Jesus would certainly have been very familiar to Nazareth. But sometimes, as the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. And in Jesus’ relationship with the folks in Nazareth, this was absolutely the situation. It was difficult for them to accept the fact that the carpenter’s son could also be a very popular and insightful preacher. And one time, when Jesus was the guest speaker at the synagogue in Nazareth, his preaching so enraged the townspeople that they very nearly killed him. So, given the circumstances, it is probably just as well that Jesus decided not to stay in Nazareth. Instead, he made his home in Capernaum, which is located right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and it is likely that it is also the home of some of the fishermen who will eventually become his disciples. Jesus may have been from Nazareth, but from the point of view of the Gospels, Capernaum was his home.
We don’t really have a clue as to why Jesus chose to make his home in Capernaum, but as Matthew writes his gospel, it becomes for him a matter of the fulfillment of prophecy. Prophecy, and the fulfillment of it, is very important to Matthew. Often in Matthew’s gospel he inserts a phrase that sounds pretty much like this: “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet…” And then he’ll name the prophet just like he does in verse 14 in our passage today.
And so Matthew takes us back to Isaiah, chapter nine. Often, when a writer of Scripture quotes to us from a passage, their intent for us is to read the entire context of the quote. Chapter nine of Isaiah ought to sound a little bit familiar to all of us. Much of Isaiah chapter nine gets used at Christmastime. It contains those wonderful verses that Handel put to music in “The Messiah.” “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Can’t you just hear that glorious and majestic music, even now, as I drone away?
But the part of Isaiah chapter nine that Matthew is most interested in right at this moment, is the part that he quotes. By the time that Matthew is writing, Zebulun and Naphtali are ancient and forgotten history. Nobody in Jesus’ day referred to their region as the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. Some of you know that St. George is made up of 3 villages, and most of you could easily name two of them without much difficulty.* But there are also several smaller, less significant regions in St. George. We live in Smallytown. One of our daughters lives in Martinsville; but can anyone pinpoint Elmore any longer? Probably not. Elmore, like Zebulun and Naphtali has passed out of memory for most people.
But in the eighth century BC, the region in and around Galilee was called Zebulun and Naphtali. And in the eighth century BC, the armies of the Assyrians attacked, and plowed that region back into an uninhabited wasteland. And Isaiah, in his prophetic vision, says that one day, light is going to dawn in that area, and that the judgment of the Lord against his people will be lifted.
And God chose to bring that light to the region of Galilee by coming there himself, in the person of his son, Jesus Christ. The very light of the world began his ministry of hope and redemption in a land that had been plunged into darkness because of the judgment and punishment of God. And for Matthew, that is just about the most awesome thing that he can imagine. God’s judgment of darkness is lifted by God’s love and forgiveness, by his own son who is the light of the world. And that ought to be incredibly awesome to us as well. And it ought to be awesome to us because we, too often, chose the path of darkness and sin over the path of redemption and light. And when we sin, we put ourselves under the judgment of God. We do not merely stumble into that place of darkness, but rather, like the people of God of old, we walk there intentionally and purposefully, knowing full well the consequences of our actions.
And so as Jesus begins his ministry in a region and among a people that had been plunged into darkness. He began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” We like to believe that the word “repent” is an old fashioned, old timey word that has passed out of significance in our enlightened world. It conjures up images of old time evangelistic preachers who whipped their hearers into a frenzy of weeping and wailing and deep sorrow for sins committed. The result of all of that ferocious preaching was that the poor souls who heard it were frightened into repentance, as they were nearly convinced by the fear instilled in them that the putrid fires of hell were already licking at their backsides.
Jesus’ message is also one of the need to repent. But notice, though, the not so subtle difference in the message that Jesus preaches. Jesus speaks not of the encroaching fires of hell, but rather of the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. When we repent, it is not because we fear hell, but rather it is because we welcome the one who is bringing the light of the kingdom of heaven to us. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light” and this light of heaven comes to us at the pleasure and choosing of Almighty God. This light is a bright and hopeful message that God’s wrathful judgment has been lifted. Our Lord preached a message of God’s love for all the people of this world.
So then, what does it mean to repent? Basically it means to change our minds about God. It means to learn that God truly does love us. It means to dispense with the foolish notions that we maintain about God’s wrath and judgment and willingness to smite us at the slightest provocation. It means to believe, as Jonah did, that God is a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” But it also means that we will cherish this about God and not despise it as Jonah did.
But repentance also means that we will stop dead in our tracks, turn around, and put the fires of hell at our backsides, and the kingdom of God fully in our forward vision. It means that we will not walk knowingly into places of darkness, but rather that we will constantly seek out the light of God’s kingdom.
As he prepared the way for the soon arrival of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry, John the Baptist said, “Bear fruit that is worthy of repentance.” John didn’t exactly spell out for us what that meant, but when he began his ministry, Jesus himself made that very clear. And he spelled that out inside of the infamous synagogue in Nazareth. It was a dangerous thing for Jesus to do though, because, as I have already noted, the people there nearly killed him. Jesus said that the work of the kingdom of God, the bearing of fruit that is worthy of repentance, is the bringing of good news to the poor, the proclaim of release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Doing these things is bearing fruit that is worthy of repentance. What will it take for us to believe this? What will it take for us to join Jesus in doing it?
* The three “major” villages in St. George are Wiley’s Corner (or St. George), Tenants Harbor and Port Clyde.