Theme: An Epiphany of Repentance
Gretchen and I had an interesting discussion this week. It centered on when to take down the Christmas tree. I’m sure you’ve probably had a similar conversation with your family before. I’m of the opinion that you take the tree down sometime shortly after New Year’s Day. It just feels kind of depressing to have all the reminders of Christmas around the house but to be over with the general celebration. For many others though, Christmas doesn’t really end until Epiphany. We have the famous 12 days of Christmas from the 25th to January 6.
Regardless of when you take your decorations down, it’s really important not to forget Epiphany. Epiphany is sometimes called the Gentile holiday because it emphasizes the salvation of God for all people. Often, the wise men are used as examples of this truth. They were Gentiles who rejoiced in the birth of Christ. Even though they were not present on Christmas night to witness the new-born Child, they were on their way; led by the star and navigating Herod’s craftiness. When you think of the wise men you can see why a person who want to stretch the Christmas celebration out a bit longer.
Epiphany brings those thoughts to mind and rightfully so. But, it’s really about much more than Gentile salvation. Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus; the time marked to remember His introduction to the world; when people first began to take notice and to listen. That’s why we look at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry this morning. It seems strange given that we’re only two weeks removed from Christmas, but this is exactly where the Holy Spirit leads us in the text. We read about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, His Epiphany, in Matthew 4:12-17:
Matthew 4:12-17 Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: 15 "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: 16 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." 17 From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
I’m always surprised when I read about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry because the first message He spoke was one of repentance. It makes me wonder how Jesus would be received in our culture today if He said the same thing. So many people today are shocked that anyone could reject Jesus and they wonder how such a good person could be killed by His own brethren. But, many of the same people refuse to preach repentance and chastise anyone who would dare to. In the end, it’s not all that surprising that Jesus was rejected. Chances are, the same thing would happen in our culture. And yet, knowing full well what the natural human reaction is to repentance, Jesus still boldly proclaimed it.
Jesus says very clearly that the only path to safety from sin is through repentance. It was so important that it was the first major message He preached in His public ministry. It was also the first message John the Baptist preached. Matthew records John’s initial message in chapter 3, when he said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 "Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 "and do not think to say to yourselves,`We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 "And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7-10).
Repentance is so important because it marks the beginning of bearings fruits of faith. If you’re not repentant, you won’t trust God, either. To be repentant means to fully confess your unworthiness. As with all genuine statements in life it also means that you actually believe it. When someone is completely broken down by repentance, they can completely be re-built through Christ. But, if you’re only partially repentant you will only partially trust in Christ. If you wonder why you have such a hard time trusting Christ have you thought about repentance? The problem is that when doubtful, so many are pushed to look at themselves for hope. That’s the wrong direction, we need to deny ourselves and then trust naturally fills in the void when the Holy Spirit is present through Word and Sacrament.
The thing about repentance and trust is that they are two things than don’t come naturally for us. This is the way it has always been and Matthew quotes from Isaiah to remind us of that. He says, "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: 16 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." Zebulun and Naphtali were two of Jacob’s sons. However, when we think of a Messianic promise, and we also think of the prominent sons of Jacob, these two really don’t come to mind. Zebulun and Naphtali’s territories were indeed in the region of Galilee and so we see why they are mentioned in that connection. We also know that Jesus spent a great deal of time in His ministry in Galilee; in fact, it’s where His hometown was and where He began preaching. But Matthew and Isaiah show us the ultimate reason why Jesus preached in Galilee, in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. It wasn’t because they were more important than the other twelve tribes. It was because they really needed Jesus.
We see a bit of this from distant references about Zebulun and Naphtali in the Old Testament. Zebulun was one of Leah’s sons. If you remember, she was not the original choice of Jacob to be his wife. Therefore, her sons would not be as prominent as Rachel’s. We’re also told that Zebulun’s tribe failed to follow the LORD’s command to drive out the Canaanites when they reclaimed their homeland. This mistake would lead to years of idolatry and mixed faiths. This moral laxity showed itself in a specific story as members of Zebulun’s tribe disrespected the Passover of the LORD around the time of Hezekiah.
Naphtali’s tribe followed very much the same way. They too, were not the most well-respected of the tribes, perhaps also due to Naphtali’s birth. He was not born of Leah or Rachel, but rather Bilhah, Rachel’s servant, in an attempt to circumvent the LORD’s plan. Naphtali’s descendants also failed to cleanse their land of idolatry at the time of Joshua. What these historical points show us is exactly what Matthew declared as the reason why Jesus began His ministry among these people. They were in darkness. They needed help. As Jesus would say later on, they were a people who were sick and in need of the Great Physician (Matthew 9:12).
Because of the mixed marriages following the re-entry to Canaan, it was also an area with a large amount of Gentiles. Therefore, the second part of Isaiah’s prophecy also came true, as our Epiphany theme reminds us. Jesus was also the Savior of the Gentiles and at the very onset of His ministry He sent a clear message to that effect.
Some might say that Zebulun, Naphtali, and Galilee were just victims of their circumstances. Did they really need to repent? Were they really a people living in darkness? To say that sounds harsh in our day and age. Yet, regardless of who was to blame, and be assured that no one was innocent, it was the truth.
We would often like to think the same thing in our lives. So often, we want to play the victim. We’re encouraged to blame God, or our parents, or our fellow Christians; when we really should be looking inward. When confronted with a painful and ailing world, the easy option is to act like things are just so out of our control that nothing matters. Why strive to serve God if following His commands perfectly is impossible? Why act moral when it’s not the normal thing to do anymore? These are questions that we are confronted with every day.
But, the reason we can’t simply lie down and play the victim is because God calls for repentance. That means, first of all, that we’re far from innocent. You can’t blame problems on circumstances around you unless you are guilt-free. That’s not us. Second of all, the call to repentance means that we have hope. Believe it or not, it is the hope we have in Jesus that most of all shows us why we can’t blame others. Everyone has problems, but not everyone has a solution to those problems. We do! What wretched Christians we really must if we have Christ and all His blessings before us but we’d rather wallow in our sinfulness! The call of repentance is a call that changes us.
When you’re trapped in the darkness of sin, how you got there doesn’t really matter than much. Either you’re in sin or you’re not. Many people refuse to repent because they don’t believe it’s their fault that they’re in sin. They want to blame others. They don’t want to be honest about the mistakes they’ve made. Does that describe you?
Remember that proving your own personal innocence doesn’t matter as much as the way out matters. Think about it this way. If someone was trapped in a gulch and water is quickly rising; what’s more important to figure out: how you got stuck there or how you can get out. If you knew the way out, would you sit and argue with the person who was stuck? Not at all. In the end, all that matters is getting to safety.
Jesus provides eternal safety in heaven for us. Let us not get caught in the unending pit of self-righteous defense of our lives. It’s okay to admit wrong. It’s necessary to repent. I’m sure the people of Galilee could have blamed others. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali could have held their ancestors accountable; for the mistakes they made, going all the way back to Jacob and even Abraham. But, what good does that do?
The be in sin is the be in darkness. Jesus is the opposite. He is the Light of the world. He came into the world for the express purpose of giving light and life to all people. Those who believe in Jesus have this light. Be assured that your Savior won’t lead you astray. If He says you need to repent to be a member of His kingdom, then believe that and do that. Don’t let the world tell you otherwise. Don’t let your heart get you to turn away because you feel a need to defend yourself. Just repent and believe.
The Epiphany is celebrated to remember when Jesus made Himself known in the public. Repentance is what He chose to emphasize in that moment. Let’s emphasize the same in our lives.
Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD; 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. 3 If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared. 5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, And in His word I do hope. 6 My soul waits for the Lord More than those who watch for the morning-- Yes, more than those who watch for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the LORD; For with the LORD there is mercy, And with Him is abundant redemption. 8 And He shall redeem Israel From all his iniquities.