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A Light Has Dawned

January 16, 2023

The Church of the Annunciation built on the location of Mary’s house in Nazareth (DCR January 2020)

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan–The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.  (Isaiah 9: 1-2).[1]

Next week’s Old Testament reading has great meaning to me, having visited the area that Isaiah referenced twice—first in 2020, then again in 2022.  We traveled with Dr. Bill Creasy on both trips. God’s light dawned on us day-after-day as we traced the footsteps of Jesus.  In 2020, during our first full day in Israel, we traveled the modern highway equivalent of the Via Maris, or the Way of the Sea, referenced by Isaiah, from Tel Aviv to Caesarea Maritima, and then into “the land of Zebulun” where we had lunch in Nazareth, visited the Church of the Annunciation, and drove through Cana to our hotel on the Sea of Galilee.  A light dawned in each of us during the days that we followed in Jesus’ footsteps.  It was the Christ light that we saw in the faces of many that we met, and in the faces of our fellow travelers. 

The Via Maris, or Way of the Sea, was a major trade route in ancient times, that stretched from Damascus in present day Syria (northeast of Israel), through the areas of Naphtali and Zebulun near the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus lived in Nazareth and Capernaum, and down through the coastal plain adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Way of the Sea is referenced by Isaiah in this week’s Old Testament text: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan–The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned (Isaiah 9: 1-2).  Jesus was the great light who would come from the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali—he was the light that dawned.  He left his imprint throughout the land of Israel—especially around the Sea of Galilee where he healed, taught, and preached for three years—and in Nazareth and Jerusalem. 

In the context of Isaiah’s day, the hope (the “great light”) was that a king in David’s line would one day rule over a restored Israel.  Once this occurred there will be no more gloom—those who live in darkness will recognize the light of the Messiah. He foretold that a light would dawn in the land of darkness. The area next to Galilee on the Via Maris (“road along the Sea”) will be honored by his presence: “But there’ll be no darkness for those who were in trouble. Earlier he did bring the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali into disrepute, but the time is coming when he’ll make that whole area glorious— the road along the Sea, the country past the Jordan, international Galilee” (Isaiah 9: 1, The Message.)

On our seventh day in Israel in 2020, we visited Ein Gedi, the box canyon near the Dead Sea where David hid out from King Saul for 10 years.  We hiked up to a waterfall in the canyon and explored some of the rocky terrain that David traversed during his 10 years there.  At one point during the hike, we entered a short, dark tunnel with a stream running through it. We couldn’t see in front of us, the rocks were uneven, and the ledge that we were walking on narrowed to just a few inches wide.  Someone in our group called out, “I can’t see anything!”  Our first reaction was to pull out our cell phones and turn on the flashlight function.  

I can imagine David and his men in the tunnel creeping along trying to find their footing without the benefit of a flashlight.  But in his great faith and dependence on God, David described God as the light that guides him: “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27: 1).  He knew that God is the light at the end of the tunnel.

How many times in our lives do we find ourselves calling out in the darkness: “I can’t see anything! What should I do?  What is my next step?”  At times during our Holy Land journey, as we traversed slippery rocks and steps or wound our way on darkened, uneven streets, we found a hand reaching out to help us get through a dark place, a tricky step, or uneven surface. And isn’t that just like God?  He sends his helpers, his angels, to watch over us to show us the way—to offer a helping hand.  God is the light that shines on us during life’s darkest days, giving us hope and showing us the way to safety.  

Matthew quoted Isaiah to confirm the accuracy of Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would hail from the areas of Naphtali and Zebulun near the Sea of Galilee. He reports that after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus traveled to Galilee in accordance with Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would come from that region, and began to preach: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4: 17). It was the Jewish custom to avoid using the word “God” out of reverence and respect for God. As a Jew, Matthew followed this custom, and referred to the kingdom of God as the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was not referencing a place where people go after death, but rather the coming of the revolutionary kingdom of God. 

The Messiah was expected to usher in a kingdom that would overthrow the oppressors of the Jewish people.  Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom was at hand, and the people had better get their act together and repent!  The meaning of repent is to turn around—to change direction. Jesus was telling them to turn their lives around and follow God. 

Paul tells us, that “ . . . the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1: 18).  Put another way: “The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out” (The Message).  

Just as Jesus called on the people of his day to turn around from their evil ways, so he still calls to us to turn our lives around from the foolish, destructive behaviors we so often fall into, and turn our eyes toward him. He invites us to walk away from the darkness and into the light.  God is light; in him there is no darkness. You cannot stumble or fall when you are walking in the light—when you are walking on the path that God has illumined for you.

 Prayer:  God of Light, illumine our path with your Word. Guide us, teach us, lead us to the light and away from the darkness of our lives. Send your Spirit and your angels to lead us away from the narrow ledges, precipices, and ditches of prejudice, gossip, anger, hate, jealousy, self-recrimination, despair, and regret.  Lead us back on the path to you.  Help us walk through the dark tunnels of our lives toward the dawn, to new beginnings, toward your light.  Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for next Sunday, the Third Sunday after Epiphany, are Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1-9 (10-14); 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-25.

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