Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; I Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23.
To whom does the Servant come? The light begins in Galilee of the nations.
As the Sundays of Epiphany move on, the preparation for the mission to the nations is complete and the work begins. The prophetic reading identifies the geography of the people to whom the Servant brings good news.
In the Isaiah passage the nature of the good news is clearer than the geography, so we will start with that message.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
on them light has shined.
You [O God] have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
Isaiah 9:2-4 [Heb. 9:1-3], NRSV
This is a message of release from occupation by foreign troops.
“The yoke of their [the subject people’s] burden” has been removed.
“The rod of their oppressor [slave-driver]” has been broken.
The population has increased, they are joyful, exulting as in a time of bountiful harvest or a day of great victory. (The “Day of Midian” [verse 4] refers to Gideon’s overthrow of the Midianites who had occupied and terrified Manasseh in old frontier days – Judges 7:15-25.) The people who lived in the dark gloom of occupation and oppression have been freed, have been enlarged and restored to well being.
Who are the people to whom this message was addressed?
The verse giving the geographical references (9:1 [Heb. 8:23]) has some complications in it, as differences among its translations show. However, the place names are relatively clear. What they show is that we have references to lands of the northern kingdom of Israel, lands that were conquered and occupied by the Assyrians in 733 BCE (eleven years before the final fall of Samaria in 722).
The Assyrians defeated Israel and turned much of its land into Assyrian provinces named Dor, Megiddo, and Gilead. Samaria was left in the hill country farther south as the capital of a now rump kingdom of Israel, vassal of Assyria. The geographical references in Isaiah 9:1 – Zebulun, Naphtali, “the way of the sea,” “the land beyond the Jordan,” and “Galilee of the nations” – these places made up the three new Assyrian provinces that replaced much of the old northern kingdom of Israel. These were the lands occupied and exploited by the Assyrian conquerors in the earlier years of Isaiah of Jerusalem.
The language about the child born and the son given (verses 6-7, beyond our reading) is thought by many interpreters to have referred originally to the birth, accession, or enthronement at a time of renewed independence for Hezekiah, the son of that king (Ahaz) to whom the Emmanuel prophecy was given (Isaiah 7:11-17).
The language imitates the oratorical and declamatory style of the court and corresponds to aspiration rather than political and military reality.... Though full of vivid imagery, the language is unspecific enough to have permitted the poem to be recycled on successive occasions.
(Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, The Anchor Bible, Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 249 and 248.)
There is one historical occasion when the “child” part of our passage could have been “recycled” and included in an announcement of joy to the subject peoples of those occupied Assyrian provinces. In 705 BCE the Assyrian emperor Sargon II (who had destroyed Samaria, the northern capital) died and rebellions broke out throughout the Assyrian empire. King Hezekiah of Jerusalem also rebelled, and for at least three years he enjoyed an independent hand in Judah before the new Assyrian king, Sennacherib, came down on him (in the year 701). Our passage could have been uttered in that period of freedom and independence, anticipating a new age of prosperity and stable rule under a divinely blessed ruler (a “wonderful counselor…prince of peace,” verse 6). The old northern kingdom, including “Galilee of the nations,” could be freed from Assyrian rule and reunited with Judah in a new age of Solomon, whom King Hezekiah emulated (see Proverbs 25:1).
With such a vision, the prophet sent forth a word of hope to the people who had been living for thirty years in the gloom and darkness of occupation and subjection.
Psalm 27:1, 4-9.
The prophecy of the light to shine out of darkness for Galilee of the nations includes the expectation of a divinely guided leader from the house of David (Isaiah 9:7). In the Psalm reading we hear such a leader expressing his total trust in the Lord.
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? (verse 1, NRSV)
There will be times of threat and doubt, times when the servant will appear to be lost, but the psalmist is confident of God’s deliverance and will seek God only.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me;
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation. (verses 7-9)
The speaker seems aware that the servant of the Lord may appear to be abandoned, even despised and God-forsaken. Such a destiny was anticipated for the Servant who was sent as a light to the nations (see Isaiah 49:7).
I Corinthians 1:10-18.
The second reading from First Corinthians in the current season speaks to a group of Jesus followers who have recently come out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge of their Lord.
Paul has spoken of “the church” that was gathered in the metropolitan city of Corinth (I Corinthians 1:2), but that community of faith is now a few years old and contains several subgroups with varied backgrounds and experiences. The problem of factions and divided loyalties has appeared. Different groups identify themselves by different leaders of the new Christian movement. “I am Paul’s,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” and “I am Christ’s” – such are the various claims Paul has heard about (verse 12).
Paul was the first missionary preacher in Corinth and could claim to be the founder of the church there. Apollos was a popular preacher (described in Acts 18:24-28) who served the Corinthian community for some time after Paul had gone on to Ephesus for his three years of work there. (I Corinthians was written from Ephesus.) “Cephas” is the Aramaic name of Peter, who was probably not himself at Corinth, but who was famous for his leadership at Antioch and who was probably a symbol of continuity from Jesus to the Greek-speaking Jewish world in Asia and Greece. (Those claiming that they belong to Christ may have gotten the message right – from Paul’s viewpoint.)
Paul’s most telling comment in this passage may be his statement that “I thank God that I baptized none of you … so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name” (verse 14, NRSV). Baptized in the name of Paul! Hardly. The relationships must be kept straight. Leaders, however popular or symbolic, must be appreciated only as servants, servants of that one message about the cross, which is “the power of God” for those who are being saved (verse 18).
The Gospel reading presents Jesus advancing into the land where the people dwell in darkness but are about to see a great light.
The Gospel of Mark, which Matthew is following in broad outline, mentioned only that Jesus went to Galilee and began preaching. Matthew elaborates by adding that Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in “Capernaum by the sea in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (verse 13, NRSV).
Using these tribal terms is old fashioned, a little like referring to upstate New York as Iroquois country. Politically, this area hadn’t had such names in eight hundred years. (The romance of Tobit, written around the third or second century BCE, sets its hero in Naphtali in the days of the Assyrian conquest, Tobit 1:1-9. The story emphasizes, following the viewpoint of the book of Kings, that Naphtali in that era was a land of apostasy and unfaithfulness.)
Matthew presents this place where Jesus’ ministry began as fulfilling the prophesy that some Jesus followers had found as they searched the scriptures for signs of Jesus. They found the Isaiah passage about Galilee of the nations, and this prophecy became part of their message of salvation addressed to Israel and the nations.
In this land of darkness Matthew has Jesus declare his message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (verse 17). (This is a condensation of Mark’s fuller statement; see Mark 1:15.) This summary statement of Jesus’ message will shortly be expanded enormously in the Sermon on the Mount, but first Jesus will call some disciples as the nucleus of the new people to be gathered at the mountain.
Matthew repeats Mark’s version of calling the two sets of brothers who worked in the fishing industry (verses 18-22). He promises to teach them to fish for people! And then Matthew provides a summary of all Jesus’ work in Galilee (verse 23), the work that attracted the attention of so many people, and caused the huge turnout at the Sermon on the Mount. (In the Gospel reading next Sunday we will hear the Beatitudes, that astonishing opening of the Sermon delivered to the new people of God at the mountain.)
But for Matthew, the key point is that Jesus brings a renewed word of God to a renewed people of God
– spoken from a mountain in Galilee of the nations.