How did you feel this past Monday? Was it hard to get out of bed and get going? Did the sleet and ice and rain make you feel like staying in bed? Were you a little gloomy and depressed? Did you know you were supposed to be? This past Monday, January 16th, was informally known as Blue Monday. In 2005, Dr. Cliff Arnall, a British professor, published a formula for predicting the gloomiest day of the year based on factors including weather, debt, and probability of failed New Year’s resolutions. According to him, “Credit card bills are a big problem after Christmas. Snow, ice and floods are causing worries, and many feel a lack of motivation.” Also, “The deaths of so many celebrities, many in their 50s and 60s, has also worried people by reminding them of their own mortality.” Oh, and to top it off “other extra factors this year are Trump and Brexit causing uncertainty and increasing people’s fears.”  Well, even if you weren’t depressed last Monday – you might be now. While Blue Monday is little more than a pseudoscientific marketing stunt designed to drum up business for travel agencies and airlines, it contains an element of truth, doesn’t it? Our world and our lives are covered in a blanket of darkness and depression – and not just in January. For that and many more reasons, it is good for us to be here because in this world of darkness, a Light has Dawned.
The circumstances surrounding the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry did not seem to suggest that he came to bring light. First, his ministry began in earnest only after he heard that John had been put in prison. John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the OT prophets, had been imprisoned by Herod for having the guts to point out that he was sinning by taking his brother’s wife, Herodias, as his own. (Matthew 14:3-5) A year later, John would be beheaded by Herod as part of a foolish oath he had sworn to Herodias’ daughter. Dark. Gloomy. Depressing.
Secondly, the place where Jesus chose to begin his ministry was not exactly a shining city on a hill. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali – to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.” Before Palestine became a territory of the Roman Empire, the northern region of Israel was known as Zebulun and Naphtali – named after Jacob’s sons and their tribes which had settled there. This was not a place you would choose to live if you had a choice. For two reasons. First, Galilee was a military no-man’s land. Whenever a foreign invader from the north set its sights on Israel, they came through Galilee. The landscape and people of Galilee bore the scars of centuries of invasions. Second, after God had handed over the 10 Northern tribes to Assyria in 722 BC, Galilee was repopulated with foreigners from other countries. From the perspective of the Jews, Galilee was not only filled with “illegal” immigrants, it was filled with unclean, unsaved, unbelievers who brought their immorality and idolatry into the Promised Land. I suppose if, instead of single family homes, the development outside those doors was designated a camp for Syrian refugees, we might begin to have an idea of Galilee’s population and reputation. Galilee was a place of deep darkness, socially, politically and spiritually. And this was where Jesus decided to set up his home base and begin his ministry.
Why? Why wouldn’t Jesus start his ministry in a place like Jerusalem, where the Temple was, where the teachers were, where he would be most likely to find good, obedient, righteous Jews? Because, as Isaiah prophesied 700 years earlier, Jesus came to shine the light of God’s grace in the darkest – and, most unexpected – of places. The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. As Jesus would make explicit later: he [did] not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:13) So that’s what he did. He went directly into the heart of darkness. He went to the people who were the most hopeless, whose lives were most messed up, who were suffering with various diseases, severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed. (Matthew 4:25) Jesus made his primary mission to visit those who didn’t know God, didn’t know the way to God and had no hope that God could ever have compassion on them.
This is still how Jesus operates today. The light house of his Word and Sacraments don’t exist for those who have life all figured out, to those who are happy and healthy and wealthy, his compassion and forgiveness are not for those who don’t want it and don’t think they need it. Jesus still comes to those who feel like they’re blindly stumbling through life, who don’t feel happy or healthy or successful, to those who are hopeless, helpless, and on the verge of despair. Practically speaking, those who think the church is only for “good” people, don’t understand who Jesus is or what the Gospel message is all about. The Christian church, this Christian church, is not for “good”, righteous, perfect people. If you’re one of those, or if you think you are, you might as well leave now, because we have nothing to offer you. Jesus comes exclusively to people who are broken, people who are wandering in the fog of doubt and uncertainty, people who feel left out, alone, and abandoned, people who are suffering physically, financially, spiritually. The absolution at the beginning of the service is not for good people but for confessed, convicted sinners. The parents who bring their babies to be baptized here do so because they recognize that their baby inherited more than their genetic makeup, they inherited original sin and therefore a death sentence in God’s courtroom. Holy Communion is not for the best of the best, but the worst of the worst - and that’s not my idea, that’s Paul’s: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. (1 Timothy 1:15) Jesus didn’t come to shine light in a bright place. He came to shine light into the darkest places. And, if you’re like me, this makes you very happy, because even if we don’t look it and no one would guess it, we know that darkness surrounds each one of us. If you are broken, despairing, depressed, if you’ve messed up life so badly that you don’t think you can ever put it back together, if you feel like you’re just wandering through life without aim or purpose, if you know that you need more than a handout and a piece of advice – you know that you need a Savior – rejoice, because a Light has Dawned in the most unexpected of places – Jesus is here for you.
In that unexpected place, he proclaims an unexpected message. Dr. Arnall, inventor of Blue Monday, suggested some ways people could cheer themselves up. He writes “the easiest way to be happy is spending more time with people who love you and like you as you are…Use Blue Monday as a springboard for change, whether it is to lose weight, stop smoking, embark on a dream or change jobs. Make the most of your life and live it to the full.” Isn’t that typical of the world’s advice to those who are despairing? If people disapprove of your sinful lifestyle – go find people who will accept you just the way you are. If you’re unhealthy, buy a FitBit, get on a diet and go exercise. If you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, follow these 12 steps to recovery. If you’re lost and hopeless, dream big and chase that dream. If your marriage or family are broken, read this book to fix it or abandon it and start over. Look inside. Believe in yourself. You. You. You. Do. Do. Do.
There’s only one problem with that line of thinking – if you truly are lost and wandering in darkness – you know that the worst part is that you can’t find your own way out. You know that the biggest problem isn’t some outside factor, temptation, or situation – the problem is far more serious, far deeper – the problem is right in here, our own sinful hearts. No outside factor can make you unhealthy, addictive, lazy, unfaithful, or hopeless. The darkness we see in our world is merely symptomatic of the darkness that lives in every human heart – in our beating hearts. So telling you to find hope and light in yourself is like telling a blind man to try really hard to see – it just leads to greater darkness. That’s why, when Jesus steps in to bring light, his message is not only unexpected, it’s remarkably different.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. The light Jesus shines into the darkness has two parts: the first is repentance. In the context of wandering in darkness, repentance is Jesus stepping into our lives to take off the blindfold, to show us the reality, and help us acknowledge the truth. The truth that by and large, the darkness in our lives don’t come from the outside, but from within. Jesus came to shine the focused light of God’s truth which dispels our dark tendency to blame our problems on the weather, on the political atmosphere, on a difficult set of circumstances, on any physiological or psychological factor or on other people. The source of darkness is not out there. It’s in here. (Mark 7:1-23) That’s what Jesus shows us by leading us to repentance with the mirror of the Law. That’s what Jesus wants us to see. That’s what Jesus, our God and Savior, wants us to confess. That’s repentance. That’s unexpected.
But not as unexpected as the second part. The kingdom of heaven is near. Sin has a tendency to put us in a sick, self-destructive cycle. I sin because I’m a sinner so I’m going to keep on sinning. The world’s solutions to that destructive cycle are, at best, temporary remedies that do little more than mask the real problem. 12 step programs might change behavior but they can’t change the heart. Drugs and therapy treat the symptoms but not the source. Surrounding ourselves with people who accept us just the way we are might make us feel good but it doesn’t make us good. The remarkable news, the light that Jesus has come to shine into hearts stuck in the cycle of sin is that he has come to heal, to fix, to solve the source of all our problems – he has come to bring the light of God’s forgiving grace into our sin-darkened hearts. It’s not that he ignores our sin. It’s not that he’s unaware of how ugly we are on the inside. The unexpected message is that God knows exactly who we are and loves us anyway. He loves us, not because we’re good, but because we’re lost.
He loves us so much that he sent the Light of his life, his Son, to live among us. Jesus was born like us, grew like us, endured the darkness of temptation and loneliness and depression in this world like us. And the fact that of all places Jesus began his ministry among the people of Zebulun and Naphtali should assure you that he doesn’t care how dark your life is, he doesn’t care how much sin he will find, he isn’t afraid to wade into the worst situation because his mission is to remove every last remnant of that darkness from your heart and life. He doesn’t tell you to trust yourself or be a better you. He doesn’t tell you to clean up your act and then he will love you. He tells you to trust him and believe that his blood has scrubbed every last drop of sin from your heart and that you are now wearing the brilliant white robe of his innocence. Jesus didn’t come to tell you or show you how to beat the darkness, he came to defeat the darkness and save you from it forever. And that is exactly what he has done. On the cross he swallowed the darkness of sin and the shadow of death and on Easter morning the blazing light of his resurrection destroyed their power forever. That’s the only light that pierces the darkness of this world and our hearts, the only solution that crushes the power of death and breaks the cycle of sin in our lives. That’s the unexpected message of Christ and the Christian church.
I’d like to be able to tell you that spring will be here tomorrow. That the darkness of winter is over. I’d like to be able to tell you that because you cling to Jesus in faith, all your problems will go away. But I can’t. All the conditions that Dr. Cliff Arnall described as causing Blue Monday – the weather, the bills, the failed resolutions, all the other problems – will still be there. But in this dark world – a world of sin, a world of death, a world of people like us – a Light Has Dawned. Jesus has come to shed light in the most unexpected places – our own sin-darkened, hopeless, helpless hearts; with an unexpected message – God has forgiven all our sins and promised to take us to live in his glorious light forever. May the brilliant light of God’s grace in Jesus brighten every aspect of your life this week. Amen.