Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
Pastor Marc's sermon on the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany (January 26, 2020) on Matthew 4:12-25. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
So I’d like to start today with a very geeky thought exercise. I’m going to name some comic book superheroes and the places that made them who they are. And while I do that, I’d like you to use your imagination and picture those superheroes in those places. We’ll start easy with Clark Kent - aka Superman. He was born on the planet Krypton and raised in rural Kansas. But when it came to living his life, the place that really formed his identity was, I think, his home base - the fictional city of Metropolis. So, take a second and imagine Superman being himself in Metropolis. Now let’s move next to Batman. And when we do that, doesn’t the city of Gotham sort of show up automatically in our heads? This pattern of hero and place works even if you switch to a different comic book universe. Because Spider-man really is just a kid from Queens and Captain America fits a World War II era Brooklyn. The Black Panther had to come from Wakanda and the Black Widow is who she is because she grew up in Soviet Russia. So now that we’ve imagined superheroes being themselves in the places where they belong, let’s stretch our imagination and see what it would be like if these same heroes were defined by some place else. For example, what if Batman didn’t spend his time in Gotham but instead built his batcave in a suburban city like Woodcliff Lake? Or what if Captain America, instead of playing stickball on the docks of Brooklyn, he grew up playing soccer on dusty fields along the US-Mexico border? And what if the Black Widow grew up in California, Japan or maybe Nigeria? I don’t find it hard to imagine superheroes from those places. But it’s not easy to re-imagine the superheroes we do know to the point where we fully understand how these new places would shape their identity. Places matter because they can provide a context and a history to our stories. And since places do make a difference in the fictional world of comic book superheroes, then the places we hear about in the Bible should inform how we interact with Jesus and how we live into his invitation to “follow him.”
Today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew is full of places. There’s Nazareth, Capernaum, Zebulon and Naphtali; the Sea of Galilee, Galilee itself, Syria, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. That’s a lot of geography in only a few verses. And when the Bible gives us a lot of one thing in only a few lines, that’s a signal that we need to pay attention. Yet it’s not easy to pinpoint where our attention should go when we’re given a list like this. We might choose to focus on those places we do know - like Jerusalem, since that’s where Jesus died, or Nazareth since we just heard that name in the Christmas story. But when it comes to the Bible, sometimes the most effective way to see what the gospel is all about is to spend time with the things we don’t know. And I’m going to assume that most of us don’t recognize Zebulun and Naphtali. And it’s perfectly okay if you don’t. These are two words that even I, a religious professional, looked up and I’m pretty sure I’m pronouncing them wrong. Yet we know those two place names matter to the story about Jesus that Matthew told because Matthew immediately reached back into the scripture and quoted words from the book of Isaiah that were spoken maybe 700 years before Jesus was born.
So to grasp Zebulun and Naphtali, we need to go back to the book of Genesis and to a man named Jacob. Jacob was the son of Issac who was the son of Abraham who was the one who received a promise from God that he would be the ancestor of many nations and that one of those nations would be God’s chosen, embodying God’s life and love for the world. Jacob’s life was very full of its ups and downs and his name was even changed to Israel after he wrestled with God in the river Jordan. Jacob ended up having at least 12 sons who became the heads of the 12 tribes that made up the Israelite people. Two of those sons were named Zebulun and Naphtali. Years later, after the story of the Exodus, the territory in the so-called Promised Land was split among those twelve tribes. Zebulun and Naphtali were given the northernmost territory, with their claim including the Sea of Galilee and beyond. Their territory was large but also unwieldy. And according to the Bible, they never really gained full political control over the are because it was basically a borderland next to large empires to the north and east. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali were told to make their home was also the main invasion route into Israel as well. In the words of Brett Younger, “whenever anyone invaded, they were the first and last to bear the brunt of it.” Eventually in 722 BCE, the Assyrian Empire completely conquered the northern part of Israel, deporting its 10 tribes and effectively wiping them off the face of the earth. The people who repopulated the territory that formerly belonged to Zebulun and Naptali were always viewed with suspicion. And even if these people were Jewish, other members of the religious community were worried about their identity and whether they could ever be considered truly part of God’s family. During the time of Jesus, Galilee was considered to be too non-Jewish - too full of Gentiles and was now occupied by another Empire - the Romans - who did their very best to exploit the people who lived there. The former land of Zebulun and Naphtali was a place covered by an old and deep shadow. Yet it was there, in that shadow, where Jesus began to work. He set up his home base not in a city but in a small fishing village, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. And while there, he called his first disciples from among those marginalized people who others didn’t think were worthy of the Messiah’s attention. The light of God didn’t show up only in the places we expect God to be. Instead, Jesus stepped into the shadow, showing that we - regardless of history, regardless of our past, regardless of what we’re experiencing now - that we truly are beloved children of God.
So when Jesus looked into the boats and saw Simon, Andrew, John, and James mending their nets, he saw more than just a few people who knew how to fish. He knew how their geographical place shaped and informed who they were. He knew the story of their land; he knew the story of their people; he knew what others thought of them; and he knew what they thought about themselves. Jesus knew the disciples came from a place. Yet when they met Jesus, he proclaimed that another place - God’s place - this kingdom of heaven - was coming to meet them. This wasn’t his way of saying that the place people are from doesn’t matter. Rather, Jesus was showing them - and us - that we do not have to be limited by the places we call home. We are, through baptism, connected to a body of Christ, to Jesus himself, who embodied what God’s kingdom is all about. And what centered that king was it’s giving of life - a life that brought healing, wholeness, and, above all, hope to those covered in shadow. When we take seriously the places that show up in the Bible and how they informed Jesus’ own ministry, we’re also invited to ask how our places shape our response to Jesus Christ. And this kind of invitation takes a kind of work that has to be more than just a simple thought exercise about comic books. Instead, we’re required to ask hard questions about our places, how they’ve shaped us, and how we’ve used places to harm, vilify, or overshadow others. This work isn’t easy and we might not like what we discover about ourselves. Yet this work is something that Jesus knows we can do. Because he did not call perfect people to be his disciples; instead he called folks just like us. And he continues to give us his life and his light so that we can bring prayers of peace, gifts of love, and the power of hope into every shadow in our lives and in our world.
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