Have you ever looked for the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali on a map? If you have a smartphone you can try it if you like. Type in Zebulun or Naphtali to see what you get. Actually, to save you some time, I tried it with Google Maps last night. You know what you get? Nothing! Nothing, except for one archaeological dig.
Because the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali haven’t appeared on a map for over two thousand, seven hundred years. They used to be there. These were the lands in the northeast corner of Israel that were allotted to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali when Joshua led the Hebrew people into the promised land some 3400 years ago. But in the eighth century BC these were the first of the lands of Israel to be conquered by foreign empires, first by the Assyrian Empire, then the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and many others, right up until the Roman military occupation in the time of Jesus. Living under military occupation is a dark place to be. Empires, war and oppression had made life gloomy in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali for over seven hundred years.
But God never forgot the people of Zebulun and Naphtali. Seven hundred years before Jesus, God made them a promise through the prophet Isaiah:
“The people who sit in darkness will see a great light; and for those who sit in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in what used to be known as the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali.
Is it just a coincidence that Jesus, when he left his home in Nazareth decided to move to Capernaum? Did he simply want to enjoy some sea-side living?
I don’t think so. I don’t think anything in today’s reading is a coincidence.
What we do have in today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew is the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry. And at Jesus’ inauguration, nothing is left to chance. The beginning of Jesus’ mission is intentional, deliberate and purposeful. He’s been thinking and praying about this for forty days in the wilderness. Jesus knows that what he is doing matters. And so he provides a clinic in leadership, laid out in five steps.
The first step: “It’s time.” Jesus has been baptized. He has been called into his identity as the Son of God. He has wrestled with that identity and what it means during forty days of temptation in the wilderness. He has been watching for a sign from God that will signal the beginning of his mission. And he sees it:
“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested in the wilderness,” he knows that it’s time to begin. It is an ominous sign. It takes courage to begin now. It is an act in defiance of the empire that arrested John. But it’s time.
The second step: “It starts here.” Jesus deliberately chooses a place, the town of Capernaum in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali to begin and to serve as the context for the start of his mission. One might have imagined that Jesus would go to Jerusalem, to the centre and the place of power to begin, but instead he goes in the exact opposite direction. He goes to the margins. He goes to the people who have been sitting in darkness for seven hundred years. He goes there to fulfill God’s promise to be a light to those who walk in deep darkness and in the shadow of death. He is God’s light, he is the one who fulfills God’s promises, and he goes first to those who are marginalized and oppressed.
Step three: Cast The Vision.
“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” Remarkably, these are the same words that John the Baptist proclaimed. It is a call for action. It is the proclamation of a new beginning. It is a vision of hope. But it’s also an act of defiance. John has just been arrested and will soon be killed for proclaiming these very words. Jesus chooses to proclaim them again, verbatim. The light comes into the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
Step four: Build a team
Immediately after he casts his vision, Jesus’ next step is to call disciples. “Follow me,” he says to Simon and Andrew, and immediately they left their nets and followed him. “Follow me,” he says to James and John, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Why did Jesus choose these four? What do we know about them? Not much at this point, other than the fact that they were fishermen. But what we do know is that they were all-in. When called, they immediately left their previous lives behind and followed Jesus. The most important thing that Jesus looked for in building his team was people that were all-in.
Step five: The Mission begins.
“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.” Teaching, preaching and healing. That’s the mission, that’s what Jesus will do and it begins, urgently, purposefully, throughout Galilee. The mission is an embodiment of the vision: the kingdom of God has come near. This is what it looks like. Healing. Liberation. Good news for the poor, good news for all peoples. Bringing light into the darkness.
That’s today’s gospel, that’s the inauguration of Jesus’ mission, laid out in five steps. When I look at it I’m struck by how intentional and purposeful it is. Jesus is in charge here, no doubt about it. He’s on a mission. It’s a high stakes mission. John has been arrested and will soon be put to death. It’s pretty clear when Jesus embarks on his mission that he is risking the same fate.
And so you might want to ask, why is Jesus so intentional and so purposeful about all this?
To which I can only think of one answer: because it really matters. It matters to Jesus, and it matters to God. Jesus’ mission is to fulfill God’s promises. He is the light coming into the darkness. He is the one who will reveal God to us. Jesus’ mission matters to God because we matter to God. God so loved the world that God sent God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. God cares about each one of us and wants to be reconciled with each one of us, and today’s gospel is the beginning of that mission of redemption, salvation and reconciliation. So, yes Jesus is intentional, deliberate and purposeful. Because yes, it matters.
Next Sunday, the mission continues. The next phase of the mission is the manifesto. Jesus will proclaim his manifesto from the mountain top. We usually call this the Sermon on the Mount, but to call it a sermon fails to do it justice. It is a manifesto, a call for a new world order. We will be proclaiming it over the next few weeks on Sundays. And there will be a few surprises.
One of the surprises that awaits us is that the one who deliberately began his mission in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, thereby proclaiming himself as the light that enters the darkness, he will turn that mission over to us, and call on us to be the light that enters in the darkness.
“You are the light of the world; let your light shine before others.”
And so if we ask the question again, why is Jesus so intentional and purposeful about his mission, the answer is not only because Jesus’ mission really matters. It is also because that mission has been handed over to us, and as a result what we do really matters.
We are called to that same intentionality and that same sense of purpose in our own lives, as we live out our mission to be the light of the world.
So did Jesus leave Nazareth to make his home in Capernaum because the rents were cheaper? Or because the employment prospects looked better? Or because it was nice sea-side town with a good fish market?
No. He did it because the mission matters. And what we do, how we live our lives, how we proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God - that matters too.
Homily: Yr A P3, Jan 26 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 9.1-4; Ps 27.1, 4-9; 1 Cor 1.10-18; Mt 4.12-23
Image by James Emery, Creative Commons