3 Epiphany – January 22, 2017

Matthew 4:12-23

On Epiphany Sunday I spoke about hope. That the Epiphany story is one of hope. Today, I continue that theme in the midst of geography.

How so? you ask.  What does geography have to do with it?  

Well, our gospel passage begins with Jesus’ hearing the news that John has been arrested. It’s rather ominous. Soon after Jesus starts to live into his baptism, he hears that John, his baptizer and front man, has been silenced and removed. Wanting to send a clear threat to Jesus, the authorities arrest John, torture him, and threaten him with death. How much worse could things become? The dream surely will die. All hope is lost. At least that’s the extreme way we tend to tell our stories. But Jesus, you’ll notice, has another way.

Matthew tells us that Jesus withdrew to Galilee.  Matthew tells us this for a reason—that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled. But it also says something profound about Jesus, about God.  The region of Zebulun and Naphtali were conquered by Assyria. In other words, they had not been on the lips of God for a very long time. So, when Jesus, on hearing the devastating news about John, heads to the land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – it means something. 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. Just a mention of these two tribes and Matthew’s audience knows that in Jesus, God is up to what God does best — making good on God’s promises to God’s people.

This past week was filled with interesting events tied to geography. Martin Luther King’s birthday called to mind the history of the south in the United States as the focus of the civil rights movement. The inauguration of Donald Trump in Washington brings to the forefront the events that have taken place in that city. The Women’s March on Washington relives one of those events — King’s March on Washington. And the Women’s March happened in cities all over the United States and the world in solidarity with Washington!  Geography intertwined with hope.

In his call for freedom, King’s point is to demand freedom in the very place where freedom had long been denied — in the south. His location of choice to represent this denial of freedom is Stone Mountain of Georgia, the Confederate Mount Rushmore, if you will. But before he says let freedom ring from there, he suggests how freedom should ring or has rung from everywhere else — the mountains of New York, the Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado, the curvaceous slopes of California. Freedom is all well and good in those places, but from every hill and molehill in Mississippi, too? Yes. Geography is symbolic.

Once John the Baptist’s ministry is over and done with, the time is ripe for the ministry of Jesus to begin. He does not go to some holy place, to some religious center. Instead, he withdraws to Galilee, heathen Galilee, Galilee of the Gentiles, a place where, according to Jewish belief, pure faith has been distorted.

But this does not mean Jesus is giving in. It is God’s way of saying once again — it may look like empire is in control, but you know the truth, and you have to be the truth.

Life, contrary to popular theory, is not sometimes very, very good, nearly perfect, and at other times really, really bad. We hear gospel preachers say we are now experiencing a dawning of hope as the new administration takes office, while others say this political change represents the most perilous time in our history. Is one story completely right and the other completely wrong? Does any man or woman have the capacity to alter the nature of our inner and outer worlds and change who we are? Rather than blaming or crediting another for a world we see as either wonderful or perilous, perhaps we need to learn to accept responsibility for a world that is both of these at once.

Jesus does not go to some perfect place in search of disciples. He goes instead to a questionable place, one whose wounds cry out for immediate attention. Jesus still comes to us, today, here and now.  

As Kayla McClurg blogs:  “Jesus keeps moving forward, step by step, practicing his calling, going where he is sent, doing what he is given to do, honing in on his central purpose which is determined by a force larger than the current conditions. The news about John does not deter him; it motivates him to share it even more boldly, and to find others who do not think life is either all good or all bad but who see its great potential for being both at once. “Repent!” Jesus cries out, as John had done before him. “Repent” of the idea that all is lost and these present days are perilous and you have been abandoned. “Repent” for shutting your eyes to all the potential and promise of heaven that is right here with you, breaking through in beautiful interconnected patterns that only God could create.

No matter what dire situations you see as monopolizing the world, the greater truth is that a light has already dawned in the regions of death. Announce it. Invite others to live in it with you. All is not lost. Now go prove it.”   Amen.