The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Geography of the Light
Our gospel from Matthew this morning describes the beginning or launch of Jesus’ public ministry. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, has been arrested and in response Jesus withdraws to Galilee, leaves Nazareth, and make his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. A map would sure come in handy I thought! Though Jesus himself wouldn’t have been able to find “Zebulun” and “Naphtali” on a map, as it had been a very long time since these territories had been called by their names. Some seven hundred years prior, they had been the first of the northern tribes to be exiled by the Assyrians and live under Babylonian rule and oppression. These distant lands of northern Israel became an ambivalent and dark place of people and faith.
As we read in our passage from the Old Testament and from our Gospel, Isaiah prophesied the coming of a Messiah who would bring light, justice, and peace to the nations, even to the forsaken lands of Zebulun and Naphtali.
In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
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.
I realized that what at first glance seemed like a lesson in ancient geography in our gospel is a map of Isaiah’s prophecy, a prophetic map of what had been spoken through the prophet and fulfilled in Jesus.
As Matthew pointedly records, Capernaum, where Jesus began his public ministry, is in the “territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” where God’s covenant had first fallen seven centuries before. Jesus announces the redemption of the Israelites, now under Roman occupation and oppression, at ground zero if you will, and extends it to the Galilee of the Gentiles and the nations, to all who are far away, fallen, or forgotten, like Zebulan or Naphtali. A light will be given in the person of Jesus, that salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
And so, Jesus began his public ministry and to proclaim: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. His call to repentance is a call to remember the sacred history of God’s people, which is our own as heirs according to the promise, and to remember forth the ancient promises and prophesies that are at hand, now; the now that was then, and the now that is our own present. This is why Jesus came and comes, to announce the kingdom of God and call the suffering and sinful, the captive and oppressed out from the darkness and into the light.
Each of the four gospels tell this story of Jesus’ life and ministry in unique and similar ways, as do they report Jesus’ calling of his disciples, also in unique and similar ways. Last week, from the gospel of John, two would be disciples were following Jesus and he asked them a question—what are you looking for? a worthwhile question that Fr. John commended to you—and then invited them to come and see.
But as we read in Matthew’s gospel today, Jesus’ call is reduced to the bare essentials of a two word imperative: follow me; and then a promise: I will make you fish for people. It would seem that Jesus summons Peter and Andrew, and then James and John with such a commanding and divine authority that all four answer and respond immediately with radical obedience—they drop everything—their fishing vocation, their families, their familiar way of life, and any expectation for a known or secure future. They say an on-the-spot yes, like Mary did at the Annunciation, without question or consultation. Appropriately so, in our text, follow me (deute) is translated in the Greek as the imperative Come! Come here! Come here, right now! denoting urgency and arrival, more so than the daily journeying implied in following.
I very much appreciate this distinction, that following Jesus is also to arrive to him—to his peace, his power, his hope, his joy, and his love—and that as disciples we not only seek but find him and thus the kingdom of God. The calling and conversion of the disciples could be portrayed quite simply as the arrival from darkness to light. But unlike the dawning light of a new day, the light that Jesus called upon his disciples must have been sudden, sweeping, and all encompassing, an illumination that broke cross the landscape like a powerful wave, washing away any shadow of a doubt.
Even so, as the disciples would come to know, following the light also led them into the darkness of circumstance, conscience and spirit, which was necessary for their greater healing and communion. I know this has been true for myself as a disciple of Jesus. I also know that I am not always “radically obedient” either, though I want to be. I believe yet doubt. I have faith but waiver. I pray for peace and worry at the same time. I trust, but I could trust more completely. I preach but do I spread the good news otherwise? To arrive to Jesus is indeed to follow his light—light that will lead us into new life but not before we pass through the shadows.
Many of Christ’s disciples will not be called to drop everything; nonetheless, we must want to; we must want more light! As Jesus teaches, we must be ready to let go of the life we know in answer to Jesus’ call; we must be willing to let go of the darkness we know in answer to Jesus’ light. Our outer circumstances may not change much, or as radically as that of the first first disciples, but our inner situation and its conditions can be just as radically transformed. Our inner world and life is far more vast and far reaching than our outer lives, even of those most travelled or accomplished among us. God’s peace and power, hope and joy and love is first found here, within us, in our hearts and souls, where eternity begins, and then is expressed and shared in the world in so many and varied ways.
Within everything and each of us is the spark of God’s light, and a unique brightness. Yet we don’t always see it, let it shine, or tend to the flame, our light becoming dull and dim; habituated as we become to deadness and the impossibility of death, when we are called to be porous to the grace and aliveness of the Holy Spirit, open to the possibility of new life in Christ and willing to grow in the direction of the light, where-ever that might take and lead us. The coming of Christ calls for a decision, and indeed provokes judgment as the workings of our inner nature is revealed by such light. According to Luke, when Mary and Jospeh brought the baby Jesus to the temple, a just and devout man named Simeon recognized him as the Messiah, saying: He is the light of God’s revelation to the nations. This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise; a sign that will reveal the deepest thoughts of many hearts (Luke 2:25-35).
All of the deepest thoughts of our hearts, all of the places we have been, or not been, places near or far or fallen and forgotten like Zebulan and Naphthali, territories within us where light has been oppressed, where we have turned away from who is calling us—all of the mountains and valleys of light and dark are the sacred geography of our lives and faith, and the Galilee of our redemption, where Jesus stands ever calling us to repentance and to the kingdom of God that is near and at hand. He calls his disciples by name—Andrew, Peter, James and John—he seeks each of us out, God’s beloveds. Perhaps if we can be still for a moment, silent for a moment, we will hear Jesus call our name, and feel him arrive to our side, the light of God’s power, presence, and love for all of humanity and creation shining so very brightly.
As we prayed this morning, give us grace O Lord to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.
By thy grace, and by thy mercy O Lord, and by our willingness to bear the revelation of the light, may it be so, amen, amen.