Sunday, 26 January 2014

Galilee under the Gentiles

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
26th January 2014, 11.00am

Matthew 4:12-23  Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,  14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:  15 "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--  16 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."  17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  18 ¶ 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 sea-- for they were fishermen.  19 And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."  20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  21 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.  22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  23 ¶ 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.

Isaiah 9:1-7  But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. 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.  2 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.  3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.


I’d like to begin this morning with a confession.
            Well, perhaps not so much a confession as an admission
                        - after all, I’m not sure that I need to feel particularly guilty about this.
But anyway, I think I should tell you…
            that the subject of Geography has never been my strong point.

I managed only a D-grade in my geography GCSE,
            and I have one of the worst senses of direction and place that I’ve ever met.
I would, quite literally, be lost without my sat-nav,
            and when I was at university and shared a house with geographer,
                        I might, on occasions, have asked him
                        how his ‘degree in colouring’ was coming along.

But those of you who are more geographically inclined than I am
            may be pleased to hear that I’ve had a change of heart, if not of ability,
            and so I’d like to start by showing you a map:



On the left, we have a map of Israel,
            showing its division into tribal groupings
                        as described in the book of Joshua
            following the conquest of the land
                        at the end of the wilderness wanderings.

Whether or not this was ever a genuine political reality isn’t too important,
            what matters is that it entered into the Jewish mind-set as a reality,
            and has informed the geo-politics of the region for the last 3,000 years.

The map on the right is a close-up of the area around the sea of Galilee,
            showing the tribal areas of Zebulun and Naphthali.
The ancient town labelled Kinneret, on the northern shore of the lake,
            is quite close to the first century town of Capernaum
where according to our reading from Matthew’s gospel
            Jesus made his home.

I’ll leave these maps up,
            as they help provide a sense of location
            for the events we’re going to be looking at this morning.

I also ought to warn you that the sermon will involve,
            not just references to geography,
                        but also some time travel.
Because in order to understand what’s going on in Matthew’s gospel,
            we’re going to have to turn the clock back six hundred years,
                        to the time just before the Babylonian invasion of Israel,
            when the prophet Isaiah was writing the first part of his book.

This is because when Matthew describes Jesus moving to Capernaum
                        following the arrest of John the Baptist,
            he does so using a quotation from the book of Isaiah.

Matthew says that Jesus made his home in Capernaum by the sea,
            in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,
            ‘so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled’ (v.13).

Clearly, for Matthew, there is a parallel to be found
            between the events of the time of Isaiah,
            and the events of Jesus own time.[1]

So let’s go back to Israel of the seventh century,
            back to the time of our Isaiah reading,
and see what was going on there,
            in order to see how it might shed light
            on what Matthew thought was going on with Jesus.

The section of Isaiah which we call chapters 7 to 9
            is a block of text where the prophet is addressing King Ahaz of Judah.
By this time, the kingdom of Israel had been split in two,
            with Judah forming the southern kingdom
and the northern tribes including Manasseh and Ephraim
            forming the northern kingdom.

Ahaz was king of the south,
            but he had a problem.
You see, the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom,
            and had taken possession of the land from Galilee
            all the way down to Ephraim.
Ahaz, quite sensibly, thought that Judah might be next on their hit-list,
            and so he and his subjects were quite literally shaking with fear (7.1-2).

Isaiah, however, tries to set Ahaz’ mind at rest,
            and tells that God has said that the Assyrian imperial threat is doomed (7.3-9).

After a bit of an argument,
            God gives Ahaz a sign,
and tells him through Isaiah that a child has been conceived
            whose name will be ‘Emmanuel’ - which means, as we all know, ‘God is with us’.
Isaiah tells Ahaz that the child is a sign that King David’s royal line will continue,
            and that the northern imperial powers are doomed.

So, Isaiah chapters 7-9 addresses a context of pronounced imperial threat,
            and here we begin to get our clue
            as to why Matthew saw this as a parallel situation to that of his own readers.

Perhaps located in Antioch in Syria,
            Matthew’s original readers of his gospel
                        were a small, marginal Christian community,
            who knew daily the political, socio-economic,
                        legal, religious, and cultural reality
                        of Roman imperial power and presence

And as with Isaiah’s child called Emmanuel,
            so Jesus, the Emmanuel of Matthew’s gospel,
            is to be understood as a sign of resistance to imperial power.

So far in Matthew’s story, Jesus has been consistently presented
                        in opposition to the forces of empire:
            In chapter 1, he is named Emmanuel in fulfilment of Isaiah,
            in chapter 2, Jesus escapes from the Roman vassal king and tyrant Herod the Great
                        by fleeing to Egypt, another site of Jewish oppression.
            in chapter 3 Jesus is baptised in opposition to the powers of Rome,
            and in chapter 4 he is tempted by the devil
                        who offers him his prize possession of the Roman empire.

John the Baptist has just been arrested
            for his opposition to another Roman vassal ruler, Herod Antipas.
And so Jesus withdraws to settle in Capernaum
            in Roman-controlled Galilee.

This isn’t a retreat to safety – Herod Antipas is the ruler of Galilee
            Rather, it’s Jesus symbolically challenging Herod’s Roman-derived power
                        by going into his territory to begin proclaiming a different empire
                                    – which he calls the Kingdom of Heaven.

This area around Capernaum,
            where Jesus made his home,
            was very much part of the Jewish heartland.
It’s population was Jewish,
            and its religion was Judaism.

Which is why it’s slightly strange that Matthew calls it
            ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’
Because it isn’t gentile territory at all,
            it’s thoroughly Jewish.

Of course, the clue is to be found in Isaiah,
            because Matthew is quoting Isaiah at this point,
And Isaiah calls this area of Zebulun and Naphtali ‘Galilee of the nations’ (9.1)

What Isaiah means by this
            is that Galilee has been ‘occupied’ by the nations;
it’s a land under the power of, and possessed by,
            the Gentile imperialist power of Assyria.

A better translation might be to call it not ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’
            but ‘Galilee under the Gentiles’.

In Isaiah’s time it was occupied by the Assyrians,
            and in Matthew’s time it was occupied by the Romans,
It was still, very much, ‘Galilee under the Gentiles’

So, when Jesus moved to Capernaum,
            in the land of Naphtali, in Galilee under the Gentiles,
                        he was still in the promised land,
            but he was in the part of it that historically
                        had been thought of as ‘occupied territory’.

The fact that this area to the north of Galilee
            remains disputed territory to our present day,
gives us some idea of the political tension inherent
            in Jesus, the Jew, moving in to occupy land
                        to which Gentiles had laid claim.

And Matthew’s naming of Zebulun and Naphtali in his quoting from Isaiah,
            is, for those in the know, a clear signal of God’s sovereignty
                        that contests and challenges:
            firstly, any Roman claims on Galilee,
                        secondly, the presence of Roman client rulers like Herod
            and thirdly, the Roman imperial theology
                        which was based on the worship of Jupiter, the head of the Roman pantheon.

This is Jesus going head-to-head
            with full might and ideology of the Roman empire.

And having located Jesus in Capernaum,
            Matthew has Jesus echo exactly the challenge of John the Baptist,
as Jesus begins to proclaim,
            ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (4.17)

In many ways, the concept of the ‘kingdom of heaven’
            is the root metaphor and the central symbol
            of Jesus teaching and work in Matthew’s gospel.

We need to remember not to think of the kingdom of heaven
            as a pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die reward for a good life
                        - that’s actually more a Graeco-Roman idea
                                    than it is a Jewish or Christian one.
Rather, the kingdom of heaven is God’s eternal rule over all creation,
            it is what Tom Wright describes as ‘God’s space’
            where full reality exists, close by our ordinary, ‘earthly’ reality,
                        interlocking with it and breaking in upon it.[2]

Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of heaven is at hand,
            and in doing so overtly challenges
            the earthly imperial kingdom of Roman power.

Jesus proclamation of God’s kingdom
            is described by Matthew, again using the language of Isaiah,
                        as being like a great light
                                    dawning on those who live in darkness,
                                    in the region and shadow of death.

‘Darkness’ in the Jewish tradition
            symbolised that which is contrary to God’s life-giving purposes.
From the disordered dark chaos of the void,
            before God brought life and light to the cosmos (Gen 1.2),
to the Jewish experiences of the oppressive empires
            of Egyptian slavery (Ex. 10.21, 22, 14.20),
                        Babylonian exile (Isa 42.7, 47.5, 49.9),
                                    and Assyrian conquest (Isa 8.22-9.2).

And it is this final one,
            the Assyrian occupation of the northern territory in the time of Isaiah,
that sets the scene for the imagery of darkness,
            that we find in our readings this morning.

By contrast, ‘light’ is a symbol in the Hebrew Bible for the righteous,
            for those who fear the Lord,
                        those who deal in justice,
                                    those who give to the poor.

Darkness and light, in the Jewish tradition, are not spiritualised terms,
            rather they denote concrete realities
            in the experience of the nation of Israel.
They speak of political, social, economic, and religious structures,
            which can either be aligned to the darkness of the imperial empires,
                        whose actions are contrary to God’s purposes,
            or they can be aligned to the light of God’s kingdom,
                        when they enable human behaviour that is God-focussed,
                        leading to the creation of his empire of justice and righteousness.

For Isaiah, in his day, the darkness was the Assyrian empire,
            that exercised its rule in Galilee.
For Matthew, it is Rome’s empire exercising its rule
            over the same region.

And for both Isaiah and Matthew,
            the language of darkness speaks of human actions,
                        through the structures of empire,
            that reject God’s call for a transformed society,
                        and oppose the call to repentance that the prophets bring.

So John the Baptist, the prophet who challenged Herod to change,
            and proclaimed repentance and the dawning kingdom of God,
found himself arrested and executed.

It’s no coincidence that Jesus echoed the exact words of John’s call to repentance,
            and did so by going to the heart of the Roman occupied territory
                        to live in the midst of the Roman imperial structures
                                    that were dominating the land
                                    in opposition to God’s will for his people.

Jesus takes upon himself the mantle of the recently deceased John,
            and embarks on his own mission
                        to oppose and expose the darkness of the imperial powers
                        that were dominating the world.

And the message of Matthew’s gospel
            is that the darkness does not get the final word.
Darkness in the biblical tradition is always subject to God’s power (Isa 45.7):
            light, an image of God’s life and saving power (Ps 27.1) dawns,
                        and rescues people from darkness,
            whether it be the political oppression of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon or Rome,
                        or the personal experience of misery, depression, hunger or affliction.

Light, for Matthew as for Isaiah, means God’s reign
            of justice, righteousness, and peace,
                        which breaks the ‘rod of the oppressor’ (Isa 11.4-7).

So, Matthew’s use of Isaiah’s imagery of light
                        coming to those who live in darkness,
            to describe Jesus going to live in Capernaum
                        in Galilee under the Gentiles,
is him offering a strongly politicised
            theological understanding of Jesus’ mission.

The way Matthew sees it,
            Jesus mission is a mission to overthrow the imperial powers
                        that dominate the world
            and to shine the light of the inbreaking kingdom of heaven
                        in the midst of those who live
                        in the deep darkness of oppression.

In an interesting first century parallel,
            the imperial poets Statius and Martial
            used imagery of light to praise the Roman Emperor Domitian,
            who may have been the emperor at the time Matthew was written.

But the ‘light’ of Matthew 4.16 is not the light
            of the presence of the Roman emperor
            who ‘rules’ Galilee through his puppet king Herod.
Roman rule, the way Matthew sees it, is part of the problem,
            it is the ‘darkness’ and the ‘shadow of death’
            under which ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ now suffers.

Jesus’ goes to Galilee as the one commissioned at his baptism to make God known,
            as the one whose task is to transform darkness into light.
And so, having moved to Galilee under the Gentiles,
            the stage is well and truly set for the next phase of Jesus ministry
                        of bringing light into the imperial darkness of the world,
            and his public ministry is about to begin.

So Matthew tells us of Jesus calling his first disciples,
            not just to follow him in terms of personal discipleship,
but to follow him in his mission
            to expose and ultimately overthrow the darkness of human imperialism
                        that has manifested itself down the millennia
                        as Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Rome and so many other guises
                                    through to the political and ideological empires of our own day.

Wherever humans construct their empires of darkness,
            wherever we create powers that oppress the earth and exploit its people,
Jesus does the same thing as he did in Northern Israel,
            he moves into the heart of the empire,
            to bring the light of his proclamation of the in-breaking kingdom of heaven.

And he still calls followers to join him,
            he still calls ordinary people,
                        drawn from among those who live under the empire,
            to leave their old lives,
                        and to join him and follow him
                        in his ongoing mission to transform the world
            by bearing faithful witness
                        to the reality of the alternative kingdom of heaven.

Today, we have celebrated as Graham was baptised,
            and we have heard and witnessed him making his public commitment
                        to revolutionary people of Christ.

The kingdom of heaven continues to break in upon us,
            even as we live in the midst of empire.

It may not be Rome, or Assyria, but the empires of our own day,
            the empires of nationalism, of global capital, of religious ideology,
            are every bit as real, and every bit as oppressive.

And we ordinary people, who live in the midst of the empires of this world,
            need to hear the good news
                        that it was in Galilee under the Gentiles,
                        that Jesus proclaimed the good news of God’s empire.
It was as a light shining in a land of darkness,
            that the kingdom of heaven started to become reality.

Through his ministry, people were healed of their woundedness,
            and the controlling powers that blighted their lives were cast out.
The empire was resisted
            and those who were oppressed were brought to liberation.

The mission of Jesus, which began in Capernaum, in Galilee under the Gentiles,
            runs through the gospel to the cross
                        and through resurrection to our own day.
It was, and still is, a mission of subversive teaching and action,
            which consistently challenges all idolatrous imperial claims.

And along the way, beginning with James, and John, and Andrew, and Peter,
            Jesus continues to create a community
            with distinctive socioeconomic practices
that recognises and anticipates
            the full establishment of God’s kingdom.

When we pray, ‘your kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven’
            we join ourselves to the kingdom of heaven, which is at hand,
            and we play our part in Jesus mission of liberation for all.

This is gospel, this is good news,
            because 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.





[1] This sermon borrows freely and without further reference from Carter, Warren. Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2001. pp. 93-107.

[2] Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part 1, p. 37

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