Carrying on the Kingdom Mission -- Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3A

Matthew 4:12-23 (New Revised Standard Version) 

12 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
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death 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.

                After John’s arrest, Jesus left for Galilee.  From the way the text reads, it appears that he stopped by the homestead in Nazareth and took up residence in the fishing village of Capernaum.  Capernaum sat on the Sea of Galilee, in the “territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.”  In doing this he retreats to a region sitting on the margins.  Galilee was far from the center in Jerusalem, and Capernaum was a mere village as compared to Galilee’s capitol at Sepphoris, Nazareth’s far larger neighbor.  Perhaps Jesus decides it would be prudent to start small – out of the spotlight – and then move toward the center.  Although he moves to Galilee, the ministry he takes up is quite similar to that of John the Baptist.
                The Gospels don’t tell the story in the same way, but there does seem to be consensus that there is continuity between John’s ministry and that of Jesus.  John recedes and Jesus emerges to carry on the effort to renew Israel.  John prepares the way and Jesus reveals the nature of God’s realm.  In John’s Gospel, the Baptist points out Jesus to his disciples, and they follow the one John calls the Lamb of God (John1:29-42).  In Matthew’s telling of the story, after his baptism, at which time God does the pointing (Matthew3:13-17), Jesus goes into the wilderness of Judea and endures a time of testing.  It is at this time, at the close of the wilderness experience that John’s ministry ends and Jesus takes it up himself. 

In this telling of the story Jesus will find disciples not among John’s followers, but at work fishing by a lake.  But, like John he proclaims a message of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Matthew uses heaven as a stand in for God, which is the wording found elsewhere. 

Matthew, as we know, wants to place the ministry of Jesus in the context of God’s overarching plan.  His ministry fulfills the prophetic vision.  In this case, the move to the Sea of Galilee, places him in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, two ancient tribes of Israel.  These two sons of Jacob from different mothers were given land in the north, at the margins, and this is where Jesus begins his ministry. This prophetic word is rooted in Isaiah 9:1-2, though Matthew adapts the passage to his own meaning.  The people of Galilee sit in darkness.  There is in this reference a sense of despair.  They are a people who have lived under and suffered under one imperial regime another.   But now this land of darkness will see a great light.  Dawn is on the horizon, and with it comes freedom. 

                Jesus comes into Galilee, preaching a message of repentance, of turning back to God, so that the light that is the Kingdom of Heaven might penetrate and empower their lives.  So what do we make of this message of Jesus.  Brett Younger offers this word that seems fitting:  
 We let our pessimism keep us from dreams as big as Isaiah’s and hopes as dazzling as God’s light.  We ignore the deepest longing of our hearts.  We need to help one another see Christ’s light.  God will teach us to recognize it when we catch a glimpse:  when a young father takes his newborn daughter into his arms for the first time; when a troubled couple falls in love again; when a family makes a pilgrimage to the bedside of a dying loved one and feels an unexplainable peace; when a single woman comes home to her solitary dwelling not as a place of emptiness but as a nest sheltered under the wing of God: when the light of Christ shines into the darkest places in our lives.   [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary,  (WJK, 2013), p. 61]. 
To take up this ministry of Jesus is to be watchful for the points of light existing in the midst of darkness, those signs of God’s presence in our midst, signs that the Kingdom of Heaven draws near, and then point out these signs to those experiencing darkness.

Jesus doesn’t take up this task by himself.  As he goes about the region around the lake, shining light in darkness, he begins to build a team.  Whereas in John’s version, Andrew goes up to Jesus and asks to join up, later bringing in his brother Simon, in Matthew’s version, Simon and Andrew are fishermen, tending their nets along the shore, when Jesus comes upon them and invites them to take up a new task.  Whereas they had been making a decent living catching fish, he wanted to put them to work catching people for the realm of God.  He does the same with James and John.  Both sets of brothers immediately drop their nets and follow him.   Why wouldn’t they want to do this?  After all it’s Jesus who is offering a message of hope to the world.  But of course it’s never that easy.  You didn’t get rich catching fish.  It was hard work as well.  But, it was still a good living, a consistent living.  Jesus offers the life of the itinerant preacher.  They would live off the land and the good will of those they encountered.  They didn’t get a contract with salary, housing, pension and health included.   Still, when Jesus called they dropped everything and followed him.   They didn’t ask any questions.  They didn’t check Jesus’ references, nor did he check theirs either.  And off they went on this new adventure. 

In the closing verse of this lectionary reading, Matthew offers a word of summation: 
“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” (vs. 23). 
Jesus offered light – he shared good news that the kingdom was at hand and he demonstrated the healing power of this realm through acts of healing.  When Jesus heard of John’s arrest he moves to the periphery of Israel and begins to build a community that will join him in bringing light into the darkness.  He doesn’t try to free John, but instead, takes up the mantle and presses on.  In his ministry he gives expression to what God intends for the people – he brings a word of healing.  It is manifested in bodies, but in the end it is the entire realm that will experience God’s healing power:  Freedom from darkness. 

                The ministry of Jesus begins as John’s ministry comes to a close.  Like John he draws to himself disciples.  Perhaps Jesus was one of John’s.  The Gospel of Matthew closes with Jesus returning to Galilee.  He has endured the suffering of the cross.  He has buried, and he has risen from the dead.  Now, it is time for his departure.  He gathers with his disciples in the region where their ministry began.  And in this moment, he passes on the baton to them.  He commissions them to continue the work of God’s realm, making disciples, baptizing them, and doing this not only in Galilee or Israel, but to the ends of the earth. 

                In my own thinking on the ministry of Jesus and how it connects with our ministry today, I have been thinking about how all of this fits in continuity with God’s covenanting with Abraham and with Sarah, that through their descendants the nations would be blessed.  It would seem to me that even if left unspoken there is a connection here in Matthew’s own vision between God’s call of Abraham and God’s call to us, all of which is mediated through Jesus, the great light who shines in the darkness.

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