Third Sunday of Epiphany – morning
Sunday 26th January 2020
Epiphany 3 – Week of prayer for Christian Unity – morning
Matthew 4. 12-23
Revd Preb Maureen Hobbs
We have heard a bit lately about young(ish) adults moving away from home – and even country!
So today’s Gospel tells us of a young man in his thirties striking out independently of home and family and background. Forging his own way in life.
And this is a move for very practical reasons – and I wonder if there was an element of wanting to escape the disciplines of the parental home and the opinions of brothers and sisters?
Jesus establishes for himself a new kind of family made up of a motley band of men and women who probably had little in common with each other – at least at first, other than a fascination for the new teaching that Jesus was bringing them. But as soon as Jesus calls not just Andrew, but Peter too and then James and John, there was potential for arguments and splits. After all, you don’t need to have a big number of people to generate squabbles – you just need two! (and some of us are almost capable of having a row with ourselves on occasion!)
So with the arrest of John, Jesus wisely decides to move out of Herod’s jurisdiction. Maybe he thought the larger bustling town of Capernaum would be one where he would be less noticeable? Maybe he wanted to draw any possible trouble and/or notoriety away from his family and friends at home in Nazareth?
But perhaps there is another significance which we can only guess at by Matthew reminding people that this was in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali? These were antique names for the territory by the time of the 1st Century. These two tribes from the time of Isaac and Joseph were hardly remembered any more. Their people had been either slaughtered or taken into slavery by the invading Assyrian army some 800 years earlier. It would be a bit like us talking about Pattingham being in the land of Mercia – we kind of know what that means, but it is very old and no-one really uses it any more. So what is Matthew’s point?
For Matthew the Messiah is beginning his public ministry in a place where sacred history and geography remain unfulfilled – and some would have said, un-avenged. This touches a psychological nerve for his audience. The Land and destiny was still incomplete – under enemy occupation – and they were longing for the Messiah, the one who would –( to coin a phrase) – “Make Israel great again” – No longer under the control of other nations. In control of their own borders and destiny.
In the time of Jesus there were large numbers of Gentiles (foreigners) living in Galilee and the Jews who remained massively resented them. They confidently expected that the Messiah would also push these foreigners back to where they had come from – or into the Sea – and restore the land to them. It was of huge significance and hard to imagine the power of such a hope unless you live in an occupied country like that.
But the rise in hate crime and racial attacks; anti-semitism and islamaphobia and all the many ways in which we try to ‘other’ people who are not quite like us… After all it was not so long ago that the Welsh were not allowed to remain in English border towns after dark… Chester, Shrewsbury and Worcester all bear some witness to that! The issues of national identity and control that lie behind all the Brexit controversy show these deep and complex longings are as real today as then. We too can pursue religious or national promises in a way that satisfies our own personal, religious or sectarian interests.
But Jesus interpreted the famous passage from Isaiah that he read in the synagogue in Nazareth in a different way. For him the year of the Lord’s favour that was to be proclaimed was not restricted – it included the gentiles and foreigners as part of God’s new world… That is part of what caused his near lynching.
Matthew, as an apostle, is making clear that Jesus the Messiah is proclaiming a new world. His prophetic move to Galilee has a great deal to do with restoring lost and unfulfilled history – but it will always challenge our narrow assumptions and expose all our prejudice.
And Jesus’ first words are to command repentance. Repentance for our small and sectarian world view, our tribal, religious self-interests, our narrow social, racial and cultural preoccupations.
And then we are to turn away from hardened, resentful hearts towards other groups and communities not like us, towards the generous vision of God for this world and all its people.
On this day – when we are especially delighted to welcome Christians of other denominations among us and celebrate that within this congregation we have people from many different backgrounds and traditions. On this day we recognise that this is a story God is still telling to and through us.
We are part of something so much bigger than our borders and history. We are better than that! And we need to hear that message and take it on board in times that can be unsettling and uncertain. We all have to live out the consequences of our choices in relationship to the rest of the world.
And this is what Jesus is still doing in the world – helping us to build not walls, but bigger tables.
And our resistances are often still as fierce.
Let us turn to the good news and live in the hope it brings and week by week as we gather around this table; a people who are inevitably different in backgrounds, opinions, character and experience – to share in bread and wine the signs and presence of the Christ who unites us across all these differences. May our unity in Him be strengthened and renewed. Amen.