Sunday, January 22, 2023
Epiphany 3A – Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23
This is a political story.
It is also, and powerfully, a faith story.
Perhaps you remember a few weeks ago we read another O.T. passage, where the prophet urged the king of Judah not to make an alliance with the kings of Israel – (the northern kingdom), and Syria against Assyria. He urged the king to trust God instead. He insisted, “God is with us” – Immanuel. The king didn’t.
And in 732 BC the north fell to Assyria – This began a terrible period in Israel’s history.
Both of today’s reading refer to that event by referencing “the land of Zebulon and Napthali” – “Galilee of the Gentiles” this is the land west of the Sea of Galilee that the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III had conquered. He had deported many of its citizens to Assyria. (2 Kings 15:29) At that time, Israel was destroyed, lost, and without hope.
In Isaiah’s time, “gloom and darkness” referred to the devastation of the land and the people’s experience of military defeat. But Isaiah sings that the darkness of Assyrian conquest would one day be replaced by light.
Someone will come – a change will come – and light will reverse the hunger, the depopulation, the poverty, the shame of defeat. Light in the Bible, in today’s psalm, is a symbol of salvation, of rescue, of reversal of fortune.
As a further word of encouragement, he reminds the people of another historic impossible reversal – “the day of Midian” – when, according to Judges 6-7, another enemy threatened God’s people. You might remember this story from Sunday School – Terrified Gideon was told to reduce his army several times, to take only a few fighters against the huge army of the Midianites – God told him, “The Lord is with you.” (6:12) And Gideon prevailed.
Now in Matthew, the writer of the Jesus story repeats this passage in a wholly new context. Galilee is under the control of a new Empire: Rome.
That empire, like the Assyrian one before, had as effectively subjected the people to darkness and death – and had normalized those things.
Poverty was rampant, hunger and disease and death stalked the land.
The military and the informants were everywhere – the only way to keep the peace was by coercive polices – by instilling fear.
But the people were restive, restless, eager to escape this oppression.
There was talk of overthrowing the Roman rule.
Imperial leaders were anxious, too – worried about controlling this stubborn population who wouldn’t acknowledge the inevitability and power of Roman rule. You can see this all through the gospels: spies, the desire to arrest and murder anybody who spoke words of freedom, who urged the people to trust God and turn back to God rather than into the arms of Roman power. Executions were not uncommon for “rebels,” for those who tried to defy Rome. Not only was John in their sights, but eventually Lazarus and Jesus were as well.
In Matthew’s story, it is “Jesus who will lead people from darkness to light and destroy the power of death that Rome had come to embody. He will expose the destructive ethos of the Roman Empire and demonstrate that darkness and death need not be accepted as normal.”
This is no small thing. Nor was it safe for him or for his followers.
“The devil tried to coopt him. The empire tried to threaten him. But nothing seemed to deter him. “
Now look. Jesus goes to the sea to recruit his first followers. Last week we read that Andrew, at least, had been a follower of John the Baptist, the rabble-rousing street preacher who thundered that the people needed to repent and follow God again; and that Andrew left John to follow Jesus. Today we hear more that, but from a different perspective. And it is set deliberately in the context of Roman oppression of the poor – which was nearly everybody in Galilee.
Jesus hears that John has been arrested, and begins to preach that the kingdom of heaven is at hand – a new kingdom – which is opposed to the “kingdom” of Rome, the empire.
He takes the language of empire – and redefines it to invite a radical reversal – this “kingdom” will be God’s – a kingdom of peace and joy, freedom and gladness.
He teaches his disciples to pray that the kingdom of God – the kingdom of heaven – the will of God – NOT the will of Rome – would come on earth as it already is in heaven – We still pray that.
We know that the Romans so fully controlled commerce that they claimed exclusive rights even to the waters and the fish in them. Fishermen in Galilee had to pay for the right to fish, and that tax applied even when they were unsuccessful. The cost of boats and nets on top of that tax meant that fishermen worked hard – and yet mostly remained in poverty.
So when he calls these poor fishermen to follow him, Jesus is inviting them on a dangerous journey into the heart of the beast. He is inviting then to go with him to preach the opposite of what Rome wants people to believe and trust and obey. He knows it is risky. And so do they. But the people’s smoldering sense of dissatisfaction was in them, too, and they, like others, were ready to seek new freedom.
Leaving their nets meant that these men quit funding the Empire. No job – no taxes.
But this isn’t an invitation to idleness. Jesus tells them that they will become “fishers of men” – of people.
This phrase implies that they, like him, will challenge the structures of power exactly as John had done, and as Jesus was doing by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and above all, urging people to repent, to quit following the false god of Caesar, to refuse to bow to a false king – Herod, to abandon their unhappy and enforced loyalty to a false kingdom – Rome, and to turn again to their God – to trust HIM. They will urge others to see themselves as the people of God, not the slaves of Rome, to repent of the way of death and to seek again the kingdom of the God who had delivered them from Egypt; to see themselves as subversive agents of new life, hope, and love. They would not kill to conquer, as the zealots urged, but would be willing to lay down their lives to demonstrate the power of God’s love. That’s radical.
The good news is that any empire built on control and violence and intimidation, built on the foundation of fear and hatred will eventually collapse. “A new kingdom that exposes the dark aspects of the empire and leads people from death to life will always encourage people to embrace it, it will even inspire people to join in transformative work”
And so Andrew and Peter, James and John, walked away from their boats, and into a dangerous new freedom.
Matthew believed that Jesus was indeed the bringer of new life – a new kingdom – a kingdom that resists and transforms and shatters the illusions of every earthly empire. He believed that Jesus brought God’s kingdom to light even in his death, and asks us to welcome it, to reveal it in our lives, and to speak it.
Too often the church has been willingly co-opted by imperial powers. We have accepted the promises of safety and acceptability to keep still.
But when we do that, we lose – every single time.
It never hurts the empire to have religious followers clinging to its skirts.
The empire welcomes that. Religious followers legitimize imperial ambitions and do not threaten their advance. History is full of this tendency to surrender the power of God for the power of approval.
American enslavement of Black persons could not have happened without it.
German murders of millions of Jews would have been impossible had the Church resisted the coercive power of the Nazi regime.
And right now, the political war of the rich against the poor and the homeless, the rise of anti-semitism, the hostility towards women, the continuation and exacerbation of racism, the fear of immigrants, the political determination to control especially the teaching of our own flawed history would end tomorrow if the church were not so deeply indebted to empire. If the church were really determined to follow Jesus.
And so – what will we do?
What do we think it means for us as a Church, as a local congregation, and as individuals to “follow Jesus” in 2023?
What “nets” could we lay down?
What risks are we willing, even eager to run?
What are we too afraid to say or do, of what, or of whom, are we afraid? And why do we think that is?
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