S. Epiphany 3.20 “Light in the Dark” Matt. 4:12-25
Not sure why the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali are such dark places, to be perfectly honest. The Bible never says exactly. I mean, it’s not Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (I don’t think) not like “The horror, the horror!” It’s pretty country, rolling hills, an inland sea. It doesn’t seem to have been a particularly savage place (like Detroit!) with lots of murders, mobs, crime and stuff. Not that kind of “dark”.
And yet, Isaiah tells us the people of Zebulun and Naphtali were contemptible to God. They were people who walked in darkness, deep darkness(!), but in Jesus they see a great Light. Even in Jesus’ day, people, when they hear he’s from Nazareth, scoff and go: “Can anything good come out of Detroit, uh, I mean, Nazareth?” It’s a rhetorical question, negative answer assumed.
So what’s the source of Zebulun, Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles’ darkness? Well, I think it’s the people. In the final analysis, isn’t that what makes or breaks a place? It’s most often the case the highly rated places to live are usually ones with the highest education (like our fair city, just a tick or two behind Seattle in percentage of the populace with a college degree). Education often leads to a genteel way of living, high wages, high property values, good schools, lower crime rates (well, not counting the white collar variety). “Benighted” is usually synonymous with “dumb as a box of hammers”, right?
And the Scriptures support this hypothesis. When Peter and John (native Galileans!) are drug before the Sanhedrin and speak with power and eloquence the things of God, the Sanhedrin are astonished. Because the Galilean accent is impossible to hide and they see, as Galileans!, Peter and John were “uneducated, common men”—a nice way of saying bumpkin and chalked up the incredible eloquence to their “having been with Jesus.” College isn’t the only way to be well educated. Some very brilliant people skip it…(!)
But it’s not only a lack of high tone finishing schools or smart folk that made Galilee a dark place. It was the paganism. In the days of Joshua, the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon were lazy about claiming their territory and never too fussed about letting the Gentile pagans hang around. And they picked up the pagan ways (along with the stupidity). These two tribes joined the other 8 Northern tribes in rebelling against David’s son and went along with Jeroboam’s golden calf idolatry for centuries. The Assyrians conquered Samaria, the Northern Kingdom, in 722 BC and resettled a motley crew of refugees that blended Israelite worship with pagan idolatry. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman in John 4 that she is clueless because her worship is not from the ’41 hymnal. I find stupidity and bad worship a not infrequent combination. Guess how many times you’d see a praise band in the chapel at Yale? OK, maybe a bad example…
Because here’s the thing: Jesus draws his core apostles, the Big Three certainly, from Galilee, a benighted place of ignorant yokels. And they do and say plenty of stupid things—Peter, James, John. Yet… they are the source of the holy, catholic doctrine, liturgy we follow today! And while I never did see a praise band or drum kit in the chapel at Yale, there were some terrible things, Greg. Smart people can do pretty appalling worship services too, sometimes, though the hymnal in the Yale chapel in my day was Lutheran Book of Worship and even the bad services were done in “good taste”.
But Jesus chooses to dwell in Galilee, benighted place that it is. He calls uneducated fisherman as his first and greatest apostles. Herod and Caiaphas had high tone, snooty Ivy League degrees. And look how they turned out! There is a message in our Gospel today, a turning of the usual tables; almost as if Jesus is trying to say “Hey! If I can take these bumpkin bozos and make them the most brilliant of lights, the greatest of sages, imagine what I can do with you?” St. Paul says he was the chief of sinners and God chose him to show that if he could make a saint of Saul, he could turn any sow’s ear into a silk purse.
“They recognized that they had been with Jesus.” A bunch of bumpkins with no pedigree or native brilliance astound the high council of the Jews (a group noted for sophistication) with their learning and eloquence. Detroit natives, uh, I mean, Galileans!—the people who walked in darkness—have seen a great light indeed and it has lit them up in a way that we all would say “I want what they’re having!” Jesus is Master of the “Great Reversal” as Luther says and has a way of turning pumpkins into chariots, serving girls into princesses, and the class dolts into valedictorians. So that we’ll see the greatness, the power, the glory isn’t from us but entirely always and only from him…
Galilean fisherman then, you must picture as occupying the lowest rung on the social and education ladders—whatever contemporary analogy you wish to use. There are worse places than Detroit, after all; I’ve known some extremely bright and lovely people from there (first thing you do when you find yourself in a hole? Stop digging. I’m stopping the Detroit digs, I promise! They’re meant playfully, un-seriously… mostly 🙂
Anyway, Jesus is walking in the heart of spiritual and intellectual darkness when he’s walking beside the Sea of Galilee. He must have chosen the heart of darkness for a reason! What could the reason be? I think it’s to show that he can start with material the world would consider very low, very tainted, very unpromising and make the most spectacularly wise, learned, eloquent, brilliant people from what the world would cast off as garbage. And Jesus is always doing stuff like this: he’s bringing the proud low and exalting the humble, the lowly. It’s his way, Jesus’ signature move…
I’m glad we heard John’s account last week of how he and Andrew first met Jesus. If you only had Matthew, you’d think this was the first time the four had encountered Jesus. But three of them had met him before, spent time with him, recognized him as the Christ. Andrew and John followed him and Andrew went and got his brother Peter and brought him to Jesus. John seems to have left James in the dark.
I imagine when Jesus called them, James goes “Are you guys crazy? Who is this Guy?” And Andrew goes: “Oh! John the Baptist put John and me onto him and we hung out with him a few days and realized he is the Messiah. I fetched Peter right away and he’s hung with Jesus already, too.” John is sheepish. “Hey. I didn’t think it was something you’d be interested in! You never struck me as the religious type of guy.” And James is like “Thanks a lot! Some evangelist you’ll make! You need to get a heart for missions, brother!”
Or not? I find it interesting that the only one of the 4 who is interested in outreach, Andrew, doesn’t make the triumvirate, the Top Three. Maybe Jesus is telling us something? Maybe that the ones who just cling to him for dear life as the top priority are the ones we really need to emulate?
But they all follow (when they’re called) and that’s the main thing, our takeaway today. Real brilliance is caught, not taught. And you catch it always, only, from hanging with Jesus. The greater the darkness, the brighter the Light shines for us. In one way, this makes following harder because it’s so against our grain. In another way though, it makes it the easiest thing in the world. Because who doesn’t love the Light, who doesn’t want to bask in IT, who wouldn’t leave everything, to spend the day with Jesus?
All who do will know the Light, the Peace, surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.