a sermon based upon Matthew 4:12-17
I thank Rev. Gene Bacon for serving as our Reader this morning (on short notice) and quote again how today’s text began: "Now, when Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali… the land toward the sea, across the Jordan [which the prophet Isaiah called] Galilee of the Gentiles."
It’s my intent to "unpack" that opening description in the course of this morning’s sermon (Galilee, Nazareth, Capernaum, the territory formerly allocated to the tribes of Zebulun & Naphtali – the land toward the sea and across the Jordan), but first notice the tension! Out of the blue, John the Baptist had been arrested!
Jesus had publicly associated himself with the Baptist’s movement when he was baptized by John in the Jordan River. Following the arrest of John by King Herod Antipas, Jesus has to decide whether to remain in the shadows, safe from the prying eyes of government informers, or to boldly take up the cause.
When Jesus heard that John the Baptist, his cousin and his partner in the early Gospel movement, had been arrested by King Herod... (Matthew tells us)… Jesus withdrew to Galilee.
"Withdrew to Galilee?" That sounds like a retreat, doesn’t it? "Withdrew..." It sounds like a turtle pulling its head back under the shell for protection.
Somehow, the Jesus whom we saw (just last Sunday) wrestling with the devil about the future direction of his ministry doesn’t strike me as a "withdrawing" (retreating) individual ... not even when King Herod is on the warpath against John the Baptist and his Gospel movement. Surely, Jesus wouldn’t start his public ministry by advancing to the rear! (?) Yet Matthew tells us that "He withdrew..."
"...to Galilee." Okay, so he’s headed for home. But where is Jesus withdrawing from? Where has he been up ’til now?
Thus far in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus had been (A) born in Bethlehem in Judea (Chapter 2: verse 1), had spent his first few years (B) as a refugee in Egypt (2:14) fleeing from King Herod the Great, and then (C) Jesus settled with his parents (Joseph & Mary) in the city of Nazareth in Galilee (2:23). … Obviously, then, since Jesus is technically a Galilean, what does it mean to say that He "withdrew to Galilee?" Where’s he coming from?
Well, two weeks ago, when we read about Jesus’ baptism, it meant that Jesus had left his Nazareth home to go downstate – out of the upper Galilee region to join John at the River Jordan. (I hope you read my little overview of the topography of the Jordan River like I shared with the children using my 1897 map.)
Jesus had to leave Galilee in order to go out to John, to be baptized. As we saw last week: after leaving the River, Jesus crossed into the wilderness -- wandering for 40 days in the deserts on the East Bank, in the territories of Jordan & Syria.
In Jesus’ day, this region had ten Roman Cities so it was called the "Decapolis", including Damascus in the North, and Jerash in Perea. These include what we today call "the Golan Heights". Perea was ruled by King Herod Philip (one of the three sons of Herod the Great) who inherited 1/3 of a kingdom.
Philip built a city at Banias -- the very headwater-source of the Jordan River, at the foot of Mount Hermon -- and dedicated it to Caesar. That is why it was called: Caesarea Philippi. Incidentally, it is here where Jesus will one day ask his disciples "Who do you say that I am?" – which is a story for another time.
Herod Philip was a weak ruler, and he lost control of his territory to his more aggressive brother Herod Antipas, who was the ruler of neighboring Galilee.
In a story-line right out of a romance novel (or "Hash-tag #MeToo"), Philip’s wife Herodias left him and took up with his more successful brother Antipas, taking their teen-age daughter Salome with her. That incestuous triangle was publicly denounced by John the Baptist, and it led directly to his arrest and execution -- a tawdry story that also must await another day.
Incidentally, King Herod’s third son, Archelaus -- who had been given control of the region of Samaria and Judea after the death of their father Herod the Great -- offended the Romans with his corruption and insolence such that he lost his territory (!) A governor by the name of Pontius Pilate was put in charge in Jerusalem -- a man we will also meet later in Jesus’ life story...
Suffice for now to note that it was King Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee – the one who had usurped his brother’s trans-Jordan territories as well as bedding his brother’s wife and seducing his teenage niece -- who arrested John, the Baptist. John, who was (apparently) the only man who had the nerve to tell the ruler that his actions were illegal & immoral! The Baptist was arrested by King Herod in order to silence him.
So, that gets us back to today’s Scripture reading… Far from "withdrawing," Jesus returns from the wilderness and heads back into Galilee to "beard the lion in its den!"
Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth is only four miles from the royal capital city of Sepphoris, where the Herod family had its palace! Herod Antipas rebuilt the whole city during the years of Jesus’ childhood – most likely using the local carpenters and masons for the labor. Since carpentry was Joseph’s trade, Jesus may likely have worked on the royal city himself as a teenager. Sepphoris was a city of 24,000 people -- a major influence in Galilee, and Nazareth was (in effect) its "suburb!" (see: John Dominic Crossan "Who Killed Jesus?", Harper San Francisco, 1995, p. 42)
By returning to Galilee from the relative safety of the wilder-ness -- back into the hornet’s nest of Galilean politics -- Jesus picks up right where John the Baptist left off!
From that time (Matthew 4:17), Jesus began to proclaim:
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"
This talk of a "new kingdom" is radical politics!
Repent -- "change your ways!" -- that had been John’s basic message. Telling King Herod Antipas to cool it with his brother’s wife and daughter, was one example of what "repent" meant when speaking to the power structure in Galilee. But Jesus adds to the Baptist’s call for "repentance" the claim that a new kingdom -- the kingdom of heaven (whatever that means) -- was already coming into being! It was "at hand!"
What Jesus was doing reminds me of an earlier story in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 2:1-3), when the news that a "new king was born" had so upset King Herod the Great, that he sent a death squad into Bethlehem to kill all the boy-babies that they could find (Matthew 2:16). Obviously, ruling kings don’t like those activists who announce that "a new kingdom" is coming! Jesus & John come across like rebel-rousers, rebellion leaders.
Herod the Great’s son, Antipas, thought that he had silenced those rebels when he cut John’s head off; now has to contend with this new fellow: Jesus... of Nazareth, no less! Not a wild man from the wilderness (down by Judea and across the Jordan), but a Galilean from Nazareth! One of his own! Within spitting distance of his own palace, this son-of-a-carpenter has the nerve not only to continue John’s call for repentance (for change) but this guy adds the note of "a new kingdom at hand!"
Actually, while there was no new kingdom in Galilee, there was a "new capital" already in the works, and Herod knew it. He was behind it! You see, in the year 19 -- when Jesus was just a young man -- King Herod Antipas of Galilee decided that the new Roman Emperor deserved a brand new city, named in his honor, on the balmy shore of the Sea of Galilee.
King Herod built a new capital city and dedicated it to Caesar "Tiberias," and transferred his administrative officers -- his tax collectors, scribes, and bureaucrats -- down to the sea-shore, away from the hill country of Sepphoris. This new city (Tiberias) was 20 miles east of Nazareth, and it still is the main city of Galilee now. It’s where the tourist hotels are on (what Luke 5:1 calls) Lake Gennesaret, (what John 6:1 & 21:1 calls) the Sea of Tiberias, & what’s best known as the Sea of Galilee.
What do you think that Jesus will do, now that King Herod has moved his government to the shore of the Sea of Galilee? (!)
If he is going to address this "new reality," Jesus will have to preach in the vicinity of Tiberias (among the fishermen & tax collectors, prostitutes & politicians of the city by the sea), not some twenty miles away… in the hill-country of Nazareth where he grew up. That is, if Jesus really wants to address the power-structure & the civic leaders of his day, he’ll have to move away from Nazareth... and find a new home beside the Sea of Galilee.
Matthew writes (Matt. 4:12-16): Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee... (which I see as a bold advance into the very face of danger, not a with-drawal!). Matthew then goes on to say: He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea! (Holy smokes! Just as we figured he would do.)
Moving from Nazareth (in the ancient tribal territory of Zebulun, the hill country) and down to Capernaum by the Sea (territory of Naphtali), Matthew reminds us that move on Jesus’ part actually fulfills something that the prophet Isaiah had said:
"Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the
sea, across the Jordan, in the Galilee of the Gentiles...
"...The people who sat in darkness have seen a great
light, and for those who sat in the region, who sat in
the shadow of death, light has dawned!" (Isaiah 9:1-2)
We use that text from Isaiah every year during Advent, as we light our advent candles and talk about Jesus as the "light of the world" and how his coming was a "light to the nations." It is a traditional text for Epiphany, as we remember the Magi who follow the light of a star to find Jesus: "a light to the gentiles..." It’s the same passage from Isaiah which goes on to say: "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the govern-ment will be upon his shoulders!" (Isaiah 9:6) Matthew’s Gospel makes a point to remind us of the political promise of the Messiah, and Matthew associates Isaiah’s words long ago with Jesus’ proclaiming the "good news of God" in Galilee.
If I were Jesus, I probably would withdraw... not head into the lion’s den, as he does, but get as far away as I could run!!! How does Jesus think he can get away with announcing a new kingdom -- not Caesar’s Kingdom, but God’s kingdom -- the kingdom of heaven, not of Herod !"? This is radical, risky business! (In Underground Church we call it his "subversive" side.)
This "withdrawing into Galilee" is in no way a retreat. Unlike me -- and my innate sense of self-preservation… which comes out in cowardly ways when I know that I could do more, stick my neck out a bit further, speak up a bit more boldly -- this young fella Jesus moves from the safety of anonymity into the danger of public ministry. He does so "on purpose", with the intention of saving the world, in God’s name, through his Gospel.
Jesus returns from 40-days of imagining alternative ways that his movement could proceed… to some very real threats against his life -- against any life (in fact) which advocates change, against any life which stands for God in an ungodly world... as the martyr Martin Luther King, Jr., showed us in 1968.
Jesus leaves the safety of hiding out on the outskirts, walking along the margins. He moves away from the border-lands and the edges, and heads for the center of power, where he knows all hell will break loose!
"Repent," says Jesus, echoing John the Baptist’s call for change. And King Herod begins to think that this man Jesus is John the Baptist being raised from the dead! (Matt. 14:2) Herod thought that he had shut John up, and yet he couldn’t shut him up! John’s preaching continued, as Jesus came back to Galilee from the wilderness proclaiming the Good News of God.
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
How will the tax collectors and royal scribes in Tiberias interpret those words? (!) What will the average guy -- like the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee -- think Jesus means by that? (!) What will the folks back in Nazareth and in the former capital Sepphoris think about this son-of-a-carpenter (whom they knew as a kid, growing up) agitating now for change and proclaiming a new kingdom?
I hope you’ll be here next Sunday as we look more closely at that single sentence sermon -- "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." What might Jesus have meant by those provocative words? And what response did people have to Jesus’ message?
But for today let me ask you: Do you see parallels to the power-brokers and rulers in Galilee to people in today’s world? Not just among the Middle Eastern players – Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine… but parallels to other strong men & women who govern today?
And if you do see the connections (the relevance of these ancient stories to our behavior today), how do you react when I bring up politics and economics in a sermon? It’s what John the Baptist and Jesus were dealing with on a daily basis, and it got both of them into "hot water" with the authorities. Will it get me into hot water here? Let me know what you think.
And, second, how do you respond to the call to "change"?
That’s what John the Baptist was doing until his arrest, and it’s what Jesus’ movement was about as he got started in Galilee. Would you (like them) have the courage to speak up for God in the face of public wrong-doing today?
Frankly, that’s what this story lays before us... as Jesus began his movement in Galilee. And I believe that Jesus’s agenda for the world moves forward through us… (yes, us!) if we catch his vision and trust his Spirit to guide and empower us. May we find the courage -- and the content -- to do the same, in Jesus name.