Sermon for January 26th, 2020
It’s hard to imagine, but a couple thousand years from now people may read news stories or letters from the distant past and wonder: “what is this place Ground Zero which these people keep referring to?”
When we hear that name though, we know exactly what it is. And I say “what it is,” rather than “where it is,” because when we hear that name we think of more than just a geographical location, for us it is so much more than a dot on a map.
When we hear Ground Zero we don’t just think of the World Trade Center or a city block in lower Manhattan. We hear the name and are instantly reminded of something that happened there. We are reminded of death and destruction and horror. The images come flooding back, even some of the sensations. That horrible smell that filled the air; the missing person signs that papered the city; that sense of fear, of wondering “what’s next?” All of that comes rushing back to me when I hear the name “Ground Zero.”
There are some places in our world that see such horror that just saying their name conjures up painful emotions and images, even if we didn’t witness the horror personally. If I say the name “Auschwitz” or “Treblinka” or “Daccau” you don’t just think of places in Europe…dots on the map. You think of all of the horrors that we know happened there. Death, defeat, captivity, starvation, cruelty. There are other places whose names conjure up similar emotions: Pearl Harbor, Dunkirk, Verdun. Sadly, that list of names grows longer everyday:
Columbine, Newtown, The Pulse Nightclub.
So many place names become synonymous with the horrors witnessed in those places, that to say them out loud is a risky thing because you are evoking powerful, terrible emotions and memories in people. These names mean so much to us and evoke so much within us, that it is hard to imagine a day when someone might hear them and have no concept of what those places represent. But sadly, that day often comes. Our memory of history fades, and the horrors that our history contains fade away with it, until place names, just become place names again. If I went up to the average person on the street and mentioned Andersonville or Culloden or Carthage, how many would have any idea what I was talking about?
When you heard the first reading just a few moments ago, and heard Isaiah talk about the land of Zubulun and the land of Naphtali…did it stir up anything within you? Did you feel a surge of emotion when you heard Matthew repeat Isaiah’s words in the gospel reading?
Well neither did I at first. They are just funny place names in the bible. I don’t have any emotional connection to them at all. So when I hear that Jesus is going to start his ministry in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali my first thought is: ok, whatever, who cares? Just one of those meaningless, tedious details that the Bible is full of right?
But then again, there is always the chance that I am missing something, so I dug a little deeper.
Who were Zebulun and Naphtali?
Well if you think way back to the book of Genesis, or if you try and remember the songs to the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, you may recall that there was Abraham, then Isaac and then Jacob (Jacob and Sons!), there was Jacob who had twelve sons.
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin.
Naphtali and Zebulun were two of Jacob’s sons and with their brothers they were founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. Well when the Children of Israel (or the descendants of Jacob) returned to the Promised Land after their exile in Egypt, each of these tribes settled in their own little territories, sort of like our counties. The Zebulun and Naphtali tribes settled in the North by the Sea of Galilee. Thus was established the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali.
Ancient history so why would Matthew care that Jesus started his ministry there?
Because in around 740 BC during the time of the prophet Isaiah, the Assyrian army, living to the North of the Kingdom of Israel invaded. There was war and destruction and death. The tribes that lived there, if they weren’t killed in battle, they were hauled off into captivity and lost. They disappeared. The Babylonian Captivity or Exile of the Jews is still pretty well know and talked about, but that was of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Assyrian Captivity of the Northern Kingdom has largely been forgotten, because no one came back. The people had just disappeared.
And Ground Zero for the Assyrian Captivity was the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali. That is where the Assyrian army invaded first. Those were the people whose lives were first destroyed by this terrible event. And those are the people that Isaiah is talking about when he talks about people walking in deep darkness. These were current events for Isaiah. And yet he had the faith and vision to say that those people walking in darkness, who are living under the rod of the oppressor, someday they are gonna see a light. And there will be no gloom for them anymore. This land that has been destroyed, someday it will be made glorious. That is what God is going to do for his people.
That is why Matthew thinks it’s significant that Jesus is starting his ministry there. This is the region and shadow of death. This is where death and destruction first reared its ugly head for the Kingdom of David, so this is the first place that this son of David is going to go to establish his new kingdom. Jesus isn’t going to Galilee because it’s a nice place to go fishing; Jesus is going to Galilee because the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali had been a hell on earth. The names Zebulun and Naphtali had become infamous symbols of suffering and death. When you said Zebulun and Naphtali, people thought of more than just a place on the map.
That is where God sends his son to teach, heal and proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom is a lot closer to them than they imagined.
It was in this land, a symbol in itself of how broken human kingdoms and human society can be, it was in this land whose name was a reminder of just how cruel and inhumane we humans can be to one another, it was in this land of pain, anguish and darkness, it was in this land that the light of the world walks up to a couple fishermen trying to mend their broken nets and says:
Hey, aren’t you tired of this yet? Aren’t you tired of living in a land of fear and death and darkness? Aren’t you tired of trying to mend a world that won’t seem to stay mended for long?
Wouldn’t you like to follow me and live differently and invite others to live as a part of this new Kingdom that God is building?
Maybe the fact that Jesus goes to the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali isn’t such an insignificant detail after all, because if I lived in the Land of Zebulun and Naphtali next to those fishermen Peter and Andrew and James and John, and someone made that offer to me, well…I almost might be persuaded to follow him.