Sunday, 22 January 2017

Epiphany 3: Confronting the powers

About a hundred years before Jesus was born a great victory was won by a man you may never have heard of called Aristobolus I – no, I hadn’t heard of him either. He was the king of Judea, the territory around Jerusalem – he had seized power for himself after a family feud. If that wasn’t enough, he was also high priest.  

Aristobolus wasn’t content with the power he had though. He wanted more. He was a bit of a megalomaniac. In particular, he had his eyes on the lands to the north of Judea, between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean. Once they’d been part of Israel. They were the ancient tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, but 600 years before him the Assyrians had conquered them and scattered their populations around their vast empire. They’d resettled the land with people from other countries and faiths.  It had become a ragbag of nationalities, cultures and backgrounds. That was why the prophet Isaiah called it Galilee of the nations, that’s why he described it as a place where people walked in darkness, a place where those defeated tribes had been brought into contempt, a place of anguish.

Aristobolus wasn’t having it. He wanted to make Israel great again – sounds familiar? So he marched north with his armies and, after a bitter war, he won.  But now what? The problem was that many of the people of Galilee weren’t Jewish. They were descendents of that ragbag of nations the Assyrians had settled in the land. Aristobolus’s answer was simple. If they weren’t Jewish they would have to become so, by force if necessary – which it mostly was. He wasn’t taking no for an answer. They were made to convert. As far as Aristobolus was concerned the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali had been reborn. The people who walked in darkness had seen a great light, his light, whether they wanted to or not.  He, Aristobolus had “made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”

Of course it didn’t last. In fact he’d hardly had a chance to enjoy his conquest when he died, and about 40 years later, the Romans conquered not only Galilee, but Judea too, and parcelled up his kingdom among puppet kings like Herod. So much for making Galilee glorious, making Israel great again. So much for casting light on people who walked in darkness. His mighty conquest had been no more than a flash in the pan.

So when Matthew quotes that very same passage from Isaiah, and applies it to Jesus, he is being much more provocative than we think. This was all very recent history to the people of Jesus’ time. We often tend to read the Gospels in a very individualistic, spiritual way when at the time they were political bombshells, full of subversive messages.

Right from the start of Matthew’s Gospel he sets us up for a story that is going to be about power and how it is used, kingdoms and how they are built and ruled. It’s Matthew who tells us the story of Jesus’ birth through the lens of the visit of the Magi – there are no shepherds and manger in his version. They go straight to King Herod initially and spark off a firestorm which ends up with the massacre of the children of Bethlehem and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt as refugees. Then Matthew tells us about John the Baptist, who thunders at those who oppress others and confronts those who thought they held the reigns of religious and secular power. We follow Jesus out into the desert, where he confronts powers of a different sort, the spiritual powers which threaten to derail his ministry before it starts. Is he going to win a following through miracles. Is he going to heap up glory for himself?  What kind of leader will he be – one like Aristobolus, leading by force, ambitious for worldly acclaim and wealth?
Jesus rejects that temptation – his way is going to be completely different.

And that’s where today’s Gospel begins. Jesus comes out of the desert and hears that John has been arrested. He could have decided to give it all up there and then, but he doesn’t. He steps straight into the space John has prepared for him, and begins to preach the same message. And it is the same message, exactly the same message, word for word, which John had preached just a chapter earlier in the Gospel. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. Jesus knows that he will face the same corrupt political forces which had imprisoned and would eventually execute John, but he carries on preaching anyway.

That’s the backdrop to the calling of his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, James and John. They aren’t just called away from their settled lives to the hardships of a travelling ministry. They aren’t just called away from their families and their private, self-contained lives. They are called into a battle with some mighty and very dangerous opponents.

The safest thing, if you live under an oppressive system, is to keep your head down and hope no one notices you. But they decide to take up the company of someone who is very deliberately challenging the powers that be. The danger to Jesus and to his followers couldn’t be clearer. When they rise up and follow Jesus they are embarking on a path which will lead most of them, ultimately, to suffering and to death.

So whatever made them do it? Why did they chuck in their comfortable lives and head off into the unknown? What did they see in Jesus, in that split second that he called them, which convinced them that he was worth following? What did he see in them?

Let’s think about the first of those questions first. What did they see in Jesus. Matthew doesn’t give us any clues about why those fishermen chose to follow him. All we know is the message he was preaching. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It doesn’t sound like a very appealing message at first hearing. We don’t tend to like the idea of repentance these days, sackcloth and ashes are out of fashion. But the real meaning of the word translated “repent” is “change your mind”.

Repentance is about finding a whole new outlook on life.
We might be used to looking at the world with cynicism and despair. “Change your mind,” says Jesus, “learn to see the hope God has for you.” That’s repentance. Or we might feel that our lives are pointless, that we are just on an endless treadmill. “Change your mind” says Jesus, “you matter, your life has a purpose, God is at work in you”. That’s repentance too. Or we might look at the forces, political, personal, ranged against us and think, “what chance have I got against all that”. “Change your mind,” says Jesus, “God’s light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. “ That’s what repentance looks like in practice. It’s not about despair or misery; it’s about hope.

If that’s the case, no wonder these fishermen leapt up and followed Jesus. Things could be different, were going to be different.  “The kingdom of heaven has come near” he said to them. “God is here. He’s at work in the world, at work in you, if only you open your eyes to see it.” Put that way, I’m not surprised that these fishermen leapt to their feet and followed him. They had sat too long already in the darkness of oppression, injustice and hopelessness, but now the light had dawned. Of course they wanted to know more. Of course they wanted to follow.

But if that’s what they see in Jesus, what is it that he sees in them? Why does he call these ordinary fishermen to be his followers? Again Matthew doesn’t give us much of a clue, but I think that’s the point. It’s not who these people are the matters but who they aren’t.  They aren’t superstars. They aren’t particularly rich or well-educated. They aren’t even necessarily good or religious people. In Matthew’s version of this story they are simply the first people Jesus comes across. God doesn’t just call extraordinary people, Matthew is telling us, people with gifts and talents that single them out from the crowd. He doesn’t just call those who are especially intelligent, resourceful, strong or brave.  He calls everyone.

For most of us, thank God, that calling won’t involve martyrdom, but all of us are called to do something – or maybe a succession of somethings during our lives – which will make a difference in the world in some way or other, to work with God in creating his Kingdom where we are, in our workplaces and neighbourhoods. We create that kingdom as we stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, as we love those others have no time for, as we learn to react with mercy and forgiveness, not fear and hatred to those who hurt us. This is a ministry we are all called to. There are no exceptions. There is no one too young, or too old, no one too insignificant, and no one too important either, to be called by God to do this work.

This week, as we have watched a divisive president take up office in the US, when our own nation is debating what sort of future it wants, what sort of kingdom we are, it is all the more important for us to realise that we all have a part to play in shaping the future. God calls us very urgently to work with him now, just as he called those fishermen two thousand years ago. He calls us to create a future where we can be drawn together by love, not driven apart by fear, where we build bridges, not walls, where we learn to seek and to find God in the stranger, and even in the enemy, as well as in the friend.

If God could work through the random bunch of people we find following him in the Gospels - people who get it wrong as often as they get it right - he can surely work through us too. All we need to do is to change our minds about ourselves, to learn to see ourselves as God sees us, full of promise, full of hope, chosen and called. “Repent – change your mind – for the kingdom of God has come near.”

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