Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"I'll Take Old Testament Geography for $800, Alex..."

Our lectionary readings this week are Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, and Matthew 4:12-24--give them a read through here, paying special attention to the Isaiah reading and the first part of the Matthew reading, which will be the focus of our comments below!

Have you ever been in a situation where things are referenced from the past that everybody around you seems to know about, but that don't ring a bell for you? Maybe you were the youngster in a group reminiscing about a sitcom from 30 years ago or a certain 8-track recording that was all the rage...maybe you are from an older generation and have found yourself unable to decipher the text message slang and pop culture references batted about by a group of teens...maybe you have been in a church where past members are referenced as if they are still present, but you have no idea who they are and no frame of reference for what dropping their name might mean.

In reading today's passage from Isaiah, and its subsequent quotation by Matthew, it would be easy for us to glaze over at some of Isaiah's references like someone in a group where everyone else is clued in about something that's foreign to you. "In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations...the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian." Naphtali? Zebulun? Midian? Where on earth are these places? What was Isaiah referencing? And what did the beginning of Jesus' ministry have to do with these ancient allusions hundreds of years later? To spend any time on these hard-to-pronounce ancient names may seem like a waste of our time...but if we travel back in Israel's history to look at the meaning of each of these locations, I think we may find some incredible parallels in them to our own time and place.

First, to Naphtali and Zebulun--the names of two of Jacob's lesser known sons, and two of the lesser known regions of ancient Israel. The tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun were given acreage in the northern region of the Promised Land--not prime real estate. They may have had some nice waterfront along the Sea of Galilee, but borders were also in perilously close proximity to basically every superpower that would beat up on Israel. They would become the first part of the land to be overrun by Assyria, plunging its residents into the darkness of exile and force servitude to a foreign king long before residents of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah. These lands were isolated and vulnerable, and hence most subject to abuse and oppression of any of Israel's peoples.

Isaiah proclaims that it is these run-down regions will be raised up "as on the day of Midian." Anyone out there who can tell me the meaning of Midian? Anyone? Well, in case you have not memorized Judges 6, God once told Gideon to go take on the Midianites, an invading army that was threatening Israel with troops more numerous than locusts and too many camels to be counted. Gideon, reluctantly, raises an army of thousands; but then God makes him cut his numbers, cut cut cut until only three hundred fighters remain, so that all will know that the victory was won by God and not by human force. Not only does Gideon take a tiny army to battle, the only weapons he is allowed to take are trumpets and torches--yet God gives Gideon and his ragtag band the victory over the mighty Midian.

SO...why is this strange passage, referencing these long-ago places and events from Israel's history, the one Matthew chooses to reference as Jesus begins his public ministry? Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— fulfilling what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people living in darkness have seen a great light." Jesus, it seems, has chosen intentionally to set up his initial camp and call out his community not from the power center of Jerusalem, or from among a more prestigious neighborhood in Judah, but from among these fishing communities located along the sea. The band of followers that Jesus would gather together out of this region would not look powerful or formidable: like Gideon's crew that took on Midian, they would be small in number and not act in traditional ways...but they would pull something off that could only be done by God's power as they dropped their fishing nets to go follow Jesus in his incredible mission. Jesus chose to gather his disciples in a neighborhood that was off the beaten path, full of working people, vulnerable--and to gather not hundreds of them, but a dozen who would grow in knowledge, faithfulness, and eventually number to transform the world. maybe this is a stretch. But I couldn't help but notice...Cape St. Claire is a bit of a seaside community, isn't it? Broadneck is located in community much like Naphtali and Zebulun in many ways...a coastal, water-centered community of people working hard, located somewhat outside of the city center and Annapolis' center of power, an assortment of ordinary people trying to get by. It's a community that may look idyllic on the outside but that has also known the darknesses of prejudice, mental illness, economic hardship, and violence in its day. In the midst of this community, here we have intentionally planted ourselves, just as Jesus did--not to be a mega church, but to be a Gideon-like community of committed people living in non-traditional ways, seeking to let God work through us against all odds. I wonder what kind of power Jesus' choice for where to begin his ministry--in the traditions of Naphtali, Zebulun, and Midian--could have for how we continue to define ours?

Like I said, it may been too much of a stretch. But when we get to know our Old Testament Geography, it sure can give us interesting food for thought as we consider our own geography in this time and place.

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