Reading: Matthew 4:12-23
(Jesus has left his somewhat obscure life in Nazareth to be baptized by John the Baptizer into the kingdom of God that John is preaching, and which is capturing the hearts of many. From there Jesus is led by God into a time of wilderness testing. While there he hears that the king has arrested John and put him in prison, where soon he will be executed. What does Jesus do, when the power of the day so boldly seeks to silence the preachers and the promise of God’s kingdom coming to be on Earth?)
When the king arrests John the Baptist and puts him in prison – soon to be executed, it’s an attempt to put an end to the way John has stirred up the people to expect God’s messiah to appear and to change the way things are in the world. For many, the flexing of the king’s power triggers fear, anger, disillusionment and a sense of defeat.
What Jesus gets out of it, though, is that it’s time to act – time to come back from the wilderness where he was led after his baptism, to come out of the obscurity in which he has lived for thirty years, to come to the people with the message that the kingdom of God – the kingdom of heaven on earth, is near.
Because what do you do when the darkness falls and grows deeper, but light a candle? And when you believe in God and the promise of the kingdom of God, you are not dissuaded by dark, fear-driven tyrants. You are not surprised by the power of evil and of fear in the affairs of the world, but neither are you cowed by it.
As Bruce Cockburn wrote 26 years ago:
When you’ve got a dream like mine
Nobody can take you down
When you’ve got a dream like mine
Nobody can push you around
When you know even for a moment
That it’s your time
Then you can walk with the power
Of a thousand generations
Or as Kayla McClung has written this week in a meditation on today’s Gospel and on this weeks’ news:
I hear some gospel preachers these days say we are now experiencing a dawning of hope as the new administration takes office, while others say this political change represents the most perilous time in our history. Is one completely right and the other completely wrong? Does any man or woman have the capacity to alter the nature of our world so completely, and change who we are? Rather than blaming or crediting another for a world we see as either wonderful or perilous, perhaps we need to accept responsibility for a world that is both wonderful and worrisome, both perilous and full of divine possibility all at the same time.
No matter what dire situations you see as monopolizing the world, the greater truth is that a light has already dawned in the regions of death. Announce it. Invite others to live in it with you. All is not lost.
And isn’t that what we see Jesus doing? Isn’t that what we, as his followers, feel called to do as well?
I have a question, though – and it may seem piddly or a bit odd, but I think it reminds us of just how the messiah comes and how the kingdom of God appears and takes shape in the world. The question is, why Capernaum?
When Jesus – as Kayla McClung puts it, “keeps moving forward, step by step, practicing his calling, going where he is sent, doing what he is given to do, honing in on his central purpose which is determined by a force larger than the current conditions,” why does he go to Capernaum to do it?
Not to say Capernaum is a bad place. As a town it was maybe two hundred years old. On major trade routes between the Mediterranean and the Eastern areas, there was a good level of commerce. On the shore of the Sea of Galilee there was access to the south, and a pretty good fishery. As a town it had a lot going for it.
But up until now it’s not been part of the story at all. And if what you want to do is to announce and usher in the kingdom of God, why not go to Jerusalem – the seat of power in the kingdom? Like the hundreds of thousands of protesters who filled Washington D.C. to overflowing the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated to the presidential office, like the Idle No More movement that marched to Ottawa, like the Occupy movement that tried to shut down Wall Street, why not go directly to the heart of darkness and confront it head-on – challenge its assumed supremacy face-to-face?
Or, if it isn’t time yet for Jesus to die (which is what happens when he does that), and his greater purpose is actually to live and show us the way to live, why not Bethlehem then – just a few miles from Jerusalem, the place of his birth, the place where thirty years earlier King Herod tried to have him killed? It’s the ancient city of David, so what better place to begin calling together a parallel, alternative kingdom to the one seated in Jerusalem?
Or, if that’s too close to Jerusalem and maybe for the people still holds too many bad memories of what an alternate king in your midst can mean for you, why not the Jordan River and the Jordan Valley on the other side of Jerusalem, where John was doing his baptizing and people were starting to identify with the call to change the way world is?
Or, if Jesus needs to distance himself a bit from John and some of the ways John is understood by the crowds, why not Nazareth where he grew up and people know him? Unless, as we see in one of the Gospel stories, it’s precisely that kind of familiarity that breeds contempt, and will make it hard to preach to them and do any wonders among them?
But why Capernaum? Why does Jesus choose there?
Because it’s so far from Jerusalem – about as far as you can get and still be in Israel? Was it, as some scholars suggest, ready for revolution because of centralization and virtual enslavement in the fishing industry and among the peasant class? Was there a lot of exchange between Nazareth and Capernaum? Did Jesus have family or friends there?
We don’t know. And maybe in this not-knowing, we see the point that God comes into the world wherever God wants to – that any place in the world, even the places we’re not used to focusing on, are just as likely as any – maybe even more likely, to be an entry-point for God and for the kingdom of God on Earth as long as there at least some people willing to be open to the kind of change wants to make in their lives.
When Jesus goes to Capernaum he begins preaching God’s way for the world – a way of healing and love, of forgiveness and radical community, and not only preaches, but practices it as well – releasing people from evil spirits, healing them of physical and spiritual diseases, restoring hope and life to people who are as good as dead, gathering and calling all kinds of people together into redemptive community with one another and with God – and all of it in the ordinary, day-to-day places of life – wherever people work and pray, eat and raise families, meet neighbours, encounter strangers, come up against enemies and people different than themselves.
He doesn’t come preaching power and an earthly kingdom. He comes preaching and practicing a way of life and a way of compassionate love that promises to change the world from the bottom up, from the inside out, from Capernaum – wherever that is, to the ends of the Earth.
And that’s worth thinking about – that the geography of the kingdom of God is not always what the media and our culture saturate us with.
We do need to speak to what fills the news and fills the hearts of many with either fear or euphoria.
But maybe what people are most hungry to hear, and what makes the most difference, is the way of love – the way of God’s kingdom alive in our own hearts, that we speak to them day by day, step by step, moment by moment in Capernaum – wherever Capernaum is for each one of us.