Isaiah 9: 1 – 4 and Matthew 4: 12 – 23
After John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus moved away from Nazareth and based his ministry in Capernaum, about 20 miles from Nazareth, a small fishing village by the side of Lake Galilee; a region where poor people and Gentiles lived.
In living there Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy of about 700 years earlier, that the ‘land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations’ would be made glorious.
At about the time Isaiah was writing, Assyria had conquered the land of the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. By referring to Isaiah’s prophecy, that ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’, Matthew tells his readers that it is Jesus who is that light, a light shining in the darkness of both individual suffering and political oppression.
And the metaphor of turning from darkness to light, powerfully conveys the turning away from sinful ways, to the light of God’s way.
Back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and Capernaum. Why did Jesus decide to relocate to Capernaum? Why there, and not Jerusalem? Why a small, insignificant place, away from the power and influence of the major cities?
By locating himself in Capernaum, Jesus aligned himself with people who were poor and dispossessed. He chose not to court the wealthy and elite, and not to dazzle them with miracles of power, but to move among the humblest of people, sharing their lives, telling stories in a language that they could understand.
The region was called ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ as described in Isaiah’s writings and indeed in Old Testament times it was a racially mixed area, but by Jesus time it was probably predominantly a Jewish area surrounded by Gentile communities, suggesting that, although Jesus would have worked among Jewish people, the effects of all his activity would ripple out and be felt by and welcomed by people outside of the Jewish faith community.
Matthew shows us that Jesus fulfils Old Testament prophecy, but, more than that, Matthew describes how God’s revelation of himself in Jesus is for Gentiles as well as for Jews.
A little later in Matthew’s account of Jesus life and ministry, in what we call the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew records Jesus’ words: ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’; Jesus’ heart is with the poor and he treasures them, even if no one else does.
Like John the Baptist, Jesus calls people to repentance. He also talks about the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. This phrase is unique to Matthew’s Gospel contrasting with Mark’s and Luke’s term, the ‘kingdom of God’. Both terms could mean the area or rule of a king, and nearness in time or space. The kingdom is both here and now, and also a promise yet to be fulfilled. But both expressions refer to God’s rule. Saying heaven instead of God was a regular Jewish way of avoiding the word ‘God’ out of reverence and respect. Matthew was therefore not referring to the place God’s people go after their death, it meant (as Jesus and Matthew’s hearers at the time would have understood) God’s rule here on earth.
As for Jesus, these verses mark the beginning of his active ministry. Times are changing. God is at work and people should amend their lives so as to be ready and to join in!
And Jesus’ ways will be different from the ways of any previous prophet. Through Jesus a powerful but gentle mercy will be at work. His words and deeds will exemplify the loving rule of God. Jesus will reach needs and griefs that John the Baptist did not.
That reminds me of a Heineken Lager advert from many years ago! ‘Heineken; Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’ – Jesus refreshes the parts other prophets cannot reach.
Jesus calls people to join him in his work. There must have been something magnetic about Jesus. He must have been a charismatic, compelling personality, someone able to inspire and influence others.
The word ‘methetes’ is the Greek word for disciple, which best translates as ‘apprentice’ or ‘learner’. He gathers around him people who will watch what he does and eventually do it themselves. These disciples will be at the core of Jesus’ renewal movement, the community within a community, the heart of Israel’s new life, the inner family with whom Jesus will be at home. Jesus did not want to work alone, he wanted others a community to learn from him and live the life of the kingdom with him.
These encounters beside the lake remind us that the Christian life can and should still give us new direction and new tasks. There’s a serious note in this call to be disciples. Then as now it is sometimes urgent, demanding and quite unexpected.
So, back to Capernaum where Jesus aligned himself with people who were poor and dispossessed. As a homeless wanderer himself he made many journeys and depended on the hospitality of others as he travelled the region sharing good news about God.
I wonder, what can we learn from Jesus? What will shed light on our responsibilities as ambassadors for and co-workers with Christ?
Jesus is the model for our ministry and witness?
His treasure was with the poor and dispossessed and that is where his heart was and therefore it’s where ours must be also.
He talked about the Kingdom of heaven being ‘at hand’ – God’s rule being here on earth as we pray in the familiar words of the prayer Jesus himself suggested we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.
He called people to learn from him and work with him, apprentices learning how to do God’s work themselves, building the kingdom – here and now.
Jesus is light of and for the world, a light to show us God’s inclusive, alternative way. Jesus’ life demonstrates the way God intended us to be humankind, day by day; hour by hour; minute by minute.
We are Jesus’ apprentices and we are hired!
Rev. Janine Atkinson