God’s Reversals (Third Sunday after Epiphany)

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Although it often goes unnoticed, today’s Gospel reading begins with a big reversal of what the reader might expect.  Jesus has recently been baptized by John the Baptist.  Immediately afterwards, he’d gone alone into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for 40 days and 40 nights.

But afterwards, Jesus heard that John had been arrested by Herod Antipas (who is the next “King Herod” in the story of Jesus!)  And so now John’s time was coming to an end, and it was time for Jesus to begin his ministry.

And it’s at this very moment that Jesus chooses to return to Galilee.  That is, he goes home.  And that’s really the reverse of what we might expect, for a couple of reasons.

First, when we read this, we might think that Jesus is leaving where he is because it’s too dangerous.  John just got arrested.  But John has been arrested by Herod Antipas, who is the puppet king in Galilee.  So going home to Galilee (whether to Nazareth or Capernaum) makes no sense if you’re looking to stay out of Herod’s way.

Moreover, Galilee was a relatively lightly populated area.  Capernaum was one of the bigger places, but it wasn’t a big crossroads like Jerusalem.  It seems like the place to begin a movement – and to make a big splash – is in a place with lots of people and lots of opportunities to be seen and heard.  Also, Jerusalem was about a day’s walk from where Jesus probably was at that point.  Galilee would be at least a 3 day walk.  It would have been much quicker and easier to go someplace besides Galilee.

But Jesus reverses course and heads back to Galilee to begin his ministry.  And in fact, in so doing, there are at least three other big reversals that Jesus is accomplishing:

  • The first, Matthew tells us, is that Jesus is fulfilling these words of Isaiah about “Zebulun and Naphtali”… (two places most of us have never heard of, and which didn’t even exist by the time of Jesus.)  But they were the ancestral lands of two of the 12 tribes of Israel, and they were the very first to be conquered by the Assyrians in about 700 BC…  The “darkness” of occupation and destruction is what Isaiah is writing about in today’s first reading.  But Isaiah says that God has not forgotten about them, and that the light of God’s presence will again shine on them.  And the area encompassed by Zebulun and Naphtali is where Galilee was in Jesus’ day.  And so by beginning his ministry in Galilee – in the ancient lands of Zebulun and Naphtali – Jesus brings about the reversal God had promised – to return the light of God’s presence to the people and places which had sat in darkness for a long time…
  • The second “reversal” is that Jesus begins to call disciples to follow him.  We’re so used to these stories that this doesn’t sound out of place.  But in fact, Jesus is beginning a ministry of teaching – he’s a traveling rabbi.  And in that day, when rabbis taught, people who heard them and thought they might be on to something asked to be followers and learners. They “applied” so to speak, to become disciples and the rabbi would either allow or disallow them to be his followers.  But Jesus reverses that.  He walks along and invites people to be disciples, even without them volunteering.  He “calls” people who don’t even realize that they might be interested in what Jesus is saying and doing…!
  • And the third big “reversal” is how Jesus makes known the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus begins with essentially the same message that John the Baptist proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  But then, instead of threatening people with the axe lying at the root of trees or bringing about unquenchable fire, Jesus does something entirely different.  He preaches good news.  He cures every disease and sickness.  And he seeks out people in the synagogues and teaches them, instead of waiting for them to come to him as John did.  In fact, Jesus completely reverses what people who heard John preach might have expected…

It’s easy not to notice these three reversals.  But in fact, they all continue to be themes throughout the Gospel.  Jesus continues to show up and bring the light of God’s presence to people and places where God’s light wasn’t expected.  Jesus continues to call people to follow him, even when they barely know who he is.  And Jesus continues to show that the kingdom of heaven is a present reality in people’s lives by healing and teaching and being the presence of God in the lives of people who need that presence.

And indeed, those reversals didn’t end with Jesus’ Resurrection.  Those are still the things Jesus is doing, and they’re still the “reversals” that Jesus calls us to recognize and live into in our lives.

In fact, we’re called to live into the “reversals” of Jesus as we:

  • Open ourselves, and even expect, God to show up in the dark places and dark moments of our lives – it’s often the case that in the darkest times and places of life we feel the oppressive nature of whatever it is that’s weighing us down and causing us pain.  The pain is real, and it can be overwhelming.  And it’s also often the case that God’s presence doesn’t stop the pain from happening, and God’s light doesn’t stop the darkness. But just as Jesus’ presence in Galilee didn’t end the reign of Herod, Jesus’ light did bring hope into what otherwise might have been hopelessness situations.  Jesus’ healing did give people strength to endure the pain.  And Jesus’ presence let people know that they were not alone or forgotten.  When we’re in those dark times and places in our lives, Jesus doesn’t ever tell us, “don’t worry be happy!”  But he does promise us that we have not been forgotten; that we’re not alone; and that there is hope, no matter how bad things may seem at the moment…
  • Remember that our connection to God’s light is finally based on Jesus’ decision for us, and not how smart we’ve been in figuring out how to find Jesus.  Today, we baptize Joe (IV!).  And like those first disciples, Joe doesn’t know anything about Jesus yet.  But Joe gets to be a disciple because Jesus calls and claims him, and that will be true even after Joe is smart enough to read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew!  It’s also true for each one of us as well.  And understanding ourselves as called disciples (instead of volunteers who were smart enough to seek out Jesus) is what can give us confidence that Jesus wants and loves us even when we make mistakes.  And it gives us the humility to realize that Jesus loves and calls others even though they make mistakes, too…!
  • Get in on the act of making the kingdom of heaven a living reality by the way we act as agents of God’s healing and good news in the lives of others right now.  The job of Christians is never to warn people that they’d better shape up or else God will get them in the afterlife.  Rather, the job of Christians is to follow Jesus in lives which do what Jesus did – modeling a life in which, through us, people who sit in darkness hear good news; in which, through us, people who are suffering find healing of all kinds; and in which, through us, others experience the reality that God is with them…

Today’s Gospel is a story of God’s reversals.  But it’s not the last story.  Through Jesus, God continues to reverse things and he calls us into his great reversals. 

And we live into the story of God’s reversals whenever we look for and expect God to show up in the dark and difficult moments of our lives.  We live into the story of God’s reversals when we project our confidence in Jesus’ call instead of our own righteousness.  And we live into the story of God’s reversals whenever we open ourselves to being people who bring the light of God’s love into the darkness of others’ pain and suffering.