Sunday, January 26, 2014

Into obscurity...

Mat. 4.12–23

When I was a child back in the 1980s, the milk marketing board had an advertisement in which two Liverpudlian boys, fresh from a game of soccer come into the kitchen. One boy asks for some lemonade and duly gets passed the bottle while the other boy pours a glass of milk. ‘Milk’, the lomonade drinker says, ‘yuck’. ‘It’s what Ian Rush drinks,’ says the milk drinker, ‘and he says that If I don’t drink enough milk when I grow up I’ll only be good enough to play for Accrington Stanley.’ ‘Accrington Stanley’, says the other boy, ‘who are they?’, ‘Exactly’ the milk drinker replies. Well, in Jesus day, you might very well have heard two boys talking about their future career as Rabbis and one boy saying to the other ‘If you don’t pay enough attention in Torah class when you’re older you’ll only be good enough to be a Rabbi in Capurnaum’, ‘Capurnaum, where’s that?’ ‘Exactly’. Capurnaum was a small Galileean town of about a thousand people on the fringes of Jewish culture and religion. It really wasn’t the place to begin a great public ministry. It was an ordinary sort of place. A boring sort of place. A place of no consequence. And so as we continue to  think about the Epiphany of the Lord, the making clear to all who will see that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, we come to this reading in which Jesus divinity is made manifest, not through traveling stars and heavenly voices, but in the mundane, in the smallness of and obscurity of life in first century Galilee.

The first thing to notice about Jesus’ glory being revealed in the ordinary is that this is the path that he consciously chooses. When John the Baptist, the forerunner was arrested and Jesus knew that he would now take centre stage, he retreats. He takes a step into obscurity. And this isn’t just any old obscurity. Galilee, the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were the first parts of Israel to be subjugated to foreign rule when they were conquered by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III in 723BC. This was the region of Israel which first descended into the darkness of foreign occupation. These territories, deep in darkness, would be the first to have the light of the Kingdom of God dawn on them. And so Jesus glory is clearly seen in his going not merely into obscurity, but stepping into to the darkest region to start his ministry. This is, after all, going to be the path that Jesus the Messiah follows. He walks into deeper and deeper darkness until it finally takes him to a Roman Gibbet, and from that Gibbet, he sines the light of the kingdom of God into all human darkness.

The second thing we should notice is how Jesus shines in the darkness in the message he proclaims. He doesn’t come up with a novel, exciting, new message. He says exactly the same thing that John the Baptist has been saying. Jesus first sermon in the gospel of Matthew is borrowed material, a great comfort to every preacher who reads his sermon and thinks, ‘there isn’t an original idea on that page!’ Jesus was there long before. But more significantly, the message that Jesus borrows from John the Baptist is the message which has just earned John a place in jail! Jesus doesn’t choose to soothe with kind words, but to echo the same words which, on John’s lips had caused such offence. Words of the approach of another kingdom; heaven’s kingdom, which will look radically different to the kingdoms people like Herod preside over. So Jesus shows forth his glory by choosing an unpopular, risky message. A message which could make his career every bit as short John’s. But a message of profound importance, which calls us all to prepare for the day when God will get involved with every aspect of human life, from our money to our relationships. ‘Turn’, says Jesus, ‘start living the kind of life that will find approval when God’s kingdom comes.’

The final way manifests his glory in our gospel reading, is by calling. Again, the people he calls are only remarkable for how unremarkable they are. They are fishermen, blue collar workers. Not the super wealthy, the learned or the powerful. These workmen are the people Jesus calls to follow him in bringing light to the world. So just as Jesus’ glory is revealed in his journeying into the far country, it is also made manifest in the humdrum traveling companions he chooses. And the disciples follow. They catch a glimpse of Jesus’ glory and they cannot help but follow. And that following involves great sacrifice –the leaving of a stable income, and even scandal –it was religiously disgraceful to leave your father and wander off on an adventure. Responding to Jesus’ call and following him was risky business. But follow they do, and in following they teach us perhaps the greatest truth about how Jesus’ glory is made manifest. Just as Jesus’ makes his glory clear in the ordinary place he chooses to exercise his ministry and the ordinary people he chooses to  follow him, so to the disciples most clearly glimpse the vision of his glory in the ordinary, every day business of accompanying him, of listening to him and learning from him. Jesus is most clearly seen as the incarnate God, not by assembling evidence, or reading books, but by becoming his friend, his companion, his follower. It is in becoming a companion of this extraordinary man, in his vulnerability and his humanity that we most clearly see his divinity. And in beholding his light, we become radiant with it ourselves, attracting others like fishers of people to Jesus Christ, the source of all goodness, beauty and truth. So may we take seriously, the call to turn from all which keeps us from following Jesus, to live the sort of life that finds approval in God’s kingdom, and to devote our lives to the one in whom all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form.

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