God Loves Galilee: Why Black Lives Matter (3 Epiphany, A)
There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. 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 people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
We have a really interesting interplay here between the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, and the Gospel lesson, where Matthew applies Isaiah’s prophecy to Jesus.
Isaiah preaches about how Zebulun and Naphtali’s gloom and doom will be reversed. Their anguish will end and a “Great Light” will shine on them. We need to understand who Zebulun and Naphtali are to understand how radical this prophecy was to early Christians. We have to understand Zebulun and Naphtali so we can see how revolutionary it is for God to love Galilee.
The Anguish of Zebulun and Naphtali
So let’s set the stage. What is significant about Zebulun and Naphtali in Israel’s history? Why are they full of gloom, anguish, and contempt?
First off, who are Zebulun and Naphtali? These are two of the sons of Israel (a.k.a. Jacob). Jacob’s twelve sons became the heads of the Twelve Tribes of Israel throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Admittedly, Zebulun and Naphtali are two of the least famous tribes. There aren’t many Bible stories that highlight them and their accomplishments.
But what we do know about all the tribes is where their ancestral lands are. The Book of Joshua tells us about how the Israelites completed their forty year escape from Egypt and finally began to settle into the land we now call Israel. A couple of chapters in Joshua detail the boundaries of each tribe’s inheritances. These are brothers and cousins who would fight over territory if it weren’t laid out clearly. So in Joshua 19, the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali are given the lands around the Sea of Galilee, and they settle there.
A few generations later, Zebulun and Naphtali are two of the ten Northern tribes who rebelled to form the Northern Kingdom of Israel. They opposed the descendants of King David in the southern kingdom of Judah, and split apart to form their own country.
The Northern kingdom lasted for a few centuries until they were conquered in the 700s BC by the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were one of the first war machines of the ancient world. They perfected a series of brutal military strategies that allowed them to grow and expand into a massive empire.
Zebulun, Naphtali, and the kingdom of Israel didn’t stand a chance. First, Assyria besieged the cities of the northern kingdom, starving out those who remained inside the city walls until they were easy targets. Then, the Assyrians were known for brutally torturing their prisoners of war. They frequently made “examples” of anyone who resisted their advancement, through public flaying and/or impalement (Joshua J. Mark). Finally, the Assyrians forcibly removed many of the residents of the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali and scattered them across their burgeoning empire, and replaced with peoples from other conquered lands.
The Assyrian imperial tactic was to utterly crush and demoralize its enemies. When the battle was won, they tortured prisoners and exiled the people, thereby destroying their enemies’ land, homes, and even their cultures. What remained in the wake of Assyrian armies were new, mixed people groups who had no shared identity other than their status as defeated Assyrian subjects.
These “tribes of Israel” more or less ceased to exist as definable people groups. They were wiped out. All that remained was a distant cultural memory. Because of this Assyrian conquest, Zebulun and Naphtali became places of gloom and anguish.
Zebulun and Naphtali Became Galilee
Of course, the Assyrian Empire didn’t last forever. Future imperial overlords proved to be more gracious, but they were overlords nonetheless. After the Assyrians came the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Greeks and Romans.
Under the Greek and Roman rule, the former tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali took on the name Galilee (after the Sea). It became a backwoods region full of small towns, but with a lot of immigrants from across their empire. It was a very diverse place to live.
Generally speaking, Jews from Galilee were considered less serious in their piety than Jews from in and around Jerusalem. Galileans interacted with Gentiles of all shapes and sizes. There was plenty of non-Kosher food available, and some of the other taboo trappings of ancient Greek culture, such gymnasiums, public baths, philosophy and religion. You could find a traditional synagogue next to a temple to Zeus and Athena, next to a shrine to the Emperor. They all mixed together.
So to be a Jewish follower of Torah in Galilee was a difficult task. Folks in Jerusalem would have looked down on Galilee and said that God held it in “contempt” by allowing it to get so culturally and religiously diverse.
Jesus Fulfills Isaiah’s Prophecy in Galilee
This is why people were so surprised and upset when they learned that the supposed Messiah, was a man from Nazareth in Galilee. (Yes he was born in Bethlehem, but he was raised up north in Galilee). Galileans are second class. They are too syncretistic, too worldly. They are religiously suspect.
But Isaiah speaks a different word: “In the latter time [God] will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (Isaiah 9:4); and “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16).
Galilee was a region of shadow and death for the Jews. It was a place that reminded them of defeat after defeat. Galilee represented Israel’s suffering, and it symbolized their failure to live up to God’s promises.
God has promised to David and Solomon that a descendent of David would rule over this land forever, but by the time Jesus was born, it had been centuries since that was true. There seemed to be no hope for a future.
Yet, out of this land, which symbolized so much hurt and pain, God did a new thing. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light” (Matthew 4:16). The sun has arisen on the people of Galilee because the Savior of the world lives there. Galilee of the Nations: the diverse, metropolitan, impure, less-than-pious Galilee is where the Messiah cut his teeth. Jesus grew up in a land of no respect and grew up to be the most influential person who ever lived.
God Always Loves Galilee
This is the movement of God throughout history. In Christ, God loves and honors Galilee. And Galilee represents all hurting, downtrodden, defeated and oppressed peoples.
God fills the hungry with good things and lifts up the lowly poor. God takes those who are “not-pitied” and offers them mercy; God takes the “not-my-people” and calls them “My People” (Hosea 2:23).
God shows love for the world by showing love for the disrespected and disowned. God favors the poor and the outcast. God dwells with the hurting and unloved. God makes a way where there was no way. God loves all by loving the least of these. God shows us that God is love by showing preferential treatment for the oppressed and downtrodden.
This is why American Christians of all colors should say with pride that “Black Lives Matter.” Because we can only arrive at the truth that All Lives Matter by reckoning with our nation’s continual mistreatment and abuse of black lives and bodies. To skip ahead to “All Lives Matter” in our society today is to ignore the oppression and suffering black folks live with every day. It’s not that it’s “wrong,” it’s just sentimental. It avoids the hard truth of America’s sins against the black community in the past and the present.
To put it differently, St. John tells us, “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). The same can be said of black people in America: “Those who say, ‘I love all people,’ and hate their black brothers or sisters are liars.” We can only achieve the universal love that we all desire through our particular love for those who are suffering.
Jesus Christ perfectly embodies this ethic of love for all through love for the oppressed. In Christ, God shows up in the world among the poor, needy, and outcast. God dwells with ALL of us by being a blue collar worker from a crummy neighborhood that none of the rich and elite cared about. God dwells with ALL of us by enduring the abuse of a corrupt and power-hungry government. God dwells ALL of with us by defeating Death at its own game and rising again to offer New Life to the whole world.
This is a message we absolutely need to hear in this socio-political moment. We stand on the cusp of a new political era that is really just a continuation of the same old political story of the United States. Racism and xenophobia are raising their ugly heads again with new vigor and boldness. To the forces of White Supremacy, Black Americans and immigrants are as repugnant as Jews from Galilee.
We know from experience that we cannot always trust our government to stand up for our rights and freedoms. We cannot trust this nation to offer liberty and justice for ALL.
But we do know that God is not on the side of the oppressors. God will not fight for those who stomp and crush their enemies. God will scatter the proud in their conceit and cast down the mighty from their thrones (Luke 1:46-55; cf. The Book of Common Prayer, 119). Our God stands for peace and righteousness. Our God will love so strongly that hate cannot stand a chance.
So yes, Christ comes from the sorry lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, from Galilee of the Nations. Jesus comes from a land of sorrow and anguish. But we know that God loves us because God loves Galilee. In Christ, out of our darkness and death will come a Great Light. Our God is with us. Our God is near us. Our God will overcome. Amen.
Mark, Joshua J. “Assyrian Warfare.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Published 11 August 2014. Accessed 21 January 2017. https://www.ancient.eu/Assyrian_Warfare/.