Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I read through these readings again in my preparation for today’s message, the first thing that struck me was the reality that bad things happened, even when Jesus walked among us in his ministry. Most of the time, my brain moves automatically to the positive: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! This time, though, something pulled at me and I got caught by the very first sentence of the Gospel reading—primarily the first phrase of the first sentence: When Jesus heard that John had been arrested…
John had been arrested because he’d told Herod that it wasn’t right for Herod to have taken his brother Philip’s wife as his own. John was right, Herod was wrong, but Herod had the power. Because Herod had the power, he could arrest John for telling the truth, for trying to inspire morality. We don’t read it in this part of Matthew’s Gospel, but in chapter fourteen, the writer will tell us that Herod wanted to put John to death at the time he arrested him, but he was afraid of the crowd of people who believed John to be a prophet. That meant that John would be in prison for quite some time—with no option of being released, and not much opportunity to preach the coming of the kingdom.
In today’s reading, we are told that when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He moved himself away from the area of the Jordan River, farther from Jerusalem, farther from the reach of Herod’s soldiers.
Both Nazareth and Capernaum are in Galilee, and well removed from Jerusalem, at least in the days when people traveled mostly on foot. From Jerusalem to Nazareth today is about 90 miles, and another thirty will get you to Capernaum. However, traveling on foot along the river would have been a shorter distance. At any rate, Capernaum was a fair distance from Jerusalem and Herod. Located on the shore of the sea, it may have housed a Roman Garrison, as well as the fishermen we read about in today’s story of Jesus’ call of Andrew, Peter, James, and John. Excavations of the site have also produced significant agricultural artifacts. Despite its relatively small population of probably a couple thousand people, Capernaum was likely a thriving community within the trade route of various nations.
If it were not for the arrest of John, would Jesus have focused his ministry in the area of Jerusalem instead? I guess it really doesn’t matter, because what happened has happened. The reality of Herod’s narcissism and abuse of his power pulled John from his ministry by the Jordan River, and Jesus withdrew from there to Galilee.
Two days ago, when our forty-fifth president took the oath of office, a person I’ve come to know on Facebook posted a notice that already the sections on climate change and LGBT issues had been removed from the White House website. She was apparently not really surprised, but angry that it had happened so soon, and viewed it as a warning of things to come. Yesterday, another posted a similar link, with the headline that a certain human rights page on the White House site had disappeared. That person’s comment was, “It begins.”
It’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth is that everything from that White House website was moved… not because it would no longer be indicative of what our government does or is doing, but because it was moved from WhiteHouse.gov to ObamaWhiteHouse.gov. That means that if you go to WhiteHouse.gov today you’ll see pictures of our current president and family rather than of our previous president and family—along with all the other things that go along with the work our government does and is doing. It doesn’t mean that everything has disappeared.
Granted, the changes could have been accompanied by a notice on the page citing the address at which one could find the information that had been moved. On the other hand, neither should we assume the worst.
Reality can be horrible. The other day an avalanche buried a small resort in Italy, killing at least five. Nine people have been recovered alive, but 23 are still missing. A train crash in India leaves 36 dead. The country of Chile has requested international help to deal with forest fires that have sparked a state of emergency. A prominent Brazilian judge going after corruption died as the plane he was in crashed into the sea amid heavy rains. People die unexpectedly every day, due to accidents, unknown or natural causes, or violence.
Please note what I have not included in this list of the horrors of reality. I’ve not included anything that our president has promised or that people predict will happen during his tenure. It is possible that horrible things could happen. It is also possible that horrible things people are predicting will not happen. It is supremely difficult to make significant change in governmental law. There are 435 voting members of the House of Representatives. 241 of them are Republican, and 194 are of the Democratic Party. Of the 100 senators, 52 are Republican, 46 are of the Democratic Party, and 2 are Independent. There are nine justice positions on the Supreme Court, one of which is vacant. I’ll not be quite so naïve as to state that all of our senators, representatives, and justices have the best interests of the people at heart all the time, but I believe that the majority of them do, at least most of the time, and that they will do their best for the people of this nation.
(Back to our text) Eventually, John would be put to death by Herod. When Jesus heard of this, he again would withdraw, not merely to Galilee, but to a deserted place by himself… but the crowds would follow him. When the time would come for Jesus’ trial, Luke tells us Herod mocked him and treated him with contempt, and did not stand in the way of Jesus’ crucifixion.
We will not deny that reality. Reality can be cruel, to regular people like us, and to Jesus Christ, God’s anointed Son… the Messiah. Yet, in the midst of cruel reality, light also shines. The words occur in the Prophet Isaiah, and are quoted in Matthew’s Gospel: 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.
Jesus withdrew at times, but he did not quit. He did not give up, and go off to hide from the reality of a broken world. Instead, he called ordinary people, like those fishermen from the Sea of Galilee, to join in the work of God in this world.
We, too, are called to join in this work, in everything that we do. We are called to bring God’s light into this world where darkness often seems to reign. The reality in which we live needs God’s light. It always has. It always will.
In what ways can we encourage others to drop the nets of fear? How can we drop the nets of fear that keep us from proclaiming God’s salvation? How can we reach the neighbors who need to hear God’s promise?
That’s our reality. Let us rise up to meet it, in Jesus’ name. Amen