There are moments in life that change our lives forever. “I do,” spoken by the couple at the altar. “It’s cancer,” revealed by the physician at the doctor’s office. “I’ve lost my job,” shared with a spouse, parent, or friend. “I’m leaving,” uttered in the heat of an argument or the coolness of finality. “She died,” acknowledged in a myriad of ways, depending on the age and circumstance.
As recounted in the fourth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the words that changed Jesus’ history and ours are these: “John has been arrested” (Matthew 4:12). The John of whom Matthew speaks is Jesus’ cousin. This is John–the baptizer ushering from the wilderness, proclaiming the message, “Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand!” This is John–the prophet challenging the moral authority of Rome, calling King Herod’s relationship with his brother’s wife, Herodius, adultery. This is John–the only child of Elizabeth and Zechariah–parents whom after years of barrenness are blessed with a son marked by God’s call.
Matthew’s Gospel is terse in its language, yet beneath that terseness is an under- current of urgency. The landscape has radically changed for both John and Jesus, as their callings are inextricably intertwined. Jesus has just returned from 40 days of solitude and fasting, time alone with God, time alone with himself, time alone with the Tempter and all that could derail him from his calling.
I recently spent 48 hours on my second-ever Silent Retreat. Two days of silence is still a challenge for me. Yet, even in two days, the visceral connection with God as well as the awareness of that which gets in the way of experiencing God is astounding. The self is unmasked and thus called to new places of being. I cannot imagine what 40 days alone in the wilderness would produce as far as character, clarity, and resolve.
We often think of Jesus’ time in the wilderness as “The Test” or “The Temptation.” Our bibles often subtitle this story in such a way. We rarely think of this time apart as “The Centering.” This is clearly Jesus’ longest period of solitude before–and after– his public ministry begins. The scriptures focus on Jesus wrestling with the Devil, but his time alone surely included as well many moments of intimacy with God.
Have you ever faced a difficult experience, looked back, and said, “Good thing I did that beforehand or I never could have made it through this moment!” For Jesus, it was a good thing he spent 40 days in solitude in the wilderness, given what was to come. In settling some debates with the Prince of Darkness, he came away more fully embodying his deepest and truest self.
The narrative continues: “When Jesus got word that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee. He moved from his hometown, Nazareth, to the lakeside village Capernaum…” (Matthew 4:12). The author of Matthew’s Gospel is not given to much detail. What he leaves out here is the reasons for John’s arrest and the real possibility that John could languish in prison until he died, or worse, be murdered. What he leaves out here is any sense of Jesus’ reactions to John’s arrest, any discussions amid the extended family about this turn of events, any foreboding this might foreshadow in Jesus.
Not only is all this omitted from the story, but there is no commentary about the reasons Jesus left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum. Jesus grew up in Nazareth and learned the carpentry trade there. Tradition has it that, as the eldest son, he had helped support his widowed mother and the rest of his siblings through this trade.
We must turn to Luke’s Gospel for the background we need. After Jesus’ 40 days of solitude in the wilderness, he returns to Nazareth. This is predictable. He returns to the synagogue where he has worshiped since he was a child. This is predictable. He reads the scroll from Isaiah. Predictable. He announces that this scripture is being fulfilled in the hearing of the congregation. Surprising. Jesus is eloquent and deep. Somewhat surprising—“Isn’t this the son of [Mary and] Joseph?” some murmur (see Luke 4:22). ‘Isn’t this the hometown boy?’
What happens next sets the stage for the move to Capernaum. Jesus tells two stories, both about prophets and outsiders, Elijah sent to the widow of Zarepath and Elisha who healed only Namaan the Syrian. The worshipers are filled with rage, throw Jesus out, and attempt to push him over a cliff, but he passes through the crowds and escapes.
A few years ago, Peace Community Church went through several months of conflict with the American Baptist Churches of Ohio over the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the church. Ultimately, the church was censured by our Ohio Region and received into the American Baptist Churches of the Rochester Genessee Region, but not without a great deal of injury, challenge, difficult meetings, and the like. Perhaps someday a church historian might say, “In 2005, Peace Community Church left the American Baptist Churches of Ohio and joined the Rochester-Genessee Region.” Period. Beginning and end of the story. Sounds simple and peaceful enough, doesn’t it?
So it is with the story in Matthew’s Gospel about Jesus’ move to the lakeside village Capernaum from his hometown Nazareth. Nowhere is there a mention of what it was like for Jesus to be thrown out of his hometown, how that was for his family—were they reviled? Did they disagree with his preaching that day in the synagogue? Did they wish he would “tone it down” for his own sake? Once John was arrested, did they ask themselves, “Can’t Jesus learn something from John’s experience about what happens when you say too much?” Nowhere is there a mention of Jesus’ feelings of responsibility as the eldest son, how he put those aside because God was calling, how he let go and let other siblings take over.
John has been arrested. Jesus is kicked out of his hometown, nearly murdered. Good thing he spent 40 days in solitude. Jesus’ life is rapidly changing. His private life as a carpenter is over. His public life as a prophet and teacher gets off to a dangerous start with an unreceptive hometown audience. What’s next?
These turns of events lead to three more changes for Jesus. First, he picks up where John left off, preaching, “Repent. The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Repentance is a ‘church word’ that really means “Turn around, change.” The Reign of God is at hand, a time of transformation is here! Listen and respond!
Secondly, Jesus realizes that this mission isn’t a solo mission, but a mission of many– one requiring the establishment of a new community. His old community is back in Nazareth. So, Jesus begins calling disciples–Simon and Andrew, James and John, as well as others. Unfortunately, Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t include the stories of women who were called into that community, but we know that they were there from a solitary mention in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 8:1-3). Thanks, Luke!
Jesus offers the simple invitation, “Come, and follow me.” In ancient Israel, it was a great honor to be invited by a rabbi to be his disciple. Jesus collects a diverse and surprising bunch of unlikely followers from the common walks of life. 2000 years later, his simple invitation still stands.
Finally, Jesus begins a ministry of healing and compassion. Matthew’s Gospel declares, “He also healed people of their diseases and the bad effects of their bad lives…People brought anybody with an ailment, whether mental, emotional, or physical. Jesus healed them, one and all” (from Matthew 4:23-25, The Message). Like the inclusive message Jesus preaches in Nazareth that nearly gets him killed, like the inclusive community he begins building as he calls disciples to himself, Jesus heals everyone who comes to him and everyone who is brought to him and can’t come by themselves. They come from everywhere that word can travel. Matthew’s Gospel mentions “the entire Roman province of Syria, Galilee, the ‘Ten Towns’ across the lake, Jerusalem, Judea, and still others from across the Jordan” (from Matthew 4:24-25).
Who lives in these places? In Jesus’ day, Galilee up north has the reputation of being “the land of the Gentiles” among those who live in southern Judea, including Jerusalem. This age-old nickname was coined after the Assyrian invasion around 800 B.C.E. The victors deported Jews and mixed the populations to weaken any potential for unified resistance.
So, to this prophet, teacher, and preacher come Romans from Syria, native-born Syrians, Jews and Gentiles from Galilee, Jews from Jerusalem and Judea, and others from across both the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee in other Roman provinces. Word gets around. People come, and come, and come. The compassion of God in the face of Jesus is unlimited by race, geography, or nationality. The compassion of God in the face of Jesus is unlimited by life station, physical health, age, and gender. A yearning for healing truly knows no boundaries. Insiders and outsiders make their way to Jesus.
Beneath these terse verses of Matthew’s Gospel, there is a story within this story–so much behind the text that we don’t see at first glance. There are so many questions to ponder about how it all this was for Jesus–coming out of that wilderness after forty days, facing the arrest of his cousin John, being catapulted into his own ministry, saying goodbye to Nazareth and taking up residence in Capernaum, calling a community of disciples together and ministering compassion and healing to the multitudes.
Let’s take a few moments to sit with the weight and magnitude of this story and all of its various pieces—there are surely other pieces we don’t even know! As we continue the season of Epiphany whose dramatic symbol is “light,” I invite you to feast on the dramatic symbolism of light which is displayed on our altar, and let God speak to your heart where God so chooses. Amen.