Theology of geography

Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 26 January 2020

Readings were Psalm 27:1, 4-9 and Matthew 4: 12-23

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I wonder what you hear this morning from God’s Word? What I notice in the Gospel passage is all the movement. Jesus is a guy on the move. And the writer almost seems in a hurry to tell you all that Jesus is doing and where he’s going.

It unashamedly refers to the local geography in the region where Jesus lived on earth. I hope you remember from Christmas where it was Jesus was born. (“O Little town of ….?)

1. Born in Bethlehem, but he and his family move to Nazareth.

Matthew 2:23… “he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.”

2. Then as Jesus commences his public ministry, he moves himself to the River Jordan to be baptised by John – in an act of solidarity with all humanity.

3. Jesus then immediately moves himself into the wilderness for forty days where he is tempted.

4. In this morning’s passage we hear where Jesus moves next: “he withdrew to Galilee”. Why?

Well, he hears that John the Baptist has been arrested. Having been tempted by the devil and then hearing this shocking news of his cousin John, he goes to a place of familiarity; he goes home.

Perhaps some of us over the holidays have gone back to places of familiarity. Places that makes us feel more like ourselves, places that remind us of our identity, away from some of the complexity and uncertainty of the world.

Jesus withdraws to Galilee, a familiar place for him.

5. But we hear in this passage that he moves again. And this is the one of the most intriguing parts:

He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali…

Perhaps that doesn’t seem very interesting to you. Fair enough. In a moment I’ll explain why it matters that Jesus moves into the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Firstly, let me refresh our memories about how this passage fits into the biblical story. To understand any passage of the Bible it’s always good to understand how it fits into the bigger story. And we can understand our own lives better when we keep in mind the big story of the Bible.

I hope you will remember from the Pathway of Faith framework we introduced last year (to help us with intergenerational faith formation) that one of the 8 pillars is titled ‘Big Story of the Bible’. And it’s great when we can keep this in view.

This passage of Matthew comes after the long story of God with the people of Israel in the Old Testament.

  1. God made a covenant promise to the childless couple: Abraham and Sarah. They will have descendants that will populate an entire nation.
  2. Their grandson Jacob had 12 sons who became the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel (curiously Zebulun and Naphtali are two of his sons, and their tribes settled in those areas, were are named after them)
  3. One of those sons, Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. He did well but (in another turn of fortune) his many descendants eventually became slaves in Egypt.
  4. God used Moses to lead the Israelites to freedom – Red Sea, Mt Sinai, golden calf, 10 Commandments.
  5. After wandering the desert, the Israelites entered into the Promised Land
  6. God gave them judges to rule, but the Israelites wanted God to give them a king.
  7. So Saul became the first king, and then his son King David.
  8. David’s son Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, but he lost the plot and then the kingdom erupted into civil war and divided into two parts: Judah in the south and Israel in the north.
  9. Both nations turned away from God. Both were defeated by foreign powers and experienced exile.
  10. During this time they tried to make sense of who they were and what God was doing.
  11. Eventually they were able to return home. They rebuilt the temple and different prophets challenge the Israelites to be faithful to God.

That is a (very) brief summary of the story of the people of Israel in the Old Testament. But the story of Israel doesn’t stop at the end of the Old Testament.

The story of Israel continues. And Matthew gives us deliberate sign-posts in his Gospel as a bridge from what God has been doing with Israel in the Old Testament, and what God is now doing in Jesus Christ.

If you were here on Christmas Day, you will have heard me describe the Incarnation of Jesus Christ using the words of Eugene Peterson:

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood. (John 1:14)

This means that we can now know God with greater clarity, and experience God more completely. The incarnation is not primarily to provide us with information. God could have done that through someone else. By showing up in person, we recognise God has come to achieve something we cannot achieve by ourselves.

What could it be that God achieves in Jesus?

Let me explain why it matters that Jesus moves into the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Matthew records…

[Jesus moves into] the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 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.’

In flesh and blood, God moves into the neighbourhood. And by moving himself from one part of the region to another, Matthew shows us that Jesus fulfils an Old Testament prophecy! (from Isaiah 9:1-2)

Jesus physically moves, and the prophecy is fulfilled!

Matthew is giving a theology of geography. These places aren’t significant to me (I can barely pronounced them!), and they probably don’t mean much to you either.

But they are vital to the specifics of the story and representative of all places where the presence of Jesus is needed and comes.

the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light

God is in the neighbourhood people!

Jesus moves from place to place, showing his presence matters as he reveals God’s purposes and promises to real people in real places.

What is Matthew showing us…? Jesus belongs to all people – including the people of this city.

In today’s Psalm there are two times where is the mention of the ‘tent’. I think this jumps out at me because my family and I went to the New Wine festival last week, giving up our usual home comforts to sleep four nights in tents. (We had a great time, although it was certainly in-tents!)

Some had impressively large tents for their families. In contrast, our family of six had two small tents – squeezing four into one tent and two of our kids into the other. I’m sharing this detail because one night at about 2 am, I awoke to a sound. It was the sound of one of my kids sobbing. The sound was coming from the other tent.

I called out ‘What’s the matter?”

The response was: “I’ve had a nightmare”

“Oh dear…. Go back to sleep”

“I can’t. …I need a hug”

(Now, I’m in the other tent, zipped up in my sleeping bag …my cosy sleeping bag.) So, I called out again “Shall I pray for you?”

“I need a hug.”

“Okay…” My child needed a hug. In the darkness and uncertainty, my child needed my presence. (Although I’m sure the request was actually for Mum!)

In the Psalm the tent indicates the holy tabernacle where the people of Israel worshipped God. The tent represents the presence of God.

And what Matthew is pointing out is that Jesus is the presence of God on earth. As Jesus moves places, he brings light to darkness. And because Jesus has come to those places, all places are holy with His presence – including where we are right now.

Jesus is present, and his light in the darkness is our hope. The message Jesus proclaims is the same as John’s:


Turn away from the darkness and toward the light. Get yourselves ready for all that is coming. Ditch the dark gloom of our experiences and expect something better – God’s Kingdom is coming!

Life can be dark – we know that. We have worries: health, family, old age, political folly, violence percolating around the world and in our own communities.

Life in Zebulun and Naphtali probably changed very little that day when Jesus fulfilled the prophecy by moving in that area. At least in ways that were immediately noticeable.

But the promise is from a faithful God; you will see the light and this light will transform your reality. However it may seem right now, one day wholeness will overwhelm our pain and sadness; love will defeat hatred; peace will overcome hostility; tears will become laughter.

The presence of Jesus in the neighbourhood is a cause for hope; the light is moving into the dark places.

Will we live in ways that show we believe this? Will you share this hope in the world? Will you take this light to where it is needed? This could be by:

  • celebrating the safe birth of a baby
  • visiting someone in hospital
  • supporting a couple struggling in their relationship or with the responsibility of parenting
  • giving encouragement to keep praying for children and grandchildren to know God’s goodness in their lives.

Hope may seem inadequate or even naïve, but when we accept that we are not in control and that God is trustworthy and asks us to follow Jesus, then hope is a courageous (even counter-intuitive) strategy.

And Christian faith maintains it is the best strategy humanity has.

Jesus moves and fulfils God’s prophecy. Light has come into the darkness.

Come be part of this movement… let us build something… make a new reality as God has intended it… this is the message, the moment, the meaning of life!

Jesus preached the promise of the Kingdom after the bad news of John’s arrest. Turn your backs on the bad news and turn toward the good news of the Kingdom – the power and presence of Jesus who beings healing, wholeness, redemption and salvation.

In his name, and for the Kingdom, Amen.

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