“…and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:16b)
Well, I’m not exactly sitting in the region and shadow of death. In fact, the region in which I sit and write these words was once a wilderness inhabited only by the Lenape Indian tribe and a lot of wildlife. In colonial America, it became farmland, and crops flourished here for centuries. The great American patriot Dr. Benjamin Rush—physician, educator, and signer of the Declaration of Independence—was born about three miles north-west from here. Two miles in the other direction is the former summer home of the Drexel family, the place where an honest-to-God Roman Catholic saint, Katherine Drexel, began her ministry and founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The bones of members of Philadelphia’s illustrious Biddle family—titans of finance, government and the military—repose in an Episcopal churchyard a few blocks away. The historic Glen Foerd Riverfront Estate, a masterpiece of 19th century architecture which once housed one of the finest private art collections in the U.S., is only a stone’s throw to the east.
And here I sit, surrounded by all of this history, in a cinderblock church which not a few people have told me they’ve passed by for years without knowing that it is a church. Faith Lutheran blends into the 1960’s brick and vinyl-siding architecture of the cramped rowhomes of a neighborhood tucked away between a strip mall and State Highway 63. It’s a blue-collar community. The pavement is uneven, potholes fill the road, trash is everywhere. The church parking lot, in spite of our best attempts to keep it well-lit, has become both the local garbage dump and drug thoroughfare.
If I really want to depress myself, I contrast the area’s glorious past with its crappy present.
Sometimes, when I drive into the church lot and see the blowing litter or the abandoned shopping carts, or when I stoop down to pick up the discarded drug paraphernalia, I ask myself, “Is there someplace else I could be?”
And then I come inside, make myself a cup of coffee, and read the words of scripture for the upcoming Sunday mass (In this case, Matthew 4:12-23). In this story, Jesus learns that John the Baptist has been arrested, so he withdraws to Galilee. To me, the word “withdraw” suggests that he retreats or runs away. After all, if your fellow preachers are getting arrested, it might be a good idea to get out of Dodge for a while. I checked the word out in my Greek Bible and everybody seems to agree that it is correctly translated as “withdrew.” That is, Jesus went back to Galilee. We’re told in Matthew 3:13 that Jesus came from Galilee to be baptized by John, and then he spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan (Matt. 4:1-11). But where was John during those forty days?
Here’s what I’m thinking: John is arrested by Herod, who is the tetrarch of Galilee. So I’m wondering—would Herod arrest John if John weren’t in his jurisdiction? I don’t think so. I’m thinking John was in Galilee, got thrown in the slammer, and when Jesus heard about it, he went back to Galilee to continue his mission. Instead of running away, Jesus went where he felt the need. John’s followers must’ve felt pretty scared and alone after their prophet got pinched. They needed Jesus.
The text tells us that Jesus was fulfilling prophecy by heading for the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. These were districts in the north-east of Galilee which were conquered by the Assyrians after the fall of Israel in 721 B.C. History tells us that the Assyrians were not very nice guys. They were big into conquest, oppression, and cruelty. The neighborhood of Zebulun and Naphtali would certainly suck for the conquered peoples who lived there, and the prophet Isaiah would be right in calling it the “land of deep darkness.” (Isaiah 9:2)
But the prophet preached hope for that benighted hood. He dreamed of a time when God would send the deliverer to God’s people. There would be light in the darkness. In Jesus’ time, the community around the Sea of Galilee was once again occupied by ruthless conquerors. This time it was the Roman Empire and its myrmidon, Herod Antipas. Yet this place, the first territory of Israel’s once glorious kingdom to be defiled by enemies, would be the place where the Kingdom of Heaven would reappear in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. This was where Jesus just had to be.
When the neighborhood around my church starts to depress me, I have to try to remember that well-lit places don’t need more light. Jesus calls disciples in the dark places. Where the enemy seems to have conquered—be it through poverty, addiction, depression, or just plain apathy—that’s where Jesus is seeking disciples. And that makes any neighborhood a beautiful and glorious place because Jesus is present there.
Let’s be like Peter and Andrew and James and John. Let’s heed the call and be the light.