The prophecies that we hear today are our history. They are part of our story. Are you interested in your history at all? If you had heard that your great, great, great 7 times over grandfather were a king (or even a pirate for that matter) wouldn’t that affect your identity at all? Would you even care? What about your country? Has it ceased to matter what our founding fathers intended? It has obviously ceased to matter to some, but what about US? I think these things should matter to us—our family history, the history of our country and our religion. For our faith has a history as well. You might say that through your baptism and even more powerfully through your confirmation, you were grafted into the history of a mystery called “The kingdom of heaven”—and that history has its prophecies, it’s heroes and its villians. Today we hear about some of the prophecies of the kingdom of heaven. What does that mean?
Sometimes when we hear scripture, we have no idea what the heck is going on. Sometimes it feels like this: the reader will say, “The word of the Lord.” And you will faithfully respond, “Thanks be to God—Whatever the heck it means.” We have a few references like that in our readings today. First of all, there is this strange reference to the lands of Zebulun and Napthtali. The first prophecy from Isaiah is hard to understand, but beautiful poetry nonetheless. The first part of it reads:
First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun
and the land of Naphtali;
but in the end he has glorified the seaward road,
the land west of the Jordan,
the District of the Gentiles.
Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness:
for there is no gloom where but now there was distress.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
Then, in the Gospel, we hear Zebulun and Naphtali referred to again—St. Matthew actually tells us that when John the Baptist died, Jesus goes to live in Capernaum in order to fulfill the prophecy that you just heard in Isaiah, and the prophecy is repeated again in the Gospel. What is going on here? Matthew actually tells us, “He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali….” Jesus actually abandons Nazareth as his home and takes up permanent residence—insofar as he ever had a permanent residence—at Capernaum. Just that thought is interesting in itself. If you had been asked the question, “Where did Jesus have his home base during his adult ministry?” would you have been able to answer?
In any case, by this time the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali no longer exist. We need to recall that Zebulun and Napthtali were two of the twelve tribes of Israel, and ancient Israel had essentially been divided up into twelve regions according to those tribes. Nazareth actually falls in the land of Zebulun. Naphtali corresponded to the land of Galilee, where Jesus does a great deal of his preaching and teaching. So in other words, the ancient lands of Zebulun and Naphtali are precisely where Jesus is born and does most of his ministry. And it is these lands that Isaiah prophecies about—they will see a great light. They will be saved. We should be aware that the Gospel of Matthew is perhaps, more than any other gospel, concerned with indicating Jesus as a fulfiller of Old Testament prophecies. The gospel was written primarily for a Jewish community who had converted to Christianity, so it would have been important to them to understand that Jesus HAD fulfilled these prophecies that had been precious to their religion for centuries.
AN ASIDE: Do you realize that the Jews in Matthew’s community really had no understanding that they had “converted” to Christianity? Think about it—they just thought they were being GOOD JEWS by accepting the Savior that their Jewish prophets had talked about for centuries!
In any case, what are we to make about these regions of Zebulun and Napthtali? Why are they in the prophecy? Why does Matthew bring them up again in the gospel?
According the scholar Delitzsch: “Since the days of the Judges all these stretches of country were by reason of their proximity exposed to corruption by heathen influences and by subjugation through heathen enemies. The northern tribes on the other side suffered most by reason of the almost constant wars with the Syrians and the later war with the Assyrians, and the deportation of the inhabitants gradually increased under Phul, Tiglatpileser, Salmanassar until a total depopulation resulted.” Thus, the people in this region at this time were a mixture of Jews and Pagans. Several languages were spoken. Several historians describe the region as one of almost complete spiritual destitution. In other words, do NOT imagine that Jesus just came and settled in an area full of nice, faithful Jews. That was not the case. It was full of paganism, atheism, Syrians, romans and peoples of a number of different cultures and religions—worhsip and morality was very confused at this time. So what touches me is this: Jesus seems to go the region that needs him most. He goes where religion and morality are the most confused and people are hungriest for the word that might save them. That is why the prophecy says that the Lord “degraded” the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. They were a mess, and it was precisely to these regions that the Lord Messiah carried out his ministry.
Now why am I teaching this to you? I am teaching you this because I think you should know it. This is part of our story. It is part of our history.
AN ASIDE: Actually, I want you to make note of this. When Jesus hears about John the Baptist being imprisoned, does he go and bail him out? Does he try to save him? PAUSE. Nope. He leaves John the Baptist to fulfill the ministry that he had been given from the womb, and to bear testimony to Jesus with his very life. Not even Jesus tears off on a white horse to save absolutely everybody. There is a young man that Jesus exorcises from a demon and that young man begs Jesus that he might follow him and Jesus tells him “No.” He tells him to go home and testify about the goodness of the Lord. People, this is a side point to my main point, but for some reason I think God wants me to make this point nonetheless. Even Jesus leaves some in jail. Even Jesus sometimes says, “You can’t come with me right now.” He just always does it with love.
When Jesus preaches, he begins by saying “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” When the church summarizes Jesus’s entire preaching ministry, it is with this phrase. I know I have said this before, but repetition is the mother of learning. The third luminous mystery is entitled, “The preaching of the kingdom of Heaven” or simply “The proclamation of the Kingdom.” When Jesus preaches, it is about that particular theme. When he heals or exorcises demons, it is to give signs of the coming of the kingdom. When Jesus talks about the Sermon on the mount, the parables, and the beatitudes, he is teaching us the way of this kingdom—he is teaching us about the laws of the citizens of that kingdom. We hear the concept spoken about twice in the gospel today: From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Then we hear again, that “Jesus went all around galilee, preaching the good news of the kingdom.” Our Lord himself, according to St. Luke, describes this as the object of his mission: “To other cities also I must preach the kingdom of God: for I am sent for this purpose (Lk 4:43).” YOU CAN’T GET ANY MORE DIRECT THAN THAT, CAN YOU???? So if the “kingdom of God/heaven” is the purpose why our Savior was sent, then we better as heck know a bit about what it means, shouldn’t we?
What we need to understand is that at the time when Jesus breaks in on the scene, the Jews already had an understanding that a Messiah would come to usher in the kingdom of heaven. They had a belief that it would be divine, everlasting, universal and spiritual. They believed God himself would break into human history and establish a kingdom that would be over the entire earth, and that this would be a godly establishment of laws over the entire earth—not merely Israel. And indeed, THAT IS PRECISELY WHAT JESUS DID. But there is plenty of evidence that by the time of Jesus, a large portion of the Jewish population had begun to over-emphasize the letter of the law over the spirit of the law, and to expect an earthly kingdom far more than a spiritual one. Not everyone, mind you—but some.
Jesus had to address this false idea of the kingdom with a true one. He had to come to fulfill the true intentions of the prophets and the prophecies like the one I spoke about earlier. That is why he often ran away into the desert. He didn’t want them to come and make him an earthly king—that totally missed the point of the true kingdom. And what is the true one? Essentially, there are four ideas about the true kingdom: 1) that in order to enter it you have to actually do the will of the father, just as Jesus did. 2) That it was not a kingdom over just the individual human heart, but Jesus intended from the beginning to establish a real church in which we would gather together to continue his Passover meal and help usher in this kingdom. This is also clearly indicated by how upset St. Paul is in the second reading about divisions among the churches 3) This kingdom would be in constant conflict with the kingdom of the world and sin, especially at the end of time, 4) This kingdom is the actual beginnings of heaven—it is about salvation. It is about eternal life.
Speaking personally, I was raised in a very patriotic household. I enlisted in the Marine corps myself when I was 17. I studied the Founding fathers for years and got a master’s degree in politics. But you know, it’s getting a little harder to be as patriotic about my kingdom as I once was. I still love our country and the idea for which it stands—liberty with law UNDER GOD. But the prince of this world has poisoned those ideals and like all earthly kingdoms, ours will one day fall as well. But the kingdom of God will not.
What if it were true that God has been sending secret operators across enemy lines for about 3,000 years now—called prophets and saints—to testify to himself and establish his laws? What if it were true that we are citizens of a kingdom not established by man, but governed by the church, that was set up for the sake of the salvation of the entire world? It grows in the quiet. It grows in silence and in prayer, and every time you pray, take part in the sacraments, or do works of charity this kingdom swells and grows more powerful—and we arm ourselves with the weapons and armor of angels, and the light grows for all mankind to see? What I am saying is that this is precisely true. This is literally true. The United Nations tells us that there are 196 kingdoms in this world, all vying for power and influence. But our faith tells us that in the final analysis, there are only two—the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the prince of darkness. We are all subjects of this kingdom, and we have all been sent—secret operators, saints and spies—to expand the kingdom of God at any cost. We are infiltrators, every one of us. IS THIS REALLY TOO ROMATNIC OF A NOTION? I REALLY THINK IT IS LITERALLY TRUE! Let us pray that we will not end up traitors, or forget where our true allegiance lies.
There are so many things that vie for our attention in this world. So many distractions. So many reason to keep looking back at a life gone wrong, or looking ahead to anxieties that will never go right. So I will end with a word of an advice from our king—“SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND ITS RIGHTEOUSNESS—AND ALL THESE OTHER THINGS WILL BE GIVEN TO YOU.”
Rev. Dr. Basil Burns