Galilees of the Gentiles

How seldom do we think of the lost tribes of Israel!  We forget that the history of God’s chosen people is a history of a fractured people: the ten Northern tribes of Israel declared their independence from the Southern tribes of Judah after the reign of King Solomon.  These ten tribes were eventually driven out of their lands by the Assyrians in the eighth century BC, never to be heard of again.  The fate of these lost tribes has been fodder for wild speculation in our own modern times.

But in Jesus’ day the fate of the Northern kingdom was not a matter of speculation: the divided kingdom had lost its Northern half to a godless imperial power.  This is not to say that all differences had been forgotten or forgiven; not to say that there was a nostalgic longing for those ten lost tribes.  It is simply to state the fact that the surviving Southern kingdom of Judah knew themselves to be a remnant of the larger family born of Abraham’s hope.

That hope had seemed to swell during the reign of David.  The people had wanted a king – begged for a king – and finally God relented and gave them David, who turned out to be a difficult character to say the least.  Still, after David came Solomon – the paragon of wisdom and virtue, who built the first temple in Jerusalem.  The temple would stand for more than 300 years, but the kingdom would split after the death of the great king.  

And so the history of God’s people continued in parallel motion, on two tracks: north and south.  Then, late in the eighth century came the Assyrian hoarde to drive the northern tribes from their lands.  No king could now recover the long-lost tribes.  The prophets might sing of them but they were gone.  And the region of Galilee, which once had been home to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali (two of the ten) remained a symbol (at least to the prophet Isaiah) of the broken state of the family of God.

The Southern kingdom would know its own troubles.  In the sixth century the Babylonians would destroy Solomon’s temple and send the remnant kingdom into exile for forty or fifty years.  And although they would eventually return and the temple would be rebuilt, things were different, as they would have to be, for this devastated people.

What had become of Israel?    
What had become of the promise?
What had become of the covenant?
What had become of Galilee?

It was to Galilee, to a town called Capernaum , that Jesus went to make his home after hearing that his cousin John the Baptist had been put in jail.  And now, Jesus becomes the hope of Galilee, although no one yet knows it.  The lost tribes will not be restored.  But the king who renews the promise of God has now arrived on the scene to little fanfare.

‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and the shadow of death light has dawned’

The evangelist remembers the prophet’s words.  The prophet remembers the lost tribes.  Galilee is more than a place on the map.  It is a region of loss, a district of waiting, an area of silent hope.  And it is now no longer a hope confined to the children who sprung from Abraham’s loins and Sarah’s womb.  It is Galilee of the Gentiles – of the nations – a hope for all people.

To those of us for whom land has become little more than a commodity it is hard to imagine that some piece of land could stand for so much.  Can it be sold to developers? – we ask ourselves.  If not, what is the great fuss about.  Our inability to understand how closely the land itself is tied to the story of Israel and its fractious history is part of what makes even current conflicts there so incomprehensible to us.  But the land has always been more to Abraham’s offspring than a place to build a house or a city.  It is the landscape of God’s promise, of his deliverance, and of his hope.

And what of Galilee, once the home of Zebulun and Naphtali?  Is hope ever to return to Galilee?

Can we allow our imaginations to consider our own lost tribes?  Can we map out in our mind’s eye the contours and features and boundaries of regions where once we had hope and now we have little or none?  Do we remember the dreams we once had?

Plot out on this map the sibling taken from you too early in life, or the one you haven’t spoken to for years.  Locate the fever of love that once kept you awake for someone.  Identify the coordinates of innocence and joy you knew as a child.  See the place where your mother nursed you and your father still cared to rest you on his knee.  Are some of these lost places in your life?

In my own family’s story there is a farm on this map, and a house in Brooklyn, and another in Queens.  There are churches on the map and priests, there are schools and teachers.  There are times before injury or illness.  There are grandparents and old friends and even pets on this map.

And if we can see all this in the personal map of our imaginations, are there not also landmarks that we share?  A church not torn by strife and constantly out of breath for trying to keep up with the world around it.  A city or a town that once was so much easier to live in.  The smoldering shadow of the Twin Towers mark an important memorial on this map.  For some of us there are places of great danger on this map – in Vietnam, or now in Iraq, or maybe right here in our own country.

See on this map all the places that God might have come to us and we have wondered if he ever would.  See the deserts spreading out for miles on this map – places we never wanted to go but found ourselves there anyway, quite against our will.  See the vistas of places we dreamed we’d travel to but that now seem well beyond our means to get there.  See all these regions of loss, these districts of waiting, these areas of silent hope.

These are all the Galilees of our lives – Galilees of the Gentiles.  These are lands across the Jordan that have seemed lost to us as we take stock of our own fractured lives and histories and find a lot of places on the maps of our imaginations that now seem foreboding, unhappy, or just plain lost to us.

Into these lost regions of our lives Jesus is moving, making his home, somewhere by the water.

Have we longed for someone to put back together the fractured picture of our lives?  And do we tell ourselves, during this political season, that a new president will do it?  A bit of change and it will all come together?  We know better than that.  And because we know better, we may have given up on ever restoring hope to the Galilees of our lives – where once there was hope but now it is gone.

But Jesus is always moving in to such places, quite un-noticed by us most of the time.  It is with little fanfare that Jesus begins to walk by the Sea of Galilee and calls out to fishermen, “Follow me.”  

Did they hear in that simple invitation the power of an almighty hand to re-draw all the maps of their lives (imaginary and otherwise)?  Could they tell that here was the one who could fulfill promises long forgotten, hopes long given up on, and dreams left for dead?  Did they see in him a great light?  Did they even know that they sat in darkness?  Do we?

‘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.’

Where have we been living all these years?  How did our eyes become so accustomed to the dark?  When did we give up on hope in these Galilees of ours?

And when will we realize that Jesus has made his home in Galilee precisely for this reason: to be a light to lighten the Galilee of the Gentiles.  To live next door to us and to encounter us daily with his gentle and simple invitation: “Follow me.”

And we don’t really need to ask where we are going.  For we have already drawn the maps in our heads.  We are going to every region of loss, every district of waiting, every area of silent hope – into every dark Galilee of our lives, Jesus invites us to go when he says, “Follow me.”  And behold, 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.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
27 January 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 27, 2008 .