Many of you know that early on in Sermon Brainwave history, I became known as the geography maven. I am the one who usually points out in a passage a geographical reference. Geography matters. Geography communicates much more than location. It brings back memories. It sets in motion the future. There are places you just can’t get out of your system, no matter how long you have been away. And there are those places from which you can’t get away soon enough.
So, when Matthew tells us that Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, we should pause, get out an atlas, and figure out what these seemingly non-descript areas might mean. Yet, our map of Palestine at the time of Jesus will not be much help. No, we have to get our hands on a map from about 700 years before when these two Northern tribes were conquered by Assyria. In other words, Zebulun and Naphtali have not been on the lips of God’s people for a very, very long time.
So, why does Matthew mention them? Hardly a map mistake. And, if we have been paying attention, not Matthew’s first act of geographical theology. No, this is cartography of promise, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by 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 shadow of death light has dawned. Just a mention of these two tribes and Matthew’s audience knows that in Jesus, God is up to what God does best — making good on God’s promises to God’s people.
When you preach your sermon this Sunday, it will have been a big week for geography. MLK’s birthday calls to mind the history of the south in the United States as the locus of the civil rights movement. The inauguration of Donald Trump in Washington brings to the forefront the events that have taken place in that city. The Women’s March on Washington relives one of those events — King’s March on Washington.
This past week in my preaching intensive course we watched King’s speech on August 28, 1963. The end of the speech is a display of rhetorical genius. In his call for freedom, King’s point is to demand freedom in the very place where freedom has long been denied — in the south. His location of choice to represent this denial of freedom is Stone Mountain of Georgia, the Confederate Mount Rushmore, if you will. But before he says let freedom ring from there, he suggests how freedom should ring or has rung from everywhere else — the mountains of New York, the Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado, the curvaceous slopes of California. Freedom is all well and good in those places, but from every hill and molehill in Mississippi, too? Yes. Geography is symbolic.
Maybe this is the Sunday to preach about the geography of your congregation — that its place is also representative of God’s promises. Does it realize that where God has called it to be could very well be a fulfillment of God’s promises? Does it recognize that its geography has determined its theology? At the beginning of a new year, this could be a sermon that helps your congregation appreciate and embrace that its place matters. Or, this could be a sermon that tells the truth of how the congregation has denied its place, especially as the places around it have changed.
Sometimes as church we pretend that where we are doesn’t matter for who we are. We pretend that our place does not shape our purpose. We pretend that our identity and our vocation can somehow be kept separate from our location. That we can do ministry with some sort of siloistic, compartmentalized mentality, as if where we are doesn’t need who we are, or that who we are can even continue to be without where we are.
Jesus resides in Capernaum now occupied by a foreign power, just as the areas of Zebulun and Naphtali were so many years ago. But this does not mean giving in. It is God’s way of saying once again — it may look like empire is in control, but you know the truth, and you have to be the truth. In the very next chapter, Jesus will tell his disciples who and what he needs them to be in places where they will be persecuted; who and what he needs them to be in the midst of powers that will seek to overpower them. Who and what he needs them to be when it would be so easy to give up.
Preachers, after the events of this week, we can’t give in or give up. After all, the Lord is our light and salvation; whom shall we fear? The Lord is the stronghold of our lives; of whom shall we be afraid? (Psalm 27:1). God needs us where we are to be truth and light so that justice might roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).