Last spring, Caroline and I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which turned out to be a real blessing, though it tested our mettle as travelers. Visiting Israel in the time of the Coronavirus was a challenge: at two critical junctures we weren’t sure until we got to the airport whether we’d be able to get on the plane and complete the trip. It was also the end of Passover and the beginning of Ramadan, so while we were there we kept getting rerouted day by day to avoid potential areas of conflict.
Our trip began with several days in Galilee, on the shores of the lake. It’s striking how tiny this region is, and how circumscribed the area in which Jesus began his ministry. I know that the Gospels describe it in several places as “the Sea of Galilee,” but that makes it sound grander than it is. It’s actually quite contained, with (I imagine) the shore visible on a clear day from most points of the lake. Of course, in Jesus’ day, getting around this small region on foot would have been more challenging than it was for us on a tour bus. Still, it is a tiny slice of the world, this place where Jesus began his ministry.
In our reading this morning, we hear the account from Matthew’s gospel of Jesus’ call of the first disciples. They were fishermen on the lake, casting or mending their nets, when Jesus called them to other work: to start fishing for people. Jesus was originally from Nazareth, a hilltop town a little way from the lake; but here he calls two sets of brothers from their work on the water to be with him and to join him in his ministry.
The prophecy from Isaiah that we’ve heard today, repeated in our Gospel, describes this region as “Galilee of the nations” (Is. 9:1), which gives us a clue to the larger context. Galilee was a border country, the place where ancient Israel began to edge into Gentile territory. The “way of the sea” (Is. 9:1) that the prophet points to is the road that passes through Galilee, leading down to the Mediterranean and the trade routes across the sea. It was the local superhighway. So Galilee was a crossroads, an opening to the wider world. In Isaiah’s time Galilee was also occupied territory, overshadowed by the Assyrians and their powerful armies.
Galilee’s character had not changed much in Jesus’ time. Galilee was still a border country, the People of Israel’s window on a wider world. On the other side of the lake from Capernaum, Jesus’ adopted home, was the country of the Gadarenes, Gentile territory where the people kept pigs: definitely not kosher. Here, Jews and Gentiles lived cheek to jowl. For observant Jews, it might be seen as a religiously suspect place: “Search, and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (Jo. 7:52), as the religious authorities say in John’s Gospel.
Jesus began his ministry at a crossroads, in a borderland, among the religiously suspect. His road took him to Jerusalem, to the south, but he began by the lake. He engaged in a ministry of preaching and healing in Galilee, in the synagogues and out in the fields. As it says in the prophet Isaiah, repeated in our Gospel today, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined” (Is. 9:1). Jesus was that great light, “a light to lighten the Gentiles” (Lk. 2:32), as it says in the Gospel of Luke. It was in the midst of darkness that light arose.
The Church began with Jesus’ calling of the disciples, and he continues to issue that call to his followers. We are that Church here at the Church of the Epiphany. Lebanon, Tennessee, is as significant a crossroad, spiritually speaking, as Galilee was in its day. This is the place of call and ministry just as surely as any other.
We are all called to respond to Jesus’ call. Each of us is being addressed today. Following Jesus means walking with him. It means being open to his grace, his power and presence in our lives. Jesus’ call has the power to transform us. The questions for us are: How will we respond? Who will answer the call?