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The Rector: The end of exile

22 January 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Epiphany 3
Canon Simon Cowling
Isaiah 9. 1-4; Matthew 4. 12-23

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept:
when we remembered thee, O Sion. 

Babylon. The city to which the Jewish people of the kingdom of Judah were sent into captivity and exile when their capital Jerusalem, or Sion, was sacked by King Nebuchadnezzar six hundred years before Christ. The words at the beginning of my sermon were written there. Babylon. A city whose name has, ever since, stood for any place of exile, physical or spiritual; a symbol of alienation used over the centuries by individuals and groups ranging from Martin Luther, who described the church of his time as being in Babylonian captivity, to Rastafarians for whom Babylon stands for the racism and oppression they have encountered in western culture.

The Jewish people were eventually allowed to return to Jerusalem from Babylon two generations after their exile, some five hundred years before Christ. You can read all about it in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah. But this story of exile and return has almost entirely eclipsed an earlier exile that had no return. Over a century before the people of Judah were exiled to Babylon, their Jewish brothers and sisters in the northern kingdom of Israel, from whom they had been politically separated for two hundred years, were forcibly resettled across the vast Assyrian Empire to their north and east. This resettlement included the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali who feature in both today’s readings. To all intents and purposes ten of the twelve tribes of Israel, including Zebulun and Naphtali, had disappeared from history seven hundred years before Matthew wrote his Gospel.

So why does Matthew, quoting the prophet Isaiah, mention these two tribes in today’s Gospel reading? There are two main reasons, I think, both of which are important for our understanding of Matthew’s view of Jesus’s mission as it unfolds in his Gospel – a Gospel that we’ll be hearing on most Sundays throughout the coming year.

Firstly, ever since the Assyrian conquest, Galilee had been a racial melting pot, a place where Jews and Gentiles lived alongside one another at what had been the northernmost edge of the old kingdom of Israel. That is why Isaiah describes it as ‘Galilee of the nations’ – in other words, Galilee of the Gentiles. By quoting Isaiah’s words right at the start of Jesus’s ministry Matthew is referencing something that is hinted at in a number of places in his Gospel: the expansion of Jesus’s mission beyond the confines of Judaism. The magi, the wise men from the non-Jewish east, have already visited and worshipped the infant Jesus; during his ministry in Galilee Jesus will commend the faith of a Roman centurion and a Canaanite woman, neither of them Jewish; and at the very end of his Gospel these hints blossom into flower when Jesus commands his disciples to ‘make disciples of all nations’. For Matthew, the outbreaking of the good news to the nations is nothing less than a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that light would shine in Galilee of the nations – and beyond.

The second reason why Matthew mentions Zebulun and Naphtali relates more narrowly to the underlying theme of exile with which I began my sermon. The reference to these two lost tribes is a reminder that the original return from Babylon by no means marked a complete return of the Jewish people to their homeland, nor the complete restoration of the sovereign reign of God on which that return depended. In other words, the ancient and fervently held promises of restoration spoken of by their prophets had not been entirely fulfilled; the great political and spiritual thirst of God’s people had not been slaked; their land was still occupied by a foreign power; the exile had not been ended. Matthew explains in his Gospel that it is Jesus who is to be the thirst-quencher. ‘(The) kingdom of heaven has come near’, proclaims Jesus; in other words, the sovereign reign of God for which you long, which will finally and completely bring an end to your exile, is at hand. The key to this particular kingdom is repentance, a complete reorientation of heart, body, and mind.

Of course we know from Matthew’s Gospel, and the other Gospels, that this understanding of God’s reign was violently rejected by some of Jesus’s contemporaries. They could not understand how the coming of the sovereign reign of God and the end of exile could possibly be unrelated to the end of foreign occupation by the forces of imperial Rome. Many chose to leave undrunk the life-giving water that Jesus offered to quench their thirst. So it was from the unpromising beginnings of a call answered by just four Jewish fishermen – Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, that a mission grew whose sole purpose was, and is, to help people to recognise, to receive, and to become active citizens of God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, healing and peace; to help people understand the meaning of true restoration from exile.

The Jewish people’s hopes for a definitive end to their political and spiritual exile at the time of Jesus were filtered through their understandable intolerance of the Roman occupation. They had externalized, or as psychologists might say projected, their discontent. They were looking in the wrong place for the answers. In this they were no different from any human beings in any age, our own included, who seek quick fixes to religious, political, economic, or personal challenges. But such quick fixes are the equivalent of a sugar boost – that is, their efficacy is short-lived. The message of the Gospel is that only a turnaround of ourselves, of our souls and our bodies, will enable us fully to receive and fully to know God’s reign of justice, mercy, healing, and peace; only such a turnaround will enable a true homecoming from our own latter-day Babylons, from the individual, and collective, exile of our contemporary personal and political discontents.