In this Season after the Epiphany, we have been meditating on God’s unchanging promises to us as we opened a new year. The first promise we reflected on was God’s promise of new life made through baptism. I hope we may continue to experience this new life as we thankfully remember our baptism and as we practice to die to ourselves and live only with Christ. The second promise we pondered together was God’s promise of faithfulness. And I also pray that we may affirm every day that no matter who we are, no matter what we do, God is faithful to us with love and grace. Today, the third promise we are going to look into is “God’s promise of ministry.”
Today the Gospel of Matthew brings us to the place where Jesus begins his ministry. It says, “He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 4:13). Here, what’s interesting is that Matthew pointedly notes that Capernaum is in the “territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 4:13). What are Zebulun and Naphtali? Simply put, they are two tribes of Israel among the twelve. The Bible tells us that Jacob had twelve sons and their descendants formed the twelve tribes. When they conquered the Promised Land, each tribe occupied a certain region in the land. The Zebulun and Naphtali tribes settled down in the northern area around the Sea of Galilee. So basically, here, Matthew is using the geographical terms that were used more than 700 years before his days. It is such a weird thing that Matthew describes the area with those names. Imagine a modern-day writer refers to Vienna as a city in the “territory of the Habsburg Monarchy.” Sounds awkward, doesn’t it?
Then, what’s the reason that Matthew mentions these specific names of Zebulun and Naphtali? It’s hardly a mistake. What’s special about them? History tells us a sad story. These two tribes were the very first tribes of Israel deported by the Assyrian Empire, the most powerful empire back then. The Assyrians expanded their territories, invaded Israel, and took many people to their main cities. Look at the maps. Those lines indicate the deportation routes. In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah is the one who foretells this tragic event. Especially, in Isaiah chapter 8, he prophesies this impending calamity. So when Matthew refers to those territories, he certainly wants us to think about this history. But this is not the main reason.
What mainly captures Matthew’s attention is the message of hope in the next chapter of Isaiah, which is today’s Hebrew Bible reading. “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 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” (Isaiah 9:1-2). With this message of hope in mind, Matthew must have realized the fulfillment of God’s promise, when he heard about Jesus whose transformative ministry began in Capernaum in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. Matthew makes this point very clear in his Gospel. Jesus, the son of David, has come to fulfill the promise of God, the promise of ministry to build a new kingdom on earth. And so this Jesus is our hope. Through his ministry, our faithful God is now up to what God does best: keeping God’s promises to God’s people.
The reason why I share this historical and geographical background with you at length today is to understand more deeply the historical context of Jesus’ ministry. When we read todays’ Gospel story, we tend to focus only on Jesus’ calling of the disciples. The famous story of calling the fishermen where Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Yes, that’s very important. But at the same time, we should not neglect where Jesus starts his ministry. He indeed initiates his ministry in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali… the place that was ruined and hurt by the powers of the world, by war, deportation, discrimination, bigotry, and oppression. Then, was the situation of this land in the days of Jesus any better than before? Not at all. People in that territory around the Sea of Galilee were stigmatized as rebels, socially ostracized, and often persecuted under the rule of the Roman Empire.
Having all that said, it is truly incredible to see how God works to fulfill God’s promise of ministry in the midst of those painful contexts and moments in history, right there. To the very place where people only witness the history of suffering and shame, to the very place where the oppressed struggle to live in the shadow, the Holy Spirit sends Jesus. And Jesus calls his first disciples from this territory, travels throughout this territory to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and cure every disease and every sickness among people (Matthew 4:23). Now the Gospel of Matthew gives us one simple truth today. God’s promise of a new kingdom on earth begins in a place where people see the least hope and the least possibility. Even in a totally hopeless situation, even in a time of the darkest despair, if Jesus comes and calls us, we can start our ministry of building the kingdom of God at any given moment.
Last week we had Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day and the Inauguration Day in the same week. We’ve seen many people who raise their voices that our nation is divided, we have too many racial, social, and economic issues. And nobody can expect what’s going to happen through this period of a wild political transition. But here, today’s Gospel lesson tells us clearly. Even in this very depressing situation of our own, even in this time of turmoil, Jesus still comes to us and calls us, and we start our ministry right here and right now. We keep on following Jesus whether time is favorable or unfavorable. We keep on loving tenderly. We keep on serving one another. We keep on believing. We keep on hoping. We keep on praying. We keep on sharing. We keep on walking with God. We keep on outreaching. We keep on challenging. And we keep on striving…in our own ministries to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, do you believe that the one who called the fishermen at the Sea of Galilee in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali comes to us and calls us today? Then, listen to him who says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me, and I will make sure nothing bad happens to you.” If we entrust ourselves to Jesus, Jesus will entrust us with the holy work of building the church and sharing the good news with all people. Let us not be shaken by today’s social, political, and economical situations. Rather, let us center on what we have been doing as Christians and what we are going to fulfill with our faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. Then, someday, through the ministry of our church and through our efforts to build the kingdom of God, those who walk in darkness shall find a great light, and on those who live in a land of deep darkness, the light of Christ shall shine. Amen.
 Mark Shea, “Land of Zebulun, Land of Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles,” www.patheos.com