Pastoral Prayer: Lord God Almighty, we are always looking to move up. We call them our forever homes as if we will live in them forever. Sure, we mean to say that we don’t plan to need another house, a bigger and nicer one. Until, of course, we see a bigger and nicer one than we have. That very system is oppressive even as we don’t realize it. We thank you today for not moving up. Instead in Jesus Christ you moved down and in, with us and that is Good News. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be pleasing to you our Rock and our Redeemer. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
Welty, Oklahoma. Who knew? Last week a local weather person randomly pointed out the current temperatures around the State and included, Welty. Curious I googled Welty. It may have one of the shortest Wikipedia entries. In part, it reads,
An unincorporated town in Ofuskee County, Oklahoma, United States.
Another website provides a historical sketch. It seems a group of men camped in the area and a few of them decided to settle there in the late 1800s. Two homes were built and as a result of the death of an infant child, a cemetery was established. Eventually, Edwin A. Welty bought the plot of land and agreed to carve out an area for a township. As with most small Oklahoma towns, the central feature became the school and the post office. By the early 1900s the unincorporated town boasted general stores and cotton gins. Three railroads were surveyed to go through Welty but someone interfered and instead one went through Bristow, one through Okemah and the other plan was abandoned. Plans for a bank died with the loss of the railroad.
Welty did not make the last general census as it was determined, “no one lived there.”
I still wonder what point the weatherman was making when he told viewers what the temperature was in Welty.
Maybe you wonder why it is that Matthew tells the story of Jesus and gives us a geographical marker,
he made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.
Most of us struggle to pronounce those names much less locate them on a map. I mean what would we do if someone asked us to point to it on a blank map?
Think about it. All of us know about Wuhan, China. Tracking the progress of the latest viral outbreak has many wondering should we be concerned that the coronavirus will reach where we live. But, since many of us have been led to believe that the story of Jesus does not require us to know geography we muddle through these passages with little wonder, satisfied with Matthew’s line,
so that what has been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.
Most of us who grew up in church with these sorts of references were told their only importance is that Jesus fulfills the vision or promise of Old Testament verses. It is not that it is unimportant that Jesus fulfills these details. It is. But, it is that something is meant when these references are given. We would have to know what is the significance of the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. We are not simply wanting to know the weather. Nor are we simply looking to pass a test of our geographical knowledge. Matthew is not looking to instruct us as to where Jesus received his mail. He has a specific history in mind that relates credibly to Jesus’ day. And if we are careful to note the features, we may be able to see the ways it is revealing of our own day.
So, what is it about the territory Jesus chose?
Isaiah’s promise-filled-declaration pinpointed the first places that would be, and were, overrun by the new world power looking to assert its dominance. The topography of the area meant invading forces would come right down through Naphtali, the northernmost tribe of Israel. When these hostile forces came to exert their power they exacted taxes and often relocated large groups to head off potential revolts to their power. There really isn’t a way to describe these incidents as the work of benevolent leaders. Some were certainly crueler than others but the aim, the goal of all of them was to dominate other people. And, they did. Assyria, among other emerging world powers, made their way into Israel intending to stop at Damascus, the capital of Israel.
People living in the territory would be well aware of the history of those days. Reminders lingered. By the time we get to Jesus’ day, Rome had repeated what those living in Isaiah’s day had experienced. Sitting in darkness would well be the reference to being dominated by another. God had no history of dominating his people. Instead, Israel’s experience of God had been one of pursuit. That is, God pursued Israel even when Israel proved unfaithful, even pursuing other gods.
Every super-power that sought to dominate lesser countries would set up systems to benefit the super-power. The tax system in Rome coerced loyalty from the tax collectors by allowing them the latitude to skim a little off every transaction. Replace the tax collector you did not like with another and all you did was change the name of the person taking your money. Nothing stopped the system from taking advantage of you. And, among those that found themselves included among the likes of the tax collectors were the fishermen.
Rome’s Caesar laid claim to everything – including what was in the water. It is not uncommon to hear how uneducated were fishermen in Jesus’ day. We are endeared to them in a sort of, “Bless your heart,” way. But these fishermen were not to be pitied for their perceived lack of education. They often faced the same scorn tax collectors received when viewed as part of the food supply system that was controlled by the empire.
Jesus’ own story is told with the historical markers of those in power. Caesar Augustus called for the census that drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. From there it was the horrible reaction of Herod to the slip the magi had given him that compelled Joseph and Mary to take Jesus to Egypt. Over time they returned only to choose Nazareth knowing Herod’s son might want to do Jesus harm. Given his early experiences with the systems that prey on people, one would think that Jesus would choose a different place to call home. But he chose Capernaum, in the territory of Naphtali.
Rather than choose a lesser populated area say like a Welty, Oklahoma, Jesus settled into an area with a long history of occupation. Remember, this territory would have been the first to experience marauding armies and the last to recover. It would have been a place in need of hope.
What if we overlaid the Apostle Paul’s theological description of the coming of Jesus over the story we find here. Would we hear the resonance?
Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness,
and being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death-
even death on a cross.
Do you see it? Jesus’ decision to live in Capernaum is the very sort of choice we would expect. That is, if there were a place sitting in the darkness of a history of hopelessness, it may be Capernaum, the territory of Naphtali. And, if there ever were people in need of a light to shine it would be those who despite all their attempts to make good on their own efforts to rise from the ashes cannot erase the history and current experience of occupation by foreign powers. A garrison of Roman soldiers was located in Capernaum a constant reminder that the enemy arrived there first and left almost always last. Sure, Jesus making his home in Capernaum checks off the promise declared by Isaiah that a light would shine in the darkness.
But, it is more than that. The historical marker, the geographical details, points to a story about the God who chooses to come to a people whose story is full of events that would leave people hopeless. A people described by the Scriptures as, “all,” as in “all of us.”
No one lives in Welty anymore. It wasn’t that the enemy hoards swept into Ofuskee County and took over. Instead, it was a system that could not be overcome by human ingenuity. No amount of high power PR, no great social media campaign will bring people to live in Welty. There is nothing there. And, the short-lived dream of a few families did not survive the engine of progress that requires something of value before others will invest.
And, that is a fit description of humanity. Sure, there are feel-good stories that counter the norm. But, overcoming the systems and powers that lay behind our experiences of life is really like living in Capernaum. We cannot escape our need for relief from the oppressive forces that tell us all that it is up to you what you become as if we are but a bit of vacant ground in Eastern Oklahoma.
Maybe by now, you can see that the story that includes Jesus’ geographical residence also captures the mission of Jesus who came into the world for us all. Aware of the powers that would persuade us it is all up to us only to crush us beneath the demands to survive. Sitting in darkness human beings, all of us, work tirelessly to get where we think we want to be only to discover that someone had different plans and the railroad won’t be coming.
The Good News of the Gospel is that despite our efforts and in spite of our opposition, God showed up in Jesus and chose the very places where hope is needed most – everywhere.
Admittedly we live in an area considered a fast-growing area. The median income in our area is among the highest in the State. Our average home prices and size limit those who could choose to live here. That all sets up well for us to think we have found just the right place. The truth is we cannot hide behind the facade of success. Our young people here face the same pressures they would anywhere. Families are stressed at levels that betray our projections. Marriages aren’t naturally more easy to navigate just because we can fit more stuff in our homes. Every day, even here, someone lives without hope under a system and powers that are bent to keep it that way.
Matthew used Isaiah’s words to alert the world, a light has dawned. Something new has taken up in our world. The Kingdom of God is not some distant concept, it has come near with the coming of Jesus. Those who receive the Kingdom do not move out and up. Instead, like Jesus, they move down and in.
No one lives in Welty anymore.
That is, no one must live without hope. The Good News is that God in Christ defeated the powers of Sin and death, the powers that we take up with thinking we can make places like Welty live by our own strength.
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region of the shadow of death,
light has dawned.
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen here.