Land of Zebulun, land of Napthali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles....
Today it is the call and response of the first disciples that is the moment of revelation, disclosure, epiphany. Two weeks ago, it was the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John. By the time Jesus had returned from the wilderness (Mt 4.1-11), John had been arrested by Herod. Jesus also left the Jordan valley, and, as we heard, withdrew to Galilee, and made his home in Capernaum on the lakeside (Mt 4.12). For the next few chapters of Matthew's gospel Capernaum and the Lake become the centre of Jesus' activity, indeed, Matthew later speaks of it as his own home town (Mt 9.1).
Capernaum lay in the land of two of the ancient tribes of Israel, the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali (Mt 4.13). Matthew reminds us of what the prophet Isaiah had said long ago (in today's first reading) about this region. A 'great light' would arise for those living in this region of the 'Way of the Sea', an ancient route much travelled by traders on their way from Egypt to present-day Syria and Lebanon (Isa 9.1). The Galileans had been brought into contempt, says Isaiah; in fact, as we know from 2 Kings, their cities had been occupied and their people had been carried into exile (2 K 15.29). The 'great darkness' that had fallen on the region was to be lifted by the arrival of a 'great light' among them (Isa 9.2). Foreign powers had plundered their homeland and plunged them into deep darkness, but the prophet assures them that in time they will rejoice, as people exult when dividing plunder (Isa 9.3). Well, for Matthew there was no doubt that the great light that had dawned for those in the region and shadow of death was none other than Jesus.
So what was this region like where Jesus settled, and why did he choose it as the setting for his early ministry? We need a quick geography lesson.... 'Galilee' describes both a Sea and (in early times) a district. Galil is Hebrew for a circle, and in Solomon's time it encompassed 20 cities, around what was variously called the Lake of Genessaret, the Sea of Tiberius or the Sea of Galilee. It's actually an inland lake, fed primarily by the river Jordan, 69 feet below sea level (which produces near-tropical weather and a rich variety of freshwater fish). It's 13½ miles long, 7½ miles wide, and shelves steeply to a maximum depth of 160' (hence the sudden and hazardous squalls that we read about in the gospels). Upper Galilee was where the tribe of Naphthali had settled, and was mountainous; lower Galilee was the territory of Zebulun, and included a fertile plain (rivalling that of Egypt), producing grain, cereal, wine, oil, and every kind of fruit and nut tree, and beautiful wild flowers beyond the shoreline, where wealthy Jews, Herodians and Romans had their summer homes.
In Jesus' time it was part of northern Palestine, and was very heavily populated. The Jewish historian Josephus says there were 240 towns and large villages, plus a couple of hundred smaller villages. A land never destitute of men, of courage, or of a large population, he says. This was the prevailing secular view of the Galileans – eager, energetic, industrious (proper northerners, in fact). But the Jews of Jerusalem looked down on their agricultural northern neighbours as uncouth rustics. Because it was a poor region, there were many who were physically and mentally sick. It was a hotbed of political dissent. For all these reasons, King Hiram long ago had called the area 'disgusting'.
Perhaps the most important thing to notice is that Galilee was on the road to everywhere (what today we call 'connectivity', though this is what is lacking in the north of England). Many roads – trading routes – ran from the towns to the coast, and alongside the Jews lived Phoenicians, Arabs, Greeks (we know this from the coins found in the area). So it was something of a melting-pot; and it was the destiny of Galilee, with its mixed population and strange accent, to be despised, despite everything it had going for it. 'Galilee of the Gentiles' was in fact a term of contempt and derision: it was on the fringe of the Jewish covenant.
BUT: it was here, not in Jerusalem, that Jesus announced the good news of the kingdom of God; from herethat the light began to shine forth in the darkness, here that men and women were made whole and brought to salvation (just as fishermen lower their nets into the dark waters and bring out its harvest). And this was no accident: it was a deliberate choice.
We can draw some conclusions from this geography lesson. The first is about attitudes and assumptions about people who live elsewhere, not in our town (and this is not about where they originally come from, but where they live now). Is Lancashire/Yorkshire rivalry just an old joke, or something more serious? It's often even more local: is an 'M' postcode superior to a 'SK' one, and does it matter whether you live in Fallowfield / Didsbury (East or West) / Withington? The renaming of suburbs and districts suggests that for many people this doesmatter.
A few days before Brexit, we are focussed on England's widening north-south divide (not to mention the other regions of the so-called United Kingdom), with pledges from the government to do something about this: though what? Relocating the House of Lords to York and building HS2 is not really going to change this: 'Connectivity' requires more.
The Judeans – the Jews who lived in and around Jerusalem, in southern Palestine, the capital city, where it all happened – looked down on their northern neighbours who had the misfortune to live elsewhere, out in the styx. So for us: Londoners, the 'Westminster bubble', shows the same prejudices about those who live 'up north'.
Despite the fact that, as in Galilee, the north of England has many areas of great natural beauty, there is a deeper level of poverty and deprivation, of lack of opportunity, and this will continue. It may not be as extreme as it was in the 19th century, when Mrs Gaskell, a southerner who was deeply shocked by what she saw in Manchester, wrote North and South. The church needs to be more prophetic on this issue, and more astute in its sharing of resources. We must remember that Jesus first preached the gospel, not in the centre of influence, but to the downtrodden and the marginalised, those whom others despised: a preferential option to the poor. As an epiphany, a revelation, of God's plan and purpose this is highly significant.
A second conclusion is about the people who live all around us, our immediate neighbours. Again, Jesus' choice to minister in the 'Galilee of the Gentiles', a place of social and cultural diversity, is highly significant. It means that from the start the gospel has always been preached in a multi-cultural context: as it was then in Galilee, and Corinth, so today in Africa, in Asia, and in the parts of England which have welcomed many immigrants: this is the norm, not an aberration; and the church has many good stories to share.
It also reminds us that the Land of the Holy One has always been shared territory, and that it is nonsense to regard it as a space for Jews alone, and no-one else. That is not the way that God works. Israelis and Palestinians – Jews, Muslims, Christians – have to learn how to share the land. It is deeply ironic that the Jews, for so long an oppressed people, should become the oppressors of others: that a people who were driven into ghettos should create ghettos for others. But Palestinians have questions to answer too.
Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day; this year's theme 'Stand Together' explores how genocidal regimes throughout history have deliberately fractured societies by marginalising certain groups, and how these tactics can be challenged by individuals standing together with their neighbours, and speaking out against oppression. It marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp, and also the 25th anniversary of the Bosnian genocide. On this day when we remember the call of the first disciples, and the shining of the light of God's love among the people of Galilee, we pray that all the peoples of the world may learn to live at peace with neighbours, near and far.