Sunday, 23 January 2011, a sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
[Texts – Is 8:23; 9:1-3; Ps 26,1, 4, 13-14; 1 Cor. 1:10-13, 17; Matt 4:12-23]
‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’(Matthew 4:15-16, NIV)
I just love to watch football on TV. I think football is a beautiful game – a game invented by the English, I can’t help but remind you ! What I like about this game is that it is always unpredictable. There are always surprises.
You can watch a game for 75 minutes, and it can be completely uneven. One team playing well, the other is awful. One team scores several goals, the other does not get out of their half of the pitch. One team plays with great organisation, technical mastery, the other cannot do anything. One team is confident, has belief, the other fear is riddled by fear and doubt.
The game seems to have been decided, the victory gained or defeat certain, the spectators begin to leave the stadium.
And then something happens…
It can be anything. A stroke of genius that enables someone to score a goal from midfield. A defensive error. A substitute who takes the field and that changes everything. Even an injustice committed by the referee – it happens from time to time ! – something which fires up the players, which gives them energy, motivates them, and in 30 seconds the game has been transformed.
The team that was lousy, dreadful even, is suddenly transformed. The team starts to really play, to score, to believe. Suddenly, with 10 minutes still to play, it is total insanity! Anything can happen.
That’s what I love about football, this unpredictability, this possibility of reversal, that what majkes it so exciting.
I cannot tell you if God loves football, I have read the Bible quite extensively but I have not found a text that tells us this ! But what I can say, and without hesitation, is that God loves reversals, he loves unpredictable twists and turns, he loves the unexpected.
How can I tell you that? Because that’s exactly what we heard in the above readings. We read a bit about Zebulun and Naphtali – two regions on Israel.
These two regions did not have a glorious history.
When God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and out of slavery, he led them to the Promised Land. Each of the 12 tribes were given a territory. However, although God gave them these territories, they had to fight and take them. These territories were inhabited, so they had to conquer them. God says he will be with them and that they will succeed, but they must make the effort, fight, believe God, trust him.
However, we read in Judges chapter 1 that Zebulun and Naphtali failed to dispossess the pagan inhabitants of their territories. I do not know if it was due to their cowardice, or their laziness, or their lack of faith because they did not believe that God will help them, or by simple disobedience. But for whatever reason, they did not dispossess the pagan inhabitants and all their subsequent history was marked by this failure.
Other Jews despised them. We read that they were called “the crossroads of the Gentiles” – which was not a compliment but a reproach. You are failures, cowardly, useless! You couldn’t do what God told you to do. God gave you an opportunity, a chance, but you missed it! You were too weak. You just compromised and chose to live amongst pagans. You’re not good Jews, you are a filthy unholy mixture. That’s how much they were frowned upon, despised, cursed by their fellow Jews.
Is there a hope for people like that ? If we miss our chance with God is there still hope for us ? If we have made mistakes, if we were weak, cowardly, if we lacked the faith, if we failed to trust God is there still hope? Will God abandon us, turn his back on us, walk away from us ?
Listen to what we have just read ;
‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’ (Matthew 4:15-16, NIV)
Our God is the God of Zebulun and Naphtali. He is the God of reversals, the God who overturns, the God of unexpected things, really unexpected.
When Jesus, God Himself comes among us, to what area does he come ?
Nazareth in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali !
When Jesus began to preach the Good News that God does not leave us in our sins, our mistakes, our failures, but has come to offer us the possibility of forgiveness, reconciliation with Him. When Jesus begins to do wonders, miracles, where is it that all this starts?
Galilee, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali !
This passage gives me a lot of hope today. First for me personally. In my life as a Christian, I am a rather more weak that strong. Sometimes I’m not as serious as I should be in my religious practice. Sometimes I rather more fail than I succeed. Is there still hope for a poor guy like me?
Fortunately yes ! Because our God is the God of Zebulun and Naphtali. When I stumble, I find myself flat in the dirt, God takes me by the collar, he pulls me to my feet and tells me, “Okay Stephen, let’s try again, here we go, follow me.”
This passage also gives me hope for the church in Europe – I mean the whole church – Catholic and Protestant. The church in Europe is struggling at this time. Maybe we are all a little guilty for this. Maybe we have not made enough effort to adapt to the contemporary world. Although our gospel cannot change, because Jesus does not change, the way we make known that gospel, offer this faith, even how we live this faith must adapt, must be continually renewed. Maybe we have failed to have sufficient courage, or imagination, to change, to renew, to adapt to our post- modern context.
Perhaps also, we are content to be Christians rather than disciples. We stick simply to a religious identity, rather than entering into a living, intimate and personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which transforms us.
Also, it must be admitted that the history of the church in Europe over the last 500 years, is not all glory. Our story is like that of the church of Corinth in our reading . A church that was torn by religious clans. Christians who are divided, in opposing factions, confrontational.
Is there a hope for a church like this? What will God do with us? Is God going to leave us in our failures, our weaknesses, our mistakes?
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned
Our God is the God of Zebulun and Naphtali!
God is making his glory shine even now in the midst of us.
In proof of this I invite you to ponder what is happening here today in this mass. You have before you a Protestant guy who is giving the homily (Perhaps he’s not doing it so well, but never mind!).
But imagine if 50 years ago someone would dare to have suggest such a thing !
But by the grace of God we have finally realized that what unites us in Christ is far more important that what differentiates us in our traditions. We have one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
Finally, after 500 years we are coming together. This is something so unexpected! An incredible turnaround of the situation !
But our God, is the God of Zebulun and Naphtali, and he is doing it!
In our days a Protestant family can find a home, can experience brotherly love, in the heart of a Catholic community. And here I must take this opportunity to express to you from the bottom of my heart, my deep gratitude for the welcome, the fraternal love that we have experienced from you these past 10 years.
Our God is the God of Zebulun and Naphtali is doing a new thing!
He is making his glory shine even amongst us! So be brave! Hope ! Believe ! Work, and especially pray that God continues to do something new here, that He establishes his kingdom among us, that he enables us to become disciples of Jesus Christ and that together we can worship and preach the good news of Jesus Christ to our contemporaries.
May our God, the God of Zebulun and Naphtali, bless us all. Amen.
Stephen J. March
[Preached ay the parishes of Sombernon (22/01/11) and Vitteaux (23/01/11)]