3rd Sunday – Zebulun, Naphthali and Hope in Darkness

Isaiah 8:23-9:3, Matthew 4:12-23

Land of Zebulun and Naphtali. When you read the family cycle stories in Genesis, especially that of Jacob, you quickly realise why monogamy, is a very good idea. 

Jacob, had two wives, Leah and Rachel. Sisters. Rachel was the one he loved, but his father-in-law would trick him into marrying her elder sister Leah first and working a debt for Rachel. From then on, there would be a constant rivalry between the two sisters for the love of their husband. Leah would be jealous of Jacob’s love for Rachel and Rachel who was barren would be bitterly envious of Leah’s many children. So, at one point, Rachel would give her maid to Jacob to have children – the first of these would be Naphtali – his name would mean ‘my wrestling’, because Rachel would say, ‘I have wrestled mightily with my sister and prevailed’. Leah would not be outdone on this, so she would give her servant to Jacob and have another son through her; she would name him Zebulun which would mean ‘honour/glory’ or ‘dwelling’ as she would say, ‘my husband will have to honour me now, as I have given him so many sons’.

This family was as dysfunctional as they came. Yet, it would be through them that God would achieve his purposes for the world. Your circumstances are not what matter, what mattered is God’s grace. Rachel and Leah’s married life was defined by this competition.

On his deathbed, Jacob would gather all his sons and bless them. This blessing was always solemn – it was not simply wishful thinking; it was a prophesy in God’s name. Over Naphtali, Jacob would pronounce him to be something beautiful and free –

Naphtali is a doe, skipping free, bearing beautiful fawns. (Gen 49:21)

It didn’t matter that his mother bequeathed to Naphtali an inheritance of being constantly in competition with his brothers, but if his father gave him a promise in God’s name that he was free, he would be free indeed. Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel, knew something of the pain of this sibling competition first-hand. He would have to go through a huge amount of pain in life, to realise what was important was to grapple with God’s purpose for him, not compete with anyone else.

Zebulun, whose name meant honour/dwelling, was condemned to win honour in the world through sheer effort and cunning like his mom; but God would speak over him and make him an heir – of the wealth of the sea, by which he would dwell. For the ancients, the sea was the deep, a fearful place – it could overwhelm man at any time. Only God could rein in the chaos of the waters, as he did at Creation. Even today, it remains a wild force which modern man has not managed to tame. Zebulun was destined to dwell by this very force, but in peace, because it came as a promise and gift from God, not of his own effort.

These tribes, and Israel, with whom their destinies were tied, would however, always find themselves in the tension between what their mothers named them and what their Father called them out to be. Israel’s uniqueness came not from what they were, but from the fact that God had chosen and loved them. He dwelt among them. They were given God’s glory and called to be that light to the nations. But they couldn’t help but be in competition with the other nations, on their standards. And the nations would win. The superpowers, Assyria first and Babylon next would devastate them, starting precisely with the borderlands of Zebulun and Naphtali.

As we open Matthew’s gospel, Israel is enslaved to Rome, the most brutal of Empires. The people live with the rod of oppression on their shoulders. Miserable and in darkness. Into this, comes Jesus, the King, proclaiming repentance for the coming Kingdom. Jesus might have seemed like a Rabbi to some, a prophet to others, but someone proclaiming a kingdom usually meant one thing: revolution. There were several revolutionaries starting ‘kingdom movements’ at this time, to overthrow the oppressors. Jesus himself would be crucified in the place of a revolutionary, Barabbas. They were trying to bring about God’s promises for Israel – that they would be a light to the nations – which could only come through grace. Rather than bring light, they were fighting darkness with darkness, violence with more violence. Naphtali, rather than being free in the promise of God, was still in competition with the pagan nations, imitating their violence, and Zebulun, whose destiny it was to dwell in glory, would find itself dwelling in darkness.

In this darkness, the light starts rising. The call of repentance, is not God asking you to feel guilty about yourself, but to change direction. Jesus’ announcement was that they were headed in the wrong direction and they had to turn around.

In Zebulun, among those destined to inherit the wealth of the sea, he finds the brothers, wrestling with their nets, unable to catch anything from the sea. And as God would change Jacob’s wrestling to become Israel, the King starts forming the new Israel by calling a people to himself. They would let go of their wrestling to follow him, depending on him. He would show them how to find true treasure. He would later say to all, ‘Take my yoke, my reign, and put it on you – find rest for your souls’. His gentle rule is what would break the rod of oppression.

This Word has come to you and me. What is your Zebulun and Naphtali? What is your place of gloom and darkness at this time? Maybe it’s some physical or psychological suffering. Maybe a constant fear of money or of the future. Maybe it’s some deep injustice; maybe it’s deep-seated guilt, maybe some unforgiveness and resentment. You’ll have to name it. Whatever it might be, within this very place of darkness, this Word promises that the light of Christ will rise. But it calls for repentance. – change your ways of thinking. Stop trying to solve your problems with the ways of the world and instead start trusting in the promise of God. Where can you hear his promise? Right here in the liturgy. Here, each time the Word is proclaimed, this carries a promise. The Church, the new Israel are those who, like Jacob, wrestle with the Word, not with the world. Whatever you were born with, in your baptism God declared you his son/daughter, you were made part of the new Israel. That is the truth you have to hold to against all the voices of the world which say you are not. Each week the priest, your spiritual father, proclaims a promise over you, like Jacob over his sons. This word is living and effective. But to believe the promise, to recognise the voice of the Father, we need to be familiar with the Word. Otherwise it will pass us by. Today is the Sunday of the Word of God. This book is full of promise. Why don’t you take a resolution to start reading your bible this year? Become familiar with your Father’s voice. Allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you. And let light arise in Zebulun.

“Fishermen” by kevin dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

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