Zebulun, Naphtali, and the Land Beyond the Wall

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Game of Thrones: The view beyond the Wall.

Isaiah 9:1-4
Matthew 4:12-23

Game of Thrones people, this one is for you.

But don’t worry, everyone else can come along too. 

In the opening sequence to the HBO series, all of the regions of the world of Game of Thrones come to life like game pieces, each part clicking into place as focus shifts from place to place on an animated map. You see the centers of power first, usually. You see King’s Landing, where, obviously, the king of Westeros lives. You see Dragonstone, usually — the home of the deposed former king. You see Winterfell, home of the famous Stark family, the wardens of the North. Then, the camera pans to the northernmost point on the map: the Wall. 

The Wall, an impossibly huge, impenetrable wall of ice and stone, separates Westeros, the country that the series is primarily concerned with, from the wilds beyond. Throughout the series, “beyond the wall” is code for the middle of nowhere. Few people seem to know really who or what lives there; they just seem to have an idea that it’s a sparsely populated snowy wilderness. You know, much like Bostonians imagine western Mass. 

But people do live there: the people of Westeros call them the wildlings. The wildlings call themselves the “free folk.” They bow to no one and answer to no king. The series, among many other things, begins to eventually be about the alliances that must be made out of necessity between the free folk and the people of Westeros, and the deadly tensions that will ensue between those who live in Westeros and those who live “beyond the Wall.” 

In today’s Gospel reading, we’re told that Jesus leaves Nazareth and makes his home in Capernaum, by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. They’re familiar names, Zebulun and Naphtali. Those of you who studied Genesis with me last year and/or just know your Bible pretty well probably recognize them as the names of two of the twelve tribes of Israel, and two of the corresponding twelve sons of Jacob. The rest of you are probably thinking “Yep, those do indeed sound like names in the Bible.” 

Zebulun is the sixth son of Leah, Jacob’s first wife. Naphtali is the second son of Bilhah, the handmaid of Rachel, who bore children in Rachel’s name when she thought she was barren in true Handmaid’s Tale kind of style. 

I don’t expect you to know or remember any of this. I had to look it up myself. There’s a good reason. Neither of them was the first or most powerful son, and neither of them is the first or most powerful tribe. This is the northern edge of the kingdom.

We’re supposed to look at these place names and go “…where?”

Playing the “if Israel were Massachusetts” game again, it is as if we are told that Jesus left his home in Boston and made his home in Hinsdale, in the mountains. 

Unless you’re intimately familiar with the map, you’re unlikely to have the foggiest clue. And that’s the point. 

Jesus has moved Beyond the Wall. 

The Hebrew Bible lesson for today shines a little light on this text during this season of light: “In the former time [God] brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time [God] 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.” 

Land of Westeros, light has shined even on the land beyond the wall. Bostonians, light has shined even on western Massachusetts. Light has shined on all the places you once thought of as “out there” or insignificant. God’s light shines on the border country and beyond. 

In this seafaring place, you can be sure that Jesus was preaching to and healing both Jewish people and Gentiles. And that’s around the time that Jesus goes for a stroll along the Sea of Galilee and invites four fishermen to come and follow him.

“I will make you fish for people,” or in the King James language, “I will make you fishers of men” has always seemed like such a strange image to me, mostly because fishing never really ends well for the fish. The longer I follow Jesus, though, the more I get it. I mean, who hasn’t occasionally felt gutted while serving the Lord? And who hasn’t even occasionally felt a little trapped by all the work that must be done? The line of need is endless, and discipleship is hard, yet I can’t ever manage to bring myself to leave the work, or Jesus, behind.

I mean, take a second and look at your bulletin cover. It looks like Jesus is standing behind these two disciples like “I gotcha now!” 

And yet, what we are offered is, in a sense, death. But that’s not the end. We’re constantly pulled into this cycle of death and resurrection: getting tired and feeling discouraged and finished and wanting to quit and maybe even actually quitting, and then finding new hope and new life and new purpose, over and over, in church and in life. It’s the kind of gift that doesn’t always feel like a gift, but an actual calling never really does. I’m betting you’ve felt the same way in your work, in your life as a parent or grandparent, with your spouse or a significant other, and in your significant friendships. Life always comes and goes in waves of death and resurrection, and God is constantly offering us life renewed. 

On “Two Bubbas and a Bible” this week, a favorite preaching podcast that I like to listen to, we got this story this week: Marty Saarinen, later a professor at the Lutheran seminary in South Carolina, began his career on the upper peninsula of Michigan. Saarinen, you might know, is a Finnish name, and so, as a young pastor, he went to serve the Finnish Lutherans in Michigan. Pastor Saarinen was told to go see a shut in couple out in the middle of nowhere and introduce himself. The young pastor drives through logging country, has to stop his car and walk across a log bridge in the middle of the wilderness. He finally comes to a clearing, and there’s a Finnish cabin with smoke coming from the chimney. He walks across the porch and knocks on the door and stands there in his clergy collar and horn rimmed glasses. An old man opens the door and doesn’t say a word to the young pastor. He turns around and says to his wife, sitting by the fire: “Anna! God has not forgotten us!”

So here we are again, at the beginning of a new year, getting ready to have our annual meeting after worship, elect a new council, and for you all to be formally introduced to this thing we’re doing with Forward leadership. And the text for the day is Jesus calling these ill-equipped disciples who are way out on the margins to come and follow.

Every voice will matter in 2020. Every person will matter. We will need you. God has not forgotten you, and God has not forgotten us. Even on us, light has shined. 

And though it may sometimes feel like a trap, it isn’t. It is a cycle of death and resurrection, dejection and questions and frustration and new hope that we all get to experience together. 

God has not forgotten us. We get to do this. Even on you, on me, on us, light has shined. 

If you have a lot of questions, that’s okay. If you have a lot of worries, that’s okay. If you feel like we’re beyond the wall and beyond God’s good care, that’s okay too. 

Every day, the call is there: “come, follow me.” And as the days get longer and light literally shines on us all, let us remember that even on us, light has shined. God has not forgotten us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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