Friday, January 21, 2011

Capernaum, by the sea...

"When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum, by the sea..." (Matthew 4:12-13a) He moved! Not too far, mind you, only about twenty miles or so. Even so, he left his home town of Nazareth to make a new home in a new place: Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee (which is really a lake.)

Matthew seems to be suggesting that the arrest of John the Baptist was the trigger for this move. Perhaps Jesus was justifiably worried that as someone who had spent a fair amount of time in public with John, he had been put on a government watch list. Or maybe he was just tired of the whispers in all of the Nazareth hair salons that had never let up, not even three decades after his birth, about who his daddy was. Or maybe the rents were cheaper in Capernaum. Whatever his motivation (or motivations)— the narrator tells us about John’s arrest, and that Jesus moved to a place closer to the Lake.

Only with 20/20 hindsight can Matthew say that this was meant to be, that it fulfilled the words of the prophet, Isaiah - about how this place across the Jordan, this land of Zubulun and Naptali, seemed to be the place where the Messiah is supposed to end up all along. As a Jew, writing for Jews, that’s a big deal to Matthew: as he tells the story of Jesus, Scriptures are being fulfilled all over the place. But that kind of theological reflection almost always comes after the fact. Matthew can say this because he knows how the story turns out and because he knows what a turning point this move turned out to be, not only in Jesus’ life but because of the people with whom it brought him into contact: people like Peter and Andrew and the Zebedee boys.

It’s really not that different in our own lives, is it? Often it’s only when we look back that we can see how God was at work. We move, perhaps, because of work or school or maybe because we need to be closer to family (or perhaps further away!) Only later, when we look back upon what unfolded there, can we see how we have been changed. Only then do we dare say things like: “it was meant to be…it was part of God’s plan for me…”

I find platitudes to be of little help if we mean to see how God is at work in our lives. God is in the details: in that particular moment, that encounter, that time when we exclaim “I wonder” or “I love you.” It is in each moment that God offers us infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. But sometimes our willingness to receive that gift of the present moment is increased when we get jarred out of our familiar surroundings and find ourselves in a new place.

Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capher Nahum, near the Sea. That’s what they called it when I went there a year ago and took the photo above of the Lake at sunset, and walked the streets, including the ruins of the synagogue at Capher Nahum, and what is said to have been Peter’s house. Literally, “the village of Nahum.” As I walked into the synagogue ruins there it wasn’t difficult at all to imagine what it might have been like for Jesus to walk in there. Unlike the synagogue in Nazareth, where everyone knew him by name, he had to walk into a place as a stranger — a newcomer. He had to go through that process of making new friends, of finding someone new to cut his hair, a new doctor, a new favorite restaurant.

Moving is always a little scary, even when it is also exciting. I think our personalities shine through when we move: for some everything new — home, school, job, church, synagogue, grocery store — is better. Others will, for quite some time, feel a sense of nostalgia and tend to compare their new experiences unfavorably to what was so comfortable and familiar for so long. "At my old church they did it this way..."

As the story comes to us through Matthew, it seems that this move leads Jesus into a deeper awareness of the ministry to which God is calling him. That may sound funny to some of our ears, especially if we have been taught to think of Jesus only as the Second Person of the Trinity. But the Gospels and the tradition are clear and consistent about Jesus’ full humanity, about his questions and struggles and even doubts. Like us in every way (save sin), Jesus needed to pray and discern God’s will before he could do it. At some point after this move to Capernaum, he got the clarity he needed, and then the chutzpah, to call out one day as he walked along the lake: “hey, you guys—follow me. I’ll make your fish for people.”

The rest is history.

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