Location, location, location. It’s a very popular and familiar saying, and I think that as Americans, we may embody this desire and this longing more than anyone in the world. We are a culture that is transient, in the best and the worst sense of the word. We’re either wandering homeless, searching for that physical home, or we’re in a home, but think it would be a better one on that street; on that side of town; maybe in a different town. And at the same time we are looking for that, we are a people that are deeply spiritually unsettled. This culture of ours, not confined to this country, is a modern culture that lacks the kind of rootedness that an ancient people had. It’s always searching for a real, authentic identity that we can proclaim, and more importantly, settle us into knowing who we are.
This reading today from Matthew is something that comes from Mark’s Gospel, and is shared in all of the Gospels. But for Matthew’s community, it had a special resonance. Because the place that Jesus settles—in Capernaum, in Galilee—was a place that they not only knew, but many in Matthew’s community may have, in fact, lived there. This was their location. So when Matthew gives us this prophecy of Isaiah, it really spoke to them. This Isaiahan prophecy is rooted in their long history of suffering, from the first conquest of the Assyrians coming into that very place. They knew that oppression. It was the oppression of their families and ancestors. It was the yoke of the Assyrians, a dominating foreign power, that had claimed their home and displaced them—if not physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I think more importantly for Matthew, he needs to demonstrate to his community what location is about. The temple is gone, and they’re in a deep grief of identity. Matthew understands that prophecy doesn’t predict the future, but it explains the past. So Jesus, Matthew says, intentionally goes to this place, when he hears that John has been arrested. I think that in Jesus’s sense of identity, he knows that he has to continue John’s work. But not just proclaiming the kind of repentance that John preached, but a repentance that finds center in peace and justice and in God, and makes this prophecy an absolute incarnate one.
Today’s Psalm gives us an indication of that very way of thinking.
One thing have I asked of the Lord;
one thing I seek; *
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life;
To behold the fair beauty of the Lord *
and to seek him in his temple.
Matthew’s community could not have prayed that psalm without thinking of this Jesus who now is the living embodiment of that physical temple that no longer stands. It’s a familiar story for Matthew’s community, and they would have gotten the geography. It was familiar, and it was comforting. And yet, at the same time, like Jesus always is, it was disruptive. This place and this location, Jesus tells them, you know well. But then he does something that they wouldn’t have understood at all: he goes and he calls disciples to follow him. They would have been very perplexed at that. In their culture, and in their world, people went and sought out the prophets; people went out and sought those who they were going to follow. Here Jesus reverses that setting completely, and he’s brazen. He goes to them and he says, “Come with me. Go from this location with me and I will enable you to do something radically different. Not just fishing for fish, a livelihood that these people knew; I’ll help you fish for people. I will help you offer to others a sense of location, a home and dwelling in God. How do they respond? And this may be the most disarming for us: they drop the nets. They move out of that side of town; they move out of that identity that is everything they know; everything that’s going to bring them sustenance, and they follow this person that’s just spoken a couple of words to them. And their lives will never be the same. It’s even more disruptive for a Jewish audience hearing that, because they leave dad in the boat. They don’t even take him to shore and say, you’ll be OK without us. How is this Jewish father going to survive without his sons? It’s absolutely disarming to think about this man sitting out there alone in that boat—how did he get out of it? Or did he? There’s the edge of the Good News. It always brings us life, and it always leaves us on the edge of death: spiritually, possibly; emotionally terrified, and maybe even physical death. I think that’s what Paul is talking about. He goes from that Jewish identity into a place where he says, at the end of that reading, “We don’t want to empty the cross of its meaning.” He’s not just talking about resurrected life; he’s talking about the crucified Christ that he never shadows, never hides. We know that those people—Paul and Peter and those first Disciples—followed that Jesus often, if not always, to their own physical death, but to a place where they could find the center of God.
We as a community sit in this place today in all the images of light, in all of that Epiphany glory. And we know from Matthew’s Gospel what the work of incarnation must be. Jesus, Matthew says, tells us that movement is part of God’s plan; that it’s not always a movement to the right side of town, but to the place where you can be, as Jesus will say, I AM. And God is here. When the disciples in John’s gospel ask Jesus where he’s living, you know what he says: Come and see. He’s not talking about a condo in Capernaum, and off they go.
So here we are at St. Mary’s, and there is incarnation all around us; and there’s light all around us. There’s also a lot of darkness around us. But they way in which we’re going to find that light and radiate it is not to perpetuate the anxiety and the fear that in that place or this way of thinking is the only right one. It’s going to be to respond like the disciples do: to drop it all and follow, and find that place in the very heart of God that gives us that I AM feeling and knowledge and experience and identity. It starts right here for us today. Will you find that in those prophets that come to you, in those Christs that come to you and ask you to give it all up? They might not always be the ones you recognize, or the ones you want to see, or the ones you want to follow. But they’re here—right now—in this location, location, location.