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The Beginnings of the Kingdom: Sermon for the III Sunday through the Year, January 21, 2024




“After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”

 

          Galilee was not the place where the Messiah was supposed to appear. While we think of Galilee as the place of our Lord’s three years of preaching, teaching, and healing – His public ministry – it did not have such a great reputation in His day.

          For centuries before Christ, the Kingdom of Israel had been sundered in two – the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel. The Kingdom of Judah in the south, representing two of the twelve tribes and including the city of Jerusalem, had been more faithful to the Lord and was not conquered by the pagan empires until several centuries after the northern Kingdom of Israel, representing the other ten tribes. “Galilee” refers to the territory of the northern kingdom.

          It was not just because of the faithlessness of the northern tribes, though, that Galilee had such a bad reputation. When the north was conquered by Assyria about seven hundred years before Christ, the policy of the Assyrians was to mix up the populations of their empire in order to prevent rebellions. So the northern Israelites were deported to other lands, and other ethnic groups (non-Jewish pagans) were relocated to Israel in their place. Two hundred years later, when Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return, he did not re-transplant those pagan peoples, and so the majority of them remained in Galilee, leading to the Jews in the south, who had not suffered the importation of other peoples into their territory, referring to the north as “Galilee of the gentiles.” This is why we find references in the Gospels to things like people keeping pigs, which of course no observant Jew would ever do.

          At Christmas, we heard from the prophet Isaiah that though the Lord had brought contempt upon this region, He will make Galilee of the gentiles “glorious.” It is precisely to Galilee to which those famous lines of Isaiah refer: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” Galilee is that “land of deep darkness.”

          We can see, then, that the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ that we celebrated at Christmas continues to unfold itself in these first weeks of Ordinary Time as we witness the beginnings of our Lord’s public ministry. Not only did His birth take place in a most unexpected and extraordinary manner, but He continues to defy expectations in every aspect of His life, even as He fulfills the ancient prophecies.

          We too live in a Galilee, in a mixed country. The founders of this city named it “Goshen” after the region of Egypt where the Israelite people thrived in the years following Joseph’s tenure as Pharaoh’s regent. It was in Goshen that the Lord’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. The founders of this Goshen hoped that this place too, away from their home country, would be a place where they and their families would grow and prosper. I guess they chose to ignore the rest of the story.

          But Galilee might have been a better choice. As in Galilee of the Gentiles, we live in a religiously diverse country, state, and town. Historically, Catholicism has thrived primarily in predominantly Catholic countries. It is in these places (Ireland, Bavaria, Spain, Latin America, Italy, France, Poland, etc.) that most of our Catholic customs and traditions have developed, especially those that involve public expressions of Catholic faith. For many years, and even today in a different way than the past, we live surrounded by not only variants of Christianity, but even non-Christian religions. This too has left a mark on the way that we live the Catholic faith. For example, when we pray the Rosary in Spanish, we usually begin with the Act of Contrition, because the piety of the Spanish-speaking world (all of which is predominantly or even officially Catholic) focusses in large part on repentance from sin and public acts of penance, which culminate in the famous penitential processions of Holy Week. But in English, we usually start the Rosary with the Apostles’ Creed, because Anglophone Catholicism exists mostly in non-predominantly Catholic areas, so our piety is focused more on knowing and being able to defend Catholic doctrine.

          The sense of living in a Galilee, in a place where we are surrounded by those who do not share or practice the Catholic faith, has increased in recent years, even as the dominance of non-Catholic Christian sects has diminished, with the rise of secularism. We see around us an increasingly aggressive secular culture that threatens to turn our own world into “a land of deep darkness.”

          The reality, though, is that humankind has always lived in a Galilee, not because of pagan tribes imported by the Assyrians, or Protestantism, or secularism, but because of sin. We began to live in this mixed country when Adam and Eve committed that first sin of disobedience, and the foreign occupation of sin, disease, death, and the Evil One began to infiltrate our world. The challenges of living in a religiously diverse or aggressively secular world are real, but we should not let them distract us from the real problem. “The line between good evil,” after all, “runs … right through every human heart.”

          That is why the work of the Messiah is not to expel the gentiles from Galilee, or to start a political revolution leading to the overthrow of the Romans. His mission is to redeem us from sin. As His ministry unfolds, as disease is cured, as demons are expelled, as a new teaching is given with a new authority, it will become clear that the foreign occupation of sin, Satan, disease, and death are being overthrown.

          His kingdom begins not in the way that was expected, but in hiddenness. He will compare that kingdom to a mustard seed, to a small quantity of yeast. What is the hidden seed that Christ has planted recently in your life? Maybe there was a seed planted recently as you celebrated His birth. Maybe there was a reconciliation with another person, or expressions of good will and closeness with someone that you’d never experienced before. Maybe, as you opened Christmas cards from so many old friends and family members, you thought, “I should really re-connect with that person.” Maybe you had a realization about the friendships that really matter, about the people with whom spending time is a necessary chore, and those who really renew you, and especially those that make you a better person, a better husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister or friend – the ones that bring you closer to Christ.

          The hiddenness of the Kingdom could begin in a new year’s resolution that you’ve made, or thought about making: I should read the Bible every day, I should go to daily Mass once a week, I should go to confession once a month, I should not skip Mass while traveling, I should spend more time with my family, I should limit my time on social media, etc.

          We hear some more radical advice on how to allow the Kingdom to grow in us from St. Paul today: “From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away.”

          Paul urges us to have a total detachment from the things of this world, to live with complete interior indifference to the circumstances of this life: to rejoice or weep on the outside when things are good or bad, but on the inside, to be completely indifferent to whether we experience good or evil. Is such an attitude actually humanly possible? And why would it be necessary? The common way of explaining this attitude (present not only here but in many other places throughout the New Testament) is that the Apostles thought that Christ would be coming back to earth within their lifetimes. When their hopes were frustrated, they founded the Church (which, in more radical readings, is the origin of the evils of “institutionalized religion” – but that’s a whole different story).

          Something deeper is happening here, though. Paul is taking seriously Christ’s teaching in the Gospel that something radically new is happening in the heart of every Christian, that the seed of the kingdom has been planted there at Baptism, and needs to be nourished by a new way of life. Ultimately, it is a life that embraces the Cross.

          Christ’s public ministry begins today, “after John had been arrested.” The Greek word translated by “arrested” means literally, “handed over.” It is the same word that will be used for the “handing over” of Christ at His betrayal. That is to say, His announcement of the Kingdom that is to come and has already begun to be, takes place under the shadow of the Cross. Paul can confidently proclaim that “the world in its present form is passing away” not because he mistakenly believed to be living in the end times, but because the passing away of the world in its present form is actually taking place in the saving life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The foreign occupation of disease, death, sin, and Satan is actually at an end. The world as we know it is passing away, and the Lord invites us to cling to what will last: to His Cross, and to Him.

          Just as that victory began in the hiddenness of Galilee, so too it begins in the hiddenness of the Galilees of this world, and the Galilees of our hearts. Ask the Lord to show you today the seeds of the kingdom He has planted there, and resolve to do your part to bring them to fruition this year.

 

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

III Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXIV

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