The Sweep of History

Recently, I read “The History of Florida” by Michael Gannon, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida. The book is a monographic sweep through Florida history from the pre-Columbian landscape, the settling by native peoples, the arrival of the first European explorers, the history of ethnicity and immigration, and to the changing landscape of life and people that forms the great state we live in. So far I have also learned an amazing amount by the early Franciscan missionaries in Florida and Georgia in the 16th and 17th centuries. It put me in a “historical mindset” when looking at this week’s readings.

In its own way, today’s Gospel does the same, taking the discerning listener on a walk back into history. It is the passage where Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.” Galilee we are probably familiar with, but Zebulun and Naphtali? Probably not.

Zebulun and Naphtali are two of the 12 tribes of Israel who entered the promised land about the year 1200 BC. They settled the northern reaches of the land and were there for the time of the Judges, the beginning of the kingship of David around the year 1000 BC, and some 60 years later, they rebelled from the rule of Jerusalem and formed a new kingdom in the north. Over the next 250 years they had lots of evil kings who continually introduced false gods and worship and led them away from the covenant with God. The people of Zebulun and Naphtali rejected God, the Covenant, and were conquered by Assyria. They became the first of the “Lost Tribes” of Israel as they lost their identity, their language, their heritage, and their faith.

The people of Jesus day knew that history. For those listening to Jesus, Zebulun and Naphtali marked the beginning of the end of the world for them.  The people had been warned for years to remain faithful to the covenant with God.  They were reminded that there was but One God and to never worship false gods of the pagans. But they lost their way, but they gave in to temptation and expediency.  What began in Zebulun and Naphtali came to fulfillment when the last of the tribes of Israel were taken in captivity, exiled to Babylon. It was the end of the Kingdom of Israel and Judah. Never again would there be a king to lead them, there was no prophetic voice in the land, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, the Ark of the Covenant lost, and they became a people adrift in the world. A people adrift in the darkness.

There was nothing left…only the promise. The promise given that “You are my people and I am your God.” The promise that, even if the people broke their word, God’s word remains rock solid. Jesus reminds the people of Galilee of that most fundamental promise that “light” will come to Zebulun and Naphtali. He quotes the prophet Isaiah 9:2, “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen” to tell them He is that light.  

For more than 500 years the people had waited for the promise to be fulfilled. Waiting became the norm, making the arrival of the promise hard to discern. When one is always waiting, it is hard to get going into that uncharted future. It is into this milieu that Jesus calls the disciples. They have heard the stories of Jesus’ miracles, his words of wisdom, and now he is there before them calling them to be part of the journey into the Promise, into the Kingdom, to be part of the Light.

It’s rather like waiting for the 2nd coming. Waiting has become the norm. It is sometimes hard to get going in this journey of faith. We have heard the stories of Jesus’ miracles, his words of wisdom, and more. And maybe just as Jesus reminds the disciples of the history of promise, maybe it is good for us to be reminded that we belong to God; we too are people of the promise.

The promise given to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham and Sarah, to Moses, and to King David. The promise fulfilled and told by John the Gospel writer: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The Promise has come.

That promise is given to us. The promise fulfilled and the light that guided the Apostles, disciples of every age, our ancestors, and the light now offered to you – because you are called, called by the one who is the author of the promise.

Today, we too are called to learn from the past of salvation history. It is Light or exile – every generation has been called. Every person called. Why would we think our history would be different? But too often we wait – and the call becomes harder to discern. Maybe the role to which you are called is epic and cosmic – maybe it is small and fragile. Maybe you are called to the radical dropping your nets. May to stay right where you are. Maybe you just need to figure it out.

While you’re doing that, there is a great cloud of witnesses watching. There is a community to support you. And there is the promise of the light in the darkness – and that promise is fulfilled in the living Word of God proclaimed, in the Eucharist received, and in the unwavering promise that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Wait no longer; you are called to follow the Light.

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