Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
Just north of Magdala in Galilee stand the cave-pocked cliffs of Mt. Arbel. Twice in a hundred years, Roman soldiers shot fire into the caves to destroy Israelites who refused to give in to imperial rule. The first occasion was the imposition of Herod as king in 40 BCE, while the second was during the Roman-Jewish war of the mid-60s CE.
We climb the startlingly rocky and steep path around the caves, marveling at both the modern, metal, hand-foot holds and cables that made our ascent possible, and the stubborn determination of both Romans and Israelites to accomplish their ends whatever the risk. The experience gave a profoundly new meaning to the Israelites’ hope for a Messiah, a God-anointed leader who would finally bring peace and freedom.
Later that day, we journey the mere ten miles around the north shore of the sea of Galilee to the ruins of Capernaum. After gazing at the remnants of the first century town where Jesus spent so much time, we go down to the shore of the lake and sit in prayer. It suddenly becomes very easy to imagine a charismatic young Jesus persuading a few local fishermen to join him in proclaiming the imminent inbreaking of the reign of God.
We complete our day’s tour in Magdala, just five miles from Capernaum, unearthed just in the last decade at the start of the construction of a proposed hotel. From this town, of course, came one of Jesus’ most devoted apostles, Mary Magdalene. Both Capernaum and Magdala were deeply embedded in the local watershed, as ancient fishing boats, olive presses and grain mills attest. For our ancestors in faith, the Advent of the Messiah was not a disembodied hope for escape from the world, but a concrete and specific expectancy for God to send the One who would restore peaceful engagement with land, sea and one another.
Today’s world bears deeply ironic witness to messianic hope. Institutional Christianity has largely embodied precisely the forms and practices that Jesus sought to liberate his fellow Israelites from: hierarchy, patriarchy, and collaboration with empire. As we write, the US-backed Israeli government dominates indigenous Palestinians much as the Roman-backed Herod did first century indigenous Israelites.
As we travel to Nazareth, we re-member Luke’s inaugural vision: we experience Mary’s courageous “yes” to the overshadowing, conceiving Spirit, birthing God into the world. We are filled with Mary’s powerful joy spoken forth in the Magnificat. We “hear” Jesus’ riveting announcement in his hometown synagogue (Lk 4) that the Jubilee liberation proclaimed in this week’s reading from Third Isaiah is fulfilled when he is seen and the Jubilee Word is heard. This Word which Jesus enfleshed continues today to express radical, joyful, concrete hope for those pressed down by empire, including all creation groaning to be set free (Rom 8).
As we continue our pilgrimage through the land called “holy,” we are all too aware of how water and land remain the pressure points for the struggle against imperial domination (ex. https://www.timesofisrael.com/shrinking-sea-of-galilee-sees-rising-salinity-endangering-water-quality/). At the heart of Advent is our hope for God’s inbreaking, embodied presence that calls humanity to cease our seemingly endless attempts to control what God offers as abundant gift: rich soil teeming with invisible community, fresh water that supports and stimulates life and human relationships that honor the Creator by allowing the gifts of God to flow freely to all.
We are so grateful for the network of radical discipleship that binds us with you across the miles, wherever you may be on our precious planet. As we move toward the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus, may we all seek to embody liberating messianic hope in our own places where holy land and water dance to the ancient rhythm of Life. On this Gaudete Sunday, we join you in this Joy of Jubilee, grounded in holy land.
Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator. This week they write to and for us from Galilee.
Wild Lectionary is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.