Lessons for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
THE HOMETOWN BOY
Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. He had just been baptized by another religious superstar, John the Baptist, in the River Jordan and filled with the spirit of God. He went into the wilderness and, having been tempted by the devil, came out the victor. Even in the short time since coming out from the testing in the wilderness Jesus has gained quite the reputation. He has healed the sick, expelled demons and preached the coming kingdom of God. He has picked up disciples in towns and villages around the Galilee. He even attended a wedding with his mother which was made glad by his presence not to mention the miracle of the water made into wine. He has preached and taught in synagogues and market places throughout the region.
Now, Jesus has returned home. His family, friends, and once-upon-a-time neighbors will now see and hear him for the themselves. What is all the hype? What is with all the buzz regarding this young man that they knew as a boy? Jesus had gained quite the reputation so there was surely some expectation as he stood in the chancel, reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And so it was that when he rolled up the scroll and sat down “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Then Jesus sat down in the place for the one who would comment on the scriptures, looking like maybe he does belong there after all.
Jesus preaches a short sermon, one sentence – a very powerful word, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” A single sentence that I noted last week revealed the truth of not only Jesus’ coming ministry but the truth of the very character and nature of who Jesus is. It reveals how Jesus would fulfill the covenant, being the long-awaited Messiah. Then, almost immediately, the townspeople are on the warpath. They haul Jesus, this son of Joseph the carpenter, who has gotten too big for his small town britches up the path towards a cliff. They seem intent on throwing Jesus off, done with him and his preaching.
Yeah, I’m not feeling the love here. And we’ve been set up to feel the love. This homicidal mob is made up on long-known neighbors who taught Jesus to read Scripture and passed on the ancient wisdom; who rejoiced with his family when he became a man and grieved with him at a death; who celebrated, laughed, and cried with him; and, who ordered the table or the bread box from his shop. Now, after some length of time away – a time during which Jesus was baptized and claimed as Son by God the Father, Jesus comes home. Perhaps he came just to visit family but he ends up preaching the Good News of the coming Kingdom to the people. These people had known Jesus since he was knit together in Mary’s womb, yet they are also the first (though they will not be the last) to lose the love. The road to Calvary and the cross might not exactly begin in Nazareth but we see its first glimpses in that place and through its people.
No, we don’t feel the love here. In his letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul say,
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wron”gdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”1 Corinthians 13:5-7
It is quite clear: Love does not seek to throw its subject off a cliff.
THE SCROLL OF THE PROPHET ISAIAH
Of course it is not love for love does not seek to destroy the other but to raise her up. Remember that Jesus had just read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”Luke 4:18
The people of whom Jesus spoke share (and perhaps still do share) something in common; namely, none of them were treated as creatures made in the image of God. They were not given the respect due them as creatures created in goodness but were assumed, rather, to be living in the consequence of sin because of blindness, oppression, captivity, or poverty. The Messiah, though, is sent by God as one who brings good news to the poor, releases the captives, gives sight to the blind, and liberates the oppressed. The men assembled in the synagogue that day could not have been offended by this reading. Indeed, as good Jews they would have heard such proclaimed and preached many times before. Such a proclamation is not just found in Isaiah but would be repeatedly heard in the sacred scripture as call to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger at the gate, the helpless and dependent.
No, Jesus’ proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor” was not what offended. I don’t even believe that it was Jesus own self-proclamation of himself as Messiah that caused the greatest ire. Hear what happens after Jesus’ announcement: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But they were still a little incredulous, asking in what seems a derisive tone, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” One reason that the crown in the synagogue might have responded the way they did was because the sacred writ had become a dead narrative – a flat, meaningless story. They heard it and respected it as their own long tradition but it long ceased having any impact on their daily lives. Many might even have given up looking for the Messiah. And it was beyond reasonable expectation that the neighbor boy all grown up could be the Messiah. There were any number of crackpots in that day that claimed to be the Messiah and, for the most part, they were crackpots. The promise of a Savior to liberate them form Rome had become a greatly diminished promise – its power to move people nullified by the many years that had passed since the Isaiah’s announcement. There were any number of crackpots in that day claiming to be the Messiah, and in most cases they were clearly crackpots. The promise of a Savior who would liberate them from Rome had become a greatly diminished promise – its power to move people nullified by the many years that had passed since the prophet’s announcement. Even so, it was not Jesus’ announcement that he is the fulfillment of the prophet’s message, that he is the Messiah, the covenant promise, the fulfillment of the Scripture, the fulfillment of the story, is not what makes murderous mavens of past neighbors.
ELIJAH & ELISHA
No, it was not his announcement of the year of the Lord’s favor. It was not his self-proclamation as Messiah. Rather, what gave the crowd pause and what laid the timbers for the conflagration to follow was Jesus’ quoting of Scripture in which God favors gentiles, favoring the enemies of Israel and those despised by Israel. When Jesus first notices the crowd’s bemusement regarding his reputation, Jesus acknowledges that prophets are not accepted in their own hometowns. This is no mean apology. Instead, with these words Jesus makes explicit reference to two of Israel’s most revered prophets, Elijah and Elisha. Elijah and Elisha both had the same problem in not being respected by their own. Because of this, God would send both of them to minister among the Gentiles, “the Great Unwashed.”
It was this reference that would light the fire and drive the people of Nazareth mad. Jesus reminds them that God sent Elijah to save the widow of Sidon and her son, neither of whom were Jews, the chosen people of the covenant. Jesus reminds them that God sent Elisha to heal Namon the Syrian. This was a staggering pronouncement to a people who had come to believe that God was theirs, that God’s Word belonged to them, that somehow the covenant promise was about them and not about God. To hear that the words of their sacred story applied to Gentiles and the impure, made them burn with an unholy and consuming anger. Hence the march to the cliff.
A RADICAL, MATURE LOVE
It is interesting, though, that their anger never touched Jesus, not physically. He walked with them along the path by the cliff but when he chose, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Jesus did not react with anger or bitterness. Jesus was made incarnate – Jesus had come among us for one reason and one reason alone: to save us in his love. Jesus came to save God’s people for reasons of immense, complete, and radical love.
The love described by Saint Paul in his letter to the Corinthians is the kind of love that Jesus showed and continues to show. It is not love that many of us can understand or carry out, not fully at least. The that Paul describes, the love of God in Jesus is focused with absolute intensity on one thing: the well-being of that which God made and sustains. In other words, the love of God is solely focused on the other, the object of the love. On he other hand, when we love we tend to love with condition – because another loves us, because the other makes us feel good, because we by reason of biology or character. In the end, too often we love because of what the other does for us.
Saint Paul describes a love that is patient and kind. That is easy enough although we all probably have trouble being patient and kind when our family and friends are making our lives difficult. Saint Paul then describes what love is not: It is not envious, boastful, arrogant rude, insistent on its own way, irritable, or resentful. He has intensified things just a little. Then Saint Paul says, “[Love] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” Okay, fine….the ten commandments and all that. But then Saint Paul blows things up. Things get really, really difficult…maybe even outright impossible. “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Did you get that word – all things? Can you do all? Can I? No, we cannot. If we are honest, all is beyond us who are trapped in our own wants and needs, our own spirits and psyches. But all is not beyond God and the Spirit of God that fills us.
Saint Paul is writing to that troublesome congregation in Corinth, telling them that it doesn’t matter how powerful they are, how rich they are, how talented they are, how spiritual they are, if they do not have love – love like God’s love – they have nothing. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus came among us, putting aside immortality and divine glory to share in our humanity. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus trampled the roads and mountains and fields of Galilee and Judea, bringing the Good News of the coming kingdom of God to a people worn down by poverty, oppression, and captivity. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus allowed someone who should have loved him like a brother to betray him. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus was beaten, humiliated, and murdered. It is the love for the sake of which God’s glory was made visible to all in the resurrection. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus takes hold of each and every one of us in baptism, through his sacred Word, in the holy Supper, and in our prayer, fellowship, and service, and clings to us. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus abides in us and sustains us.
Jesus loves us. Jesus loves us (Period.)
Now, we can share the love of Jesus, with one another and with our families, with the sick and the hurting, with the lonely and abandoned, with the soldier far from home, with the old man with a bad heart, with the poor, the imprisoned, and the dying. Jesus loves us and because Jesus loves us with an undying love, we he can love like Jesus does. We can let go of ourselves enough to really love others – to love them for their own sake, not because of what they might do for us or because we might change them.
We are Church. We are the Jesus Movement. It is our stated intent as Jesus’ beloved people to share the love of Jesus. It might be hard sometimes. It might mean sacrifice. It might be uncomfortable. It might be a lot of things but I know one thing that it will be. It will mean life and salvation.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
God’s Holy Spirit calls us to mature in faith, a mature hope, and, most of all, a mature love that the light of Christ may be seen and the source of love known.