Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10 + Psalm 71:1-6 + 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 + Luke 4:21-30
So, let’s quickly get caught up. If you weren’t here last week, here’s what you missed. Jesus, having returned from the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil for forty days, begins his public ministry with a preaching tour throughout Galilee. In no time at all he’s been noticed for his extraordinary preaching and teaching. Luke’s gospel says, “he begun to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” (Lk 4:15) Pay attention to that point: he was praised by everyone.
Having begun to make a name for himself, he returns to his hometown of Nazareth, “where he had been brought up,” (Lk 4:16) and he preaches what I called his “inaugural sermon.” Like any good inaugural address, Jesus drew on the authorizing power of ancient foundational documents — like our Constitution, but in his case, from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus unrolls the scroll and finds the place where it was written:
“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 4:18-19)
I spoke last week about how familiar these words would have been to the people worshipping in the synagogue, how they might have been almost the equivalent of our own familiar trope,
“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (The Declaration of Independence, 1776)
Beautiful words from well-known and accepted sources of authority. Words used to inspire us individually and to create in us a sense of national identity. Words from the past assumed to be true in the present as well, and so Jesus ends his reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah with these words, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)
When we look back, trying to figure out where the trouble began, I think this is one of those important turning points. Jesus preached a sermon based on the community’s foundational documents, one that recalled to them the ethical concerns of the God of Israel, the God who delivered them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt and brought them out of the Babylonian exile. The God of Israel was a God of good news — for the poor, for the captive, for the blind and for the oppressed. To a community of Jews living under the Roman occupation, this sounded like good news for them. So when Jesus concludes his reading by saying, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” I suppose they heard what they wanted to hear, a stirring sermon by a local celebrity with a popular message — that God was on their side, and things were going to change, here, now, today, starting with Jesus. Perhaps they heard him saying, “Yes, we can!”
And Luke’s gospel says, “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Again, pay attention to that point — he was praised by everyone — because it makes what happens next all the more bizarre, even shocking.
Luke has been so intentional in crafting this scene. In the short passage describing his return from the temptations in the wilderness we’ve heard, “he began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone,” (v. 15) and “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him,” (v. 20) and “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (v. 22). As a preacher I can tell you, it must have felt great being Jesus in that first act of his public ministry — going from synagogue to synagogue and being praised for his gracious words. I imagine Jesus must have been tempted, having accumulated such popularity so quickly, to just hold on to it. To keep the crowd’s affection.
Instead, he seems to squander it. As the crowd is marveling at his gracious words, Jesus launches into a tirade against all their expectations.
“He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.”’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” (vv. 23-27)
The historical and geographical references in his polemical assault on his hometown’s sensibilities can be confusing if you don’t know the stories of Elijah and Elisha found in 1st and 2nd Kings. The essence of what Jesus is saying here is,
“Look, I didn’t come home to make you proud of me. In fact, when I say that ‘today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ I’m not really talking about just you at all. I’m talking about the rest of the world as well. You remember that when Israel was afflicted with famine, God sent God’s prophet Elijah to a foreigner, a woman who received him and fed him and whom God blessed. You remember that when Israel was afflicted with illness, filled with lepers, God acted to heal a foreigner, Naaman, the commander of a foreign army.”
Can you see why the crowd turned on him? Do you understand why all the goodwill he’d built up early in his public ministry evaporated so quickly? It would be like a president, being sworn into office, gave an inaugural address in which she or he said,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all human beings are created equal… and it’s for that reason that I’ve come here today to tell you as a nation that we can no longer use our economic and military power to shape the world’s political geography to meet our economic ends. As your president, I pledge to you that we will dedicate ourselves to searching out and making real for people of every land and nation their unalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. This will mean that we can no longer bomb them, or occupy them, or hold debt against them which was unfairly earned by those who first colonized and oppressed them, or withhold from them food and clean water and life-saving medications. As your president, I promise you that you will not be my first priority.
Can you imagine what the crowds on the mall in Washington, D.C. would do if the president-elect gave that inaugural address… much less the pundits who lurk in newsrooms and studios waiting to crucify leaders of every political persuasion?
That’s the inaugural address that Jesus gives. And, looking back at the entire 4th chapter of Luke’s gospel, we can see that the temptations didn’t end out in the wilderness. Those were the pre-tests, the trial run for the temptation that lay ahead. The real temptation would be to earn the love and the respect of the crowds, and to use that moral and political capital to do nothing. To utter sweet sounding words that made no difference.
Speaking of temptation, there is a real temptation on the part of preachers and their congregations to cast the people who climb into the pulpit on Sunday mornings as the Jesus figure on this Sunday. There is a real temptation for those of us who preach, and those of us who listen to preaching on a regular basis, to use this story as license to say all kinds of agitating and inflammatory things to our congregations under the aegis of Jesus’ example. “Look,” the preacher says, “Jesus wasn’t afraid to give it to the crowds, and neither am I!”
But for the communities that first gathered around the gospels, for the community that gathered around the gospel of Luke, which flows into the stories of the Acts of the Apostles, they knew that when Jesus appeared in a story it was intended to be for them a sign of how they, as those who had been baptized into Christ, were called to be in the world.
The real-world, present day question raised by this story isn’t, “what will the preacher say to us this morning to set us off the way Jesus set off the crowds in his hometown?” The real-world, present day questions raised by this story — I think — is, “what are we, the body of Christ, the presence of Christ raised from the dead, doing with the goodwill and respect we’ve built up in the world?” And, “how is our community imitating God’s call in Christ Jesus to announce that God’s promises of relief for the poor, release for the captives, new vision for those blinded by crippling world-views, and freedom for the oppressed are intended for everyone… especially those we are conditioned to think of as outsiders, foreigners, even enemies?” In the language of our own, American foundational documents, “what would it mean if we committed ourselves to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness for all people, not just our people?”
The season of Epiphany, which will soon draw to a close as we prepare for the season of Lent, has consistently been about this: God’s light made manifest to the whole world. Jesus revealed as a different kind of king as wise people from distant lands come to pay homage at his birth. Jesus revealed in the waters of his baptism as God’s beloved child. Jesus power revealed at a wedding, where water and wine become signs of God’s love transforming the world. And here, in Nazareth, in his hometown where people thought they knew exactly who and what Jesus was, he is revealed as inheriting and proclaiming God’s eternal platform of mercy, peace, justice and love for all people.
People of God, you are the body of Christ for this world. In your baptisms you have entered this story — not as the angry crowd, but as the unexpected voice of God, confronting a world that thinks it knows what a Christian is, what a Christian cares about, who a Christian loves, how a Christian acts. You are inheritors of God’s eternal agenda for the world: mercy, peace, justice and love for all people. You have been doing good work for so long. The eyes of all are upon you, and your friends and neighbors, your church and your society marvel at your gracious words. The temptation is so clearly to play it safe. To say nothing offensive. To bless the status quo. To keep the focus of our concern on us and ours. The question hanging in the air before us this morning, and each time we gather as the church, is: what shall we say?