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Sermon for Epiphany IV

Jeremiah 1:4-10 Psalms 71:1-6 I Corinthians 13:1-13 Luke 4:21-30

So a teacher turns to her class. “Okay, I have a treat. Whoever answers my next question can go home.” At that moment, a boy throws his backpack out the window. The teacher says, “Who threw that?” The boy replies, “Yay, it was me. I answered the question, I’m going home now.”

Things aren’t always what they seem. The changing of the crowd in today’s gospel is sharp and distinct. Jesus proclaims himself the Messiah, and they are all amazed. His own people, those who watched him grow up as a young boy, are so thrilled to learn that a boy from their own village has come to save Israel. Surely that means wonderful benefits will be bestowed upon them.

They want him to do all of the things he did in Capernaum. They are his friends and relatives, after all, not some strangers like the people in Capernaum. He belongs to them. They have a special claim on him which they expect him to honor by doing his best for them.

As far as we know, he did nothing for them, but remind them that God’s sense of community was much bigger than theirs. He offended them by telling them two stories about how God passed over them to help strangers – the widow from Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. He wasn’t telling them anything new. He was reminding them of things written in scripture. They didn’t like that, because they were using scripture to close ranks on outsiders, not to open up doors and offer hospitality.

We know, Jesus has a different reality to share. In the tradition of the Jewish prophets, he knows he is not welcome in his hometown because his charge from God is not to bestow favors selectively on the home town folks, but to peaceably bring about the Kingdom of God through teaching and healing. Jewish traditional belief was that the Messiah would come to destroy Israel’s enemies and restore Israel to its proper place and power. When the crowd realizes the peace-filled implications of Jesus’ remarks, they turn angry in their disappointment.

Luke was a wonderful storyteller who was interested in the complexity of stories. He thought in pictures and was interested in people and places. In Luke, we get to examine the layers of his gospel and to reassess which of the images, pictures and stories he shares still apply to us today. What new images and ideas do these familiar texts inspire in us?

Today’s text places us in the middle of the story, in the middle of the action in the synagogue. Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 61:1, 2. Isaiah pictures the deliverance of Israel from exile in Babylon as a Year of Jubilee when all debts are cancelled, all slaves are freed, and all property is returned to its original owners. But the release from Babylonian exile had not brought the fulfillment the people had expected. They were still a conquered and oppressed people. So, Isaiah must have been referring to the future when the Messiah would come. In today’s reading, Jesus professes boldly and proclaims to be the One who will bring the good news in a way the people just couldn’t understand. Jesus challenges those around him, people of low social and economic status, to accept others whom even they may have disregarded – the widow, the leper, the foreigner.

Even Jesus himself was not accepted as a prophet in his own hometown. He dares the people to ask for a demonstration of the wonders he performed in Capernaum. Surely, Jesus would do for his hometown what he did for strangers, people who weren’t in the fold. But Jesus answers his own question – “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” Instead of miracles, he gives them two stories from scripture. When there was famine in the land during the time of Elijah, the prophet was sent to a widow not in Israel, but at Zarephath in Sidon, to deliver the good news of reconciliation. And when there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha, only one leper was cleansed and healed of his affliction – Naaman, in Syria.

In these two instances, God chose foreigners over the faithful – a theme Jesus affirms when he visits Capernaum before traveling to Nazareth. Jesus’ remarks angered the people of Nazareth because he was saying that God sometimes chose to help Gentiles rather than Jews. Jesus implied that his hearers were as unbelieving as the citizens of the northern kingdom of Israel in the days of Elijah and Elisha, a time of extreme wickedness.

In contrast, we hear Paul’s words to the church in Corinth. The “love chapter” often used at weddings tells us that “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way….” Luke may be challenging his readers to accept even those whom the oppressed might reject, but Paul reminds us to act with love in all things – for all people.

Paul presents a stunning description of the practice of Christian love. These words come to life when we remember that they came out of a pastoral crisis in the Corinthian church. The Corinthians Christians were abusing their freedom, refusing to share, scorning their neighbors’ spiritual gifts, seeking recognition for themselves, and jockeying for position in the church. The problem is not the lack of spiritual gifts, but the ways these gifts are being used. We know these struggles are as common today as they were then.

Paul admonishes and challenges the Christians in Corinth with a simple command: practice love. Love is not another spiritual gift. It is the way in which God intends us to practice all of the spiritual gifts. Paul speaks about the primary position of love, the character of love and the endurance of love. How does that apply to us – to those hearing Jesus in the synagogue?

Commentaries often identify the question “Is not this Joseph’s son?” as the point in the scene playing out in front of us. The question is understood as a putdown, as a criticism. But what if the question provokes gratitude…what if these are gracious words? “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” may provoke wonder and not anger. The question, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” might be better understood by looking at what comes before it. So that it may seem like a compliment instead of looking at what follows it and seeing it as an attack. It may not be that people are angry with Jesus because he has done no miracles among them. They have asked for nothing.

What is clear is Jesus’ confrontation with the congregation found in the next verse. It is Jesus, and not the congregation who changes the attitude of the encounter. Why is he confrontational? Why is he anticipating objections that have not been spoken? The congregation is filled with rage only after Jesus stirs the pot and gives them what for. Who could blame them?

Once we start asking questions like this, instead of assuming that we know how the story goes, we allow God’s word to speak. We have heard this story in a particular way over and over again. Now we see it from a different angle. Jesus is the protagonist. This calls our assumptions into question. Like the congregation in Nazareth, we may be filled with assumptions, but in the presence of Jesus they are shown to be unexamined assumptions. We may have many questions, but when Jesus is the preacher, our self-serving answers won’t do. We have no access to what Jesus is thinking. From the distance of over two thousand years, we struggle to understand why Luke tells the story as he does. But the question, “What is going on here?” still begs to be asked.

In Luke, we see the inclusive nature of God and God’s embrace for us all. I know that people can talk a blue streak about inclusion, but to think of accepting and loving those that differ from us is something else. How inclusive are we really? What do we mean by this? If talk about God’s inclusive embrace infuriated Jesus’ first hearers, how can we open up to what this might be like for us? Exclusion is an individual experience, but it is also a collective one. The hearers are offended not so much about what Jesus says about himself, but with the claims that he makes about God who is more than they can fathom.

Biblical scholars of Luke remind us of the great force the word, “today” has for Luke. This is a reminder that Jesus stands before us not just yesterday, or in some hoped-for tomorrow, but today. We know that living for today is about all any of us can muster. If we drag the past with us, we don’t move forward. If we spend all of our time thinking and anticipating tomorrow, we are frozen in time. We are called to live today, this day, this moment as best we can – as followers of Jesus, as believers in the Word, as members of a faith community. Today, we are to love. Today, we are to hope, care, show compassion and grow in faith. Thanks be to God that love will outlast every injustice and oppression, every humiliation and regret, every impulse to violence and discrimination. Without love, we are standing with the folks in the synagogue in Nazareth, judging and assuming. Our message today and every day is to love God with our whole being and to love others as ourselves. Love outlasts everything. Amen.

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