Sermon - 4th Sunday After Epiphany (2/3/2019)
Jer. 1:4-10; Ps. 71:1-6; 1 Cor. 13:1-13; Lk. 4:21-30
From the very beginning of God’s call of a people, from the call of Abraham, the very first thing God says to Abraham is: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). From the very beginning, God called a particular people in order to bring blessings to all people.
Now, in much of the Old Testament, this universal blessing is often described as indirect: God would bless the people of Israel, God’s own people, and in that blessing everyone else would see how good God is, and would want to get close to God’s people so some of the blessing would rub off on them. A lot of Christians think this way as well – God has blessed us and empowered us to live a Christian life, and hopefully people will see how great our church is and want to become just like us, and if they do they can be blessed too! The blessing is universal, but it’s indirectly universal – God blesses us, and God blesses everyone else, to the extent they become like us.
But there are also stories in the Old Testament where God blesses outsiders directly. For example, 1 Kings 17. There is a drought that has gone on for three and a half years, and several crops in a row have failed. The prophet Elijah comes to a town in Lebanon called Zarephath, and he sees a widow – a Lebanese woman, not a Jewish woman – gathering sticks. He asks her what she is doing, and she says: Well, I’m going to make a fire to bake bread with all the flour and oil I have left. I have just enough to make one last meal for me and my son, and after we have eaten it, we will die of starvation. And Elijah says to her, Well, I’d like some bread too, and some water would be great. She says, Didn’t you hear me, this is all we have left. And he says, I know you won’t forget your duty of hospitality to strangers. (Pastors are always good with the guilt trip.) But when she gives Elijah bread and water, God provides: her flour and her oil will never run out, until the famine is over. God rewards an outsider, a non-Jewish widow on the edge of death, with a miracle and new life.
Or take 2 Kings 5, where the head general of the army of Syria, a man called Naaman, is stricken with leprosy. Now Syria at the time was at war with Israel, so Naaman is an enemy, and a dangerous one at that. Naaman has a slave girl, a young Jewish girl stolen from her family by the Syrian army, and this girl dares to tell her captor: You know, in Israel there is a prophet who can cure you. So Naaman comes to Israel to see the prophet Elisha, who tells him to wash in the Jordan River, and he is cured. God blesses this outsider, even this enemy, who has killed and enslaved the people of God, when he comes to God for healing.
Last week, in the gospel we read the story of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth, how he read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and said: Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. In today’s gospel, we read what happened next. And to make sense of it, I’d like to invite you to take a look with me at the original passage that Jesus read. If you have a Bible handy, pick it up, and turn to Isaiah chapter 61. In the pew Bible, it’s on page 678 of the Old Testament. Take a look, chapter 61, from the beginning, follow along with me, and I’ll read it as Jesus did in the synagogue of Nazareth. Watch carefully.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to the prisoners. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” – and he rolled up the scroll, and sat down.
Do you see what Jesus did? He broke off in mid-sentence. What Isaiah says is: “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus left out the part about vengeance. This was a well-known text, people would have noticed. If at the Super Bowl tonight, Gladys Knight sings, “O’er the land of the free,” and then sits down, you would notice. What happened to “and the home of the brave”? When Jesus left out the part about God’s vengeance, people noticed.
“This is Joseph’s son, the carpenter! Who does he think he is, editing Isaiah like that! We want the whole Bible here in this synagogue!” Because they were looking forward to bothparts of Isaiah’s promise: that God would shower blessings and favors on the people of God, and let the oppressed go free, and that God would pour out divine wrath on all the bad guys who have been oppressing God’s people.
And Jesus says, You think the Scriptures promise good news of God’s favor only for you, and not also for them? Remember the time of the prophet Elijah, when there was a famine in the land for three and a half years. There were many hungry widows in Israel – but Elijah went only a Lebanese widow in Zarephath. And there were certainly many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, yet Elisha healed none of them, only General Naaman from Syria. You see, God’s grace has always been for everyone.
And so in the synagogue of Nazareth, the Word made flesh comes to interpret the written Word of the Scripture: to proclaim that the promised year of God’s favor has arrived, but the promised day of God’s vengeance can wait. And how does it go over, this daring and gracious interpretation of the Scriptures? How is it received by the congregation in Nazareth?
Not well. Luke says: “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” Now, I’ve heard some sermons that I didn’t particularly care for, but this reaction seems a bit extreme. (At least I hope you think so!) And all Jesus is saying is that God loves everyone – how does that message provoke an entire congregation to murderous rage?
I think the problem is that many religious people – then and now – flatter themselves to believe that God loves them because they deserve God’s love, which means that God cannot love the people who don’t deserve God’s love. We are God’s people because we have earned it and when we die we’re going to get what’s coming to us. But they, who have not earned it, therefore are not God’s people and you better believe they’re going to get what’s coming to them.
But the God revealed in Jesus Christ – and the God revealed throughout the Bible, when interpreted through the eyes of Jesus the Word made flesh – this God does not love us because we deserve it, but in spite of the fact that we do not. The God revealed in Jesus Christ loves us and forgives us because it is in the nature of this God to be loving and merciful. We don’t deserve that love, and neither do they – but there is only one God, and God is always merciful.
Now, we believe that, in theory. We even come here every Sunday and confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We come here every Sunday and proclaim that God loves and forgives us, not for our sake, but for the sake of Jesus, and that this love and forgiveness and this table are for everyone, even sinners like us. Which is fine as long as it stays abstract. But as soon as we start talking specifics – in other words, when the Scripture is fulfilled in our hearing, concretely and specifically – well, up comes human nature preferring to think that we’re on the right side and somebody else is on the wrong side.
Here in Virginia, this weekend, we are dealing with just this problem. I don’t really know what the governor should do, and even if I had a strong opinion this is not the place to share it. But when it comes to a sin like racism that has been so deeply rooted in our society and our country for generations, a sin that even today continues to oppress people God loves, in ways that those of us who are white don’t have to think about every day if we don’t want to – it’s actually quite comforting to believe that the problem today is just a few people with bad hearts. And when we find one of those bad people we rise up in righteous anger and throw them off the cliff, and imagine that this frees us from any further responsibility. It is much more difficult it is to imagine that racism is something that still holds all of us captive in some ways, something from which we cannot free ourselves but need to be delivered by a merciful God who is making all things new. There is a time and a place for justice, and for thinking carefully and responsibly about how to make past wrongs right. But when the impulse is to throw the bad guy off the cliff and think we’ve proven, once and for all, that we are the good guys, I wonder if we would not be doing the same thing the synagogue of Nazareth did two thousand years ago.
And this is a problem, because on that day, the good religious people of Nazareth, in their righteous thirst for God’s vengeance, lost Jesus. Luke says that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Jesus came to them proclaiming that the good news of freedom from captivity and the year of God’s favor were present and fulfilled in their hearing – but to hear this word, they had to accept it as the unmerited gift of a gracious God. When they insisted on imagining that they deserved God’s grace and the others deserved God’s vengeance, they lost everything, and Jesus passed through their midst and went on his way.
My prayer today is that all of us may have faith in the God who alone acts to save us, to free us from captivity, to bestow favor and mercy. That we would not imagine that we who have this faith are better or more deserving of God’s merciful love than anyone else. That we might be freed of the desire to seek our own security by calling down God’s vengeance on others, but trust only in the love and the mercy of God. And that freed from any compulsion to prove ourselves worthy in God’s eyes, we might become for our neighbors a source of love, justice, and peace.