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Epiphany 4, Year C
February 7, 2019, 11:00 AM

Epiphany 4 – February 3 – Year C

 

One of my friends this week asked me how I thought things went last week.  I thought things went well, I replied.  Is it hard, she asked, to preach a sermon among a congregation full of complete strangers?  Absolutely, I replied, but at least no one left during the sermon and no one tried to run me off a cliff.

 

Jesus does not fare quite so well in this morning’s lesson from Luke’s Gospel.  As hard as it is to preach among strangers, I have to imagine that it is even harder to preach among people who know you as well as the people in Nazareth knew Jesus. 

 

The people in Nazareth knew Jesus’ earthly family.  The people in Nazareth saw Jesus grow up.  The people in Nazareth saw Jesus with acne on his face.  The people in Nazareth knew Jesus as a possibly rebellious teenager.  The people in Nazareth watched Jesus leave them to fulfill the call God placed on Jesus’ heart.

 

As news spread of Jesus, the people in Nazareth probably beamed with pride.  Jesus was no longer the snotty-nosed kid running through the market square.  Jesus was no longer the obnoxious teenager speaking without raising his hand during lessons – or whatever students were expected to do in school.

 

Instead, Jesus heals people in cities as far away as Capernaum.  And, right before today’s reading starts, Jesus stands up in the synagogue and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor.  Jesus says that he has been sent by God to break the chains of injustice that keep the people bound and oppressed.  As we hear at the start of today’s lesson, Jesus announces that the prophecy from Isaiah “has been fulfilled in (their) hearing.” 

 

Imagine how proud the people of Nazareth must be!  Their very own hometown hero!  Local boy makes good!

 

All of a sudden, though, the story takes a turn for the worse.  We know that the story ends with the people of Nazareth trying to run Jesus off a cliff, but why does that happen?  Unfortunately, I think the blame lies at least partially with Jesus. 

 

Jesus stands in front of his hometown crowd and challenges them.  Jesus stands in front of his hometown crowd and challenges their convictions.  Jesus stands in front of his hometown crowd and challenges their very understandings of God.  A bold move, for sure, especially in front of people who knew him as a snotty-nosed kid and a rebellious teenager!

 

Shouldn’t he want to make them feel happy?  Comforted?  Comfortable?  No such luck for the people of Nazareth. 

 

Instead, Jesus reminds his hometown crowd of two challenging stories from their history as Jews.  First, Jesus reminds them of story of Elijah – a well-beloved prophet in Jewish history.  Remember him?  Jesus asks.  Elijah, the prophet chosen by God to speak God’s word to the people of Israel? 

 

Well, Elijah challenges Israel’s perceptions of God.  In a time of great famine and drought, Elijah does not speak God’s healing word to the people of Israel.  In fact, Elijah – the great prophet of the people of Israel – does not comfort anyone in Israel with his presence.  Instead, Elijah – the great prophet of the people of Israel – speaks God’s words of comfort to a widow in Zarephath.  In Zarephath?  As in a non-member of the tribes of Israel?  Yes.  Through Elijah, God shares healing with even non-Jews.

 

Next, Jesus reminds his hometown crowd of another story from Jewish history.  Jesus tells a story of Elisha – another favorite prophet.  Remember him?  Jesus asks.  Elisha, the prophet chosen by God to speak God’s word to the people of Israel?

 

Well, Elisha challenges Israel’s perceptions of God, too.  Elisha also finds himself in a time of difficulty when many people were infected with leprosy.  But Elisha – the great prophet of the people of Israel – does not share God’s gift of healing with anyone in Israel.  Instead, Elisha heals some random guy from Syria.  From Syria?  As in a non-member of the tribes of Israel?  Yes.  Through Elisha, God shares healing with even non-Jews. 

 

In front of his hometown crowd, Jesus challenges the people’s very understanding of God.  Jesus tells his people, the people who watched him grow up, the people who heard of his miracles, the people who expected him to be a certain kind of prophet, that he is not what they expect.

 

Jesus aligns himself with the great prophets of Israel – Elijah and Elisha – but not in the way the people expect.  Jesus is the sort of prophet who reaches out to unexpected people so that those unexpected people can hear about, receive, and experience God’s great love and mercy.

 

To say the least, that hometown crowd does not react well.  Instead of thanking Jesus for challenging their beliefs about God, that hometown crowd drives Jesus out of the town and leads him to the brow of the hill on which their town is built.  That hometown crowd intends to hurl Jesus off the cliff. 

 

What does Jesus think as he comes close to being hurled off the cliff?  Does Jesus regret speaking in the synagogue?  Does Jesus feel anger towards the people of Nazareth?  What does Jesus think as the crowd drives him out of town? 

 

Unfortunately, Luke does not give us any clues about Jesus’ thoughts.  Instead, the Gospel writer describes Jesus’ actions.  Luke records that Jesus passes through the midst of them and goes on his way.

 

That last phrase of the reading stands out to me: Jesus “goes on his way.”  Jesus does not curse the people of Nazareth.  Jesus does not send down God’s punishment in the form of a plague on the people of Nazareth.  Jesus does not scold the people of Nazareth for their seeming struggle to accept that God’s blessings are for all people and not just the Jewish people. 

 

But Jesus also does not veer off his path.  Instead, Jesus “goes on his way.”  Jesus “goes on his way” to continue proclaiming his belief that God’s blessings are for all people.  Jesus “goes on his way” to continue challenging the people’s beliefs in God.  Jesus “goes on his way” to continue upending the way people see and experience God.

 

How we would treat Jesus?  After all, many of us might consider ourselves Jesus’ hometown crowd.  Many of us might think we know what to expect from Jesus’ mouth.  Many of us might think we know Jesus well – or at least better than others.  We are Jesus’ hometown crowd. 

 

How would we treat Jesus?  If he came among us this morning?  Proclaiming a hard-to-hear message and challenging our understandings of God?  Telling us that God continues to reach out to all people?  Not just the folks who gather in a church on Sunday mornings?  Not just the usual suspects?

 

Instead, Jesus proclaims that God reaches out to all people.  Just as God reached out beyond the borders of Israel back then, God reaches out beyond the borders of our church now.  Just as God healed the widow of Zarephath – a stranger to the people of Israel – God heals unexpected people today.  Just as God healed the leper of Syria – a stranger to the people of Israel – God heals people outside the church today.

 

Would we run Jesus out of town if he proclaimed this message of expansion from this pulpit?  Would we chase Jesus to the cliff if he proclaimed this message of inclusion from this pulpit? 

 

Or would we welcome Jesus?  Or would we embrace Jesus?  Or would we allow Jesus to challenge our beliefs in God?  Or would we accept Jesus’ message that God’s love and healing and mercy and grace are for all people?

 

I pray that we would not chase Jesus to the cliff.  I pray that we would, instead, allow ourselves to be challenged by Jesus’ message.  I pray that we would, instead, allow ourselves to be changed by Jesus’ message.  I pray that we would even follow Jesus as he “goes on his way,” proclaiming a message of God’s expansive and inclusive love for all people.  Amen.

 
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