Sermon; Epiphany 4C; Luke 4:21-30
Today's gospel passage picks up where last week's left off. You may not remember because I delivered my annual address instead of preaching on the gospel. In short, Jesus returns to his hometown after his baptism and time in the wilderness, where he attends a worship service and reads from Isaiah about being anointed to bring good news, to proclaim release to the captives, to give sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free. The passage concludes with Jesus saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Last week's ending is this week's beginning: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
And all spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words. That is, until this uppity son of Joseph begins to speak not so graciously and they haul him out to throw him off the cliff; which they obviously did not do as he passed through the midst of them and goes on his way.
In talking with a colleague, I wondered if Jesus went all Obi Wan Kenobi on them. **Waves a hand and says, “I am not the prophet you are looking for. I am free to go.” But . . . probably not. My colleague wondered if this had happened before. How many other prophets, or men of God, or priests, had come to this town being praised by the people only to have them later decide this wasn't really the person they needed and tossed him off the cliff? What was it Jesus said that got the people of Nazareth so enraged?
Jesus said there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah when there was a severe famine; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel at the time of Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.
You might think that the people of Nazareth would welcome two stories about God's healing power, but instead of celebrating God's glory they become enraged. Why is that? You would think that stories of God's good news would be a cause for celebration, but not here.
The problem isn't the goodness and mercy of God; the problem is that the goodness and mercy of God was being extended to outsiders. It was being extended to those not like them. It was being extended to enemies. And, maybe worst of all, this goodness and mercy being shown to outsiders was being supported and defended by the Hebrew scriptures themselves.
God's care for all people goes all the way back to Genesis 12:3 when God tells Abram, “I will make you a great nation and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The children of Abraham, the people of Israel, are charged with ensuring the peoples of the earth receive God's blessing. This is akin to the Church's own mission as stated in the Catechism: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
This wasn't just some feel-good platitude uttered by God, though. There are places where God worked to make that happen. It happened with Jonah when he was sent to preach repentance to Nineveh. Jonah, if you remember, would have rather watched that city and all inhabitants destroyed than have to watch God grant mercy. It happened for the widow in Sidon – a Syrophoenician Gentile woman who was spared from death by Elijah and God during a 3-1/2 year famine. It happened for Naaman, a Syrian army officer who was an enemy of Israel, when God cleansed him of his leprosy.
The people of Nazareth didn't want to hear any of that. The people of Nazareth didn't want to hear about God's grace and favor being taken beyond the boundaries of Israel. They didn't want to hear about Jesus' ministry amongst outsiders.
As we read through the gospels it is clear that the ministry of Jesus is mainly directed to the people of Israel. But we do get glimpses that it will eventually move beyond those boundaries and will have far reaching effects. The healing of the demoniac in the country of the Gerasenes. The Gentile woman who argues that even dogs eat the crumbs under the table. The healing of a centurion's servant. Jesus' proclamation that the disciples will be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. It's one thing to hear words of a wider ministry; it's quite another when faced with the actuality of those words.
The people of Israel knew the scriptures that pointed to God's grace for all, but they didn't want to see it put into action. And when Jesus confronted them with their own scripture stories about this, they sought to drive him out. The tension here isn't between Jesus and townsfolk. The tension is really between proclaimed faith and faith in action. This is not just a bible/Israel issue, this is also a now issue.
Feed the hungry. Provide water to the thirsty. Care for the sick. Shelter the homeless. These all sound good; but what happens when city councils pass ordinances preventing non-restaurants from providing/serving food? What happens when border states make it illegal to provide water to people in the desert? What happens when states make it illegal to provide water to those standing in line to vote? What happens if churches open their parish halls as emergency shelters or as emergency medical treatment centers? What happens if church parking lots become home to tiny houses offering shelter? Or what happens if churches line part of their property with port-a-potties? All of a sudden we begin to think maybe Jesus meant somewhere else. Or maybe we start creating systems designed to determine who is worthy of all this free stuff.
We Christians are not immune to acting like the people of Nazareth. Oftentimes we put limits on who can and who can't receive grace and mercy. We become upset because we see the wrong people receiving grace and mercy. We use terms like enabling, takers, or welfare queens. We also run the risk of rejecting Jesus.
In looking at this story of Jesus' rejection at Nazareth, it's important to note that, as biblical scholar Fred Craddock says, Jesus doesn't go elsewhere because he is rejected, but that Jesus is rejected because he goes elsewhere.
The season of Epiphany is all about signs that point to the grace, goodness, and holiness of Jesus and God. We saw the sign of the star that led the wise men from the east to the home of the Holy Family in Bethlehem. We saw the sign of the voice and descending dove point to Jesus as God's son at his baptism in the river Jordan. The signs for us today are the stories of the widow at Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian which point us to see God's grace and goodness in a larger context.
Rather than rejecting Jesus for going elsewhere, let us work to follow his example by bringing those of the elsewhere into the here of Jesus.
And maybe in that way, we ourselves will become signs that say, "You are welcome here."