Sermon - 4 Epiphany
In the Name...
Last week, I made the outrageous claim that the shortest man in the Bible was Knee-high-miah. But, one of you told me I was wrong and pointed out that in the Book of Job, there is a fellow called Bildad the Shoe-height.
That aside, we have an unusual occurrence in our Gospel text this morning. The opening line is exactly the same as the closing line from last week's gospel. There isn't another case where this happens in the entire three-year lectionary. So, our attention is really being directed to these words, "Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
Last week, it was observed that this verse doesn't just refer to the individual person of Jesus as the Messiah who fulfils prophecy, but, rather it signals the beginning of the Messiah's great and on-going work which the prophet called the year of the Lord's favour. And, it was suggested that if said year began that day in Nazareth, it hasn't ended yet because that work has not ended. We are still living in the year of the Lord's favour. Jesus set events in motion; he died and rose to restore the relationship of Man and God, but, then he gave his anointed people the gift of the Holy Spirit to continue and complete his work. This is how we, as one writer has phrased it, "redeem the time" between the first and second coming of Christ.
And, this is a great and wonderful mission we have, as Christians, to “redeem the time.” - to make every day we live count as one more day in the year of the Lord's favour. It's a great goal. But, in practice, we do encounter a few bumps along the road, one of which is that people very often don't want to listen to us.
Long before Jesus, there was a Greek philosopher named Diogenes who had a reputation for eccentric behaviour. He would go about the streets in broad daylight carrying a lighted lamp. He said he was looking for an honest man. Once, he was seen begging for a hand-out from a statue. He said he was practicing the art of being rejected. The art of being rejected. And that's the message of today's Gospel.
Last week, the narrative was building to a high note. A synagogue full of people eager to hear Jesus preach. This week, it's a complete disaster. The sermon has hardly begun and Jesus is shouted out of town, his hometown, by his friends, associates, certainly some relatives, people who have known him for almost thirty years, people who've been over to his house, people he's played with, eaten with, worked with. What happened?
Well, we might guess. It could have been small town small-mindedness. I mean, how dare Jesus claim to be anointed with God's spirit? He's just one of us. It could be the same sort of community prejudice and pressure we find today in places where kids who do well in school run the risk of beatings from other kids of the same race and class for getting above themselves - a caste system imposed from below. Maybe, these were factors in Jesus' rejection. Who does he think he is?
But, perhaps it was something quite different, something, in fact, we might find surprising. What if it wasn't anything Jesus said, but, something he didn't say that day in Nazareth which infuriated the crowd.
Now, he read a passage which speaks of good news for those who are poor, release for those who are captive. A passage which speaks of hope and joy and victory. And we know Jesus went about doing good, healing the sick, and speaking comfort to those who were marginalized by society so we take it for granted that the passage means we should reach out to the unfortunate or those in any need.
But, that's not how the Jews interpreted this prophecy of Isaiah, because, in the famous words of the TV ads, there's more.
Jesus didn't read the whole passage. He stopped in mid-verse, in fact he stopped in mid-sentence and Jesus' audience knew that he was leaving something out.
Ever since the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, scripture study had been a big part of people's lives. The Nazarenes knew the Scripture and they knew that Jesus had not only not read the whole passage, but, he had cut out their favourite part of it, the part where, in the common interpretation, a victorious Israel gets to make slaves out of all their enemies and enjoy the wealth and riches which used to belong to everybody else.
And, that's why Jesus stopped. He knew they had been interpreting God's words about spiritual victory in secular terms. It's the fantasy which tempts all subjugated peoples. Revenge, pure and simple. Being on top with your enemies below. Seizing their land, bulldozing their homes and forcing them to live behind a security fence. So, when Jesus closed the book and said, "That's all folks", that's what pushed them over the edge.
How dare he. How dare he, a Jew like them, claim that God will deny them the revenge they deserve to enjoy. Isn't he Joseph's son? One of us? So, why is he talking like a Gentile. Gentiles have no rights before God. How dare he claim they do.
But, Jesus is not fazed. He continues the sermon. He confronts the congregation. He quotes a proverb about prophets not being welcome in their hometowns and reminds them that Elijah and Elisha, when they were rejected by the Israelites of old made miracles for Gentiles who would appreciate them. Jesus really rubs it in their faces here. Zero marks for diplomacy.
Yes, Isaiah spoke of liberation and victory over oppression, but, not liberation from the Romans, or the Samaritans, or the Persians, or the Syrians, or the Egyptians. Rather, from the oppression all humanity suffers under sin and death. And, just as all humanity is oppressed, so, all humanity can be liberated. Jew and Gentile alike.
It was an uncomfortable message then, and it still makes people uncomfortable today. Humans are always dividing the world into "them" and "us" on a greater or lesser scale and finding ways to justify it. The idea that "them" may be as loved by God as "us" is still disturbing - even to some Christians.
Being a Christian isn't easy. It means taking the example of Jesus to heart and seeking out ways in which we can bring good news not just to the materially poor - that's easy - but, to those who are poor-spirited towards others – and, that's hard. It means seeking out ways in which we can proclaim release to those captivated by social, sectarian, national, or material prejudice and how we can let those oppressed by burdens they don't even realize they carry, go free. It means confronting people about the values and forces which blind them to God's big picture. And sometimes that means confronting even ourselves and those we know well. In the words of the famous saying, we have met the enemy and "them" is "us".
The message that was proclaimed in Nazareth is just as needed today as it was two thousand years ago. There is no "them." All are "us". The Spirit of the Lord is upon us and has anointed them too. Together, we must go and proclaim the Gospel to all, and for all, and, like Jesus, be prepared to occasionally practice the art of being rejected.
In the Name...