a Sermon for Epiphany 4C
Text: Luke 4:21-30
The teacher is kicked out of school
Jesus approaches the front of the synagogue, is given one of the scrolls of Isaiah and Jesus reads out:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He hands the scroll back to the attendant and sits down. Then he tells the people that
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It appears that more is said. Jesus no doubt “opened the Scripture to them”. And their response to this is amazement. Clearly Jesus is charismatic. He is intelligent. He is thoughtful. He connects with them where they are at. They hear in Jesus the very voice of GOD.
What amazes them, however, is not GOD. It is that Jesus is a carpenter’s son. That Jesus used to run around here in diapers. Now look at him! That education really did him well. They tell him so. They tell him how amazing this is!
Jesus responds by telling them how the conversation is going to go: You are going to quote scripture at me that is supposed to make me feel a certain way and then ask me for the same blessings others have received. Well, you know how a prophet isn’t welcome in his hometown? You know how GOD ignored the Hebrews during Elijah’s time and Elisha’s? And the people drive Him out of town and try to kill Him, but Jesus walks away.
Jesus walks out on them. He has infuriated them, caused so much rage to well up in them that they are looking to kill him. What makes them mad enough to actually try to kill him?
I have a few ideas. Notice, though, that nothing He says should cause their extreme reaction. Their response isn’t justified. Nor is it exclusive to Jesus’s hometown. I think there are two different reasons: Jesus has too accurately described them—showing how far from GOD they are and by highlighting that GOD will withhold grace from some. Therefore Jesus will withhold from them.
If this story doesn’t hit too close to home with us, then we aren’t actually listening. Jesus tells us that our merciful GOD withholds grace from people. That GOD did it with the Hebrews and Jesus does the same with his childhood neighbors and friends.
No doubt many of us know what it is like to live without feeling the nearness of Christ. Or that we have done something to reject GOD—to send GOD away from us. We have hurt our relationship with GOD and worry that GOD will write us off—that Jesus will just walk away.
For others, the suggestion that GOD doesn’t match the vision they have carried since childhood is cause for outrage, even violence. How dare we make these claims about an unchanging, distant GOD of the 1950s!
Fulfilled in hearing
Jesus says in response to the Scripture he read from Isaiah:
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
He doesn’t say Today this scripture has been fulfilled in my birth or Today this scripture has been fulfilled in my magic powers. He says that it is fulfilled in your hearing.
What is lost in the confusion of this story is that Jesus is present with them. Jesus is there. His proclaiming the Good News “to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” and their presence with Him is the big deal. Their marveling about Jesus’s skill matches with their ignorance to Jesus’s presence. They worry that GOD is far from them or that GOD can ignore them, but GOD is right in front of them!
Jesus tells the parable later in Luke that we often call “The Prodigal Son” (or what I call “The Lost Sons”). In it we have a young man leaving his family behind and then coming back, destitute, to be reunited with his father. This is often told to highlight the great forgiving and merciful nature of GOD. The elder son, however, is just as lost. But he isn’t lost out there somewhere, he is lost right here, at home. He feels abandoned and far from his father; even going so far as to calling their relationship one of slavery. But the father was there the whole time. He was with him, working alongside him. The elder son didn’t understand the relationship. His distance from his father is self-induced.
The problem for these people in the story then, is not that Jesus walks away, it is that they walk out on Him.
The presence of GOD
Headlines were made more than a decade ago when Mother Teresa’s personal journals were published. Millions wanted a glimpse of the innermost thoughts of one so devoted, so publicly faithful, so representative a Christian life and service. The biggest story in them was the revelation that most of Teresa’s adult life was spent without the intimate presence of Christ she had earlier on. She even lamented the feeling of distance she felt from her Lord. And yet, this great epiphany was lost on the multitudes: that her service wasn’t based on constant presence or the reward of divine intimacy in exchange for good behavior, but that GOD was up to something good in her. Her belief in the Triune GOD supported her and drove her, not because of constant affirmation from the divine source, but in the trust that Jesus was right.
The struggle with faith in Jesus is that we have been promised His presence, and yet that promise goes first to the needy. Not when we feel needy or when we want the status quo to be maintained. His presence is most felt when we hear Him from a place of need. A need for repentance, a need to be drawn back to GOD, a need to be moved. To hear the call to transformation, not as an invitation, but salvation, rescue. When what we need is to be saved from our surroundings or from our current lives. To be changed from our earthly selves into people of a different way. Jesus doesn’t come to preserve the status quo, but rescue us from it!
Indeed GOD is here.
[see also my video response to the text]