THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
4th Sunday after the Epiphany
When Words Fail
21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 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. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
In our reading from the Gospel of Luke this morning, we have, among other things, a clear lesson about why it is dangerous to think we “know” who someone IS, just because we know who they WERE.
Surely, as Jesus knew he was in trouble as he was driven toward the cliff his hometown was built upon in order to be thrown off of it.
But why had He ended up in such trouble?
Luke tells us that Jesus ended up in this trouble because He defied his hometown people who refused to believe his prophecy based on the question “Hey, ain’t you Joseph’s boy from down the way?”
And while it’s tempting, as listeners, as worshippers, to place ourselves in Jesus’ sandals; to think that we too are brave prophets in our time who will overcome the expectations of all around us, it’s actually far more likely that we will find ourselves as part of the disappointed mob.
It’s more likely that we too will say and do things to demand that those around us fall into the line of our expectations. And after it’s over, we will find ourselves standing at the edge of that metaphorical cliff and looking down, wondering if there will really be a circular ring of dust that puffs up a la Wiley Coyote from the Road Runner cartoons.
And then it will be time to answer the difficult and vulnerable question: well, what if God could make a prophet out of someone I know?
In this episode from the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, (the 1st half covered by our friend Rev. George Yando last week and myself this week), Luke tells the story of the time that
-Jesus preached in his hometown of Nazareth,
-Was questioned as to who he was (a prophet or the son of Joseph?)
-Challenged his audience with the Scriptures, enraging them in the process
-Was driven clean out of town by a greatly disappointed and angry mob
As a prayerful community ourselves; as a church gathered in Christ’s name to receive His word and resist the urge to drop the preacher off a cliff (though tempting as it is from time to time); Luke invites us to experience the story through the experience of Jesus’ audience…
Like this synagogue audience, we are:
-A faith community
-A faith community of a particular time and place (not 1st Century Nazareth but rather 21st Century Saskatoon)
-Specifically, we are gathered to hear what Jesus has to say in our lives this day
On the day described by Luke, these synagogue goers went to their place of worship, sat beside their friends and neighbors, and listened as something at first cute and then insulting happened.
This is what happened:
-A familiar man went up to the front of the synagogue
-This man read the Torah scroll
-He gave a teaching or a sermon on the prophecy of Isaiah (61: 1 in our Bibles)
“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.”
-The people, realizing the familiar man was none other than “Jesus from down the way” spoke well of him and complimented his reading
-However, rather than stop there, Jesus gave a challenging read of their prophets and disappointed his audience greatly
Now that scene is striking enough on its own but there is one very important thing we need to imagine, to fully place ourselves in the experience of the Nazarene worshippers:
Imagine these same four events again:
-The man got up
-He read the Torah
-He gave his sermon
-He sat down and told them that he was the anointed one
AND NOW: instead of picturing Jesus in your mind, imagine someone from your hometown doing these things. And not even, like, the brightest or most talented person from your hometown, someone average. Someone you grew up going to school with. Someone you’re pretty darn sure isn’t the anointed anything…
That is the confusing and uncomfortable atmosphere that filled the Nazareth synagogue that morning.
On one side of the synagogue was a man, sitting serenely and with great conviction, informing his listeners that he was the anointed one of Isaiah, the champion of Israel, the hero who would surely throw off the chains of Rome and restore Judea to glory.
And on the other side of the room are an untold number of confused and upset people who, according to Luke, had been speaking positively of the man, but were now deeply insulted and growing angry.
Imagine that difficult transition:
-“Oh Jesus, that was a wonderful message! I know your father Joseph and I’m sure he’s very proud of you. So good of you to come back to Nazareth.”
-To which Jesus replied: “I’m not here as Joseph’s Son, I am here as God’s anointed, and by-the-way; I know you won’t believe me and Nazareth won’t be cured, but that’s how it is.”
And through the experience of these worshippers, we can understand their hurt and their frustration:
Not just: “Why would you lie to us about who you are?”
But actually: “Why would you even bother trying?! Why spend the effort? We know who you are! We know you’re not God’s anointed! Why try to make a fool out of yourself and all of us?”
Or, in Luke’s own words:
21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 [Jesus] said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
In response to the quickly-changing mood in the room, Jesus makes two rhetorical moves:
First, by saying essentially “You can reject me, but don’t then expect any Capernaum-style healing from me to change your minds”
And second, by further challenging the crowd on the matter of his identity as the new Elijah.
Jesus reminds the people that even the great prophet Elijah was not called to do works in Israel in his time. Rather, He says, even though there were plenty of widows in Israel when Elijah was working (poor, underprivileged, vulnerable people in the ancient world), God sent him to Sidon. Likewise, even though there were lepers in the time of Elisha, God sent Elisha to cure one in Syria.
After hearing this: Luke tells us that the people in that synagogue in Nazareth went from confused to “filled with rage.”
From where they were sitting, it was one thing for “Jesus from down the way” to lie about being a prophet; that was confusing but not rage-inspiring.
But to lie about being a prophet and then to tell the people “hey, even if I could prove to you that I am a real prophet I wouldn’t cure you people or save your village from Rome anyway!”
To get an idea of their reaction, imagine the same person from your hometown you were picturing earlier;
he or she has come into your church, they have read the scripture for that Sunday, they have preached about themselves as an anointed prophet, and when you called them out on it (“hey, ain’t you just so-and-so from Saskatoon?”) they responded by saying “I guess you’ll never know, and anyway I didn’t come here to help Saskatoon. I’m going back to Toronto.”
That was an insult which they could not abide.
And they didn’t! Luke says:
28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 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.
And however we might individually imagine Jesus to be, in the moment when He realized where they were taking Him, even He might have wondered if he’d gone too far this time.
So, where is the Good News in this?
Where is the Good News in Jesus riling up his hometown? Where is the Good News in Jesus returning the sweet support of his neighbors for a damning prophecy? Where is the Good News in Jesus speaking the truth about his anointing but then proceeding to be rather extreme about the whole thing?
Did Luke get this one wrong?
No. Though I admit, I had to do more praying and reading this week to find out the Good News in this text for myself!
One commentator, David Schnasa Jacobsen of Boston U School of Theology, puts it this way:
“Good News is Bad News is Good News”
One way to find the Good News in Luke’s text is to “dig down” into the dirt of the story; to go through all of it – the simple Good News and the Bad News to get back to the Good News.
As we read this text, and others like it, texts where Jesus is ridiculed and misunderstood, texts where Jesus comes across as more pithy than pious, texts where we are tempted to join the crowd on the way to the cliff, we need to remember that the Gospel is not an easy-breezy feel good story.
The Gospel is not “10 easy steps for a simpler and happier life,” it’s actually the opposite: the Gospel is for all of us a source of great challenge, a way of forming and reforming ourselves to serve God, a guide to allowing ourselves to trust in the Son of God and not in our own senses of righteousness! Trying to live by the Gospel will be the most difficult thing any of us ever do! But it will also bring us to life
The Gospels challenge us because even though we meet God in reading and interpreting his Word, God is still who God is.
-God is who God is
-Jesus is who Jesus is
And we can make Him our hero if we want to. We can make him our “hometown hero.” We can put our expectations on him and place him in a box or a pocket where he’s safe and can’t challenge us with his Truth, but then He’s no longer Jesus Christ.
As I mentioned earlier this morning, it is tempting to read this story and find ourselves in Jesus’ place; about to be martyred for righteousness’ sake, and while it’s a nice daydream to imagine that we are misunderstood Gospel truth-tellers, the reality is that we more often find ourselves as part of the crowd, than as the one being pushed by it:
Throughout our life of faith, seeking to be formed by the Scriptures, taking time to read and to pray and to worship.
-We will find ourselves struggling against God
-We will find ourselves being upset at His Truth
-We will find ourselves feeling betrayed when we find out that our politics and His politics are different
-We will find ourselves looking down; waiting for the “thud” and the dust-ring only to find that while we were doing so, Jesus had already passed through the midst of us to help and to cure and console our political enemies
And please, hear me on this point: this is the case no matter what your politics are!
One of the great lies of the 21st Century is that Jesus lives on one side of the political spectrum (and it’s always our side…no matter which side that is). If we really want to learn anything from Jesus and His Gospel, we need to have the discipline to see Jesus on the side we would prefer Him not to be. We need to have the discipline to hear Jesus criticizing our village before going off to save our rivals. We need to have the discipline to be challenged by Jesus; to know that the task of becoming “like Christ” is never to sit still and “be right.”
Jesus died on the cross for all of us, all of humanity who would come to know Him and come to the Father through Him.
Jesus died for all of us and Jesus rose from the dead for all of us.
Jesus was put on the cross by all of us.
Jesus begged His Father’s forgiveness for all of us.
Jesus rolled the stone away in order to find and gather all of us.
We are all in this together, and Christ loves us the whole way:
-We are all made
-We are all fallen
-We are all saved and redeemed
-We are all bled for
-We are all invited to take his baptism, death, and resurrection
-We are all invited to drink of his blood and eat of his body
-We are all instructed
-We are all inspired
-We are all challenged
-We are all loved
And that is Good News