Sheepscott Community Church January 31, 2010
Jeremiah 1: 4-10
1 Corinthians 13: 1-13
Luke 4: 21-30
Scripture Fulfilled in Your Hearing
When I was listening to the lead-up to the State of the Union Address this last week, I couldn’t help but make a parallel between the scene at the synagogue in this week’s gospel and the scene in the House chamber the night of the President’s address. In both cases, those in attendance were interested and eager to hear what the speaker had to say. That’s as far as I’ll take that parallel, but even that little bit might help you to imagine the tension and excitement in the room that Sabbath day in Nazareth, the setting for today’s gospel.
I offer you a bit of historical orientation about the town of Nazareth. It was no backwater, as some may think. It was called a polis, which is a town or city of perhaps 20,000 souls, bigger than most of the towns and villages in this part of Maine. Nazareth’s location in Galilee meant that Jesus was brought up in a town in the sight of history and with the traffic of the world almost at its doors. Galilee itself, which was in an area of the north of Palestine and was about 50 miles long and 25 miles wide, was encircled by non-Jewish nations. Consequently new influences always played upon Galilee and it was the most forward-looking and least conservative part of Palestine, open to hearing something new, especially from one of their own.
At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus had been out in the Galilean countryside before returning to his home town for this visit. This part of his public life, following his baptism by John and his time in the desert, was called the Galilean springtime. It is so-called because, yes, it was the beginning, but even more it is because he was a breath of fresh air. Everything he said and did was being received with joy and excitement, the way a new and hopeful message is usually received, at least initially. Also, opposition to Jesus had not yet begun to crystallize, and he was the toast of the countryside. So here was an audience of his fellow townsmen sitting on the edge of their seats with eager anticipation to hear what he would have to say.
It was the first time that Jesus had spoken in his home synagogue since he began his public life. By his own announcement when he appropriated the words of the prophet Isaiah, God had anointed him to bring Good News to the poor. He wasn’t bringing the bad news that John the Baptist had brought of the coming wrath, of the tree that didn’t bear good fruit being cut down and thrown into the fire. No. He was bringing the good news, the gospel, sent to proclaim freedom for prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. A very different message from that of his cousin John.
Further on in Luke, when John’s emissaries have come to Jesus to ask if he was indeed the one who was to come or should they look for someone else, Jesus told them what he had been doing: curing sicknesses and driving out evil spirits and giving sight to the blind––good news indeed, and very existential, as in, I am what I do. They left to bring that news back to John, and Jesus said to those gathered there, “I tell you, among those born of women, there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” And I believe we can understand Jesus to be saying that he is preaching and living the kingdom of God. Who would believe in him and his message of good news would be greater even than the widely recognized prophet, John the Baptist, who had now fulfilled his role of prophet or herald of the way, which Jesus had come to teach.
Back to the scene in the synagogue. The president of the assembly would have called forward seven men to read the scripture at the worship service on the day that the gospel describes. If you recall, while the Temple in Jerusalem was for sacrifice, the local synagogue was for teaching, and on that day, Jesus was the teacher. He stood to read the scroll of Isaiah, and then, as was the custom for the teacher, handed the scroll back, and sat down to teach. This sitting down to teach was akin to a professor’s chair in a university discipline.
What did he say? “Today this scripture”––Isaiah’s prophesy about God’s anointed one––”is fulfilled in your hearing.” That must have really raised that level of anticipation even more. There was some murmuring in the congregation about the words of grace that came from his mouth, and it was said with some pride, “Is this not the son of Joseph?” He was one of them, and by his speech burnished their idea of themselves, their own reputations, in their relation to him and his family. Everyone likes to be close to a celebrity, close to what they perceive as power, even back then.
But then Jesus began to elaborate, suggesting they might quote the proverb, “Physician heal thyself,” and this in regard to him doing in his own hometown what they heard he had done in the countryside, the healing and deliverance, the raising up. His reputation had preceded him. But Jesus sought to quickly disabuse them of their idea of who he was and what he would do. He reminded them that no prophet is accepted in his own home country. Uh, oh. Why would they not possibly accept him? Weren't they already in his thrall? Before they could recover, he was reminding them that the prophet Elijah was not sent to a widow in Israel during the great famine, but he was sent to Zarephath, to a widow of Sidon. And, he continued, although there were plenty of lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, he was not sent to them but to Syria, where he healed the leper Naaman.
Jesus has come as the fulfillment of the promise in Isaiah, and of John’s prophecy about the one who was to come after him who was before him and whose sandal strap he was not worthy to loose. Jesus with his message of good news fulfills the promise of both of those prophets who came before him. Doesn’t that sound like good news? Not to those gathered in the synagogue. They became incensed, and rose up as a body to muscle him to a precipice on the outskirts of town where they planned to push him over the edge. The sentiment of the crowd had turned on a dime. But it was not Jesus’ time yet and they could not finally touch him. They went from acclaiming him as Joseph’s son to condemning him with the same words, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Who does he think he is?”
Why did they get so upset? It was because Jesus put the Gentiles in a positive light, the light of God’s love, reminding the people that it was to those Gentiles that God had sent his prophets Elijah and Elisha on those missions. The Jews identified themselves as God’s chosen people, which they were, but Jesus was opening wider the door of that chosenness with what he was saying. He was teaching something new, expanding on the meaning of the Word, preaching as though the Gentiles were specially favored by God as well, and that, to the Jews in Nazareth that day, was an intolerable message. The elitist outlook of the Jews of the time as the chosen people was modified and qualified that day, when Jesus read the scroll of Isaiah and claimed the fulfillment of it in him and through him, and that that fulfillment was to benefit all the people.
All the people. In our own time and place that includes Native Americans, African-Americans, Europena- and Asian-Americans, gay and transgendered people, the elderly, the poor and disenfranchised, the abused, thieves and murderers, the mentally challenged, the discriminated against for whatever reason––all of the above are the chosen people, and all are called, no less than Jeremiah the prophet, John the Baptist, Jesus, the Christ. And us, yes, us. We are called in the same way. As Tony read from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
Whether or not any one of us is called to be a prophet, all of us are called to work for the betterment of the community, whatever form that work takes, and to love one another into life. And I borrow John the Baptist’s language when I say, Woe to you if you work against that community that God is forming in our midst, our own church and local community, our national community, our world community. We need to watch how we speak to each other and about each other, refraining from the inflammatory rhetoric of hate speech so much in vogue these days, which is utterly destructive of community, but thinking for ourselves, coming to our own conclusions, aware of ourselves as part of the same Body of Christ, all children of the same God, loved equally by that God. Can you handle that?
In creating community, in working for the betterment of community, and as we are willing to think for ourselves, sometimes it helps to let go of creeds and dogmas we have clung to that separate us, and to let the Spirit of God teach us about divine matters. And God will, along with and sometimes through the built-in check of a community of faith, which is the Body of Christ. It’s an odd thing about creeds. The beliefs can be very beautiful, and they have faith-filled history behind them and in them, and yet, they can become obstacles to our awakening to new understandings. Think Copernicus and Galileo. There is always something new to learn. We are evolving individually and as a species and we don’t at any point know it all. I would also add that when we are free of any bondage around creed and dogma, we can freely choose which among those creeds is true for us. We can ask ourselves, What do I really believe? When we are acting out of conviction about what we believe, we can act with commitment. Does that kind of questioning feel threatening? Challenging? Exciting? Which among those creeds and dogmas have we have seen bear fruit in our lives? Those are the ones we can readopt freely, or choose as we will, to enrich our faith life and to give structure to it, if that better enables us in the pursuit of truth and holiness in our individual lives.
Jesus is encouraging those assembled in the synagogue to hear and learn something new: that he is anointed to preach the good news to all the poor, all the prisoners, all the blind and all the oppressed, and we don’t need a lot of imagination to know that we ourselves can be poor and needy in many ways besides in lack of money; that some of us are prisoners of our past, or of mental or physical malady, no less than some are prisoners of present acts under lock and key in institutions; that we are blind to the truth that is right in front of us at times because becoming seeing means being willing to see another’s position in a different way––easier to remain blind in our own position, our own prejudice; and that we are oppressed by habits and our humdrum, day-to-day lives, that we feel unable to escape from, cannot see the grace that is hidden in our reality just as it is.
God help us. Jesus, anointed by the Spirit of the Lord, preach the good news to us, free us from our prisons, give us sight, release us from oppression, whatever form it takes. Then surely, you will proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor on our behalf.
The year of the Lord’s favor. Here we are on the last day of January. Remember what your resolutions were a month ago. Know yourselves renewed in those resolutions and able because of your connection with the living Christ, not excluded from the chosen, but included because he said so, know yourselves his prophets, his healers, his visitors to the sick of body and mind, his raisers up. Know yourselves the very Christ in the world, giving and receiving. Amen