Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 31, 2010
R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Texts: Jeremiah 1:4–10; Psalm 71:1–6; 1 Corinthians 13:1–13; Luke 4:21–30
This week, we hear what happened next. We see what happens when they have a moment to think about the remarkable thing Jesus has said. At first they are amazed, but very quickly their amazement turns to questioning: Wait, isn’t this just the son of Joseph and Mary from down the road? How can he be the one Isaiah prophesied? And who says he is, anyway? Just Jesus himself—he’s the one who claims to be God’s anointed!
Their reaction goes through its phases very quickly: from astonishment to questioning, to dismay—and then to anger and attack. Who does he think he is? Who does he think they are, to mistake a carpenter’s son for the Messiah? What kind of fools does he take them for? In a flash they are enraged—outraged—and before you know it they have laid hands on him and swept him out of town and beyond. They push him in front of them, driving him forward to the cliff’s edge, to hurl him off—the punishment for a blasphemer and deceiver, a quick but painful death on the rocks.
Wow. All that. And so quickly. It’s a little scary that they should have gone from admiration to hatred so fast. Why? Even if they didn’t want to believe him, why did they react so violently? There is much about this story we don’t know and perhaps there are some parts we can’t really understand. But there are some parts we can, and the writer of Luke’s gospel knows it. We know our fellow human beings well enough to know that we humans are capable of much, including much evil, if we are afraid, confused, and angry.
What seems exaggerated in this case is how they should have hated Jesus instead of just laughing at him. They could have just said “You’ve got to be kidding—Jesus, Joseph’s boy? The Messiah? Never!” Or they could have just gone home shaking their heads, telling the story of how the crazy things that Jesus guy stood up and said at worship that morning were just completely whacked out. And snickered at him ever after.
But instead they are enraged. Murderously angry. Why? I think there are a couple of reasons, reasons that are not unfamiliar to us, even though we might not have such a violent reaction if it happened in our presence. First, I think those people had a pretty low self-image as a group. They were a small community, nothing special, not the kind of place that wonderful things happen in, not the kind of burgh that God uses to make a cosmic point. And then here comes Jesus, telling them that the Messiah had come to them that day, right there in Nazareth. Sounds fine to us, but what if we said Jesus had come to North Hollywood? We know he would have come to Toluca Lake, or at least have chosen a Studio City address. So part of these people’s reaction has to do with simple surprise and the incongruity of the claim.
But what made it worse, I think, is that Jesus—one of them—had suddenly claimed to be something really remarkable, unique, more-than-special: he was claiming to be God’s chosen one, the one so long awaited by generations of the people of Israel. The boldness of the claim was enough to take their breath away, but the problem was not just that—it was that he was claiming God for himself in a way that was much more intimate, much more powerful, than any of them could ever aspire to. So he was putting himself above them, claiming to be something better and grander than they were. They may not think of themselves as anything special, but they sure don’t like it when one of them claims to be better. How could he, when they know who he is? They know he’s no better than they are!
And finally and most importantly, I think Jesus’ claim messed with their idea of how God should work. God should reward the faithful and hardworking and obedient, not random sinners. God should work through conventional religious structures and people, and not through carpenters’ sons off the street. God was supposed to reward good people with satisfaction and comfort, not shake them up and confuse them about what was good and what was not, the way this Jesus did! Clearly, what Jesus was claiming was just way outside anything they could imagine about what God was like or was likely to do.
Those people who reacted so badly to Jesus weren’t right, but they weren’t exceptional, either. You see, over and over in the history of the people of God, both in the Bible and in the history of Christianity, God has acted in ways that surprised those who were trying their best to be faithful. And Jesus is just the supreme example of that—and, then, even more, Jesus went on surprising people by challenging their assumptions about God again and again—first in these unlikely epiphanies: an infant revealed to shepherds; a young man baptized by John; now as Isaiah’s promised savior in person. And this is just the beginning—Jesus will continue to bend people’s picture of God as he preaches love and forgiveness, as he proclaims a kingdom of justice and peace, and (most of all) when on the cross he offers his life for his friends. They haven’t seen anything yet.
Today, the last Sunday in January, is the day that what are called “Reconciling in Christ” congregations in our national Lutheran church celebrate and remember what made them decide to join together some years ago to promote a church and support congregations in which gay and lesbian Christians would be welcome, a church in which the gospel was seen not as dividing us into categories of human difference, but uniting us in the great promise of love and redemption God offers us in Christ. Our St. Matthew’s here was a pioneer in that regard, and a very early member of the Reconciling in Christ movement.
This story of Jesus and the people in the synagogue seems to me to be perfect for us to hear on this special day; perhaps it is not a coincidence that as we hear this lesson, we are also asked to think about what it means for us to be a place of welcome for people who have not always been welcome; to be a place where ministry is carried out for and by people who at one time were excluded from Christian leadership (and even the Christian community) on the basis of who they were. This has not been easy either. In the struggle to get the church to recognize and deal with injustice in its midst, we have had to preach and teach an understanding of Jesus and of God that not all of our fellow-Christians in this denomination, this country, and now this world can recognize—a new angle on the same old truth Jesus tried to teach the people of Nazareth in this story: that God works through our humanness to love us in our humanness, in our fallibility, in our imperfection—to redeem us now and as we are, not in some perfect future state when we can all get our acts together and earn God’s love.
For those who have for a lifetime (or generations, or centuries) cherished a picture of God who works in only one way, who loves only one kind of people under particular conditions, this new way of understanding God as embodied, as human, as being like us even in our imperfection—well, this is inconceivable and maybe even frightening. And they react badly, for the understandable human reason that to have to rethink your basic assumptions about God and life is difficult. And realizing that you may have to change your mind is not an insight everybody is able to welcome. It’s humiliating to have invested your energy in an assumption that turns out to be wrong.
So maybe we should have some compassion on those who struggle with the possibility they may not really understand the God they have tried so hard to love, the one they have counted on for clarity but who keeps leading them into ambiguity. Jesus didn’t turn on the crowd who rejected him; he simply slipped from their grasp, leaving them empty-handed. He left them in their error and confusion and moved on—to a wider, greater ministry than just his hometown. Many of us have done that too, in our own more humble ways: moved from places of non-acceptance to places where we can be welcome and safe. Places where people didn’t know us just as our parents’ child but knew us instead as independent adults. Places like Reconciling in Christ churches, where we could be accepted as ourselves.
In the history of the Christian church, again and again people have been called by God to challenge lazy assumptions about who God is and how God works, to challenge the complacency that the careless faithful always seem to settle into over time, thinking that only they understand and that all they need to do to stay faithful is to resist change. People like the saints and reformers of history, like Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther and in our modern day Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa—these people have called us to see the face of God in new places and in new ways, and it has never been easy.
Today, in the global Christian world, it is gay and lesbian Christians who are called to this unlikely witness. Many do not want to hear it. They cannot imagine that people once so scorned should now claim (and exercise) a priestly role in proclaiming God’s love to all. But we are always surprised by God. God comes to us right where we don’t expect, right in the midst of the messiness and ordinariness of life, and with a human face—the face of Jesus in our neighbor: black or white, male or female, gay or straight. And not just somewhere far away, in Haiti or Zimbabwe or Afghanistan, but here, in this city, in this neighborhood—and most of all, right in the middle of our lives. Right now! Amen.
Sermon given on January 31, 2010, at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, North Hollywood, Calinfornia.
R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Gerhard & Olga J. Belgum Professor of Lutheran Confessional Theology;
Professor of Religion and History;
Chair of the Department of Languages and Cultures, 2000
California Lutheran University
See Prof. Erwin's full profile.