Message for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C (1/30/2022)
“Praise to you, O Christ!” Our response to the Gospel reading each Sunday isn’t such a far cry from the people’s initial response to Jesus at his homecoming early in the Gospel of Luke. Do you remember the first part of the story? “When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, / because [God] has anointed me / to bring good news to the poor… / to proclaim release to the captives… / to let the oppressed go free….’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” And the people’s reaction? “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” “Praise to you, O Christ!”
Sometimes we’ve interpreted the story of Jesus’ turbulent return to Nazareth to mean that his childhood neighbors, the people who watched him grow up, refuse to accept his messianic identity. When the people ask, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” we’ve heard disdain in their voices, as if they’re reluctant to acknowledge that the local carpenter’s kid might also be God’s own Beloved. But, look closely and you’ll see that it’s not Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah that offends the people of Nazareth. When he affirms that he is God’s Anointed – the one God sends in the power of the Spirit to turn the world around – he’s met with approval: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” “Is not this Joseph’s son?” the people say with wonder, not scorn. Could it be that little Jesus from down the street was always meant for greatness? And now that he’s come into his own, could it be that he’ll bring honor and acclaim to our little town? “Praise to you, O Christ!”
And, wouldn’t it be nice if the story ended there? But, Jesus isn’t content to bask in the glow of his neighbors’ admiration. No, something about his messianic vocation compels him to provoke them, and out of the blue he says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” For a second time, yet for a different reason, Jesus gets the people’s attention, and so he seizes the opportunity: “The truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when… there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
And, there the sermon turns deadly.
But, why? Why do the people of Nazareth become so hostile so quickly? After all, Jesus has only reminded them of their own story: through Israel’s great prophets, God has provided care for people outside the boundaries of Israel – a widow from Sidon and a leper from Syria, for instance. And, Jesus stands in that same prophetic tradition: good news for the poor in every place, not just in Israel; release to captives in every community; freedom for all the oppressed. This is what his messianic ministry will mean.
Yet, somehow the people in the fold have lost touch with God’s boundless compassion, claiming God for themselves, and according to their limited understanding of God’s favor. So, Jesus’ words whip them into a frenzy of rage. How dare he focus our attention beyond our borders – geographical, religious, or cultural? He is one of us; how dare he insist on God’s concern for them? As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, the people are furious not because “Jesus [has] made special claims about himself,” but because “he [has] taken a swing at their sense of divine privilege and… used their own scriptures to do it.” And in an instant, Jesus the insider becomes an outsider, like a widow from Sidon or a leper from Syria, like any of God’s beloved who don’t factor into the people’s equation.
There’s something powerful in the image of the edge of the cliff, where Jesus’ hometown neighbors expel him, threatening to hurl him off. They push him quite literally to the margin of their community, as far removed as possible from the center, the place of comfort and predictability, the place where they’d prefer that God remain. But, by forcing Jesus to the margin, the people of Nazareth simply return him to the place where he’s always been, and where he’ll stay throughout the Gospel. Jesus is a Messiah of manger and cross; he’s not meant to dwell in the center, in conventional places of power and influence, but rather on the edge, as a living sign of God’s favor for those who are most often neglected.
“Praise to you, O Christ!” we call out each week in response to Jesus’ presence with us in God’s word of promise. But, how do we react to his call to look beyond our own boundaries in order to witness to God’s promise for others? Are we more likely to force him out of sight and out of mind, or to allow him to direct our attention to edge-places and edge-people, those who are barred from access to the center, yet who already dwell with Jesus on the margin?
As we mark Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Sunday today, I grieve that people in the LGBTQ+ community haven’t often found welcome and inclusion in churches, and some, like Jesus, have been forced out of their hometown congregations and communities. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that queer folks live prophetically simply by being themselves, testifying daily to the miraculous diversity of God’s creation and the vastness of God’s love. And, since people on the edge have been there with Jesus all along, I wonder what they have to teach me about God. My prayer is that Peace will continue to be a place where I can learn.
Liturgy © 2021 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
Liturgy © True Vine Music (TrueVinemusic.com). All rights reserved. Used by permission under CCLI license #11177466.
“10,000 Reasons”; Jonas Myrin | Matt Redman; © 2011 Atlas Mountain Songs (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing), Said And Done Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing), sixsteps Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing), Thankyou Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing), worshiptogether.com songs (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing)
All rights reserved. Used by permission under CCLI License # 11177466.
“Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)”; Chris Tomlin | John Newton | Louie Giglio; © 2006 sixsteps Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing), Vamos Publishing (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing), worshiptogether.com songs (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing). All rights reserved. Used by permission under CCLI license #11177466.
“Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying”; text and music: Ken Medema, b. 1943; © 1973 Hope Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“We All Bow Down”; Lenny LeBlanc; © 2002 Integrity’s Hosanna! Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing (Integrity Music, David C Cook)), LenSongs Publishing (Admin. by LenSongs Publishing, Inc.). All rights reserved. Used by permission through CCLI License # 11177466.
“You Are My All In All”; Dennis Jernigan; © 1991 Shepherd’s Heart Music, Inc. (Admin. by PraiseCharts Publishing, Inc.). All rights reserved. Used by permission under CCLI license #11177466.
“In the Light”; Charlie Peacock; © 1991, 1997 Sparrow Song (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing). rights reserved. Used by permission under CCLI License # 11177466.