The Unexpected Truth: Sermon on Luke 4: 21-30
Preached on Epiphany 4, January 31, 2016 by Trish Miller
Luke 4:21 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[d] 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.
I felt very privileged this past week to attend a panel discussion on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The speakers shared their ideas on how we can move forward for better relationships among aboriginals and non-aboriginals. One of the panel members, Bishop Mark MacDonald who is the National Anglican Indigenous Bishop, made a statement that I thought is very relevant to our gospel reading this morning. “The truth will set you free but first it will probably really ….” Let’s just say it’s not going to make you happy. But getting through the truth is necessary to start reconciliation. And likewise, without reconciliation, we have learned nothing from the truth.
We start our gospel reading this morning at the same place we ended last week’s gospel. Jesus shares a profound truth with those gathered around him at the synagogue: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He has just finished a reading from the prophet Isaiah proclaiming good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed. It is indeed a proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour! Now this was in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. How amazed the congregation was to hear that their Jesus – you remember, Joseph’s oldest son, nice boy, always looked after his mother – it was their hometown boy proclaiming these gracious words. They could hardly believe he was even literate. But word of Jesus and his ministry around Galilee was getting around. There was the big hubbub after he baptised by John in the Jordan river but then he disappeared into the wilderness for forty days. Since he got out of the wilderness, he had been teaching in the synagogues as he travelled – They heard he did some truly amazing things down in Capernaum. Can you imagine what he would do for Nazareth, they were his hometown after all. He was their hockey all-star and they were expecting him to bring the Stanley Cup home.
But Jesus wasn’t quite ready to bring out the Stanley Cup yet – he had some more truths he needed to share with them first.
The first truth was the story of the prophet Elijah. During this time of Elijah, there was a great famine and a great number widows in Israel. Elijah was sent not to feed these widows in Israel but instead he fed a widow and her son at Zeraphath in Sidon; he was sent to feed a foreigner who did not worship the God of Israel but instead worshipped Ba’al. When this widow’s son took ill and had “no breath left in him”, Elijah cried out to the Lord and the Lord revived him.
Then Jesus told them the truth of the lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha. But like Elijah before him, Elisha did not cure these lepers but instead gave instruction to yet another foreigner on how to be cleansed on his leprosy. This time, the leper who was cleansed was Naaman, Commander of the Syrian Army – to add insult, Naaman, this foreigner scoffed and rejected Elisha’s instructions. In the end, he only followed the because as his servants pointed out, what did he have to lose? To add another layer or perceived insult against Israel, Naaman’s leprosy was transferred to a servant of Elisha’s – an Israelite named Gehazi who sought to profit from Naaman’s healing.
By this time, those assembled in the synagogue are thinking, “Wait! What??!?” There is an undercurrent of expectation from them – a palpable expectation of healings, of miracle feedings, of freedom from oppression. But Jesus reveals a new truth – the year of the Lord’s favour isn’t for his hometown, it isn’t even just for Israel. The year of the Lord’s favour is for all nations – Jew and Gentile, resident and foreigner. They were enraged. If the anointed one brings good news to the poor of other nations, there won’t be enough good news for our poor here! If the oppressed who worship another god are set free, they will just come here and oppress us! Charity begins at home!
That sounds just a little familiar doesn’t it? It’s almost insidious how the same feelings of fear and jealousy seep into our own relationships and culture. The most obvious place to look for a comparison is the US presidential race – some candidates stirring up fear and distrust of whoever they deem to be the outsiders. And its not because its for the good of their nation – its because by distorting the truth they hope to get elected. It’s for power and control. But we don’t have to look that far away. It wasn’t that long ago I wept at the comments I saw on Facebook and news feeds. How were we going to pay for refugees to come to Canada? After all, we need to support the homeless we already have in our communities. We need to support the indigenous peoples’ communities in the North with high food prices and a lack of clean water. We need to support the elderly. But it’s never been about “either/or”. If we are serious about living in Christ in God’s kingdom, it should be “both/and”. Our conflict isn’t with supporting the refugees or the homeless – our conflict is supporting them both “and” supporting those things we want for ourselves.
I attended a wedding a few years ago and was seated next to a couple I had never met. They were good church goers – went to church fairly regularly, put a little extra on the plate at Christmas but times were getting tough. They couldn’t understand why the priest wouldn’t take a pay cut to help their church make their bills. Having been a church warden in a past life I had some sympathy for their plight. And then they starting talking about all their vacations – first class of course. Supporting the poor & oppressed and supporting the church in the mission of God came somewhere lower down the list. Like the Israelites in Jesus’ hometown, they had an expectation of entitlement. The truth was, and is, that God’s salvation is for all. And this truth is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
Now the Nazarenes were so upset at Jesus that they drove him out of the town to the brow of the hill on which their city was built. In their fit of rage, they were going to toss him over the cliff. That’s pretty angry. The good news is that they didn’t succeed – instead Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way. It’s a puzzling scene when you think about it. They obviously know what he looks like- he grew up there, they know him and his family. How did he pass through them? When I imagine it in my mind, it has a Monty Python like quality: first Jesus is being chased and then he kind of melds in with the crowd maybe even pretending to be someone else chasing himself. I think maybe I’ve watched Life of Brian too many times.
The point is they don’t succeed in throwing Jesus off the cliff. This draws us back to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness earlier in this same chapter of Luke. There, the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, placed him on the pinnacle of the Temple and said to him “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here”, the angels will protect you and bear you up – you will not dash your feet against a stone. Jesus response is “It is said, do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus could have allowed himself to be hurled off the cliff. Can you imagine the reaction of the crowd to Jesus being caught by angels? But this was not the time to reveal himself as the living Word of God. This was just the beginning of his ministry and the climax of the story, his crucifixion and resurrection were yet to come.
Jesus not only brings us truth, he is the truth. His life, death and resurrection reveal the truth of our salvation. Jesus reveals the truth of our freedom from sin and death and our hope of life everlasting. But this truth is unsettling – for it, Jesus took upon himself our sins. He suffered for our sake on the Cross. He died so that we might be resurrected with him. For us still on the journey to know and be like Christ there is shame and remorse and regret in hearing that truth. I didn’t ask Jesus to die for me. I could have sorted out my sins on my own. It’s hard to hear the truth that we can’t do it alone or for ourselves.
We need to surrender that pride in ourselves. We need to surrender those feelings of unworthiness. And we especially need to give up thinking others are less worthy and loveable. We need to accept the truth of Jesus Christ as our salvation. When we die to that old self with its doubts of the truth, then we can embrace our new life in Christ. And its in this new life where we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim that same good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed. Through this truth we can be reconciled to God and continue to grow into the body of Christ together.
Together in Christ we can proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.