Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – February 3, 2019
Those of you who remember Paul Harvey on the radio know that he used to conclude all his stories by saying, “and now you know….the rest of the story.”
Last week we heard about Jesus preaching in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. He read from the prophet Isaiah of God’s promises to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom for captives, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus then delivered a short, sweet sermon, saying: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Our gospel reading for today picks up right where we left off, with this one-sentence sermon hanging in the air. Now today we hear…the rest of the story.
Jesus is well-received at first. “All spoke well of him,” Luke tells us, “and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” So far, so good. But then things headed south pretty quickly. Someone said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” It is hard to tell whether this was said out of pride or doubt, but either way, it was an attempt to domesticate Jesus. They tried to tame Jesus with this term of complacent familiarity – “Hey, that’s Joseph’s kid!” It was a way to align him squarely with their people, their tribe, their town. It was an attempt to put him in a category that fit their way of thinking. And Jesus wasn’t having anything to do with it.
Jesus knows what they’re up to. He says to them, “I know what you’re thinking! Do here for your hometown the things we have heard you did for the people of Capernaum!” Jesus knows that his hometown crowd will expect him to perform for them. He knows they will feel entitled to special favors. He knows they will try to conform him to their will. And when he doesn’t meet their expectations, he knows that they will reject him.
To illustrate this Jesus points to two controversial stories in the Old Testament. He refers to the story of Elijah, who, after he was rejected for saying some things the people didn’t want to hear, and as Israel suffered drought and famine as a consequence, he went and brought God’s deliverance to a Gentile widow in Zarephath. Jesus referred to the story of Elisha, who was dismissed by his own people as they suffered an outbreak of leprosy, only to watch him go and heal Naaman, who was not only a Gentile, but a commander in the Syrian army – one of the enemies of Israel!
God’s prophets won’t be domesticated. They won’t be co-opted or trademarked. They won’t be managed or leashed or made mascots of their tribes, their people, their nations. When the people of Nazareth tried to do this with Jesus, he pushed back hard with these stories from Israel’s past.
And he was almost killed for it. “When they heard this,” Luke tells us, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up and drove Jesus out of town. They dragged him to the top of a hill and were about to throw him off a cliff. But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Jesus was just quoting the Bible to them. Can you imagine people getting so upset just by someone pointing to scripture? Of course you can! There are all kinds of stories and verses from the Bible that continue to get people all riled up! There are all kinds of scripture passages that people do not like one bit. Some people don’t like what scripture says about God’s love for the unborn, how God consecrates us and forms us and knows us even in the womb, as we heard in our first reading for today. Other people don’t like what scripture says about our obligation to care for immigrants, for the foreigners in our land. Some people don’t like what Jesus says about marriage, while others don’t like what he says about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek. Some people don’t like what St. Paul says about sexual morality, while others don’t like what he says about giving generously to care for the poor. Some people just about fly into a rage when we hear in Acts about how among the early Christians no one claimed any possession or property as their own, but they shared everything they had. Commies! Others are troubled to read Paul’s exhortation in Second Thessalonians that those who don’t work shouldn’t eat! What a Scrooge! Believe me, I can find a Bible verse or a Bible story that will push your buttons. I can find a passage that will fill you with rage.
Maybe you’ve heard people joke about “cafeteria Catholics,” those Catholics who pick and choose which parts of Roman Catholicism they like while simply ignoring all the parts they don’t like. I’m sure that happens, but the truth is we all have a tendency to be “cafeteria Christians” in one way or another. We take what we like, what fits what we already believe, while dismissing the rest with some interpretive slight-of-hand. We try to manage God. We are very selective about God’s Word. We try to fit Jesus into what we want him to be. We try to domesticate him.
But in our gospel reading for today we see how Jesus pushes back hard against this. The truth is, Jesus doesn’t feel a need to meet our expectations whatsoever! He refuses to be domesticated! And so, to quote Roy Harrisville of Luther Seminary, what we see in our gospel reading for today “is not a therapeutic Jesus who pats little children on the head, but a bold antagonist who purposefully antagonizes the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Roman rulers, the priests and scribes, Democrats and Republicans, Socialists and Capitalists, and any other creature who presumes upon the Divine.”
I’m not purposefully trying to antagonize anyone here today. Not only would I rather not get thrown off a cliff, but I care about all of you and want to be your pastor regardless of what direction your politics might lean on any of the complicated issues I’ve mentioned. The point I’m trying to make is that the Bible should prevent us from getting too comfortable with any of our earthly affiliations. I’m trying to help all of us see that Jesus doesn’t fit neatly into any of our ideologies, which only seem to be getting more and more strident and volatile and self-righteous in our day and age. Jesus doesn’t fit into our categories. Jesus refuses to be co-opted into our expectations of what we think he should be. He will not be the mascot for our tribes or teams.
Jesus came to shape us, not the other way around. Jesus came to conform us to his will, not the other way around. Jesus didn’t come to be our mascot – he came to be our Lord. And as our Lord, he will not be domesticated – by us or by anyone else.
The people in Nazareth tried to domesticate him. They tried to conform him to their will. But Jesus didn’t come to please his hometown crowd. He came for a very specific purpose. He came to die for the sins of the world, for the sins of all people, Jew and Gentile alike.
My favorite scene in C. S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” is where Lucy is with Mr. & Mrs. Beaver, who tell her about the great lion Aslan. Aslan is the Christ figure in the story. Lucy is nervous about the prospect of meeting a lion. “Is he safe?” she asks. “Safe?” says Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he is good.” Mr. Tumnus them chimes in, saying, “He’s wild, you know. Not a tame lion.”
The God we worship is not safe. He isn’t tame. But he is good. The Word of God is not safe. It isn’t tame. But it is good. The Jesus we see in our gospel reading for today isn’t safe by the standards of the people of Nazareth. He certainly isn’t tame! But he is good.
In order to hear of his goodness we need to go beyond our text for today and remember the rest of the story.
Jesus managed to escape the raging crowd that dragged him up a hill and tried to kill him. But eventually he would be seized once again. He would be dragged up another hill, this one called Golgotha, and there he would be put to death on a cross. And it was on the cross that he stretched out his arms to all, bearing our rejection in his body. In his great love for us, our rejection became the means of our salvation. Three days later, Jesus was raised from the dead, showing us that his love for us is stronger than our rejection.
You see, Jesus’ didn’t come just to antagonize the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Roman rulers, the priests and scribes, Democrats and Republicans, Socialists and Capitalists. He came to save them. He came to save us all! He came to bring all of us forgiveness and new life.
God’s Word will continue to poke us and prod us and irritate us and challenge us. It isn’t safe! It isn’t tame! It will continue to upend our expectations! We will continue to disagree at times over what we think our Lord is telling us to do. We will continue to struggle to discern together how we should embody the justice and righteousness to which we are called.
But let us live our lives together as God’s people in light of the rest of the story of Jesus. Let us meet each other in humility at the foot of the cross, knowing that we all need his saving grace, knowing that he died and rose for us all. Let us rejoice together that while our Lord isn’t safe or tame, he is good.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church