Sermon, 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January 24 1016
In Advent we honed our hopes for God’s coming by being honest and aware of how much we still need to be saved. Even though we have undoubtedly been shaped by God’s peace and righteousness, our world shows far too many signs of being godforsaken. And so we prayed urgently, Come, Lord Jesus!
But with Christmas we had placed before us the fact of the presence of God in our flesh. We were reminded and assured that God is with us, and has been with us from the beginning as our Creator. And now, starting with Epiphany, we have begun to recalibrate those hopes that we gathered during our Advent fast. Jesus the infant invites us to marvel at the sheer presence of God; but as that infant begins to talk and act, we have no choice but to pay attention, as if this were the first time we ever met Jesus, or as if this is the Second Coming of Jesus that we have been waiting for all our lives. As we hear Jesus afresh, we’ll find that some of our hopes surrounding his coming will be confirmed by his words and deeds; but some of our hopes will need to be revised. Jesus should never cease to surprise us. His parables should never cease to stump us. The Kingdom of God is never going to be exactly what we expect and hope it to be. / God is mysterious and surprising—we talked about God being both Absolute and Beyond us, and at the same time, familiar and near. Likewise, Jesus turns water into wine—and that might be just what lots of us were hoping for!—but even as God gives us what we think we want, the wine Jesus gives us points ahead to the last supper, when we shall be transformed into recipients of and participants in God.
So, the essence of our faith and hope was confirmed with Christmas: God is with us. God is here in this place. God is available to our flesh. God has taken the initiative of grace and claimed us as God’s own—that’s what baptism is all about, remember. You belong to God long before you even know what that means. The rest of the liturgical year—and the rest of your life after baptism—present us with a clear task: find out who this God of Jesus Christ is, and aspire to enjoy the blessings and responsibilities of this belonging to God that we’ve been given.
And are we well on our way towards completing this task—or are we just beginning? How well do we know God, know Jesus? In every one of you I’ve gotten to know, I see the grace of God at work; I see the wisdom of God glowing. While I am sure that you, like me, wish you understood God better, each of us, individually, reflects God’s truth in many real ways. But we as a body probably have very little understanding of Jesus. That is, whatever our individual insights and beliefs, we lack a common and shared understanding of God and Jesus. We sorely lack a unity of mind about God and Jesus. That doesn’t mean we are “lost.” And we do have much in common: we share a Bible, the sacraments, a common worship, a vibrant fellowship, a passionate love for this church, and, I believe, an open mind. But without a unity of mind about God and Jesus, we will lack a common story about who we are and what is important to us; we will lack a unifying spirit. Think of a sports team that is lacking team spirit—that’s what we will inevitably lack; and without a shared story, shared vision, unifying spirit, we will have great difficulty offering new people a spiritual home, or raising our young to feel that they deeply belong here.
Our first Bible study on Tuesday brought all this home to me. We had six wonderful participants and myself sitting around the table in my office, some of us brought lunch; and all six came with a desire to learn, to share, to listen to each other. There were six good hearts and six interesting minds sitting around that table with me. But sheesh! we never even got to the Scripture lesson. To begin, I asked what each person wanted to get out of a Bible study, and from there a myriad of questions and a slew of theories swirled around the room for an hour and a half. It was fun—kept me on my toes! But it hit me after: we have the intelligence and openness for a good conversation about our faith together, but we start with so little unanimity, such a paltry common framework for who God is, who Jesus is, that it is really hard for us to get anywhere. We had a wonderful time exploring, but I dare say we didn’t build much.
And that’s ok by me. I’d rather have a church that lacks a united understanding of what God wants than a church that believes in lockstep fashion, unanimously, that they know what God wants—and is wrong. Better to be scattered and confused than to be idolaters who confuse their own prejudices with God’s voice. And the answer is not just to let me give you all the answers. I share much common ground with my colleagues in ministry and my fellow scholars, but much of what I might say they would take issue with.
We are all stuck in the same mired boat: scattered and confused. We’ve grown up with Jesus. If someone asks us we’ll probably say, “Oh yes I am very familiar with Jesus.” And yet we as a community hardly know what to make of him. We lack a shared understanding of who he is, and we lack the unity and power that comes with that shared understanding. How much are we like the people in that Nazareth synagogue? Jesus was very familiar to them. Nazareth was rural enough, and far enough away from the great city of Jerusalem to foster hometown pride. (Granby likewise seems to have a chip on its shoulder about Amherst and the other bigger towns around.) The people of Nazareth are gathered for the weekly synagogue service—that’s the original version of our church service—and it was common practice to take turns or cast lots, we’re not sure, to pick a reader for the day. (Is that how you do it, Diane?) At this point in the service, they would have already had the Torah reading, the first five books of the Bible. So after some prayers, perhaps, they pick Jesus to do a reading from the prophets, and he read from Isaiah. It was common practice to read in Hebrew, if you knew Hebrew, and then translate into the more common Aramaic language, and add commentary to explain the passage. And so Jesus reads from Isaiah, sits down—a teaching position in that culture—and, with all those home-town proud eyes watching him, gives the shortest sermon ever: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (You wish, right?) Jesus took the best of the hopes from Isaiah that everyone shared, and said, in essence: “Your hopes have arrived.” And a few minutes later, they are trying to kill their hometown son. (So Luke has it; the versions of this story in other gospels lack that menacing turn.)
What happened? It’s a little hard to follow, in fact. The hometown crowd seems to receive him well. We’re told that, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” And then they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Now that could be a put-down: “Come on, that’s just Joseph’s boy. Who does he think he is?” Especially since they don’t know what we know from Luke’s beginning, that Jesus is really God’s son, not Jospeh’s. But it seems more like a statement of pride, however misplaced: “That’s our boy!” They are certainly not yet ready to kill him. They apparently think that Jesus is telling them of the good things coming their way.
Jesus could have had a pass. He could have taken the pats on the back, realizing that his hometown crowd doesn’t really get what he was saying, but hey, close enough! (Did you ever have to disagree with your parents about something, and you are ready for things to get ugly, but then it turns out that they misunderstood you to be agreeing with them? So you say, “Glad we’re on the same page, Dad!”) But no, Jesus provokes them. He gets in their face, doesn’t he? He in effect says, “You will expect me to do great works like you’ve heard I have been doing elsewhere, works like the ones Isaiah talks about. But the great prophets like Elijah and Elisha did their great works for gentiles and foreigners, rather than for the locals.” Charity does not start at home, Jesus seems to say. And that’s what sends his kinfolk, his hometown crowd into a rage.
We can chastise them and say they lacked the humility to receive Jesus’ rebuke. But it’s odd. Jesus seems to go out of his way to provoke their reaction. Perhaps he just really knew what was in their mind and hearts, and anticipated their inevitable rejection of him. But we tend to downplay the fact that our God, very strangely, provokes people into transgression. We downplay this in part because our pastors prefer to stick to the pleasant truths and ignore what is troubling. Take Exodus. Exodus has a beautiful, winsome story line—the liberation of the slaves, and that is central—and then it has some troubling, mysterious subplots. Exodus tells us several times that God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart”—God makes him too stubborn to let the Israelites go so they can worship God. Now Pharaoh didn’t need a whole lot of help to be a pigheaded man. And he liked having Israelite slaves to do his bidding. But this isn’t our usual story of the bad guys getting beat by the good guys. First of all, the Israelites are not particularly good; they complain and hesitate—even Moses does. They are on the right side because they’ve been wronged, but also because God has chosen them for some reason, but not because they merited God’s favor (more on that next week). And Pharaoh isn’t just a stock bad guy, doing evil for its own sake. His doing evil plays into God’s glory, because the showdown between Egypt and Israel becomes a dramatic revelation of God’s will to favor the exploited over the oppressor. Sometimes, God likes to have clear lines drawn between those of faith and those of wickedness, and so he pushes Pharaoh to really live into his own wickedness. We need those dramatic lines to be drawn, sometimes, to see what is at stake when it comes to being God’s people.
Our God provokes people, especially the powerful, and those with the home field advantage, to expose their own hidden faults. God calls out into the open the malevolent forces and motives that often lurk behind a façade of good intentions and congeniality. He provokes the Pharaohs to pursue without relenting, provokes the home town folk to reject their own son, and provokes the religious power brokers to crucify. And then God triumphs over them; against Pharaoh by visiting destruction on the Egyptians, so it seems; against the crucifiers, however, by overcoming evil with life rather than destruction.
We’re nothing like Pharaoh, thank God. But could we be the hometown crowd in that Nazareth synagogue? Would Jesus provoke us? Would he say, you probably expect me to do great works here, so near where the pilgrims landed, in the heartland of the oldest established church in the US. But look, old friends, where God seems to be most at work today: Africa, Central and South America, Asia; or our areas of urban blight, and our immigrant enclaves. Anyone who has spent time with such Christians, as I have, knows that they are not perfect, but they possess an authentic spiritual power that we could use more of. Would Jesus provoke us by saying, if you want to see me do mighty works, look to those places, not here. Those folk are your gentiles, if not your unclean, your lepers, to whom God will go. Would Jesus provoke us in this way? Are we willing to let Isaiah’s words and promises ring true more for the least of these, the disadvantaged, than for us?
I think that we are, and we do. Anxious with our own concerns and those of this particular church, we do not always raise our heads to see what God is doing with God’s other children. But I think we are happy to do so. We do not have to be that Nazareth home town crowd. It all comes down to a very essential difference between saying, “Jesus is ours,” and “We are Jesus’.” Shake off being that stubborn old Israel, and learn to praise God for going to the Gentiles—the churches God uplifts, the churches where people struggle because they are poor, or forsaken, or dark-complected, the church in slavery or in the wilderness. If we ignore or resent such churches, Jesus will pass out of our midst. But if we embrace and celebrate and emulate them, while still being who we are, we can participate in the blessing and power with which God is showering them.