-a revised sermon from 2019-
January 30, 2022
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 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?” 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.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 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; 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.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Chances are that sometime over this past week, each of us heard something we really didn’t want to hear. Perhaps it was the weather forecast of subzero temps, or some item on the nightly news; perhaps it was something a little more personal, like a little dose of what we have come to call “constructive criticism.” For such a fancy name, it still carries the sting of plain old criticism, in my experience. I’m guessing none of us were chased out of town, though, or nearly pushed off a cliff. None of us were likely prophesying in public, either, claiming to have been sent from God to release the captives, heal the blind and set free the oppressed. That is not our mode of operation around here; there’s more doing than talk about doing. It’s safer that way, isn’t it? Just do it; don’t talk too much about it or you invite all manner of unsolicited input.
The story about Jesus we have been given today is the conclusion of what we began last week. Jesus is back in his hometown, reading in the synagogue he has been attending for decades and he either chooses, or stumbles upon, that moment to proclaim that he has been anointed by God. This is certainly not what his friends and neighbors were expecting to hear, so they react like the rest of humanity when expectations are instantly and completely dismantled; they freak out. They look to one another for reassurance that they are indeed hearing the same thing. This man, Jesus, whom they have known for the thirty years of his life, is claiming to be the anointed one, the Messiah? Jesus is watching the dismay and disbelief spilling over into the synagogue. Perhaps he had anticipated their reaction, for he wastes no time in trying to put a lid on it. Jesus says, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself’” If Jesus didn’t know before, he knows now that they will demand proof, they will demand a sign, they will demand an explanation for how they could have mistaken this man as ordinary for all these years.
There will be no miracles for them. There will be no explanations and there will be no proof for the hearts and minds that are clinging so desperately to expired expectations. No, there will be no epiphanies, there will be no gift of grace because the people are not receptive to insight, not receptive to change, not receptive to the unexpected. The unexpected is like the unknown; whatever it may be, or who it may be is scary, unfamiliar, and threatening. Being caught off guard by the unexpected can cause a survival response that is aggressively protective. Sensing this rising tension, what does Jesus do? He pushes it. What he says next, about the prophets Elijah and Elisha, sends that crowd right over the proverbial edge.
From our 21st century perspective, it would be like this. Recall, if you will, a favorite doctor you may have had in your lifetime; if you don’t have one, try for a dentist or an accountant, or a teacher…someone who was in a position to give you help that you really, really need. Ok? Now, imagine me standing here telling you that they can’t help you for one devastating reason: you are too closed to receive their help. Your own expectations are holding you back. You are your own worst enemy. No one wants to hear that, but that is precisely what those good people were hearing Jesus say, for he reminds them of the stories they already know of their two beloved prophets, stories of them doing great works not among the Hebrew people but among the Syrians and the Phoenicians because it was among the outsiders, the unchosen, where they were most able to transmit the healing power of God, and why? Because these outsiders, these foreigners, these “others” were not clouded by their expectations and their rational; they were in need and they were receptive to receiving the grace of God.
Jesus brings these stories of the prophets back out into the light of day, and the people are incensed. Let’s take good care not to fault them, either, for they simply reacted as most people do to hearing what they don’t want to hear. I’d like to share with you a passage from a series I inherited called The New Interpreter’s Bible; it was written in 1952, so please don’t mistake it for contemporary commentary. “Jesus was saying to the people gathered that often it has been shown that God’s goodness could not be appropriated by those who thought they had a special claim on God, but that it went out to all those who were eager and receptive and those who were thus eager might be not those of orthodox privilege, but the stranger and the alien. Always, there is a tendency to resent that. A church wants to keep its religious privileges to itself; it does not want to be annoyed with unduly difficult claims for Christian missions. The congregation’s business, it thinks, is to nurture its own life, and moreover it is God’s business that this precious life of its own should be thus nurtured. Men who decide the policies of nations in their legislative assemblies often have the same idea; whatever happens, the nation’s special interests must stand first. Anyone who suggests that other peoples of the earth might be equally important in God’s sight is to be pushed aside as an intolerable nuisance. Still there are many places where a message such as that which Jesus spoke on that sabbath in the synagogue would be as unwelcome as it was in Nazareth.”
The friends and neighbors of Jesus gathered in the synagogue that day worked themselves into a defensive rage and chased Jesus straight out of town, or at least most of them did. I’d like to think that a few were touched deeply enough to keep their fear at bay and allow themselves to open up to something new, something completely unexpected. Perhaps a few found a new teacher that day
In closing, I hope we can help each other to break free of the confines of our own expectations and the confines of what others may expect of us. I hope we can practice looking beyond the well-illumined area that surrounds us and those like us, and look into the shadows of the unknown for in the shadows of uncertainty we are most receptive to the light and the unexpected possibility of Christ.
Pastoral Prayer: God of the stillness, we thank you for the quiet spaces in between. Help us to push back the world and create a safe harbor for ourselves where we can reflect and rest. When problems and concerns are looming large in our minds and hearts, Lord, remind us to begin within, to seek your calm and your peace. From this centered place, we can see the world, and all our brothers and sisters in a new light…a light that comes from you. From this centered place within, we find a depth of understanding and a clarity of purpose that reshapes us in your divine image. From this centered place, we can lay down our expectations and learn to trust that through your grace, we will have all the love we need, even in grave adversity. Help us, Lord, to feel deserving of such grace, so that we may fully receive what you intend for us. Bless us, Lord, as we pray this prayer that Jesus gave us… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Psalm 91: “To his angels he has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways; upon their hands they shall bear you up.”