Today is Super Bowl Sunday, and it’s only eight hours to kickoff. Can you feel the excitement brewing? I heard this week about a man who was thrown out of his own church after he heard his pastor suggest that people should be as excited about church as they are about the Super Bowl. Seems there was a problem when he carried that suggestion a bit too far and dumped a bucket of Gatorade on the pastor’s head after the sermon. So as a cautionary note, please try to curb your enthusiasm as you listen to my thoughts today. But please do continue to share your excitement about church.
Today’s Scripture reading is a continuation of last week’s, where, in the synagogue at Nazareth, we heard Jesus reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah and declaring, as we heard again this morning, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” They had heard of God’s generous spirit who promised deliverance and hope to God’s people. They heard how they, as the oppressed, would be led to freedom—their enemies defeated by the wrath of God. We’re told they found these words “gracious”—that is, filled with grace. And they were amazed—perhaps even stunned—that the deliverer of these words was one of their own—Joseph the carpenter’s son, Jesus.
So, what went so terribly wrong here? Why did Jesus say, “Truly, I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown”? And why was everyone gathered in the synagogue filled with rage? So incensed were they, that they drove Jesus out of the town, to the brow of the hill on which Nazareth was built, where they intended to hurl him off the cliff.
Puzzling, isn’t it? I feel like we’re reading the Reader’s Digest condensed version of this story or maybe the Biblical Cliff Notes—no pun intended . I try to visualize this scene but can’t wrap my head around the sudden shift from praise-for-the-local-hero to the mob mentality that sent Jesus running for his very life. It’s hard for me—and probably for you, too—to imagine what Jesus could have said in two short verses that incited his hearers to try to through him off a cliff. — Perhaps this is reminiscent of the temptation in the desert where Jesus was taunted by the evil spirit to throw himself off the cliff so his angels could rescue him. But these were people who had been at prayer in the temple—not some unruly crowd gathered at the local pub. WE’D never react like that to Jesus’ words—or would we? Perhaps we need to dig deeper to see what challenge Jesus is offering us today.
To quote from last Sunday’s scripture, Jesus read these words from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed, go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
This might sound like all the blessings the Jewish people sought from God, and it might sound like it offers them what God promised in Jeremiah in 29:11—“I know the plans I have for you, plans for peace, not disaster, reserving a future full of hope”—but there’s a twist here, a twist that was not lost on those in the synagogue that day.
Jesus explained to them through his examples of Elijah being sent not to the deserving faithful but to a widow in Sidon—a woman, a Gentile, and a foreigner—and Elisha healing not the deserving faithful lepers in Israel but only the Gentile Naaman the Syrian. I can only surmise that the listeners that day thought Jesus was taking this love your neighbor thing a bit too far! It’s like they reacted from a scarcity perspective—thinking there was not enough of God’s mercy to go around and that it should be the sole property and inheritance of the Jews.
Do I also sometimes treat God’s grace as if it were an apple pie and I’m afraid I won’t get my share? (I have a good friend whose mother solved this pie inequity problem by the rule: one person cuts and the other person gets to pick her piece first. Seems cruelly fair to me.) It’s funny how as children we learn to share with those in our family. We’ve all got stories, I assume, of how loved ones have sacrificed and shared for our good. And I’m sure the Jewish people of Nazareth did the same. It’s what families and communities do for one another.
But what about “the other”—the ones deemed as less deserving, the marginalized, the ostracized, the poor among us? Where do we learn society’s rules about getting ahead at another’s expense? Of watching out for #1? Of defining corporations as people? Where and when did we fall into the trap of seeing as impractical the ideas of sharing and mutual cooperation that we learned in childhood?
Is today’s truth that a prophet is not accepted in his own town based on our not wanting to hear the truth? On our wanting to continue to affirm our indifference to others’ struggles? Our terminal uniqueness? Our sense of entitlement? Our sense of denial?
Let me digress for a minute to share my recent experience with not wanting to hear the truth. You know I had that scare two weeks ago when I lost consciousness and awoke to find myself wedge up against the bedside table, unable to form coherent words. First thought: stroke! But did I call 911? Did I call anybody? Nope. I went back to bed. Fortunately, two days of tests in the hospital showed no stroke or seizure—just dehydration and anemia. So, all’s good, right? Except for the occupational therapist, whom I wanted to hurl off a cliff, much like today’s synagogue listeners.
This OT woman was just trying to do her job, but I hunkered down in my resistance to every suggestion she offered. The final straw was when she was trying to show me how to use a grabber to pull on my underpants!!! All I could think of was that I’m not like those other people she tries to coach. I’m not an old lady who needs help dressing or feeding herself. In fact, I read something applicable yesterday on Facebook: “I’m at that age where my mind still thinks I’m 29, my humor suggests I’m 12, while my body mostly keeps asking if I’m sure I’m not dead yet.”
But maybe, just maybe, this was God’s way of getting through to me that I am not invincible and that I am no longer a spring chicken. Since this incident, I have had to acknowledge my own frailty and mortality—which I’m now working on accepting—though a part of me wants to go buy another motorcycle. Stubborn, I think, is the correct word here.
So, I didn’t want to hear the truth, and those in the synagogue didn’t want to hear the truth. We were all being called to live beyond our limited perspectives, to see ourselves and our world as God sees it. And Jesus shows us how to do just that. Remember the words we sing in “O Little Town of Bethlehem”—“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight”? Those words should inspire each of us to want to learn more every day about how to live as Christians.
Jesus spoke of the year of the Lord’s favor—which we understand as a Year of Jubilee, where every seven years we are challenged to level the playing field, to live out the words of the Lord’s Prayer, to bring about the Kingdom of God. And this is important. There are two commonly used versions of the Lord’s Prayer. One says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and here at Emmanuel we say, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Two words; two very different meanings. Asking for forgiveness for our trespasses is acknowledging where we have hurt others through out words and actions. Asking for forgiveness for our debts is acknowledging how we have failed others through our inaction, by what we have failed to do. Both are important. Both call for us to forgive the wrongs done to us, even the harms we have caused ourselves.
The Year of Jubilee was not set out as a Robin Hood-like romanticizing of the redistribution of wealth. It was set up, I think, to help bring about the mission of the United Church of Christ, namely, “that all may be one.” Inequality breeds inequality and fear of the other. Nowhere is God’s preferential call for the poor more evident than when we’re called to break down the barriers of fear and indifference and to seek to serve God by serving others. By this, liberation and healing are possible, both for the oppressed and for us.
The crowd in the synagogue did not want to hear Jesus’ words about the Year of the Lord’s Favor, devoid of vengeance and filled with the sharing of God’s abundance. Fred Craddock, whom Pastor Nansi often references, has written, “Anger and violence are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth embedded in their own tradition.” Peasants in Galilee were historically looked down upon, and so it makes sense, perhaps, that they would have felt threatened by Jesus’ words. He was calling them to live beyond their feelings of littleness, to recognize all they had to share through God’s grace.
The Jews said that THEY were God’s people, that they should receive his special favor; God showed through the prophets and through his Son, Jesus, that he is God of ALL people. We are called to love our God and our neighbor as ourself. God is found in relationship and everyone to whom God has given life is our neighbor.
Jesus is hailed as the Good Shepherd, and I believe he will shepherd us away from our judgments and condemnations, our indifference, our sense of terminal uniqueness, and our sense of spiritual entitlement.
Jesus came to bring Good News to ALL the captives, and today we are the instruments that can work to bring about God’s kingdom by service to the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. This brings me to today’s bulletin cover, which shows a confident German Shepherd, saying, “I may not be Jesus but I’m a good shepherd.” That’s all God asks of us—that we try to be good shepherds for each other and for the whole of mankind, being led always by the Good Shepherd we choose to follow, that is, Jesus the Christ.
In the name of the one who calls us to be like Him, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, “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?”
Jesus 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 Jesus 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
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.