(Another sermon delivered to both my parishes: Holy Redeemer Catholic Community and Grace St. John’s United Church of Christ. For the doubters who think a Catholic priest cannot minister effectively to a UCC congregation…read on!)
If you think about it, our faith in Jesus, our trust in our church family, our personal prayer lives—all of these are founded on Scripture. We turn to it gladly when we’re looking for comfort or inspiration. When we want to justify our beliefs or behaviors, we point to it proudly; when we want to judge someone else’s beliefs or behaviors, we point to it accusingly. This is a cool feature of Scripture—namely, that you can find a verse to justify just about anything, and if you can quote a specific chapter and verse, this is a great bullying weapon for putting someone else in his place. For the most part, however, we tend to keep Scripture at a distance. It includes some nice stories, some harsh words, some clear expectations. It includes some parts we return to again and again, and it includes some parts we carefully avoid.
In the early Christian community, these writings were approached as a fresh water presented to a person dying of thirst. Post-moderns like you and me tend to approach it more like an all-you-can-eat buffet at Golden Corral: we eat our fill of the few things we know and like, occasionally sampling a little something new, and completely avoiding the rest. It’s too overwhelming to try it all. And it’s too dangerous. You never know what you’re going to get. Better to just stick with what you know, with what’s safe and familiar.
But do we know what we think we know??
The people of Nazareth were in familiar territory. It was Sabbath, and they were in their synagogue. It was the first Shabbat of the Jewish new year, so perhaps there were a few people in attendance who weren’t always there. People are in their usual places, expecting the usual kind of liturgy, and, oh look, there’s Mary and Joe’s son Jesus, all grown up and back for a visit. When people saw him they probably gave each other knowing glances: they had probably heard he was some kind of preacher now, traveling around. They might have heard about the water into wine thing at the wedding a few weeks back, but you never know the veracity of the stories told by people who’d been drinking all night! Little Jesus, a grown man now, was really making something of himself out there in the world.
Liturgy gets started and Jesus stands to read. Someone hands him the scroll of Isaiah and Jesus reads: 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.
How nice. He’s reading the Jubilee haphtorah, the one appointed for this Shabbat, the one they’ve heard read for generations. And wasn’t it a lovely idea that everyone would be restored to the just and equitable society that God had intended in the first place? Too bad it had never happened the way the scriptures said it should, and it probably never would. But it’s a nice idea, and it’s comforting to think about.
Everyone in the synagogue watches Jesus, wondering if his commentary will be clever or emotional or nostalgic and instead Jesus tells them, “Today this scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.”
What?! Ok, that sounds good, but surely he didn’t mean that “literally?” It was nice of him to try and make them feel better about their lives by making a claim like that, and maybe if you look at it in a certain metaphorical way, you could find a way to stretch and interpret the Isaiah passage to the point that you could almost believe that it applied to you. In fact, if you ignored certain aspects of reality, you could almost believe that the just and equitable society that God intended really does exist. How clever of Jesus to try and comfort his hometown people by saying this! Where did he get this ability to preach in such a manner? Isn’t he Joe’s son? Joe was a good man, but hardly one to have taught his son such eloquence and compassion?
And there lies part of the problem. Jesus was familiar to the people of Nazareth. They thought they knew him. They knew him as Joseph’s son. But he wasn’t entirely Joseph’s son.
In the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her, “..the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” After three days of searching for their 12 year old, Mary and Joe find him in the Temple in Jerusalem, and he says to them, “Didn’t you know that I had to be about my Father’s business?” And immediately after being baptized by John, a voice was heard saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” So in the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel, when those who thought they knew him because they had known him his whole life said of Jesus, “Isn’t this Joe’s son?” the answer is no, actually, this is not Joseph’s son. This man is much more than you realize.
When Jesus reads the passage from Isaiah about bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, etc., he means it. When he announces that today this scripture is being fulfilled in their hearing, he means it. When he proclaims the restoration of the just and equitable society that God had intended—the Reign of God–he means it. Jesus wasn’t speaking in vague terms about some nice idea put down in scripture a few thousand years ago; he was bringing the scripture home to them, up close and personal. Too close and too personal for comfort.
He brings up those awkward and inconvenient stories from the Scriptures when God had blessed those outside the covenant, seemingly at the expense of those on the inside. Why was Elijah sent to a starving widow in Sidon rather than a starving widow in Israel? Why was a Syrian leper cleansed rather than an Israelite leper? These were stories the people in Nazareth probably avoided, because they challenged their comfortable ideas of their special status with God. They didn’t want to think about the just and equitable society that God intended including people like that widow and that leper. Because a truly just and equitable society as God intends requires everyone working to make it a just and equitable society. Justice and equality don’t just happen and certain people can just take care of themselves; the people of Nazareth were only concerned with their own.
Except Jesus had other ideas. He wasn’t Joseph’s son; he was God’s son. He wasn’t concerned just with Joseph’s people; he was concerned with God’s people. All of them. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he was anointed to bring good news to the poor. All the poor. And release to all the captives. And recovery of sight to all the blind. And to let all the oppressed go free. And to proclaim the year of the God’s favor to all. And suddenly, that comfortable and familiar passage read by someone with whom they thought they were comfortable and familiar suddenly required something uncomfortable and unfamiliar from the people of Nazareth. They lost sight of the simple truth that they, too, were released from their captivity and oppression, and that the year of God’s favor was upon them, too. They focused instead on the anger and betrayal they felt at finding out that that favor wasn’t going to happen the way they wanted it to.
Jesus proclaims recovery of sight to the blind and at that very moment, they choose to blind themselves to the truth of God’s abundant love. Their blindness was so complete, they didn’t even notice him slipping through the crowd and continuing on his way as they tried to throw him off a cliff for daring to upset their comfortable and familiar ways.
Scripture is old, it is challenging, terrifying, and it is dangerous. But it’s dangerous in the same way that leaving your mother’s womb and taking your first breath of air is dangerous. It’s scary, it’s overwhelming, and it’s filled with such promise that the possibilities can’t even begin to be comprehended.
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. Today this scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing. The question for us today is, shall we move into our future as a congregation dedicated to living in the promise of God’s dream for us, or should we simply head to the nearest cliff and allow our fears to push us off??