4 EPIPHANY - C - 16 LUKE 4. 21-30
Today’s gospel begins as did last week’s with Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth and his comment that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It continues, then, with the congregation’s reaction, a double reaction I might add. The first being one of praise. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
But some doubted, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” Jesus responds with two well-known proverbs: “Doctor cure yourself, and no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown,” to which he adds two biblical illustrations pointing to what He is doing and going to do according to God’s purpose in His coming. All of which caused the initial reaction of praise to turn into one of rage.
Why did the local’s praise of him suddenly turn to rage? What went wrong? Was it because he aligned himself with the Old Testament prophets, Elijah and Elisha who were both rejected by Israel, and sent by God to outsiders?
The people of Nazareth knew him, or at least they thought they did. “Is this not Joseph’s son?” How, then, can he say he is a prophet like the prophets of old? Why doesn’t he just do a miracle like they have heard that he did in Capernaum? What Jesus is saying is a challenge to his hearer’s understanding of God and brings a violent reaction. The people drive him out of town and to the brow of a hill with the intent to hurl him to his death. But he escapes.
We like for our religion to be familiar, like our hometowns. We like for our traditions to remain unchanged, a constant in a chaotic and fast moving world. We want our religion to stay the same, to look as it looked when we were younger. We want to sing the hymns with tunes that we know and to be able to follow the service without opening the Prayer Book. This is the religion of those who came before us, who introduced us to the faith we now hold so dearly, and to the church we love. All of which makes it easy to wrap our familiar religion around us like a warm/comfortable blanket, assured that God is in His heaven and all is right with the world.
All seemed right in Nazareth when they heard Jesus read and listened to his comment, for “all spoke well of him, and wondered at his gracious words…” But then, something did gone wrong, something that moved those who knew him from praise to rage. It was more than disappointment over not seeing a miracle. It was his implying that he was in the same company with Elijah and Elisha, and like these two would be rejected by his own people because of the purpose for which God sent him - to bring the good news of Salvation to all men.
Israel’s view of God was eschewed, you see. She believed that the God of Abraham and Isaac was exclusively hers. Israel believed that the Messiah that God would one day send would come exclusively for Israel’s redemption and her redemption alone. But Jesus seemed to be implying otherwise.
Jesus’ reminding them of what, where, and to whom God sent Elijah and Elisha, and was now sending Him literally stripped them of their blanket, their ancient blanket, worn and familiar, that assured them of God’s favor. This, and this alone, caused their praise to quickly turn to rage and brought a violent reaction.
They knew the stories Jesus was referring to concerning the Old Testament prophets. They had heard them read many times in the very synagogue they were now gathered in where Jesus was speaking, but it was as if they were hearing them for the first time, or at least were understanding them for the very first time.
Jesus gracious words “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” was pleasing to the ear, but when followed by the proverbs and biblical illustrations Jesus used to make his point, the real meaning began to dawn on them, and became ever so clear and they did not like what they were finally hearing. God’s love and mercy is bigger and broader than one nation or people. Much bigger and broader than our limited human understanding of God or His ways.
Jesus came to shed “light” on the true nature of His Father and the Kingdom to which God’s people are called. Christ came to bring the good news of Salvation to all people, as the angel announced to the lowly shepherds at his birth. It was news, some in Israel did not wish to hear for it shattered their understanding of God as belonging exclusively to them an idea that shook up the religious status quo.
Religion can be like that, so comfortable and familiar that we are unable, or unwilling to see beyond ourselves, beyond our needs, beyond our limited understanding of God. Jesus astonished his hearers with the idea that God’s grace included others besides Israel. He illustrated his message by reminding them of specific incidents in the lives of the two great prophets that pointed to God’s wide mercy.
Jesus saw himself in good company with the prophets of old. They were rejected and he would be rejected. The final rejection for him would come in Jerusalem before Pilate. The mission to others, however, was the very purpose of God sending him into the world. He made God’s purpose known by his teaching about God and the kingdom to any and all who were open to receive it. He demonstrated it again and again in his healing ministry to those who were not of the house of Israel.
Here, as at the climax of the gospel story, Jesus’ challenge brings about a violent reaction. The violent reaction of the people, in their effort to execute Jesus at Nazareth, is prophetic; it looks forward to his death in Jerusalem. Just as Jesus is rejected in his hometown, so he will be destroyed by the rulers of Israel. So far as we know Jesus never returned to Nazareth. His escape in Nazareth, however, made possible his mission elsewhere, just as his resurrection has made possible the Church’s mission to the world.
The gospel continues to challenge today. It challenges all our self interests and our personal agendas, including the warm blanket of the status quo we so often cling to with the news of God’s surprising and amazing grace; a challenge that leaves the way open for any and all who hear it to either react by rejecting it, or respond by accepting it. For God’s purpose has been worked out through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. AMEN+