SERMON Not Just For Us

This is the sermon I preached, more or less, this Sunday at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany / Lectionary 4

  • Jeremiah 1:4–10
  • Psalm 71:1–6
  • 1 Corinthians 13:1–13
  • Luke 4:21–30

16 And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself. ’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” 24 And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, 26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, he went away. (Luke 4:16–30 ESV)

I’m honestly not sure what Jesus does that angers the crowd at the Nazareth synagogue the most here.

Sure, they are probably happy that the local boy has gained some renown by preaching and teaching in towns far and wide. Luke writes that following his baptism, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.” He’s preaching and teaching the word — maybe exactly what he does today — and the folks who hear what Jesus says like what they hear. Have a lot of good things to say about him.

Because they know the promise of God when they hear it. And maybe they even know the fulfillment of God’s promise when they see it.

Maybe.

So, Jesus finally comes to preach to his hometown crowd, to the people who know him best, who have seen him grow up, know his family, know him not just as a preacher or a teacher, but as a human being, with a life, a character, a past. He is familiar to them. Yes, he is God incarnate — sinless and perfect — but he’s also fully human, with all that means. They watched him grow up, saw whatever problems and issues he may have had (Jesus was, after all, a young man with all that entails), they know him well. Or they think they do.

They’ve also heard what he does. Miracles! Hearings! Casting out demons! Whodathunk that Joseph’s son was so talented? So, they’ve probably come expecting a show. Something they’ve never seen before, and certainly wouldn’t expect the local boy to do!

All they get today, though, are words.

And they’ve heard these words if Isaiah, from chapter 61, words of promise, words of restoration. The promise of God that Israel will be restored, that strangers and foreigners will make their way and — instead of conquering, plundering, and dominating Israel — serve the people of God by, as God says through Isaiah, tending their flocks, plowing their fields, and dressing their vines. God speaks through Isaiah:

Instead of your shame, there shall be a double portion;
Instead of dishonor [the nations] shall shall rejoice in their lot;
Therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
They shall have everlasting joy.

God makes a promise to Israel, that Israel shall rule the nations. And for their part, the nations will accept their “conquest.” They will accept God’s rule. And Israel’s position.

This is what it means that good news is given to the poor, the brokenhearted made whole, the captive are set free, and the proclamation of the Lord’s favor is at hand. This is what it means when Jesus reads from this part of Isaiah.

And if you are an Israelite, barely struggling to live under Roman occupation, this reversal of roles that God promisers is comforting. The conquered shall becomes conquerors, the ruled shall become rulers, the plunderers shall live upon the wealth of those who have plundered. For the oppressed, it is the perfect promise.

However, I also suspect a lot of Israelites, as familiar as they likely were with Isaiah’s promise, probably selectively understood it. Yes, foreigners and strangers will come and serve Israel. And Israel will live off the wealth of the world. But a lot of this passage also deals with the covenant God will make with the nations that come. They get their recompense — a double portion even — but it isn’t wrath. It’s blessing. They shall be blessed.

But then Jesus has the audacity to say: Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise. Not just to Israel, but to the nations, all of the peoples of the world who are NOT Israel.

Still, Luke says they all speak well. Maybe they aren’t mad at all. Maybe they really do think this promise is all for them. And maybe, just maybe, they really do believe that Jesus is setting them free, and that is the source of their wonder. “Is this not Joseph’s son?”

But then … Jesus reminds them exactly what this promise to the nations, to the peoples of the world, really means. The profligate love of God, the double portion, isn’t just theirs. It is not solely the patrimony or the property of Israel. It now belongs to all.

Jesus relates a couple of Old Testament stories. First, he tells of the widow of Zarapeth, a town far north of Israel in what is now Lebanon. It was likely on the northern edges of what used to be Solomon’s great empire. It is not as Israelite town. The land has been struck be a great drought, there is no water, and surely there is a lot of suffering and death everywhere you look. She is ready to take the last of her flour and oil, make a simple meal for herself and her son, and then she will lie down and die. Because it is that hard for her.

Elijah tells her, “Do not be afraid,” and the flour and the oil — enough only for one, final meal — last for weeks. For months. “Many days” is all scripture says, which could even mean years.

There were many hungry widows in Israel, Jesus tells the assembly at Nazareth, but God sent Elijah to feed and care for a foreigner. To be fed and cared for by a foreigner.

And then Jesus adds insult to injury by telling the story of Naaman the leper who was healed by Elijah’s successor Elisha. Now, you need to remember something — Naaman is not just another leper (because Jesus was right, Israel was full of lepers in need of healing), but he was the commander of the Syrian army. The enemy army. What would eventually be, long after Elisha passed from the scene, the conquering army.

And Elisha does this, heals Naaman, not to convert him to the God of Israel (though that does happen), or persuade hime to surrender or even to get him to switch sides (that doesn’t happen), but to show Naaman “that there is a God in Israel.”

This is the profligate promise of God: plenty in a time of drought and famine for someone who is not an Israelite, healing and wholeness for the leader of an army that is the enemy of God’s people.

No wonder the crowd was angry and filled with wrath and wanted to push Jesus off a cliff. They lived surrounded by foreigners, occupiers, enemies, people who could take, could compel, could even do violence — and it was all perfectly proper and lawful. They didn’t want their conquerors and occupiers blessed — they wanted God to smite them and drive them into the sea! They wanted to pillage, loot, and plunder, and make flutes from the bones of their children. They wanted to be free of their enemies. They didn’t want them blessed.

We don’t either.

But that’s what God promises. And that’s what Jesus does. Remember, this promise — this covenant for the peoples of the world — is fulfilled. As Jesus read the words of Isaiah. Fulfilled. His life. His teaching. His healing. His breaking bread and pouring wine with his disciples, all of it is fulfillment. Of this promise.

We don’t own God’s blessing, as much as we might think we do and as much as we might want to. It isn’t just for us, to be kept to ourselves, in a box on a high shelf, within the walls of this place, confined to the community of like-minded believers. It belongs to the whole world. It’s given to the whole world. And we who are God’s people must remember that. In a time when we consider the future of the church, especially in a secular culture that grows increasingly hostile or even simply confused about our confession of faith, we need to remember God’s love and God’s grace are not simply for us. Jesus shows that — in his life, his teaching, his healing, the bread that he breaks and the wine that he blesses, in his redeeming death and resurrection. Jesus lives out this stunning reality of a God who showers his blessings far and wide, not just on Israel and its lost children, but on the just and unjust, on strangers and foreigners and enemies too.

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