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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 1/31

          In the church I served back in Massachusetts, one of the people who was available to do supply preaching was a professor of religion at Smith College, Karl Donfried, a Lutheran, quite a scholarly man with the Apostle Paul being one of his primary interests.  He’s a good guy and a good speaker, retired now but he still writes and in the past couple of years has had some articles published in the Lutheran magazine among other places.  Anyway, he preached at my church one time and later that week I asked someone how it went and the response was, “Oh, he was great!  You should get him every time you’re gone.”  “What did he say?” I asked.  “I have no idea,” was the response, “I didn’t understand any of it; but he was great!”

          I think there are some similarities between this response and at least the initial response to Jesus when he went home to Nazareth and preached in the synagogue.  The people there were prepared to like him, they wanted to like him, and they did, at first.  “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” 

You get the idea, though, that they weren’t really listening.  They were just there to be impressed by this young man they had known growing up.  So when Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah about the Lord’s anointed and bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives and then boldly rolled up the scroll and announced that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” they weren’t really paying attention to what he said; but he was great!

          It might have been tempting for Jesus to leave it at that and just accept the applause; I think that’s what I would have done.  But…we’re in the season of Epiphany, during which Jesus’ identity is made known which means there has to be more.  For Jesus there had to be more because for him to be who he was supposed to be, there had to be more than people being impressed by him, more than people being amazed by some of things he did.  For him to be the Christ, the Messiah, people would have to really hear what he said, including all that was challenging about it, and understand him to be an entirely new revelation of God’s involvement and presence in the world.

          When Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he was saying that he was the one bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, giving sight to the blind and so forth.  That in itself would be quite a statement of hubris on the part of Jesus, even arrogance, if the people were listening.  Who does this guy think he is anyway?  Not only that though, if they were listening, he was saying to this group that thought of themselves as God’s chosen, God’s elect, he was saying that you are those people, the poor, the captive, the blind. 

          If they were listening, at best there would have been a mixed response to this, puzzled looks perhaps, maybe a request to tell us more.  So, when all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth it was clear to Jesus that they weren’t paying attention, and he couldn’t just leave it there.  When they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” he knew they weren’t even close to recognizing that he was God’s son, that in him the divine was fully present and active, and so he couldn’t just leave it there.

          Before I go on let me say that regardless of whether or not they were just responding with pride to Jesus as a local boy made good and not really paying attention, what they were doing was what we all do which is to make Jesus conform to who we think he should be.  As we hear this text, we have to recognize that they is us, especially as the story moves along to “do here in your hometown the things we have heard you did at Capernaum.”  Every time we pray for healing for ourselves or someone else, that’s kind of what we are saying; “Do it here Jesus!”  Those are all good and legitimate prayers, don’t get me wrong; they’re prayers that we can and should pray as long as it’s not just us setting up hoops for Jesus to jump through.

But we all know people who have lost their faith because Jesus didn’t do what we heard he did at Capernaum.  They lose faith when he isn’t the wonder worker they want him to be, when he doesn’t conform to who they think he should be.  All of which just leaves us with those at the synagogue in Nazareth, initially impressed, but not really knowing who Jesus is.

We’re also with those at the synagogue when Jesus pushes their buttons so that they do begin to hear what he is saying because again it doesn’t fit with who they want him to be or what they think he should say.  What Jesus did was to remind the people of two Old Testament stories that challenged the thinking of many concerning God and God’s people.  Jewish people, like those at the synagogue that day, assumed that they were God’s people, that God’s saving word was for them and only them. 

But Jesus said “What about the widow at Zarephath?  Elijah wasn’t sent to a nice Jewish widow, he was sent to provide for a widow in Zarephath at Sidon; that’s Gentile country.  They can’t be God’s people can they?  They don’t worship the Lord.  And what about Naaman, the general from Syria who Elisha healed of his leprosy?  He was the enemy, a leader of the army that was regularly in battle with Israel.  What was a prophet of the Lord like Elisha doing providing healing for him?”

Now note that Jesus was just reviewing Bible stories here; this wasn’t new material.  But these must have been stories that they had not paid much attention to or had glossed over or which they had just never thought very much about; but Jesus says to them, “Think about it,” and they did, and decided it might be best to throw this guy over a cliff before he really causes problems.  If he’s not going to be who we want him to be, let’s eliminate him.  They wanted to like Jesus; they did like him.  Why couldn’t he have just done there what they heard he did in Capernaum and not bothered them with stuff they really didn’t care to hear?  Because he’s Jesus, that’s why.

What is it that would make you want to throw Jesus off a cliff?  That’s kind of an embarrassing question isn’t it?  And before you say, “Nothing; nothing would make me want to do that because I love Jesus, he’s great,” let me suggest to you that if the answer is nothing, you’re not paying attention. You’re still with the people in the Nazareth synagogue amazed at Jesus gracious words because you haven’t really heard them.

What is it that would make you want to throw Jesus off a cliff?  You might not have to go any further than this text to get an answer because in this text Jesus opens the door of God’s grace wider than most of us find comfortable.  We perhaps don’t find the story of the widow at Zarephath all that shocking because we don’t know much about conflicts between ethnic groups of that time, but the implication is that she was provided for while the widows of Israel were not.  That is shocking, and if you move it into today, it’s not what we want to hear either.  You mean he might not answer the prayer of one of us to be healed, but instead might heal someone who rejects God, Jesus and all religion?  Do you want to worship that Jesus or would you rather throw him over a cliff?

The story of Naaman the Syrian general probably doesn’t shock us that much either, again because we don’t know the history; but imagine Jesus providing healing for Osama bin Laden and you get a better sense of why the people of Nazareth responded the way they did.  Bin Laden deserves to die, right, but for the people of Israel, so did Naaman. 

The stories that Jesus told in the synagogue that day opened up God’s grace in ways that made those people uncomfortable.  We hear this story during the season of Epiphany, when Jesus identity is being made known and if we really listen, it makes us uncomfortable too because I don’t think there are any of us who don’t have some group or somebody for whom we don’t want God’s grace to apply.  We count on God’s love and grace and forgiveness for ourselves, and in Jesus that love and grace and forgiveness is revealed and we find that it is for us, but it is also beyond anything we can imagine and includes those we might choose to exclude.  That was Jesus’ point in telling those stories that day. 

You still might say that you don’t want to throw Jesus over a cliff for it, but we all have parts of Jesus’ teaching that we do throw over a cliff whenever we don’t really hear it or take it seriously.  We’re all part of the crowd leading Jesus to the brow of the hill. 

But as he did that day in Nazareth, Jesus will slip away, his words will slip away; but he’ll be back, and that’s good news.  He does want us to know who he is, who he really is.  So he won’t give up; he’ll be back continuing to reveal his love and grace and forgiveness until we do understand that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, until we filter out the wishful thinking about the Jesus we want from the challenging wisdom of the Jesus who is.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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