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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany - 1/28/07

Apparently being rabbi of the synagogue at Nazareth was not Jesus’ dream call.  We used to talk about that sometimes at seminary; not about Jesus’ dream call, but about our own, you know, if you could choose where you would wind up serving, where would it be?  I don’t remember anyone mentioning the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but what did we know?  In the case of Jesus…however we understand what he knew and when he knew it, in some fashion he had to know that he had bigger fish to fry as it were.  There was life beyond Nazareth for him; life and death.  In any case, if he cared about staying in Nazareth, he would not have said the things he did when he went back there.

First he read from the scroll of Isaiah.  This was last week’s lesson.  “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.”  Now that is radical, revolutionary stuff; good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed; none of that is business as usual.  But then, to top it off…the year of the Lord’s favor. 

Do you know what that meant?  It meant that all debts were cancelled.  Forget about those mortgage payments; forget about your car payment.  College loans outstanding?  They’re forgiven; you owe nothing.  Imagine if the president announced a year of jubilee in his state of the union address.  Talk about good news for the poor!! 

The year of jubilee; it’s one of those laws in Leviticus where every fifty years, debts were to be forgiven, everyone starts fresh.  Now it should be said that it’s not clear that it ever actually happened.  While it would be good news to the poor it would not be such good news to the bankers, and money lenders and merchants so undoubtedly they would have resisted the implementation of such a jubilee year and after all they were the ones who wielded the power.

But in perhaps the shortest sermon on record, Jesus, after rolling up the scroll and setting it aside, had the audacity to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Was he serious?  Apparently those gathered in the synagogue that day didn’t think so; not at first anyway.  After all, if they knew their scripture, they’d heard all this before but it was just one of those parts of the Bible that sounds good, but no one took it literally.  So they all spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words…except he kept talking. 

Jesus kept talking, and what he talked about were examples of God’s grace toward Gentiles, not Jews, Gentiles; the widow at Zarephath in Sidon who took care of Elijah; Naaman the Syrian general who was cured of leprosy.  It might have been at that point, as Jesus was saying nice things about Gentiles, that those listening in Nazareth realized that Jesus had left off the end of the last verse of the Isaiah passage he quoted and that maybe he left it off on purpose, the part about the day of vengeance of our God.  That vengeance was for the Gentiles.  Whose side was Jesus on anyway?

Hometown boy or not, the good people of Nazareth were not inclined to want to listen to this kind of stuff.  Their amazement quickly turned to rage such that they were ready to throw Jesus over a cliff.  Right away though, in this his first sermon, Jesus let it be known that he was not about business as usual.  He went out of his way to rock the boat, questioning the conventional wisdom about who’s in and who’s out.

This question of who’s in and who’s out comes up a lot.  In Bible studies we can be talking about most anything and still wind up coming back to this question.  There seems to be a need to know, a little concern that if salvation is too inclusive, why do we bother?  We could just as well stay home on Sunday morning as many choose to do.

Apparently the people of the first century had the same concerns about who’s in and who’s out.  There was much rabbinic debate about it and various groups had answers.  Some thought that only the righteous of the Jewish nation were in, that Gentiles would perish.  Some thought the Gentiles might be included, but only as servants for the righteous Jews.  Some took seriously the thing about Israel as a light to the nations, believing that Gentiles who accepted Jewish ways would be OK.

Ultimately of course, who’s in and who’s out is the wrong question for them or for us to be overly concerned about.  Instead, we do better to set that question aside and think about what we know about Jesus.  In the context of this story we know that Jesus proclaimed an inclusiveness that shocked people, even angered them.  But this was a dimension of the kingdom he talked about.  He wasn’t about divisions between Jews and Gentiles.  He wasn’t about distinctions between clean and unclean.  In stories to come in Luke he heals people and casts out demons, which serves to eliminate things that exclude people.  They can rejoin the community.

We also know that in this kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, we see the future.  His vision of things is the way it is supposed to be.  In Jesus own life and ministry, this move to the future started.  We’re still not there yet.  But we know the future, and we live in the present with that knowledge.  Rather than worrying all the time about who’s in and who’s out we should worry about how to live when we know the future.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the author Patrick O’Brian.  He wrote a series of historical novels about the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars featuring two main characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin who is a physician/surgeon/naturalist and spy among other things.  You might remember, about three years ago, the movie “Master and Commander,” starring Russell Crowe.  It was based on these books and these characters.

Anyway, Patrick O’Brian wrote 20 ½ of these novels (he died part way into the 21st).  During the past three years I read all of them and now I’m a little over half way through the series for the second time.  I should add that never in my life did I think that I would be engaged by this kind of stuff, in fact when I started the first book I gave up more than once because I just couldn’t get into it, but that’s another story.

The point is that as I reread these books, I read them differently, because I know the future.  There’s a lot that I don’t remember, but because I know in general how things are going to go, I slow down and pay attention to things that I might have glossed over the first time; characters who might seem insignificant at first but I know they are going to show up later; relationships and conversations between characters that don’t seem all that important at first; events that I didn’t understand the first time through but now I can see where they’re headed.  Because of this, while enjoyable the first time, these books are even better the second time; I can’t wait to read them the third time!

In Jesus, we know the future.  We know the future of God.  That should change how we live, how we take part in the unfolding story of this world in the here and now.  We know the kinds of things that Jesus thought were important, so when we’re confronted with situations where people are being excluded for one reason or another, situations where there’s economic or social injustice,  situations where there’s violence, situations where the same old tired solutions are tried and then tried again even though they didn’t work the first time, do we just gloss it over or do we slow down and pay attention?  Do we pay attention and say, “Jesus was calling for something different.  Jesus said there was another way.” 

It’s risky; Jesus found that out.  It’s easier to just go along and convince ourselves of the impossibility and impracticality of Jesus’ way.  It’s risky to slow down and pay attention, even more risky to take action;  but we know the future.  Is it worth the risk?        


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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