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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 01/24/2016

For clergy, being called to serve in your home congregation is usually thought to be a bad idea and it doesn’t happen very often at least not in Lutheran churches, I don’t know so much about others but I think it’s pretty uncommon. Most of us though, at some point, do wind up preaching in our home congregation or in the congregation where we grew up kind of like Jesus does in today’s text.

It does make you nervous, it made me nervous, standing in the same pulpit where for years I’d seen those who I perceived as “real” pastors preach. When I think back on it though, it shouldn’t have made me that nervous because after all, I was preaching to a bunch of people who were ready to be proud of me, some who had known me since I was a little kid, some who had been my Sunday School teachers. Even if I was lousy, they weren’t going to tell me. I was going to leave feeling good about myself.

Unless you’re crazy though, in that situation you’re not going to try to be particularly prophetic. Better to stay safe, see what the commentators say about the day’s lessons, see what the traditional interpretations have been, and then just massage their ideas a little bit, staying in safe territory with well accepted, sound theology. It’s not the time to rock the boat, unless you’re crazy, or unless you’re Jesus.

Jesus was a boat rocker; it was like he couldn’t help himself. Sometimes he was subtle, telling a parable that would leave them scratching their heads, perhaps not even aware that their boat had been rocked, sometimes not very subtle and today’s story is an example of not very subtle. Jesus was back in Nazareth and he apparently already had something of a reputation so the locals were looking forward to hearing him.

He read from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” All by itself, that’s a boat rocking text; it’s radical, it’s challenging, pushing the boundaries, but you can perhaps imagine that as it was read those gathered didn’t really hear it as they probably weren’t paying real close attention. It was more likely they were just focused on Jesus, proud of him, thinking “He’s doing pretty well for himself, not what we would have expected from Joseph’s son.”

Jesus could have stopped there at the end of the Isaiah reading and just have accepted the praise of those assembled, but he continued with, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” With that he was more blatantly rocking the boat but…if he stopped there he still might have gotten away with it because the local people were there to like him.

But Jesus didn’t want to get away with it, so in case they weren’t yet sure what he was talking about, he went on with examples of what it meant that the scripture had been fulfilled today. For him, what it meant was that the good news Isaiah announced was happening, and…it was for everybody, not just for the people of Israel which was what they liked to think. With that, he got their attention and…they weren’t happy.

Part of what they were unhappy about was the inclusive nature of Jesus’ interpretation, the idea that those they perceived as unclean Gentiles were just as much a part of God’s plan as they were. That’s something we still have trouble with any time we want to limit God’s grace to those like us or those we approve of.

As Jesus audience in Nazareth processed things though, what may have been even more upsetting was the “today” of his proclamation: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It might be more upsetting for us too.

We sometimes talk about the already but not yet nature of the gospel. We say that in Jesus the Kingdom of God has been revealed, we’ve had a glimpse, that’s the already, but then we say that despite the glimpse the kingdom has not yet been fully realized and you don’t have to look very far to know that that’s the case with examples of evil all over the place. The result then is that we live in between the already and the not yet.

The way I’ve understood this already/not yet thing is that it’s about God’s action, that God chose to give us a glimpse of the kingdom in and through Jesus but only in God’s good time will the kingdom be fully revealed. For us then, the call is to live in hope in the in between, trusting that despite evidence to the contrary, the kingdom will be revealed, that is the direction in which we’re headed. I think that’s a good interpretation, but it’s not the only one.

Another take on already but not yet though, is that it’s not about God’s action it’s about our response. Seen that way, the kingdom has been fully revealed in Jesus, it’s right there, but those who hear the kingdom proclaimed, from Jesus’ time until now, don’t want to imagine this new reality, preferring to push it off into the future; so we rather than God are the ones making the kingdom about not yet.

That represents another take on the synagogue in Nazareth story. The people didn’t want to hear about “Today this has been fulfilled,” because that rocked their boat. It was easier to keep God at a distance, to talk about the kingdom of God and salvation as a future thing and to look at texts like the one from Isaiah as not having yet been fulfilled. Then, at a concrete level, life could go on; nothing would really have to change. If they took Jesus’ “today” seriously though and imagined the possibilities, that would change things.

Of course it’s not just those folks in Nazareth. Our ideas about the Kingdom of God also get pushed into the future especially into the “what happens when we die” future. That’s the path the church has largely taken. It takes the pressure off and keeps God at a safe distance. Christian hope and faith wind up focused so much on heaven that we forget about earth. If we take Jesus’ today as today though and believe that God is present today, then those words of Isaiah can’t be brushed aside so easily. We have to think about what they mean now, not just in the future.

Today brings God close to us, too close for comfort you might say, and we like comfort. As much as we can bemoan the state of the world, for the most part we’re still pretty comfortable living in it; but “Today this scripture has been fulfilled” isn’t meant to be comforting.

In Thursday night Bible Study we’re reading a book by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor who doesn’t exactly fit the mold, a former stand up comic, a former alcoholic and drug abuser, her arms covered with tattoos, and she curses and swears like a longshoreman. Her theology is really good though and by that I mean I agree with it. In any case, she’s a good writer and it’s an entertaining read.

She mentions though that at one of her speaking engagements she was asked “What do you do to get closer to God?” and her response was, “What? Nothing. Sounds like a horrible idea to me, trying to get closer to God. A lot of the time I wish God would leave me alone.” What she meant by that was that getting closer to God might mean having to do something she didn’t really want to do, like love someone she didn’t even like, or feeling compelled to give away even more of her money to help people who maybe she thought weren’t worthy of her help. Getting closer to God and the teachings of Jesus might make you do those things.

That’s why it’s easier to either not hear or just ignore Jesus’ “today” and make following him only about eternity. But if the kingdom has already arrived in Jesus, not just as a glimpse but fully, that changes things and we have to imagine and proclaim this new reality; we have to help to make it known; we have to live it. Like it or not, the boat has been rocked.

For the church to be what it is intended to be, for us to be who we’re intended to be, Jesus’ “today” has to be embraced. We have to believe that the promises have been and are being fulfilled “today.” We have to believe that God is not just waiting to act in the future, but that God is acting “today.”

The people at the synagogue in Nazareth weren’t ready for “today.” They wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff; but he passed through the midst of them and went on his way to announce his kingdom to others and he’s still doing it. He’s still doing it, today.

Revv. 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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