Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 3, 2013
The blessing of God who creates and renews us, surrounds us with the light of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This is a Gospel that requires some serious unpacking. We don’t do it justice if we just stick with “Oh well, a prophet just can’t make it in his hometown.” No, there is a lot more going on here then meets our eye because we’re not living in first century Palestine and don’t hear what they heard.
We missed out on the first act because we celebrated our patronal feast last Sunday and did not hear the Gospel appointed for Epiphany 3 of which this is a continuation. Jesus had returned to his hometown of Nazareth and was invited to preach in the synagogue. The congregation was impressed with his words. Luke tells us that “all eyes were fixed on him.” Then Jesus does what will always get him into trouble. He tells a few stories that carry real zingers and a total reversal of expectations.
His listeners assume that the message in his sermon is that Israel will receive comfort and reward and that the enemies of Israel will be destroyed and get nothing. In other words, “we” will finally get the vindication, prosperity, and freedom “we” deserve and “they” will get a good swift kick in the teeth.
What Jesus proclaims in his interpretation of the story is that the blessings of the Kingdom of God will be extended to everyone, in particular, to our enemies.
Jesus refers to classic stories of the prophets of Israel doing good for their enemies. The first is the story of Elijah going to the Gentile region of Sidon, long- time enemies of Israel. It was during a famine and a woman came out to gather sticks. He said to her, “Give me something to eat,” and she said, “I’m gathering sticks so that I can go and make a fire and cook the last part of the food and then we will eat it and die.” Then Elijah says, “I don’t care, get me something to eat.” So she brings him the last bit of what she has to eat. He then tells her that this jar of meal and oil will feed them for months during the long famine and it does. The woman is a widow in a Gentile town outside of Israel.
In his sermon Jesus says, “There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah the prophet, when the heavens were shut up for three years and six months, and there were many widows who died of starvation, but he was sent to none of them, but rather to a widow in the land of Sidon. Everybody in his audience knew what that meant. Strike one.
The second story is even more graphic in terms of its offensive character. Naaman was the general of the Syrian army. On one of their raids he captured a young Israelite woman and took her back to Syria as a slave. When he contracted leprosy, out of compassion for him, she told him about the prophet Elisha. He went to his king and the king sent a letter to the king of Israel asking if Naaman could speak to the prophet. When the letter was delivered, the king of Israel was offended and was sure that this was a trick that the king of Syria was using to try to conquer more of his territory, and to trick him into something, and he refused. But Elisha heard about it and said, “Send him” and so Naaman, the general of the Syrian army, went to Elisha’s house. Elisha didn’t even come out to see him, but rather sent a message telling him to go and bathe in the Jordan River.
Naaman got really angry and said, “Aren’t the waters of the rivers of Syria better than these piddly little rivers in Judah and Israel?!” He was going to bale when one of his servants said, “What have you got to lose? Try it; it won’t hurt you to go bathe in the river.” So he does, and he is made clean. Again, Jesus cites this story as an example of the fulfillment of the kingdom of God: “There were many lepers in Israel in the days of Elisha but none of them was cleansed, only Naaman, the Syrian.”
Everybody in the synagogue that day knew that story. Jesus’ implication is that these two citations will be fulfilled in his ministry. This was extremely offensive to the people in his hometown. Strike Two—and they’re not waiting for a third. The response is extreme scandal and violation, a maximum of wrath. Rather than let him loose, they try to kill him.
Now, if you want to get a handle on the degree of their rage when Jesus told those two stories, think about this: What if right after September 11, 2001, the preacher proclaimed that the Kingdom of God would mean, for example, the healing of Osama bin Laden, or of the members of Al Queda. Got it? In other words, whoever is defined as the enemy of the nation in this story becomes the one who is the focus of God’s grace and healing. A bit unsettling, isn’t it.
What Jesus pronounces in his preaching is a new kingdom and new, startling economy of peace and reconciliation—of ending the cycle of vengeance and creating a new government based on grace and truth. More than two thousand years after he rattled the cages of his audience in Galilee, Jesus challenges us to identify with the people of Nazareth who are infuriated at Jesus for his untraditional, confrontational proclamation of the Gospel. “How does that make you feel?” the doctor asks.
Here’s the real rub: What Jesus is proposing is really at the very core of the kind of repentance the Gospel calls for: repentance from our desire to require retribution and retaliation for justice, rather than to see a new kingdom established for the benefit of everyone—including those who have been our enemies, whoever they may be in the world.
This Gospel is a hard one to swallow because it begs the question of our willingness to change our minds about our expectations and hopes for the troublesome truth about the Kingdom of God. It is an attention getter that requires that all of us stand back, take a good look at the world from a very different perspective and see the way in which God is seeking to create a peaceful world that transcends the boundaries of human warfare and hatred.
The Good News for us is that God is a patient and understanding Creator who, like Jesus, fully understands the parameters and limitations of our human nature and our difficulty in making huge changes in a short time. The kind of repentance this invites us to is not easy by any stretch of the imagination and is most likely a life-long process.
In the meantime, where can we find something durable and practical to take home with us today?
Referencing Paul’s classic teaching on the importance of love within the faith community, might we consider how we react to those in our various jobs and vocations—whom we don’t particularly like or of whom we are envious—advance in their careers? Can we be gracious and affirming of their accomplishments?
What about the church? Whom among our enemies or those we’re not keen on would we welcome into our midst here? And do we acclaim radical welcome because it is what seems to be expected of us in this parish or do we really live into it both here and in the world?
Finally, remember that Jesus was neither a big success in Nazareth nor a crowd pleaser. Doing and saying the right thing got him nearly pushed off a cliff. True godliness does not necessarily lead to acceptance and praise.
We may be courageous enough to stand up for someone who is being abased or fight vehemently for the most worthy cause or principle and find ourselves unappreciated, spurned, and rejected—just as Jesus was.
The way of the Gospel is not an easy one—never was, never will be. But for some reason, it is tremendously compelling.