February 3, 2013 – Epiphany 4 Enraged by Grace
To listen to this sermon, click here: Enraged by Grace
There is an expression that is sometimes used about large groups of people. We say that a crowd is “getting ugly”. What we mean is that the collective mood of the crowd is growing into something frightening and dangerous. Sometimes you might have felt it in a small way in a crowded room if the power goes out. Suddenly there’s an element of tension and fear that you all feel together. In large crowds, a political demonstration or a rock concert, or even the people in a crowded shopping mall, the mood can change quickly from excitement to fear or anger, the feeling sweeping over the crowd so that they react in ways that not one of the members of the crowds would have considered, if they had been alone and acting as individuals. But as a part of a mob people sometimes find themselves doing and acting according to the collective mind. In that moment they identify themselves so closely with the mood of the group that they let go of their own freedom of choice, letting themselves be swept along and sometimes committing terrible acts.
That’s the kind of thing that happened in the reading today. Jesus was called upon to read in the synagogue at Nazareth, the town where he grew up, and Luke gives us a picture of the change that came over the crowd as he began to teach. Like a camera sweeping across the faces of the people as they listen to him, first we see their expressions of expectation and excitement. Everyone in the room had heard stories about the wonderful things that Jesus had done in nearby Capernaum, works of power, miraculous healings. The synagogue was virtually humming with anticipation. “What will he do? What will we see? This is his hometown; he should be more amazing than ever here, among his own people.” Luke says that every eye was on Jesus. Eagerness shone on every face.
We read part one of the story last week, where Jesus stood up to read these words from the prophet Isaiah: “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then Jesus sat down, as was the custom for teachers, and he began to teach – and not only did he teach about the Scripture, but he claimed that he himself was the fulfillment of it. Luke says that the people were amazed by the gracious words that came out of his mouth. Everyone spoke well of him. Here was the little boy they remembered from years ago, come home with words of comfort, and even better, come home to give back to those who had been his friends and neighbors. They couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen. It was like the boy from a poor neighborhood who went away and struck it rich, and everyone comes out to greet his return with a smile and an outstretched palm.
“I know exactly what you’re thinking,” he told them. “You’re about to quote that old proverb ‘Physician, heal thyself’. You want me to prove myself by performing miracles here like you’ve been hearing about? I’ll tell you another proverb; truly, no prophet is ever accepted by his own people.” Even as the people eagerly waited for Jesus to prove himself by working miracles for them to see, his very familiarity kept them from recognizing who he really was. Mark says that because of their lack of faith Jesus couldn’t do any miracles in Nazareth at all, except for laying his hands on a few sick people to heal them. When they looked at Jesus all they could see was a man they thought they knew. They despised his humanity, and so they were completely unable to see his divinity.
This is a little bit of a tangent, but I think we are often in danger of doing the same thing with one another. We look on another person – the person sitting beside you in the pew, or the person in front of you in the checkout line – and we see what we are all too familiar with – their faults and their weaknesses and their limitations. But in despising their humanity we are unable to see beyond it to the presence of the Spirit in their lives. We fail one another, and we fail God, when we fail to look at one another more deeply, with faith, and recognize the imprint of God in whose image that person was made. And we fail ourselves, too, when we fail to acknowledge what God is doing through that person because we fail to receive what God has to offer us through them. Just as Jesus was unable to perform any great works among his old friends and neighbors because they refused to see the Spirit in him, we can miss out on what God is trying to do if we lack the faith to see the Spirit at work in the people around us – especially those closest and most familiar to us.
But even though all eyes were on him, Jesus didn’t intend for his teaching to be about himself. He always, in everything he did, pointed beyond himself to the Father, because the reason for his coming to us as a man was so that the Father’s children could see him. Remember Jesus told Philip, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. How can you even ask me to show you the Father? Don’t you know me yet?” So when Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of these words from Isaiah, he was saying that he was speaking, not as the young man from Nazareth, but as the voice of God – their God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. “This is not about me,” he was saying. “You want to talk about miraculous works? OK, let’s talk about miraculous works. Do you remember Elijah and Elisha?” I imagine at this point if we looked out over the faces in the synagogue the mood would have shifted. Eager anticipation must have begun to give way to disappointment and confusion – maybe some guarded curiosity.
Jesus began to remind them of stories that were very familiar to them, stories they must have heard hundreds or thousands of times as Jews that read and studied the Scriptures regularly. But hearing them from the mouth of Jesus they heard them in a new way. The first was the story of Elijah, who prophesied in Israel in the time of the wicked and foolish King Ahab and his abominable Queen Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel systematically persecuted and murdered nearly all of God’s prophets, and God brought judgment against them by causing a long, terrible drought – there were three and a half years without rain. But you might have forgotten this one point, Jesus said to the crowd, that as people suffered for these three and a half years of drought there was one person to whom God showed his grace, and she was a poor widow. With all the people suffering in Israel, God sent Elijah to a place called Zarephath, where he stayed with this woman, and her oil and flour were miraculously restored day by day so that they had plenty to eat, all through the drought. And when her son became sick and died, Elijah raised him from the dead. And oh, yeah, one more thing: Zarephath happens to be in Sidon, homeland of Jezebel. The widow to whom God showed his special favor was an enemy.
And there was another story, during the time of the prophet Elisha, who was Elijah’s successor. During that time Syria had attacked Israel many times, and carried off Israelites as slaves. There was a general of the Syrian army, Naaman, who contracted leprosy. And it happened one day that one of his slave girls, an Israelite who had been captured in one of Syria’s raids on her homeland, told her master about a prophet in Israel who had the power to heal his leprosy. So Naaman travels to Israel and asks Elisha for help, and Naaman is healed. A lot of people in Israel were lepers, Jesus told the people in the synagogue, but the one to whom God showed his special favor was Naaman, an enemy.
It is very easy to rejoice in the grace of God when he shows his grace to us. But how are we to understand the grace of God when the one receiving it is one we consider our enemy. When we hear those beautiful words of Isaiah about the poor hearing the good news and the blind receiving their sight and the captives being freed, we embrace them wholeheartedly. There were certainly people in the synagogue who were poor, people who needed healing. Every one there was longing to be freed from the oppression of the Roman legions that had invaded their land. But what happens when that gracious favor of God is extended even to the Romans? How does the grace of God appear to us when his favor is on a child abuser, or a serial killer, or a radical Muslim terrorist? We can all insert those people we most consider our enemies, those we fear and hate. And here was Jesus in his home town proclaiming these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, even to our enemies”
For us, if you remember last week, when we understand that this passage represents a kind of mission statement for Jesus’s church, then we have to understand that through us, God intends to extend his favor – even to those we see as our enemies. Maybe especially to those we consider our enemies.
If we really understand that challenge that is to us, we might begin to understand the rage that swept over the faces of the crowd as Jesus continued to speak. Their whole identity was being the holy people of the One True God, who had for so long been persecuted and oppressed by the nations around them – the Gentiles were the enemies of God and of his people. And now this carpenter’s son had pierced through that one certainty and the terrifying light of God’s grace had begun to shine through, not the comfortable assurance of his lovingkindness, but the blazing unconditional goodness that utterly transcends and so often offends our human understanding. And in that moment, they hated it, and they rose up as one person to destroy what they refused to believe about their God. They drove Jesus out of the synagogue, and they took him to the top of a cliff near Nazareth to cast him down and stone him as a heretic. But God in his grace brought his Son safely through their midst. By grace the people were prevented from committing a terrible evil – Jesus would be killed by his own people, but that time had not yet come. And for the people of Nazareth there was still time as well – time for the teaching of Jesus to sink into their hearts and to transform their minds. And by grace Jesus was sent on his way to proclaim good news to the poor, to bring sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
In the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lion Aslan is a sort of analogy to Jesus. He is the Lord of the land of Narnia. And in the first book there is a memorable conversation about Aslan between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and the Pevensy children. The youngest girl, Lucy, has just found out that the Lord of Narnia is not a man at all, as she had assumed, but a Lion, the Lion, the great King of Beasts. It is a very scary idea for her, and she asks the Beavers, “But is he safe?” (I am paraphrasing, so I apologize if I don’t get this exactly word for word) “Safe?” says Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good, I tell you.” I think that can be said of the grace of God. It certainly isn’t a safe idea. It is in fact such a scary idea that the people of Nazareth tried to destroy it by casting Jesus off the cliff. Is the grace of God safe? Of course it isn’t safe, but it’s good.