January 31, 2016, Who Is My Enemy? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Today’s gospel reading is part two of this passage from Luke. Last week we read that Jesus was in Nazareth, the town where he grew up, and on the Sabbath Day – which is Saturday – he went to the synagogue for worship. Jesus had already begun to have a reputation for doing amazing things, and his old friends and neighbors were excited to have him back home. They asked him to read, and as we read last week, Jesus chose to read a passage from the prophet Isaiah about the promised Messiah. “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me,” he read, “to proclaim good news to the poor and release to the prisoner and recovery of sight to the blind.” And then he rolled up the scroll and sat down before them all and told them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. I am the Messiah you have been waiting for all these years – century upon century.”
And that’s where we stopped last week. I wanted us to put ourselves in the place of the townspeople of Nazareth, who were suddenly faced with God’s promises being real. Because just like those people, we read the Bible, and we pray, and we recite the creeds; we believe in God and his promises. But we all are faced with this same question: how would we react if suddenly God himself was standing right in front of us? It is a question we have to ask ourselves: do we believe that God is really here? Do we really expect to see him at work in our lives?
But today we read further, and we found out how the people of Nazareth actually reacted to Jesus on that Sabbath Day in the synagogue. They thought it was wonderful – at first. “Wow! Look at this kid,” they said to each other, “I knew him when he was still in diapers.” “His Dad made our kitchen cabinets! Who would’ve thought old Joseph’s son would make it big?” They were delighted with their native son. This was going to really put Nazareth on the map – because let’s face it, Nazareth didn’t have a great reputation among the villages of Palestine. Remember when Philip told Nathanael about Jesus, when he told him that they’d found the Messiah, Nathanael’s reaction was, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Finally, the people thought, finally we get to be the special ones.
But then Jesus burst their bubble. “I know you are all expecting to see healings and wonders like you heard about from Capernaum. But here’s the thing: no prophet is held in honor in his hometown.” And he explained, “This is how the grace of God works. You remember the story of Elijah, when God brought a terrible famine over the whole land of Israel. There were plenty of poor, desperate widows in Israel in those days, but God sent Elijah to take care of a foreigner, a widow from Zarephath, whose oil and grain he kept miraculously filled all through the days of the famine. And you know the story of Elisha, when he was a prophet in Israel. There were plenty of lepers in Israel, but God sent Elisha to a foreigner, Namaan the Syrian, who was miraculously healed by Elisha.”
Well, that didn’t go over so well. When Matthew and Mark tell this story, they say that the people in the synagogue took offense at Jesus. But Luke gives a little more detail. When they caught on to what Jesus was saying, Luke tells us, they were “filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove Jesus out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.” They took some serious offense.
But what could possibly have been so offensive about what Jesus said that all those people, who had been his friends and neighbors for years and years, would turn on him so suddenly, would become a howling mob, ready to throw him to his death off the edge of a cliff?
And I think to understand that we have to realize what it meant for them that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. The people of Nazareth, like all faithful Jews of that time, had very real expectations of what the Messiah was going to do when he came at last. They knew what Isaiah had written about the coming of the Messiah: “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the circumcised and the unclean. Shake yourself from the dust and arise; be seated, O Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion.”
To them those promises of the Messiah could only mean one thing: that the One sent by God would destroy the enemies of his chosen people, and restore everything that had been taken from them. The Messiah would be the one who would restore justice – and that meant payback to the enemies of his people. They were longing for the kind of victories they had read about in the stories of King David, when the enemies of God died by the sword at the hand of God’s anointed King. Because wasn’t the Messiah going to be the descendant of the great King David? They remembered the rejoicing of the Israelites of long ago when they sang, “Saul has slain his thousands; but David his tens of thousands.”
So, when Jesus stood before them and proclaimed, “The Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the captives” that was exactly what they had been hoping to hear. At last God had sent his Messiah to his people in their poverty and their captivity! At long last the Roman invaders would be crushed and the glory of Jerusalem, the city of David, would be restored, and everything would be just as it should be, because God was fulfilling his promise to his chosen people. And best of all, it was beginning in their own little village.
It’s not very hard for us to understand their longing for justice. Does anyone here not remember the sense of outrage we felt after 9/11, or when we see videos of innocent people being beheaded by men who seem less than human in their hatred and disregard for life? Is there anyone here who has never wished that God would pour out his vengeance on those we count our enemies – whether they are enemies of our country, or just people who have done terrible things – child molesters or rapists or serial killers – bad people. We place our hope in the grace and mercy of God. For ourselves. But not for our enemies.
The people of Nazareth were ready to believe Jesus. They were ready to witness his works of power; after all, he was one of them, a native son. But they weren’t ready to hear what he said next. He had come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. But when it came, the favor of the Lord was bigger than anyone had ever imagined. The favor of the Lord was even for those they had counted their enemies. The widow in the story of Elijah was from Sidon, which was a pagan land, and the homeland of Queen Jezebel, who was one of the most notorious enemies of Israel. And Namaan was a Syrian general, who went to war against Israel, a man who personally carried off the people of Israel as slaves.
“Truly, I say to you,” Jesus said that day, “there were widows in need in Israel in the time of Elijah; there were lepers who needed healing among the people of Israel in the days of the prophet Elisha; but God showed his favor to those who were considered his enemies, and the enemies of his people.” – The Messiah had come at last, but instead of showing favor to his people by smashing their enemies, he was proclaiming God’s favor towards their enemies as well. That’s what the people of Nazareth couldn’t accept; that is what filled them with such rage that they drove their old friend out of the town and tried to throw him off a cliff.
As Christians, the Lord’s favor – the grace of God – is our very life. We believe that Jesus Christ loves us so much that he gave his life on our behalf. We believe that whatever sin we confess to our God, he forgives us and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. We believe that he has put our sins as far from us as the east is from the west; that he never again calls them to mind. We believe that God has sent his Spirit to make his home with us, so that we will never be alone, that he does not leave us as orphans. We believe that God has begun a good work in us that he will surely bring to completion; that he won’t ever give up on us. And we believe that God shows us his grace, not because we deserve it or earned it, but purely because he chooses to be gracious to us.
But do we understand – can we even accept – how big the grace of God really is? How if God chooses to show his love to our enemies? We know that our salvation depends on the grace and kindness of our God. But then so often we relegate the really bad people to the justice of the world, as if the grace of God is only for people like us – you know, the good guys. The world is always ready to give our enemies the justice they deserve. The soldiers of ISIS deserve to be slaughtered, as they have slaughtered so many innocent people. Murderers deserve life in prison without parole – or better yet, the death penalty. Child molesters deserve the very worst that can be done to them. The mother or father who showed their child no love or compassion deserves to grow old alone. We get that. It is not at all hard for us to understand punishment or condemnation. But it is very hard for us to conceive of a grace that is big enough to extend to our enemies. Sometimes it is very hard not to be offended by the Lord’s favor.
Everyone in the synagogue in Nazareth spoke well of Jesus and marveled at his gracious words – until they realized that that grace extended beyond the walls of their synagogue, beyond the limits of their village, beyond the boundaries of their nation, even as far as the hearts and homes of their enemies. And that was more than they could accept. It is a word for us to take to heart. How big is our understanding of the love and grace of God? Can we accept that God’s favor is on Muslims? Or people that live on welfare? Or gays? Or politicians? Or atheists? A man once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” We might ask ourselves today, “Who is my enemy?” And can I accept that God sent his only Son for love of that person? Or will I be offended by his grace?
It is when Christians make that big grace known to the world that the Good News is truly proclaimed. We can hand out tracts or hold tent meetings or march in front of abortion clinics or write angry facebook posts about the sinful state of our society. But when the members of Emmanuel Church in Charleston offer forgiveness to the man who murdered their brothers and sisters in cold blood; when Amish men and women offer comfort to the widow of the man who murdered their children; when the Pope kneels down and washes the feet of Muslims and prisoners; when we offer kindness and compassion to the person we always considered our enemy – that’s when the year of the Lord’s favor is proclaimed. That’s when the world begins to notice that the Messiah has truly come, with grace and love for all of mankind.