February 3, 2019, The Good News: Love It or Throw It Off a Cliff – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000118
Ten weeks from today will be Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Giant Mood Swing. Every year, in one relatively short narrative, we read the events of Holy Week beginning with the cheering crowds at the Jerusalem gates, welcoming Jesus into the city, throwing down their cloaks and fresh-cut palm branches, a royal carpet in his honor. But by the end of the Passion narrative the voices of the crowd are crying out for Jesus’ blood, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” We begin with joy and praise. And we end with bitter, cruel hatred.
And today it is just that same kind of bewildering mood swing that we see in the gospel reading. Jesus was visiting his home church – the synagogue in Nazareth where he had grown up – and he was invited to be the reader. He read from the prophet Isaiah: “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.”
And then Jesus handed the scroll back to the attendant, and he sat down to give the meaning of the reading. But instead of explaining the details of the prophet’s language and comparing the various commentaries of all the wise rabbis of the past, as teachers would normally do, Jesus made an incredibly bold claim: “Today,” he said to the people assembled in the synagogue, his neighbors and friends, “today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, Jesus was saying to those people, who had known him since he was a little boy, “The prophet Isaiah was talking about me. I am the One, and today is the day. The Spirit of God is upon me.”
And as Jesus spoke, the people sitting there, his old neighbors, friends of his parents, they looked at one another in amazement. “Wow,” they whispered to each other, “just listen to him! You know who that is, don’t you? He’s the oldest son of Joseph, you know, the guy who made our kitchen cabinets.” “Who would’ve believed it?” The people sitting there that day had just heard Jesus claim to be, if not the Messiah, at least a special envoy from the Almighty God. And Luke tells us they all spoke well of him. They were amazed. And they were pretty excited, because there had been rumors floating around about Jesus, about incredible works of healing that he had done in a nearby town, and now here he was, their very own hometown hero.
And then Jesus ruined everything. He knew exactly what they were whispering among themselves, and he knew that he needed to make something very clear. “I know what you’re going to say,” he said to them. And I imagine at that point things got a little quieter, and the whispers became a little less excited and maybe a little more anxious. “You’re about to say, We’ve heard what you did over in Capernaum. Let’s see what you can do right here at home.” By then the whispering had probably stopped altogether, because of course he nailed it. That was exactly what they had all been thinking and whispering to one another.
And then, into the dead and uncertain silence of that place Jesus spoke plainly, “Here’s the truth: no prophet was ever accepted in his own home town. Do you remember the story about Elijah, when there was a drought over all Israel – not a drop of rain for three and a half years? The whole nation was suffering, and you can be sure there were many poor widows among them. But God sent Elijah to a widow who lived in Zarephath, in Sidon, a foreigner. Or how about Elisha? Surely there were hundreds, maybe thousands of lepers in Israel when Elisha was God’s prophet. But as far as we know, the one and only leper Elisha cleansed was Naaman, a Syrian general, an enemy of our people.”
Jesus never did get to wrap up that sermon. We don’t have any way of knowing what he would have said next, because that was all the congregation of Nazareth was willing to listen to. From murmurs of amazement and admiration and praise, that whole crowd, those neighbors and friends, those shopkeepers and craftsmen and farmers, suddenly turned murderous. Literally. They were angry; they were beyond angry; just like the crowd in Jerusalem on the day of Jesus’ arrest, they were out for blood. They rose up as one man. They grabbed Jesus and they dragged him out to the edge of the hill on which their little town was built. They were determined to throw him down off the cliff. But, Luke says, Jesus simply passed through that raging mob and went on his way.
That is a nice little mystery.
But the real mystery is: how on earth did those people – ordinary, honest, peaceful men, attending worship on the Sabbath – how did they suddenly become a lynch mob? What was it that Jesus said that offended them so much that they were willing to commit murder? Just moments before, they were ready to believe Jesus when he claimed to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, even though they were sure they knew who he was, and who his parents were. Then something happened that caused those ordinary men to shift gears radically, to become something entirely different. What happened?
And the short answer to that question is they suddenly got a glimpse of what God was doing. And they didn’t like it. Because when Jesus talked about being sent to the poor, and the captives, and the blind, they assumed he was talking about his own people. When Jesus claimed to be proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, they were sure he meant God’s favor for his special, chosen people. You know, Us. But suddenly, in that synagogue, they caught a glimpse of God’s purposes and favor towards somebody else. Them, not Us.
“The nations”, the dogs, the godless masses of people they had known and feared as enemies for generation upon generation – could God’s favor be shining on them? Was it possible that God been planning this all along? Through the greatest of the old prophets, Elijah and Elisha, had the God of Israel been dividing his loyalty between his own children and the idolatrous nations with whom they had been at war for as long as anyone could remember, and longer? They refused to even consider it. And so they determined to make an end of this man, this traitor, whose words threatened everything they held most dear, even their very identity as God’s chosen people.
Jesus had revealed a glimpse of God’s plan to extend his grace outside the walls, beyond the borders, to the unrighteous and the undeserving and the uncircumcised. And I believe that it was their reaction of righteous outrage that transformed a friendly, admiring group of worshipers into a mob willing to throw their neighbor to his death on the sharp rocks of the hillside outside his own home town. It is a pretty horrifying story. But the value of reading about it is not merely to be appalled once again at man’s inhumanity to man – though that is appalling. The real value of reading this story that Luke has recorded for us, is to recognize ourselves in that seething mob. The value for us in reading this story today is to look at them, to look at that angry, mindless crowd, and to see not Them, but Us. Because just like those men, we are perfectly nice people who can so easily be offended, even outraged, by the grace of God to the undeserving Other.
Think back to September 11, 2001. Remember what it felt like to suddenly be aware of people who considered themselves our deadly enemies. For those of you who were alive in World War II, it must have been something like that when Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan. In the aftermath of those horrors, what were we willing to do as a nation, what were we, as individuals, willing to allow to be done, to the human beings who were behind the atrocities of that day? Bombing? Torture? Internment? And then think – how would we feel if we heard that God’s favor rests on Them, and not only on Us? How would we feel if God announced to us that he sent his Son to lay down his life for Them, and not just for Us? Because that is what he did.
The language of Them and Us has no place in the kingdom of God, but it is certainly alive and well in this kingdom of this world. What do we hear these days about the immigrants and asylum-seekers at our southern border? They are trying to sneak into Our country. They are taking Our jobs. They are bringing crime, or disease, or drugs into Our country, endangering Us and Our children. It’s Them against Us. What are We not willing to do to protect ourselves against Them?
And the language of Them and Us doesn’t stop at the border. If you are a Republican, then Republicans are Us, and those Dems are Them. If you are a Democrat, of course, the Democrats are Us and the Republicans are Them. Pro-life? That’s Us. Pro-choice? That’s Them. Or is it the other way around? White v. Black. Gay v. Straight. Christian v. Muslim. Blue collar v. White collar. This world is all about choosing sides: it’s all for loyalty, and patriotism, and looking after our own interests. And nothing provokes the righteous outrage of an otherwise civilized world more than God, extending his love to the other side. But that is exactly what he does. God so loved the world – not our side of the world, but the whole world – that he gave his only Son. You only begin to to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love when you understand that God offers it to those you consider your bitterest enemies exactly the same as he offers it to you.
And that means that love is either the way of abundant living, or it is the most outrageous folly, so offensive to our humanity that anyone advocating it deserves to be carried to the edge of a cliff and tossed down onto the rocks. The people in the synagogue in Nazareth on that day couldn’t accept the offense of God’s love. But Jesus wasn’t finished revealing the good news of the kingdom. He walked through the midst of that angry mob and he continued to bring the good news of God’s favor to everyone he met – Jew or Gentile, man or woman, priest or prostitute. Because in the kingdom there is no Them and no Us, only love offered freely to anyone and everyone willing to receive it.