Epiphany +4C: When the honeymoon is over
Luke 4:[14-20] 21-30
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.
He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “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 he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
When a pastor begins a call with a new congregation, whether it is their first call or their twentieth, there is, in their mind, the inevitable question of how long the “honeymoon period” of their ministry will be.
The “honeymoon period:” that span of time - maybe a year or two - where everything about the relationship is new and exciting. The pastor and the congregation can do no wrong by each other. There is ample benefit of the doubt given. Everything feels positive. There is immunity given. Mistakes or misunderstandings or annoyances or changes are met are outweighed by positive qualities and the spirit of possibility that brought this pastor and congregation together.
But the honeymoon period always fades. A year or two down the road, the congregation and pastor have to figure out how to deal with each other when things get real. When the newness of the relationship can no longer cover all wrongs. Either honesty and forgiveness lead to growth and depth in the relationship...or things can get ugly. Very quickly.
Suffice it to say that Jesus’s honeymoon period was exceedingly brief, the length of one sermon. And when the good graces wore off, things turned very very bad. Bad enough that the people tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.
(Sidenote: Can I just say “thank you” for not trying to throw me off a cliff yet? I mean it. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart.)
So what exactly happened here in Luke 4? Why was Jesus “praised by everyone” in one moment, and in the very next instant, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage?”
Things start off so well. Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah, demonstrating his commitment to the faith of his - and their - ancestors. He reads words of promise and comfort. He reads scriptures that tell of a God who draws his people out of oppression and exile. He reminds the people of the coming day where goodness triumphs.
Everyone is pleased to hear these familiar words. This is good news. Beautiful, beautiful, poetic good news.
Things get a little weird as Jesus rolls up the scroll, because he declares himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The people still feel pretty amazed and intrigued by Jesus, but at least a few eyebrows have been raised. Because Jesus is in his hometown, among all these people who knew him as a kid, and if you’ve ever been to a high school reunion where somebody who knew-you-when is a little shocked by who you have become, you totally understand what is going on here.
I’ve only attended one of my high school reunions, and all I really remember from it are two things. 1) Eating a lot of spinach artichoke dip and potato skins. And 2) Telling an old acquaintance from concert band that I was now a pastor, and her responding with a shocked, “Holy &*#$!” before she could stop the words from flying out of her mouth.
I suspect the hometown crowd was feeling a similar sentiment. They were still amazed at Jesus’s words, and appreciative, and spoke well of him. But they were still a little shocked and confused. “Isn’t this....Joseph’s son? You know, the kid of that carpenter? And he is...the fulfillment of prophecy and the bringer of the day of the Lord’s favor? Holy &*#$!”
Things might have stayed at this level of shock and amazement, had Jesus not kept talking. But this is where the really important stuff begins to happen. And, not coincidentally, where amazement gives way to flat-out rage among his listeners.
First, Jesus tells the crowds that if they are expecting him to do an extra miracles or favors for them because they knew him way back when, that’s not really what he’s all about.
Then, he takes it a step further, telling them that he is not fulfilling these words from Isaiah for their benefit, or for the benefit of the religious insiders, or the benefit of the ones with power or privilege. No, he is fulfilling Isaiah’s promises for those who otherwise would have no access to them.
He says, “Look to your own scriptures! God sent Elijah not to the widows of Israel, but to a widow in Sidon, and provided for her a miracle of food and healing. And God sent Elisha not to any of the lepers in Israel, but to Naaman, the Syrian.”
Yes, Jesus reminds them, sometimes God sends prophets beyond the boundaries of the covenant. And, in fact, sometimes God saves the best stuff for people outside of Israel.
Jesus puts himself in the same category. He has come to save the poor, the captive, the oppressed, the broken, those on the other side of the boundary. Maybe not exclusively, but definitely primarily. His mission is not to the hometown crowd, neither the literal one nor the hometown crowd of Israel, who have already been able, up to this point, to claim God’s favor.
It is at this point that it might have dawned on the crowds that Jesus took a few liberties with his reading from Isaiah, most notably that he stopped reading before he got to the end of the sentence. Jesus conveniently leaves off the last line of the passage, where the day of the Lord’s favor is also shown to be a day of vengeance for Israel’s enemies. Jesus doesn’t read the vengeance part, and it has now become clear why: because he has come for all people, especially outsiders, to make the day of the Lord’s favor a day of favor for everyone. And this day will come without giving anybody the self-righteous satisfaction of watching God beat up on our supposed “enemies.” No longer are there winners and losers or claims of superiority, the hope that God will favor some and give others their “just desserts.”
Oof. There’s a lot here that could make somebody angry.
Nobody likes to hear that God’s love and compassion might first come to someone else. Especially if it is somebody who lives beyond our definitions of goodness, faithfulness, privilege, or deserving. It’s hard to hear Jesus say that the work of caring for the poor, the vulnerable, and the outcast is more important to him than making the insiders feel good about themselves.
The crowds are angry and hurt and frustrated at this Jesus who they thought they knew. They are hurt and angry and frustrated at being told that their expectations of God have been misplaced. And the thing about crowds is that anger escalates quickly and easily. The hometown crowd quickly turns to an angry mob, and this angry mob, beside itself, chases Jesus to the top of that cliff, prepared to throw him off the edge in a blind rage.
World’s. Shortest. Honeymoon.
Okay. So maybe you’re sitting out there, right now, realizing that this whole episode in Luke’s gospel has made you a bit…anxious.
Or maybe you’re struggling to figure out where you land in this story, or where you should land.
Or maybe I’m making you nervous, and you are preemptively considering whether to extend me an invitation up to Palisades Park following worship, you know, “just to see the view.”
Let’s see if I can help. (My life might just depend upon it!)
For starters…each of us finds ourself in this story in a different way, and at different points in our lives. If we’re ever in doubt, it’s probably safest to assume that we are the hometown crowd, who would prefer that Jesus act according to our rules, and want to know that God loves us no matter what, who have a hard time sometimes letting God love others no matter what, as well.
But there are very real moments for each of us when we are the ones about and for whom Jesus is speaking. When we are suffering the deepest grief we can imagine, or wondering if the next paycheck will really cover all the expenses, or suffering under the crushing weight of shame or gossip - yes. Jesus, in the Spirit, has been sent to you. For you. Take heart.
But this gospel is bigger than simply a question of where we locate ourselves in it. Today’s story teaches us important lessons about how we should (and should not) relate to Jesus himself. This story shows us why it is so important to keep seeking out Jesus, and asking questions, and discerning the truth of his words.
First, this story teaches us that Jesus will always surprise us. Not one of us ever has Jesus all figured out. Jesus never gets to be, for us, the comfortable “hometown kid”...and if it’s ever starting to feel that way, then brace yourself, because there’s likely a new surprise or challenge right up the road, drawing us into new understandings of God’s compassion and justice.
Jesus sees those in our midst who often go unseen, and Jesus asks us to see them as well. Whenever we get too comfortable, or make faith too close-minded or short-sighted or self-seeking, Jesus will break in again, to remind us that God’s good news is only good if it is good news for the most vulnerable among us. Even if it stings to be reminded of it.
Which leads us to point number two: today’s story teaches us that Jesus will make us angry...and also, that throwing him off a cliff is not the way to deal with it. Jesus preaches a consistent message of care for the poor, liberation for the oppressed, healing for the broken, and forgiveness for the captive. When we feel angry with Jesus, it is often because these values clash with our comfort. Faith asks us to discern the troubling kernel of truth in whatever part of Jesus’s message most troubles and challenges us. Jesus assures us that we will grow in faith and love because of it.
And third, today’s story asks us to take a deep look at the people and the messages that we surround ourselves with; whether these things drive us toward anger or toward compassion, toward compassion or toward self-centeredness, toward thoughtfulness or toward violence. Even within the church, we have a bad habit of drawing boundaries around the in-crowd and the outsiders. Remember that Jesus can - and does! - pass through whatever boundaries and barriers we set up.
Jesus will always keep surprising us. And perhaps the most surprising part of what Jesus offers is that good news of God’s grace over and against all the powers and privileges of this world. Grace that seeks to usher in a kingdom without having to seek revenge first. Grace that comes to find us. Grace that is not only for us, but for others. Grace that runs first and fastest toward each of us, in our worst moments, in our times of weakest vulnerability, to embrace us and tell us that there is, indeed, good news and hope for our future.
Because God’s honeymoon period with us is exceeding long. Eternal, even. And this journey of faith will be rich and full, not despite the surprises and challenges, but because of them.
For at the end of this journey of faith is a world renewed.
The poor are satisfied.
The captives have been unbound.
The sick and suffering have been healed.
The oppressed have gone free.
And all people, and all creation, will know God’s favor, God’s peace, and God’s life.
If this really is the good news that Jesus brings, I’m ready to be surprised by it. Aren’t you?