Sunday, January 28, 2007

The value of listening

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Among preachers there’s a saying—that you really haven’t preached a great sermon until you’ve gotten some death threats. And when you stand in the pulpit, don’t be afraid to be run out of town, for you'll be in good company. (Still, part of me hopes this sermon doesn’t rise to that level of greatness.)

Believe it or not, that is the kind of reaction that Jesus ended up with after giving his message on Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth. We heard the first part of the story last week. Jesus takes a scroll from Isaiah and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

When he sits down, it is not because he is finished, but because this is the traditional posture of rabbinic teaching. All eyes are fixed on Jesus, waiting for his comments on the text, when at last he says, “Today this scripture that you have just heard has been fulfilled.”

Jesus' public ministry began with this proclamation of the kingdom of God. The text he read was an Old Testament prophecy of the coming messiah. Jesus then tells them explicitly, the Messiah has now come; the messianic age you just heard about is dawning right here in your very midst. What good news! Or is it?

I’m sure there was a period of stunned silence. Then whispers begin: “What did he say?” “Did you hear him?” “Isn’t that Joseph’s boy?” The mood is amazement, but not without some growing hostility. He appears to be saying some extra-ordinary things, but they are skeptical of their truthfulness. Perhaps there is a turning point in their reaction. They start to wonder, Who does this guy think he is? Where has he gotten such supposed wisdom? Isn’t he just one of us . . . some guy who grew up down the street? What makes this preacher so distinguished? “Anointed by God”!? “This scripture has just been fulfilled”!? You've got to be kidding me.

Jesus could not help but overhear their whispered reactions. He says, “I’m sure you’re about to quote to me the old proverb ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ Or, 'Why don’t you show us some of these Messianic powers others may have seen?' Very truly, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”

Jesus is articulating their own rejection of him. A variant reading of this verse makes the meaning a little more direct: “No prophet is acceptable in his own country, and no physician works his cures on those who know him.” Something about familiarity may block God’s work. Now we see the cause of their rage. Jesus just announced the coming of God’s kingdom and his Messiah, but they are becoming keenly aware that they don’t fit his description. It is a curious thing that so often we interpret good news for others as bad news for us.His sermon might well have been: “God’s real people look nothing like you.”

“The poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed . . . okay, but what about me?” We know that this is the message their getting because of what Jesus says next. He tells them it should not be so surprising for God to bypass us and go to those we least expect.

Jesus gives two examples. Once there was a drought in Israel, and during that time of scarcity of food, God only sent his Prophet Elijah during that time to a Shulamite woman (that is, to work a miracle for a non-Jew outside Israel). Again, his successor Elisha ignored all the Israelites with leprosy, but was sent to heal Naaman the Syrian instead (another miracle reserved for a non-Jew outside Israel).

But the kicker is that Jesus seems to indicate that God would be more than happy to work wonders among them, except that their own pride has made that impossible. This was just too much to bear. 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 where their town was built, so that they might throw him off the cliff. But he slipped through the crowd and got away.

It would not be the only time he would slip out of the hands of an angry mob. Ultimately, when the time was right in God’s plan, Jesus surrendered himself to a mob's demands for his life, and in doing so worked wonders among them at the cross . . . showing his Messianic identity to those once spiritually blind, healing the broken-hearted, releasing those held captive by the chains of sin, liberating the oppressed, and ushering in the kingdom of God.

What ought to get us a little upset this evening is that perhaps the saints of God don’t look a whole lot like you and me. Or to say it the other way around, perhaps you and I don't look a whole lot like the saints of God. And that needs to change. Perhaps some of our pride—our preoccupation with ourselves, our needs, our wants—has blinded us to God’s wonders among us. That's something about us that can change with the help of God's grace.

It has enabled us not to recognize and appreciate the good work that God is doing right now among those who are not . . . (fill in the blank--Americans, middle-class, Episcopalians or even Christians). But the greater danger is that our spiritual blinders may not only keep us from recognizing God’s goodness elsewhere, it may keep us from being a part of it right where we are.

This was the case for all but one of the twelve when it came to Jesus’ final hour. All but one were unwilling to heed the message of suffering which they simply did not agree with nor want to be a part of. All but one scattered, ran away, and even betrayed Jesus. Each of us today is lucky that in this case; their involvement was not a necessary for God to work the mighty wonder of salvation at the cross, where Jesus atoned for the sins of the world, and released us from the captivity of sin and death. It was something he did for us on his own. But now is the time to make our own.

Let us pray for the grace of humility, that the next time the Lord has a word for you in your life (especially a message that you may not like hearing), you may not be like his townspeople who refused to hear Jesus and tried to throw him off a cliff. Let us be more like those he went to next in capernaum who listening to his message and recognized his authority. Let us answer God's message like the little boy Samuel who responded to God’s voice saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."

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