A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on January 31, 2016, by Christopher L. Webber.
The gospel we just heard is part two of the story we began last week And the change from Part One to Part Two is really amazing, even frightening. This is, I think, a gospel not easy to hear, not easy to take in, and not easy to respond to.
I said we heard the first part last week, but other things were going on last week and you may not remember, so let me take a leaf from the soap opera serials first of all and summarize “the story so far.” When we tuned in last week we heard Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The custom in those days was to honor a stranger in town by calling him up to the bema to read from the scriptures and to say something about the text. It’s not very different from what happens today when a boy or girl comes of age and reads from the Torah for the first time at a bar or bat mitzvah.
Jesus had come home again after beginning his ministry. Already he had some reputation as a teacher and healer so there was a special interest in what he might say and do back now in his own hometown. So they gave him the scroll to read and 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 proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
It was commonly assumed that that wonderful passage had to do with the coming of the Messiah. So Jesus read it and rolled the scroll back up and sat down there at the front of the synagogue to teach and he began by saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled…” That’s the story so far. That’s where we ended last week and that is also where we began today full of hope and promise.
Jesus says in effect, “You have this wonderful expectation and right now right here it is fulfilled. You are waiting for the Messiah? I’m here.” Good news, right? And that’s where we ended last week, but it’s not the end of the story. This week we find out what happened next.
What happened next was that no sooner are the words out of his mouth then someone in the back row is asking, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Didn’t he grow up here in town? Who does he think he is?” It’s a very natural human reaction, isn’t it? The headline personality goes home and sure there are cheers but I’m sure there are others saying, “So who made you so smart? Who are you to teach us? We remember when you were this grubby little kid, so don’t expect us to forget who you are.” It’s a very human reaction isn’t it? And this week we see what happens: they reject him and throw him out of the synagogue and threaten to kill the very messiah their hopes are centered on.
Jesus did argue back. He reminded them how in time past prophets had come and done great things elsewhere but not in their hometowns. And that, of course, enraged them further. If we are God’s chosen people, the ones who know the law and worship the true God, what business does God have sending prophets and Messiahs to someone else? Yes, but here the messiah is in your own home town, your own place of worship, and you can’t hear, you won’t hear.
Now, I said I find this is frightening because the question I find myself asking is, Could this happen to us, or could this happen to me? Could God speak to me and I not hear? Worse yet, could I hear the message and reject it?
Now it’s not very hard to see what was going on in Nazareth. I think it’s pretty basic human psychology. I start with the assumption that my neighbors and I are pretty good decent people and we’ve got a pretty good thing going for us. We have to think that way; we can’t spend our time in self doubt and self denigration. It’s as basic as the human need to live to some extent by habit and routine. It’s useful to question sometimes, but it’s destructive to question everything always. And where do you draw the line? I eat the same breakfast every day because life isn’t long enough to take time every day to decide whether it will be hot cereal or cold, or waffles, or hash brown potatoes or two eggs on toast sunnyside up? I can’t decide every day whether to go to work or not and which spouse to come home to. I have to assume the decisions made long ago were good ones, that I’m doing things the right way and the best way for me.
Psychiatrists tell us that if we’re forced to make more than two or three critical decisions in a year, we will face serious emotional stress and may need therapeutic help. So when Jesus Christ challenges the hometown people to believe that a prophecy six centuries old has been fulfilled today, January 31, in this place of worship, who can be expected to say, “Terrific; I’ll drop everything and go?” It’s amazing when you think of it that way that there were twelve who did.
So being set in your ways has some advantages, yes, and it could make you miss the messiah. How do we avoid that fate? How can we be open to the new challenges God places before us, and respond when the messiah comes?
Let me make three suggestions: First, I think we might just begin by remembering this story. It could give us a useful perspective just to remember what happened that day in Nazareth. Never were there people so focused on the promise of a messiah, so sure they knew what the messiah would be, and so blind to the messiah God sent. Could that also be us? This church has been here 100 years, some of us are been numbers most of our lives. And even if I’m among the newest members, still I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life and I know they use the Book of Common Prayer in heaven. Could God speak to me in a Baptist church or a Roman Catholic? I have to admit that I don’t go to one with that expectation. But a God worth worshiping is not a God limited by our habits and preferences. We need to remember those people in Nazareth. Remember this story and be ready to hear something new, Something unexpected. I think there are definite lessons to learn.
Second, remember what happened to people who thought they knew the answers and failed to see the Messiah. Don’t get so dug in to old ways that you fail to see what new thing God is doing. Second: say your prayers. Pray for guidance. Pray for awareness. Pray to be open to God’s presence in the unfamiliar, and maybe more important, in the familiar. A very special sunset can always get our attention. Christmas and Easter we wouldn’t miss. We probably take time for grace or a blessing before thanksgiving dinner. But what about at McDonald’s? What about the routine serving of left-overs. What about that cold, rainy Sunday when we were out late the night before? What about the Monday morning when I’m late to work again, and get cut off in traffic and I have a dozen other things to do and I meet someone whose world has just fallen apart and needs a sympathetic word? Am I sensitive to God’s presence, God’s call today, right now, in this new situation? Can I respond to God when my own habits and pressures force me in on my self?
The best remedy I know of is prayer, regular times of informal, unstructured prayer, that help me to reflect on the reality of God daily, daily, moment by moment. An awareness that helps me be ready for surprise, for something new, for an unexpected Messiah.
And perhaps a third response to this morning’s gospel is a little humility. If they were wrong, maybe I could be to. I don’t think so, don’t want to think so, don’t think I am! But I have to admit that I can’t rule out the remote possibility that it could happen, and maybe that will make a difference.
We are moving into new times in this parish. We think we know who Father Darren is, but he has been careful to work with Fr. Lui and he might just have ideas of his own that he’s been waiting for an opportunity to try. What if he asks us to sing a new hymn or say a different prayer or sing something we’re used to saying? The people in Nazareth said, “Who does this man think he is?” I could try it out or I could close the book and not try and maybe miss a Messianic experience.
Or maybe we’ve already decided that Fr. Darren IS the Messiah and now all our problems our over. The people of Nazareth, as I said, thought they knew the answers already and missed the Messiah. Can we try to listen and understand and not simply say “my way or the highway.” But not just here in church by any means. Do I think Ted Cruz or Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton Is the only one who can solve our problems? No, I don’t. But one of them may have to try and I have to listen and watch and give one of them the chance to try. Built into our democratic system is the need for a deep Christian instinct for humility – the need to recognize our human limitations and the possibility that we can learn from someone else and even benefit from new insights and a different approach.
Democracy is built on a Biblical understanding of human fallibility. Power has to be limited and subject to change. There’s no growth without change. We have to be ready to change because we know a God so far beyond ourselves that we can never be confident we have all the answers, that we have all the truth. A deep and faithful humility recognizes that God’s wisdom is infinitely beyond ours and may be speaking to us through someone of different faith and different politics and different experience. So I think we should let today’s gospel worry us, even frighten us. If the messiah came to this church today, would we be willing to listen, would we be ready to respond? We hope so certainly, but we can’t ever be sure.
Remember what happened in Nazareth. Pray that we will be open and responsive and humble, that we will know how great God is and how limited is our understanding. They say that only human beings in all God’s creation never lose the capacity to change and grow. That’s a great gift. Let’s not lose it.
© 2016 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.