When I was going through the ordination process, I was asked again and again to explain my experience of God’s call to serve. The question was a bit embarrassing for me, because I didn’t have a dramatic story to tell. For me, God’s call came as a rather vague sense of spiritual hunger. Have you ever been hungry but didn’t know what you wanted to eat? You look through the cupboard, and you root around in the refrigerator trying to figure out what it is that you are craving. Well, that’s what it was like for me when I first experienced God’s call. But God’s call comes in many shapes and forms, and in today’s scripture readings, we have references to three rather dramatic calls to ministry.
First, we heard the story of Isaiah’s call to serve God as his prophet. It begins with a vision of God’s throne room in Heaven. Isaiah sees God himself sitting on a throne, being served by fearsome seraphs singing God’s praise. (And the song they sing should sound familiar, for it is the Sanctus, which we sing at every Eucharist.) Isaiah cowers in fear and shame, bemoaning his sinfulness and the sinfulness of his people. A seraph responds by touching Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal, thereby purifying him from his sin. Ouch! Then God speaks out, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” With unbelievable bravery, Isaiah pipes up, “Here am I; send me!”
Now, the lectionary allows us to stop there, on a high note. But if we do that, we miss Isaiah’s actual commission. As it turns out, Isaiah is given the difficult job of going to his people and pronouncing God’s judgment on them. God warns Isaiah that his message will fall on deaf ears. The Children of Israel are expected to do what American children do when they see or hear what they don’t like. They close their eyes. They put their hands over their ears. And they try to drown out the unwanted message by intoning, “La, la, la, la, la….”
Today we get part 2 of the story of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. You may recall from last week’s Gospel reading that Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. What he read was a mission statement for the Messiah of God: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim the release of captives, to give sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and finally, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (also known as the Year of Jubilee). After finishing the reading, Jesus began his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now, I warned you last week that the story doesn’t end well. I wasn’t exaggerating, was I? At first, the reaction of the congregation is one of amazement. They are astonished that the son of the town carpenter could preach so eloquently. Seemingly, Jesus had his audience right in the palm of his hands. But then, almost inexplicably, Jesus verbally attacks his audience, accusing them of lack of faith, of needing to see miracles before they will believe. Why would he do that? Since we aren’t told why, we just have to guess. My best guess is that, being a prophet, Jesus knew what was in their hearts, maybe even before they knew it themselves. And he does what every prophet of God does when confronting faithlessness, he denounces it.
The congregation couldn’t have enjoyed having their hardness of heart brought to light. But Jesus might have got away with it if only he had stopped there. But he didn’t. He went on to quote two Bible stories about how God had singled out unbelieving Gentiles for his favor. The implication of these two references to Scripture was that he would have more success with unbelieving pagans than with the folks in his home synagogue. Evidently, being unfavorably compared with Gentiles was just too much to take, and the congregation drove Jesus out of the synagogue and tried to push him off a nearby cliff. But Jesus escaped, passing right through the angry mob unscathed.
Two Sundays ago, we heard Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus. According to his chronology, last Sunday’s Gospel reading should have been the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. But instead, the lectionary gave us the wedding feast at Cana. It’s a bit confusing, I’ll admit. Just keep in mind, that Jesus had just come back from 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness when today’s Gospel story begins.
After his ordeal in the wilderness, Jesus then goes home to Nazareth, to the town where he grew up. He does what every good Jew does on a Saturday morning; he goes to the synagogue service. Small synagogues often didn’t have a regular rabbi to preach, so men in the congregation would take turns reading the appointed scriptures and giving some form of commentary or explanation. (Note that in Jesus’ day the preacher stood to read the appointed scripture, then sat to preach. As some of you know, that’s what I like to do at the Tuesday Eucharist.)
It’s not entirely clear whether Jesus read the appointed scripture or one of his choosing. In any case, what he read is a portion of Isaiah that had long been understood to be the job description of the Messiah. Jesus begins his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The rest of the sermon isn’t mentioned. Perhaps the congregation was so stunned by the opening line that the rest of the sermon was a blur!
According to ancient Christian tradition, the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 is linked with three Gospel stories: the visitation of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the wedding feast in Cana. Each of these stories, in its own way, deals with an epiphany, a divine manifestation. In this liturgical year, we are privileged to hear all three of the traditional Epiphany texts over the course of three successive Sundays.
Today’s story takes place at a wedding banquet, which in Jesus’ day was a week-long affair. Friends and family would come and go throughout the week; and the feasting, singing, and dancing would continue each evening. Guests were expected to bring gifts of food and drink to help the groom keep the party going. In return for the wedding gifts, the groom was honor-bound to entertain his guests in style. And if he didn’t, the guests could take their host to court!
In today’s story, disaster strikes. The wine runs out. Jesus’ mother notices the problem and asks her son to do something about it. She realizes that the groom would be publicly shamed and legally liable if the celebration had to be cut short.