The Unexpected and Inconvenient Word of the Lord

February 3, 2019

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Service for the Lord’s Day with Installation of Vestry Session Officers

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 71:1-6

Luke 4:21-30

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

4:21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 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?” 23 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.'” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 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; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 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. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luke 4:21-30, NRSV)

Let us pray: O God of all the prophets, you knew us and chose us before you formed us in the womb. Fill us with faith that speaks your word, hope that does not disappoint, and love that bears all things for your sake, until that day when we shall know you fully, even as we are known by you. Amen.

In a church a long way from here the preacher stood to preach. Her sermon notes were arranged on the pulpit.  Just as the preacher was about to begin, a woman walked into the sanctuary off the street and proceeded to walk down the center aisle to the front of the sanctuary shouting, “I have a word from the Lord!”

The congregation was startled, this kind of thing never happens in their stately church.  All their heads swirled to see this interruption and to see how the preacher would handle her.  What word from the Lord could this woman possibly bring? Before anyone could find out – the ushers sprang into action and they asked the woman to follow them out of the sanctuary and into the church parlor where they could speak with her and calm her down.

Interesting, isn’t it? Sunday after Sunday, George and I stand up here, he walks and talks and I stand behind this pulpit, we read stories from the bible, and some of them are very strange and when we finish, we say: The Word of The Lord. And you respond: Thanks be to God!

As far as I can tell nobody gets tense or angry.  Your heads don’t spin in concern.  The ushers don’t leap into action. Instead, people follow along in their bibles or the pew bibles. Some of you fiddle with your bulletins. Others of you look at your watches wondering how much longer will he go on? Still others look around gazing out the beautiful windows, watching the squirrels  steal food from the bird feeders. Or you look to make sure your child is not causing trouble and some of you are deep in thought. Nobody is overly concerned when George or I finish the scripture reading and say, The Word of the Lord.

I guess this story points out that how the person who is addressing the congregation is perceived says a lot about how their message will be heard, but that is another sermon for another day.

It was a normal Sabbath in Nazareth, just what you would expect.  A son of the synagogue had come home, Joseph and Mary’s boy, Jesus, was home for the weekend.  He was invited to read the lesson and say a few words.  He was well known by the congregation.   They remembered him as a young boy growing up in their congregation.  They remembered him running through the synagogue and playing with their children.   They remembered his bar mitzvah and what a stellar student he was.   They were proud of him and what he had made of himself.  They heard that he was traveling in Capernaum and other towns preaching and healing. They were so excited for him and that he was one of their own.  So, they settled in to listen to what he had to say.  And he began speaking…The word of the Lord.

We say it, just like we said it moments ago, “Thanks be to God” for the word of the Lord — but do we really want to hear it?  When you stop and think about it the word of the Lord can be disruptive.  The word of the Lord is news, good news, but this good news changes things, and most of us don’t like to change. Someone has said that when we read the newspaper or watch the news on TV, we are not really interested in news.  What we are interested in is confirming that the world is pretty much the same.

“Politician A criticizes politician B.”

“A gunman kills…”

“There is more violence and death in the Middle East.”

“The President tweeted again, and this group of people is upset.”

“Yep! Sure enough, that is what we expected. That is the way the world is and always will be!”

Good news — real good news — is surprising, unexpected and world changing! Good news means that the world is not the way it was yesterday.  A word from the Lord — good news!  Good news means change, and we all know how much Presbyterians and Episcopalians love change.

So, Jesus came home and preached good news to the people of Nazareth.  At first, they listened with a smile.  No one was tense.  No ushers rushed into action.  People in the pew were proud of him.  Think how Mary and Joseph must have been about to burst with pride at what a fine young man their son had grown into.

But then his words sunk in. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today on the first Sunday of February— not yesterday, not sometime in ancient history— but today.  Today these words are fulfilled—fulfilled— coming true, made real, enacted, in your very midst, in your hearing—today! 

What happened that day in Nazareth is this: Jesus preached from Isaiah about God’s love, about God’s grace.   Scripture tells us that all those who heard Jesus, “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  Then in a matter of moments that adoring congregation turns into a lynch mob.  They got up and drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff.

Let’s get this straight:  Jesus preaches about grace, and it makes people so angry that they tried to kill him.  Luke tells us that Jesus reads this passage from Isaiah about God’s grace and reminds the congregation of two stories from the Torah.  One story is about Elijah who helped the widow at Zarephath during a severe famine and the other is about Elisha, who healed a leper of Syria, a foreigner.  Jesus uses the Torah, their sacred text to show his hometown congregation that there is a wideness in God’s grace and that there are no limits to God’s love.  Aha!  That is what happened that day in Nazareth!  Jesus preached the Unexpected and Inconvenient Word of the Lord.

Jesus begins by saying… “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.”  The congregation expected Joseph’s boy to affirm them and to confirm for them their deeply held belief that they alone were the recipients of God’s grace.   But Jesus understood that he is God’s son, and that in his baptism he was anointed to fulfill the purposes of God.  Those purposes include all people, not just the good folks listening to him that day in Nazareth. And when Jesus preached the good news of God’s love and grace, they got angry!

The Bible has a way of doing that to us!  There is a wideness in God’s mercy that sometimes makes us angry.  There is a deep irony in this story: the sinful yet all too human tendency to resent God’s generosity to others.  We are happy to be recipients of God’s grace and generosity, but we get angry when others are included in God’s gift.

In a synagogue on that day, and in our congregation on Super Bowl Sunday and in churches all over the world, somebody is reading scripture.  Somebody is standing up and reading about God, the one who created heaven and earth, who filled the night sky with stars and put fish in the sea, who created and loves human beings with such deep and passionate love that he gave his only Son to die on a cross to save us from our sin — that God loves each of us, all shapes and sizes, all colors and nationalities, all economic classes and physical needs, the well fed and the hungry — and that is Good News and it changes lives.  The great Good News of Scripture, the good news that angered the people at Nazareth that day is that God loves us, all of us!  God always has and God always will.  Friends, this is the word of the Lord. Thanks Be to God!

Let us pray: O God of grace, we long for your presence, but that grace often comes to lead us in surprising directions. Open our hearts to trust the ways of your work among us, most surprisingly in the gift of your son, Jesus. Amen.