“The Hard Truth”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 3, 2019: Epiphany 4
Jeremiah 1:4-19 & Luke 4:22-30
I’m proud to say that when I gave my first sermon in my hometown church, the congregation did not try to run me off a cliff. It was still a little intimidating, though. Sitting in the front pew were two friends from my school days, friends who could have told stories about potato guns and firecrackers and skipping a day of school once or twice. A few rows back was my elementary Sunday school teacher, who, for some reason, never told my parents about how I would sneak out of Sunday school to drink coffee and eat donuts with the high schoolers. Mixed in there was my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Sawyer, and her husband—who’s name, no joke, is Tom Sawyer—who taught my twelfth-grade government class. I’m sure they have some stories they could tell, too.
But aside from the gitters of getting up in front of people who knew me so well, my first time in the pulpit was rather ordinary. Everyone smiled at me, their seminarian who was laying it all on the line to follow God’s call. No matter how much they had seen, and no matter how much they knew, these people were gracious to me. They were glad to have me home. They were pleased that I was making them proud. They were proud that from within their ranks of about 30-40 souls, God had chosen one of them to be a leader in the church. They even had a delicious pot-luck after worship in my honor.
That’s pretty much how things start out in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel. Jesus has come home to Nazareth. On the sabbath day he goes to the synagogue to worship and preach his first sermon. We heard Jesus’ inaugural sermon last week where he quotes God’s transformative vision from the prophet Isaiah. The people are pleased and proud. “Isn’t that Joseph’s boy?” they ask. “My stars, he was just a poor carpenter when he left us.” “Look at him now.” “Where did he learn to read?” “Where did he get all this authority?” “Maybe he was born with it, but we remember when.” “We’ve heard what he’s doing for people—giving sight to the blind, healing bad arms and legs and hands.” “But he’s still our Jesus.” It really is a beautiful scene. We don’t know much about Jesus’ mother and father, but I like to imagine Mary and Joseph at the back of the synagogue that day, beaming with pride like my parents all those years ago.
So, my friends, what goes wrong? How does this tender and loving and beautiful homecoming turn into something so ugly?
Right in the middle of all the pride and praise, the hometown boy just goes off. He says, “I bet you’re going to quote to me that tired proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself.’ And I bet you want me to do everything here that I’ve been doing in the Gentile land of Capernaum. Well, guess what—no prophet is ever accepted in his hometown. When the prophets of old came to do miracles and wonders, more often than not it was for Israel’s enemies. So back off.” Whoa, Jesus, that’s kind of harsh considering the fanfare and welcome you’ve received. These people are genuinely happy to see you, to hear you speak from a position of authority in the synagogue. Would it be so terrible to do a little miracle here in Nazareth just to keep their spirits up? These people helped raise you, likely cleaned up after you. They love you. Do something to make them smile.
New Testament scholars generally agree that Jesus goes off on his hometown crowd because he is skeptical of their praise. Instead of hearing their question about his relationship to Joseph as a statement of wonder, he probably heard it as a challenge, as a dig, as an insult. Can someone who grew up in the poor house of a carpenter amount to anything at all? Scholars also think Jesus’ behavior has a lot to do with the fact that he knew more about the people in his hometown than they knew about him. He’s just finished reading Isaiah’s prophecy about the year of God’s favor when the blind find sight, the captives are released, the oppressed are relieved, and all the poor of this world find consolation. This makes the people happy and Jesus knows this makes them happy. But then Jesus leaves something out, something that will shatter their happiness bubble. At the end of this part of Isaiah’s prophecy, Isaiah says that God will trample down all of Israel’s enemies, crush them under foot, and restore Israel to its former glory. But Jesus leaves that out. He leaves it out because he’s not just thinking locally like the people in Nazareth. Jesus is thinking globally about how God’s design for creation is so big that it includes Nazareth and Jerusalem and every other town and nation across the globe.
For this to come to pass, there is going to be some changes. Jesus’ mother, Mary, sang about these changes when Jesus was in utero. God is going to lift up the lowly, and bring down anyone who trusts only in their wealth and power. God is going to feed the poor and the hungry, and send away empty those who have stuffed themselves on bad behavior and exploitation. This is what Jesus is talking about when he gives his first sermon in Nazareth, and the poor people of his hometown simply don’t get it. They can only imagine God working in the town where they live with people that look and believe like them. This makes Jesus mad, and to drive his point home he goes on a rant about how he’s willing to do miracles and signs in faraway places but not at home. These miracles and signs are a clear exhibition how far and wide God is reaching into the world. This is what sets off the crowd; this is why they want to get him.
You see, it’s Jesus fault that they turned to murder. He went and did the one thing you’re never supposed to do, even to strangers, let alone to friends and neighbors: he tells them the truth. And it is the hard truth. It is the truth about their pettiness in thinking they are the only people God has any desire to save. It is the truth about their prejudice, prejudice even against one of their own who grew up under different circumstances. It is the truth about their fear that God might be doing something unexpected and out of line with what they want. It is the truth about their willingness, even eagerness, to get ahead at any cost, even at the expense of another. And when Jesus announces the hard truth to them, they want him gone in the most permanent of ways.
That’s pretty much how it usually goes, isn’t it? This text, and the whole gospel from the beginning of Matthew to the end of John isn’t about Jews or Romans. It isn’t about Nazarenes or Jerusalemites. No, its about every race and nation, every person of every kind and circumstance, being included in God’s grand plan for the salvation of the world. Whenever anyone meets the One, Jesus, who tells them this truth, who scatters their xenophobia and prejudices and all the ‘isms’ that infect human relationships, they will go to almost any length to silence the messenger. From the prophets of Israel, to Jesus of Nazareth, to the prophets who have lived and preached in our times, the record is clear: if you dream big dreams, if you tell the truth, you will be hunted down and you will be rejected, beaten, shot, or crucified.
At the very outset of Jesus’ ministry we already see how it’s going to come out. While Jesus somehow gets away today, later on he will be caught. And this time the people will listen a little longer, they will get a little madder, and they will lay their hands on him and nail him to a cross. The humble, though at times temperamental, preacher from Nazareth who came to announce the kingdom of God, who invites us to take part in building the kingdom while enjoying its riches, who healed and preached and did miracles and loved without condition, met his end just three years into his ministry, and end reserved ordinarily for the lowest of the low in the criminal justice system. As his mother stood there by the cross, I’m sure she felt the sword piece her heart just as Simeon said when she presented the baby Jesus in the temple. All because he showed the world what it really was and dared to dream about what it could really be.
Do you think much has changed since that day when Jesus was almost pushed off a cliff? Do you think that if Jesus walked in here today and preached a sermon about change and equity and release and radical hospitality we would welcome that message? Do you think we would smile at him when he challenges our love of the best deal when it is likely through child or forced labor that those deals are possible? Do you think we would smile at him when he starts talking all that stuff about if we cling to our swords we will die by them? Would we welcome him to a potluck if he said over and over again that we are to welcome the stranger, the foreigner, and the outcast? What would we do if he started quoting Scripture to us, the ones about loving enemies and turning the other cheek and giving our coats to the coat-less? Would we shake his hand after worship if he said he was leaving here to go have lunch with some Muslims or Buddhists or Atheists or Democrats or Republicans? Would Jesus be welcomed to this pulpit or would we take him to the overpass on Van Buren and toss him off?
You see, my friends, no matter when and no matter where the gospel of Jesus is proclaimed, people get mad. They get angry. They get indignant. They get incensed. That’s because the gospel of Jesus is a truth that disarms our pretension, forces us to surrender the claim at having it all together; it shows us how imperfect we are and how dependent we are on God and one another to survive. It is counter to everything we are taught as autonomous, free-thinking people and as Americans. The truth that Jesus tells us causes us to die to the old ways so that we can be born again to the new. We come alive in the truth of the gospel, but all we are conditioned to do is crawl back into our protective holes away from anything that might challenge us or make us uncomfortable or make us think. Christ’s truth about us and about the world is that God knows everything about us, and loves us anyway. And not just us, but all the world. This is a God who loves us so much that God will go to any length to redeem us from all the pettiness, shame, and fear that seem so often to overrun even the most successful of lives.
So, we have a choice today, and it really is a choice. We can reject Jesus and his message as if it hasn’t been in our Holy Book for a few millennia and try to chase Jesus off a cliff, out of town, back across the border, back where he came from, or we can cling to the truth that we have received his grace as much and even more than all those others he is constantly preaching about. We can try to sit comfortably in our towers built on self-righteousness and pride, or we can bow in gratitude that Christ brought us up from the pit. We can push Jesus away or we can let him draw us into the divine life of God. We can say his message is contextual and not meant for us, that Jesus was really speaking metaphorically when he commanded us to welcome the stranger, the outcast, the immigrant, or we can start to live his commands and experience life like never before. We can say that someone else will do Jesus’ work, or we can do it ourselves and meet him in every face we encounter. We can be his followers, or we can be hypocrites who say and do one thing in here and then act a completely different way out there. It is the difference between life and death, light and darkness, hope and despair. We can either fear what the party or the denomination or the club might say or we can fear what delights or grieves the heart of Christ.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, today let’s chose a better way. Let’s be the city on the hill. Let’s be the light on the lampstand. Let’s salt the bland and dreary situations of life. Let’s give up fear and while we’re at it, how about we stop letting anyone other than God define who we are or tell us what we should believe or who and what we should fear. Let’s listen, not to respond or to answer, but to understand. Let’s listen for God, in the storms and in the still small voices. Let’s be open, not to the wind that changes direction on a whim, but to the Spirit of God that is always bringing transformation. Let’s bring good new to the poor. Let’s proclaim release the captives. Let’s open the eyes of the blind. And let’s proclaim God’s favor, because that favor is on me and on each and every one of you…all y’all at this moment and in every moment. Believe the good news: the old is dead and gone and the news has come to be; the Scripture has been fulfilled and is still being fulfilled by the one who loves us and wants nothing more for and from us than life in abundance. Amen.