2019-02-03/4th Sunday after Epiphany-C/Rev. Joseph M. Vought
Jesus’ homecoming sermon in Nazareth from Isaiah ch. 61 was quite an event: “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 captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus ended, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke says they were amazed and then another reaction, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” We may be all grown-up with family, career and dismissed by relatives. At family reunions, my aunt remembers me as an acne-faced teenager with long freaky hair. At college reunions, “You’re a preacher, Really? I remember you at Frat parties.” It can be hard to see the hand of God in a familiar face.
Jesus knew himself to be chosen by God. When he got lost in Jerusalem, he told his parents, “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?” At His Baptism, he heard God’s voice “You are my Son, the Beloved.” When satan tempted, “If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus responded, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” When Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” he was saying, “God is in me and my word is Good News.” But those who look closely at Isaiah 61, the Good News of redemption, notice Jesus left something out. The full quote reads, “to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord and a day of vengeance of our God.” It’s one thing for Jesus all grown-up, quoting Isaiah announcing he will be God’s voice, now maybe they’re thinking, “He misquotes Isaiah, he skips the vengeance part? Who does he think he is?”
A couple visiting my former parish joined our new member class. In our discussions I explained, when it comes to the notion of hell we are mostly agnostic. Quoting Luther, “We let God be God and concentrate on the Good News which will often confound us.” That was the deal-breaker. The man said, “Heaven won’t be nearly as wonderful unless there is hell for those who deserve it.” I was stunned. How sad. We want the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness for ourselves and those we love, but we are just as content to mete out God’s justice for others? Jesus got in trouble when he said there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time during a famine, yet Elijah was sent to none of them but a widow in Sidon, a foreigner. And there were many lepers in Israel in Elisha’s time and none of them were cleansed but Naaman the Syrian and an enemy of Israel. Fr. Robert Farrar Capon once said, “Hell is for people who can’t stand the guest-list of heaven.” If the Good News of God’s love for the world is only good news for some, then it is not good news. When Jesus said their God was too small, they had had enough.
By the end of the Gospel the hometown crowd, the people we identify with, are the ones who are judged and outsiders, the ones we thought beyond the pale of God’s grace are blessed. It’s Jesus favorite way of telling the Good News in Luke’s Gospel: the story of two men who went up to pray in the temple: one, a good religious person is shown to be full of pride, while a sinner/tax collector is the repentant one who receives grace. Or a Father with two sons, one who is lost, comes home with his tail between his legs wanting to earn his way back into the Father’s favor, and an elder brother who thinks little brother ought to get what’s coming to him, and that, for his part, he’s been the good boy and deserves a party. Both discover it’s not about them but a loving Father who welcomes his children because they are His children.
We do not have God in our back pocket. With God there is no hometown favorite, most favored nation status, denomination or religion. This God is a God of Love and grace for all of his lost human creation. This God will change and confound you and call to himself people you wouldn’t be caught dead with. But then God dares to do even that, Jesus goes His way today, not ours, all the way to the cross. He keeps sharing Good News and welcoming all people. “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 captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor.”
This is the kind of faith, hope and love we may give our lives to because Jesus has given His life to us. We are about building bridges not walls. We open our doors. We are called to live up to our name, to build community and invite everyone in. We care for the world God loves. We give thanks for Rabbi Joe who is here today and our Jewish brothers and sisters in the faith. We know that we Christians are just the wild olive branch grafted into the olive tree and promises of God to Israel. We make common cause with people of all faiths and goodwill. The Good News of God will comfort the afflicted and afflict us who are sometimes too prideful and comfortable. I think it means taking risks to speak the truth in love, a love that bears all things, believes all things hopes all things and endures all things. Oh and by the way, it’s also the kind of tough and honest love that can get you in trouble with your friends and family and congregation. It may even get you killed but it is the only truth and love worth living for. Amen.