Sunday, January 31, 2010

He Passed Through the Midst of Them

     Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 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?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.      Luke 4:21-30
     This week after months of speculation, Apple unveiled its latest creation, the IPad. If you have not been following this news; if you are not a bit of a techno geek like I am, the IPad is 1 ½ pound, 9.7 inch, flat computer tablet with wireless internet. The buzz was good. There have been months of feverish speculation. In the New York Times, Steve Jobs, head of Apple spoke of the IPad with the kind of affection one usually reserves for one’s spouse. He is reported to have said, The IPad “is so much more intimate than a laptop, and it’s so much more capable than a Smartphone with its gorgeous screen.” Now, I do not know if it will do well or poorly. I am not much of a judge. I was the guy who told a friend in high school calculators would never catch on. More amazing than the product, was all the buzz that surrounded it long before people knew anything about it.

     Just like the IPad, the buzz was good about Jesus in today's Gospel. All were speaking well of him. Home town boy makes good! Naturally, he was invited to preach. From his brothers and sisters sitting up close to him, to proud aunts and uncles, to impressed co-workers, all the people of Nazareth first “spoke well of him” and were amazed at his “gracious words”

     So, Jesus preached from 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 let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
     Jesus had a pretty short sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Nothing wrong with a short sermon (can I get an Amen?) Everyone was happy hearing what Jesus said! The Jubilee year, the "year of the Lord’s favor" was meant in Levitical Law to be enacted every 50th year. It is a year of celebration and rest. Debts are forgiven, lands are returned to family ownership, captives are released, and the poor are given a reprieve. Israel was a captive nation; captive to Rome – so this must have sounded pretty good at first. Jesus stopped short in the Isaiah reading. Isaiah goes on to talk about God getting revenge on those who had oppressed God's people. Jesus did not seem to want to preach about revenge... only freedom. He probably would have been more popular if he had just stopped right there. That would have been just the right place for the "Amen".

     But Jesus goes on to tell two stories calculated not to make any friends among a proud and nationalist people. He introduces them by saying, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ Jesus might as well have gotten up and said, "I know you've all heard of the great things I did at Capernaum; well I am not going to do any of them here." You could have heard a pin drop in the synagogue that Saturday!

     He then went on to speak of the poor widow in the city of Zarephath in the country of Sidon. While famine was over the whole land of Israel during the reign of the later kings, it had also struck neighboring gentile nations like Sidon. God sent the prophet Elijah there to a widow who was not an Israelite... she was a Gentile. She had only enough flour and enough oil to make
one small piece of bread. Elijah found her gathering sticks to make a fire to bake the bread and then tear it in half, so she and her son could at least eat something... and then sit and wait to die. Elijah gave her something; somehow, the man of God gave this poor woman hope. He told her to bake the bread, but to bring it to him and then bake some more for her and her son. And what began as a menu of starvation became a feast for Elijah, for that widow, and for her little boy. Miraculously, the little bit of oil and the little bit of flour never ran out for three years and six months

     Jesus went on to speak of Naaman the Leper, a General of the Syrian army whom God healed through Elisha, the prophet who came right after Elijah.

     There were many suffering widows in Israel during that long famine, but Jesus talks about the widow of Zarephath in Sidon who got fed – an alien... a woman... an outsider. There were lots of folks with leprosy in Israel, sick as dogs, covered with sores. They were good, pious people, God’s own people, but God’s mercy went instead to Naaman the Syrian. Jesus knew that his message was not limited to Israel alone, and that this would be unacceptable to his own people. Most people these days do well to remain awake during a sermon; but the folks in Nazareth that day became “enraged.” Are you getting a hint of why Jesus' hometown crowd all of a sudden turned on him and wanted to toss him off a cliff?

     Some commentators say that perhaps in the confusion of the crowd, he was able to slip through them and go on his way... maybe. From what I've seen of mob behavior, and because of the way the hairs on the back of my neck tend to rise when I read the words, "But he passed through the midst of them..." It sounds like a miracle to me.

     Just as in Jesus' day, in our own time people who do not fit the norms of a group, whether social or religious, are still excluded. Sometimes they are excluded because of the color of their skin. Sometimes they are excluded because of their poverty. Sometimes it is because they do not have a home. Sometimes they have different religious or political ideas. Sometimes they are excluded because their relationships – the people they love – are different from other people's. Jesus broke through all barriers Here we see the real reason Jesus was so radical. He really upset his own people who thought they had an exclusive contract with God. They had their own ideas of how God would act. You know what happens when expectations are not met; when you disappoint people. Jesus keeps making the circle bigger while many people are trying instead to circle the wagons.

     This preaching of Jesus is like telling U.S. denominational Christians God is as likely to bless a Muslim Imam as an Episcopal priest. God is equally likely to look with favor on a newborn in Haiti as he is to care for my children. These alarming illustrations of God’s universal love and providence are not acceptable to people whose religion has made God small enough to sit in their churches or synagogues. This is a Gospel that is alarming to those who are so smug and self-righteous they can blame tragedies like we are seeing in Haiti on the poor victims themselves. It is alarming to people who have made God small enough to package and peddle at a church supper or a political convention.

     Most human beings are content to settle for a God smaller than the one Jesus preached. Most prefer a God that is safe, portable... potty-trained. Like shopping for a comfortable lounge chair, first we measure the space available in our living room, or our lives, and then pick out something that fits between TV and stereo. In setting up our church's budget or planning our pledges or considering how we will each serve God, have we already decided that the God we are going to follow in the coming year is just going to have to be scaled down? But God doesn’t dance to our tune. No longer can any one segment of the faith community claim God to be exclusively theirs. God belongs to everyone. That is Jesus' message. God's arms embrace us all.

     Is our God too small? The folks at Nazareth were quite content with a Nazareth-sized God. Have we settled for a Reno-sized God? Maybe a Reno-Sparks God? OK, a Reno-Sparks, AND Sun Valley God. Maybe we are magnanimous enough to have a Nevada God or even... an American God. Still, that is too small a God for Jesus. Our little Nazareths of local limitations send God away.

     Jesus was right there among them with the Gospel, but because their God was too small, Jesus ended up simply walking away unnoticed. Jesus eluded them both physically and spiritually – they did not comprehend who he was, what he was doing, or why he was there. So, this morning, over two thousand years later, we ask ourselves the question, "Is our God too small?" Is our God a local, kind of tribal God, or are we really ready to worship a God who embraces all his children?

     In 1 Corinthians 13, amidst bickering about whose spiritual gifts are best, Paul reminds the church that love is our chief vocation. God's love empowers us to love one another. I am truly known by God, forgiven and loved, and therefore I can turn and love others.

     Are we ready to receive the Gospel of God's radical welcome and love or will Jesus elude us too? Will he abide with us, or will we allow him to just... pass through our midst and go on his way?


  1. I like this. If I preached yesterday it would have been on a similar theme. Our God is always too small, no matter how we try. I find myself brought up short time after time in this area and I think of myself as being pretty inclusive.

  2.      Thank you! I hesitate to post entire sermons (I'm not so sure sermons are meant to be read), but I had a parishioner request this one. The startling thing was I hadn't realized parishioners were following my blog. It's kind of neat.


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