4th Sunday after Epiphany
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
3 February 2019
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
In the Gospel lesson this morning we encounter the scene of Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. But Jesus does not fare so well with his hometown fellows. At first, things seem to be fine. People are impressed with his teaching. But then we learn that they were not clear about who he was. Then someone in the crowd said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” We hear this not as a serious question but more as a question of incredulity, along the lines of, “Wait, is that Joseph’s son?” Meaning, “Surely this ordinary boy whom we have known his whole life can’t be the one we’ve been hearing about!”
Jesus was teaching in the synagogue with an authority and a wisdom about the Scriptures that the Nazarene’s thought impossible coming from someone who grew up as a carpenter. Jesus was not a scribe, he had no formal rabbinical training. The Nazarene’s were facing a scene that made no sense to them at all. You can feel the agitation rising in the crowd, as if they were saying to themselves, “Who does this guy think that he is anyway?”
Jesus, of course, does not seem surprised at his hometown reception. We might imagine him replying to their reactions with a sense of tired inevitability about it all. He anticipates their taunts by saying, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure thyself,” and “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” Jesus knows that his fellow Nazarene’s will want some sort of exceptional demonstration from him. They feel entitled to some special proof that will ratify his authority and prove to them he has overcome his humble beginnings and is now someone to whom they should listen.
The bottom line is that the Nazarene’s don’t readily accept Jesus’ teachings once they realize who he really is. They are skeptical he could be the famous prophet they’ve been hearing about. They want proof of his extraordinariness. But Jesus knows proving himself to them will be futile. No matter what he does, it won’t be enough. He offers up the famous line, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
He gives them an example of this truth by reminding them of the time when Israel experienced a famine for three and a half years and Yahweh sent the prophet Elijah, not to his chosen people, the Israelites, but only to one widow in Zaraphath (a heathen village, which was not Jewish) and Elisha was sent to only one leper Namaan, the Syrian. This reminder to his fellow Nazarenes infuriates them, since the widow in Zaraphath and Namaan the Syrian were Gentiles. The story states very bluntly that, during a time of famine, the God of Israel overlooked his own people and went to cleanse Gentile sinners. Yawheh overlooked his people during that time because of their hardness of heart and unbelief. Jesus’ point in telling the Nazarene’s that story is quite clear. “Yes, I grew up among you, but you will not benefit from my ministry because of your unbelief.” It is not so much as Jesus is intentionally withholding it from them as a punishment. Rather, he knows that working miracles among them would be fruitless because of their unbelief.
The Nazarene’s are enraged by this stunning comment. So much so that they drove Jesus up the brow of a hill on which their town was built in order to throw him off the cliff. Within the space of a few minutes, the Nazarene’s move from being impressed by the teachings of a stranger, to wanting to kill one of their very own. Jesus somehow manages to get past them and go on his way.
This story is a perfect example of the phrase, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Think of the times when you wouldn’t listen to the advice of someone close to you, your spouse or children or a close friend, but would eagerly accept the same advice from a blog post or a podcast from a perfect stranger. Sometimes, the more familiar we are with people, the more grounds we think we have to dismiss them. We know their flaws and their failings, we see that they have clay feet. The more we know about them the more they may drop lower in our esteem.
This phenomenon also is at play in other areas of life. Most seminarians, will not return to their sending parish for their first call to ministry, or as part of the career at all. Most associates are not considered to become rectors of the parish in which they are associates. Many universities will not hire their own graduate students immediately after they get their PhD. It is hard to see one another in new roles, especially roles of authority, when we have prior experience of one another as equals or when someone might have once been our subordinate.
This phenomenon also speaks to a reality about ways in which we refuse to hear the Word of God. The prominent Reformation theologian John Calvin once commented that “It is not mere ignorance that hinders us [from following the Word of God], but that, of our own accord, we search after grounds of offense, to prevent us from following the path to which God invites.”
Rarely do we refuse to follow Christ because we lack information or because we don’t know what is required of us. Rather, we refuse to follow Christ because our hearts are hard. We make excuses for not following down the path to which we’ve been invited. Or we convince ourselves that God is really not calling us take up the harder path.
Think about how the Word of God in Scripture is often the first casualty of our familiarity with it. Many of the stories are so familiar that the radicalness of their message is lost on us. Or, we find the Word of God so challenging or offensive to our own sensibilities and expectations, that we immediately dismiss it, or rationalize it, so it aligns better with our own secular worldviews. Think of how many times we have read the Bible and judged it as unworthy of our reading because it is too ancient, patriarchal, sexist, racist, unscientific, naïve, calling us to live up to impossible standards, and so on.
With respect to worship, our familiarity with it can lead to a casualness and irreverence. Our over familiarity with the sacraments can make them feel routine. Worse, we sometimes view the sacraments as consumers looking to get something out of a product, rather than seeing the sacraments as an act of thanksgiving for God’s grace and love, which empower us to live a life as his servants.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if Jesus came to St. John’s. Would we be impressed with him? Would we demand miracles and special demonstrations from him to prove himself? If we did, and then he told us that God would pass over us and save our enemies instead of us, what would we do? Would we be filled with rage? Over which cliff would we try to throw him?
The hard message of Jesus to the Nazarene’s is that they could not benefit from his ministry because of their unbelief. Jesus did not say that he did not love them. He did not say that God did not love them or the Israelites whom he passed over. But he is saying that their contempt for Jesus, and by implication, contempt for God, will prove to be a barrier from their experiencing the his life saving message of unconditional love. The Nazarenes have the capacity for belief. They are just refusing to exercise it. The barrier of contempt that accompanies unbelief is on their side. Not on God’s side.
Our challenge is to ask ourselves in what ways we have contempt for and do not believe the Word of God. In what ways is the Word of God through Scripture trying to speak to us, and what reasons and excuses are we making for dismissing it. In what ways are people with whom we are familiar trying to communicate some important truth to us, yet we dismiss them because we do not count their words as worthy for us to hear.
Despite our various forms of contempt and unbelief of God and for his Word, both conscious and unconscious, God will not give up on us and our hardness of heart. God stands at the closed door of our hearts and continues to knock. He won’t force his way in uninvited. But neither will he walk away. God’s Love is patient. When we have the courage to open up the closed door of our hearts to him, we will see that God’s Love is kind. When we stop being angry and disappointed that God has not lived up to our expectations, we will realize that now we see in a mirror, dimly, but in the end we will see God face to face. We will then know him fully, even as we are now fully known.