The collect and readings for today, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany may be found here. The appointed gospel is Luke 4:21-30:
21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23He 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.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But 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; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They 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. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
How wild is your Jesus? Is Jesus for you the one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, the one anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor ? Or is he simply Joseph’s son, the hometown boy you have known, watched, and heard about for years?
That seems to be both the question and the source of conflict in today’s gospel; not only for the those of Jesus’ day but for us today. We are not too comfortable with those who are wild, uncontrollable, and unpredictable. Think how often we tell our children, “Settle down, be still, not so loud.” Too often we label as trouble makers, radicals, rebels, even heretics those who would upset the status quo, challenge what has always been, ask hard questions, and speak new truths. The late Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camera is quoted as having said, “When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist.”
We prefer that others act in accordance with what we believe is acceptable and appropriate. We want them to stay with boundaries that make us feel safe. And so we often seek to domesticate and tame the wild ones, even Jesus. And yet God’s ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. With this in mind it should come as no surprise that today’s gospel ends with the religious people enraged and seeking to kill Jesus, the ultimate domestication.
Today’s gospel is the continuation of last week’s gospel. Jesus is fresh from the wilderness, a wild man entering the synagogue to teach. Jesus has for them not only a message but a mission. He speaks about good news to the poor, the oppressed, the captive, and the blind. He describes a new world of freedom and release, the year of the Lord’s favor. He focuses on the least, the lost, the last, and the left behind. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he says. And true hearing always implies action, obedience to what is heard.
But the message is hard to hear and the domestication begins. “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?’”
Perhaps the easiest way to ignore a message is to focus on the messenger. Sometimes we do this with amazement at how gracious their words are and other times with rage when they do not think, speak, or act as we want them to. And that is exactly what the people of Nazareth do. They begin to re-image and categorize Jesus in ways that are less threatening, will maintain the status quo, and allow them to avoid looking at the reality of their life and who God really is. After all is not that what happens when we return to our own hometowns. We tend to be viewed as we were, not as we are. Jesus for them is not the anointed one, the one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests. He is Joseph’s boy.
Like the Nazarenes we often try to mold Jesus to fit into the hometown, the ways with which we are most familiar and comfortable, a place where not much changes and it is business as usual. If we can make Jesus the hometown boy then surely we, his own people, his own family and friends, should benefit first, right? Do for us, Jesus, the things we heard you did at Capernaum – release us from our demons, heal our sick.
Ever the wild man, Jesus will not allow himself to be domesticated. He does not respond like they want. He performs no miracles. Instead he tells them stories about how God cannot and will not be tamed, enclosed, or limited; stories about how God’s grace was poured out not on the hometown but on foreigners and pagans. The truth is, he says,
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; 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.” This is their final attempt to domesticate Jesus “but he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
He did not go on his way because he was rejected. He was rejected because he would not be tamed, because he would not play the role of the hometown kid. If we are honest that is what we want, at least sometimes. We want a God we can control, one that will do what we want, when we want, and for whom we want. We want God to favor us as opposed to “them.” We want to tame God.
But God is a wilderness God and will not be tamed. In Jesus God is always crossing boundaries, loving people we deem unacceptable, making first the last, raising up the least, going back for those left behind, and finding the lost and forgotten ones. His message is sometimes difficult to hear and accept. It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. If we cannot accept that we will be left filled with rage seeking to hurl Jesus and his message off the cliff.
If, however, we are the people in whose hearing this scripture has been fulfilled we will be on our way following and obedient to the untamable one. So, how wild is your Jesus?
*Portions of this sermon were inspired by the work of Susan Fleming McGurgan.