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Sermon for 4th Epiphany, Year C, January 30, 2022 (The Rev. Steve Sturgeon)

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

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Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) AMEN

Last week in our gospel reading we heard about how Jesus returned to his hometown at the start of his ministry and preached in the local synagogue. The text for his sermon was a passage from Isaiah, which promised that God’s Messiah would redeem the oppressed. At the end of the reading, with all eyes in the synagogue upon him, Jesus gave perhaps the shortest sermon ever recorded when he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Then things took an interesting turn.

Trying to figure out what is happening in today’s passage is a challenge, to put it mildly. Why did things turn so ugly so fast? Who insulted whom first, Jesus or the crowd? Probably all of us have had the experience of misreading an email or text message. What the sender intends as a joke, the recipient perceives as an insult. It is during such moments that we realize how crucial verbal cues and facial expressions can be in helping us to understand fully what someone is trying to say. We have the same dilemma with this reading, since we do not have any other clues than the words on the page. We also have the challenge of not just trying to figure what the people were meaning to say, but also what Luke’s purpose is in recounting this episode in this particular way. While the other gospels also describe a similar incident, Luke includes details unique to his version. (Matthew 13:53–58, Mark 6:1–6a; John splits this episode into four different events: 4:44, 6:42, 7:5 & 15.)

Understanding what is going on as a whole depends upon how you interpret the individual parts. We are told that the folks in the synagogue spoke highly of Jesus in response to his sermon, but the question “Is not this Joseph’s son?” could either express approval (such as, “Who would have thought that Joseph’s son would one day be a prophet?”) or criticism (such as, “Does he really expect us to believe that Joseph’s son is a prophet?”). Absent hearing their voice tones, either possibility could be true. Given the crowds’ initial complementary remarks the first explanation makes sense, but given how suddenly combative things become the second explanation might be more accurate. Of course, there is also a note of irony in all of this, because Luke has made it quite clear that Jesus is, in fact, not Joseph’s son. (R. Alan Culpepper, “Commentary and Reflections on the Gospel of Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 106–107.)

Next we have Jesus quoting a proverb well known in the ancient Jewish and Greek world. Is he saying this because he feels the crowd has insulted him, or is he the one casting the first insult? The key question is to try and figure out who ‘yourself’ is referring to in this use of the proverb. If it refers to Jesus (which would be the standard way to read it), then it suggests that the crowd is perhaps turning against him and that the ‘Joseph’s son’ question was in fact an insult. However, ‘yourself’ could refer to the town of Nazareth, especially in light of the next sentence in which Jesus criticizes them for wanting him to do an encore to the things he did in Capernaum (which oddly enough in the Gospel of Luke is not mentioned until after this passage). Jesus is seeing into their hearts, and/or knows them too well after growing up there, so he realizes that the folks in the synagogue are not interested in having the oppressed set free by the Messiah, but rather are more interested in the fame and glory that the Messiah would bring to Nazareth. No longer would their town be invisible and unimportant to the rest of the world. Maybe some of them are already thinking about opening a gift shop selling t-shirts, snow globes, and collectable spoons. And if in fact the motivation of their desires was more material than spiritual, their vision has, indeed, come to pass. Nazareth today is famous, and amply supplied with gift shops. (Ibid.)

Jesus continues to castigate them for missing the point when he quotes yet another proverb about prophets and their hometowns. (A proverb that Jesus is recorded as saying, with differing wording, in all four gospels.) What is interesting to note is that the word used here for ‘hometown’ can also mean ‘home country,’ a double meaning that takes on significance as Jesus continues talking and shifts his criticism from the town of Nazareth to the people of Israel. Jesus makes it clear that, just as he is not going to do a ‘dog and pony’ show for the town of Nazareth, the liberation he is offering (as described in Isaiah) will be available not just to his people, the Jews, but to all people. Jesus then cites two examples from the Old Testament of God’s grace and healing being given to foreigners rather than the people of Israel. The first, in which the great prophet Elijah went to minister to the needs of a widow and her son in the Phoenician city of Sidon (1 Kings 17:1–18:3), and the second, when Elijah’s successor, Elisha, cured a Syrian military commander of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:1–14). (Ibid.)

The crowd, not surprisingly, becomes angry in response to what Jesus is saying, and they take him out and attempt to throw him off a cliff. Jesus, however, passes through the crowd and continues on his way. In this instance we once again encounter Luke shaping the story. Just as he edited together the passage from Isaiah that Jesus read last week, so too Luke is altering the local landscape in today’s passage. There are no cliffs anywhere around Nazareth. Perhaps Luke is foreshadowing Jesus’ eventual death, when he was led out of the city of Jerusalem and executed on a hill. Or perhaps Luke is indicating that the hostile reaction of the crowd was no deterrent to Jesus and his mission. The last phrase in this reading can also be translated, “He was going on.” The heart of the conflict between Jesus and the people in the synagogue was over different understandings of scripture. The folks in Nazareth believed that God’s promise of a Messiah was exclusive to Israel, and that the Messiah would liberate the Jews from foreign oppression. Jesus, instead, promised that the Messiah would liberate everyone. Thus the crowd rejected both Jesus and his message—a warning to us, as well, when we, as Christians, seek to limit God’s glory to only ourselves. (Ibid., p. 108.)

The gospel passage today is an uncomfortable one, not just because it raises the question of whether in our hearts we do not truly want to hear what Jesus is trying to say, but also because the Jesus we read about in this passage is not the warm and fuzzy Jesus that we want him to be. This Jesus is ‘in your face’. He is the guy at the family gathering who breaks the unspoken truce and brings up topics that the rest would prefer not to discuss. So is Jesus someone who is throwing rocks just for the sake of shattering glass, or is there a purpose to his behavior? Jesus is motivated by love, albeit a tough love—the kind of love where you are willing to risk creating a short-term rupture in the hope of fostering a longer-term healing. (Jeffrey D. Jones, “Homiletical Perspective on 1 Corinthians 13:1–13,” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 307.)

This is the type of love that Paul is writing about in today’s reading from First Corinthians. This passage is routinely read at weddings, to the point that we often do not even really listen to it closely. Taken out of context, this passage sounds like it is simply a meditation on romantic love, something that perhaps could have been written by Shakespeare rather than the Apostle Paul. However, Paul was not exactly known as a sentimental fool given to writing dreamy reflections. Rather, Paul wrote this celebration of love with a particular purpose in mind. His first letter to the Christian community at Corinth was designed to deflate their egos. Community members had become divided due to a petty, informal competition that had arisen amongst themselves regarding which ones had the greatest type of spiritual gift: prophecy or speaking in tongues or self–denial. (Ibid., p. 303.)

When you keep this in mind while reading the first paragraph, you suddenly realize that Paul is not simply extolling how wonderful love is, but rather he is stating how essential love is in order to ground our actions and abilities fully in Christ. Otherwise our motivation too easily becomes a desire to show off or engage in one-upmanship. Love never starts with the question: “What is in it for me?” but rather “What is best for you?” Love is not simply the warm and fuzzy feeling that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day; love instead is an action, as we see in the second paragraph. The type of love that Paul is practicing in his letter is tough love; his action in writing it is based in love, in the hope that the Christians in Corinth will amend their ways and practice love within their community. This is also the type of love that Jesus wishes the Jews in Nazareth would embrace: a broader, fuller, and more inclusive understanding and practice of love. One that embodies God’s love fully, and manifests it to the world. (Ibid., p. 303, 305, 307; J. Paul Sampley, “Commentary and Reflections on the First Letter to the Corinthians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X, p. 952; Lewis F. Galloway, “Pastoral Perspective on 1 Corinthians 13:1–13,” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 304.)


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