Monday, February 1, 2016

"Disturbingly Good News". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Luke 4:21-31, preached on January 31, 2016

"Disturbingly Good News"
Luke 4:21-31

Today’s Gospel lesson picks up where we left off last week. Jesus has gone back to Nazareth, his hometown.  He’s been asked to read the scripture at the Friday night service at the synagogue.  He stands up to read and is handed the scroll containing the Book of Isaiah.  He reads,
            “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…
            So far, so good.   The people in the synagogue of Nazareth were amazed at the gracious words that came from Jesus’ mouth and spoke well of him. 
            Luke’s story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue is perplexing.   Everything starts out so well.  Then worship erupts in a brawl.  They want to throw Jesus off a cliff!
            You’ve heard it before:  I have good news and I have bad news.   How you hear it, and whether you hear it as good news or bad news depends on where you stand.  For some people, it’s good news.  For others, it’s bad news.
            Every preacher has bad days and sermons that don’t go over well.   We like to forget days like that.  But Luke wants us to remember this sermon that evoked such violent reaction.  Why did they want to kill Jesus? 
            If the first point of Jesus’ sermon was that this is “the year of the Lord’s favor,” the second point of the sermon was that “the Lord’s favor” was extended toward everyone—absolutely everyone. 
            This passage is a declaration of the nature of the gospel.   The good news isn’t about protecting privilege and power, but rather being part of the fulfillment of God’s vision of justice and peace.  “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 is preaching a God whose favor falls upon the just and the unjust… the righteous and the unrighteous…the faithful and the unfaithful.  That hardly seems fair.  It offends our sense of fairness.
            Jesus is proclaiming a gospel of freedom and healing for those on the margins:  those who are among the working poor and the poorest of the poor… those who long to live in safety and freedom… those who struggle against addiction and their families… those who need various kinds of healing. 
            And Jesus’ illustrations!  They grated against the peoples’ expectations.  As Jesus told the people in his hometown, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah—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, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.
            Sidon, of course, is in modern-day Lebanon; and Syria is still Syria.  This isn’t what the people of Nazareth expected.   It doesn’t sound like good news to them. 
            The good news / bad news is that Jesus doesn’t appear in history in order to give people what they want and expect.   He came to transform human life.  He comes to change things.  He comes to change us.
            Luke begins telling about Jesus’ ministry with the story of the sermon in Nazareth because if we are going to hear the good news Jesus brings, the way we hear good news has to change.  We can’t hear what Jesus has to say with ears attuned to “us” and “them.”  Luke wants us to understand that the gospel is good news for anyone who will receive it as good news of God’s mercy. 
            The good news is for everybody, Luke insists.  Luke begins his gospel with this conflict about us and them, but before his story is over at the end of the Acts of the Apostles, every kind of person he can think of will be brought into the embrace of the good news:  rich and poor…women and men…aristocrats and beggars…Romans and Jews, and people of every nationality under heaven.  Ethiopian eunuchs, for heaven’s sake!!  There is no “them” in the gospel of Luke, only “us”—the family of God in Christ.  Luke underlines the point by telling us how Jesus said the most scandalous things, like “God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”[1]  Even “those people.”   Those other people.

            As Peter Gomes wrote, “the people take offense, not so much with what Jesus claims about himself, as with the claims that he makes about a God who is more than their own tribal deity.”[2] 
            The eyes of everyone in the synagogue are fixed on Jesus, and he’s turning their expectations on their head.
            Fred Craddock describes our difficulty in reading the gospel of Luke by saying that “We are ‘either/or’ people in the hands of a ‘both/and’ God.[3]
            Throughout the gospel of Luke, we see Jesus demonstrating the intentions of this “both/and” God.  It’s in Luke’s gospel that we find the parable of the prodigal son.  The younger son takes his inheritance, goes away and blows it, comes back broke and beaten.  The dutiful, obedient older son who never left home wants nothing to do with him.  The loving father goes out to both sons, the younger one and the older one, the irresponsible one and the responsible one.  The father reaches out to both/and. 
            “We are ‘either/or’ people in the hands of a ‘both/and’ God.”  That makes a lot of people uncomfortable.  The way Luke tells it, some people get mad enough to murder Jesus.

            The movie “Ruby Bridges” is based on the true story of what happened to a six-year-old African-American child when the federal government ordered the New Orleans public schools to integrate in the 1960’s.  Ruby Bridges was one of several little girls who were picked to be the first African-Americans to attend the all white public schools. 
            The scenes in which Ruby entered the school, protected by federal marshals, surrounded by a screaming crowd of protesters, was a powerful reminder of how violent and ugly people can be when their idea of how things are supposed to be is threatened. 
            Probably most of the people in that crowd went to church on Sundays.  They were parents who loved their children and thought they were doing what was best for them when they told them they shouldn’t play with African-American children.
            In one scene, set in the teacher’s lounge, a teacher said a quick grace as she prepared to eat lunch, before spewing racist comments to justify her opinion that persons of color didn’t belong in their school.
            It’s hard to deal with a Christ who confronts our settled ideas about things.  The Christ is surely the one who comforts and helps us.  But the Christ is also the one who challenges and upsets us.
            What made the hometown folk in Nazareth want to kill Jesus?  All were speaking well of him and are amazed at the gracious words that come out of his mouth--  until he begins to attack their sense of community and their ideas about how things are supposed to be. 
            The people of Nazareth want Jesus to do what he did in Capernaum.  They are his own kin, after all, not a bunch of strangers like the people in Capernaum.  He belongs to them.  They have a special claim on him which they expect him to honor by doing his best for them.
            As far as we know, Jesus did nothing for the people of Nazareth--  except remind them that God’s sense of community is bigger then theirs was.  He offended them by telling them not one but two stories about how God had passed over them and their kind in order to minister to strangers--  first the widow from the wrong side of the tracks in Zarephath   and then Naaman the Syrian, who was an officer in the army of Israel’s enemies.                      Can you imagine? 
            Now, Jesus wasn’t telling them anything new.   He was telling them things that were in their own scriptures--  but that wasn’t how they used scripture.         We don’t like to hear that our enemies are God’s friends.   We don’t like it when someone suggests that God loves the people we don’t want to sit next to--  the people who disturb or offend us.  The people who belong to God just as surely as we do.
            No matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to get God to respect our boundaries.  God keeps breaking down our barriers or plowing right through them.
            The gospel of Jesus Christ dares us to believe that it is God who makes us a community.  We are here because God has invited us here, out of God’s amazing, gracious love.  We are dared to believe that our differences are God’s best tools for opening us up to the truth that is bigger than we are.  The truth is always more than any one of us can grasp all by ourselves. 

            The epistle lessons we’ve been hearing over the past few weeks from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians remind us that “there are varieties of gifts, varieties of services, varieties of activities, which all come from the same God.  In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, which has many parts.  Every one of the parts of the body is important, and none is more important than the others.  We are all part of this body of Christ together.  We belong together, in this community, through our baptism, because God wants us to be here together.
            It’s hard for us to comprehend this.  We only have a partial understanding now, because we aren’t fully mature in the faith yet.  We think like a child, and reason like a child.  We can only see dimly, like looking into an old polished metal mirror.
            In the meantime, we are called to work at living together with one another in community.  We are called to remember:  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way.  It is not irritable or resentful.  It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends....
            Words to live by--  with our friends, and with God’s friends.
            The truth is always more than any one of us can grasp all by ourselves.   It takes a world full of strangers and friends to tell us the parts we can’t see yet,   and sometimes we want to kill them for it.  Jesus’ own people tried to kill him, more than once.  They drove him out of town and wanted to hurl him off the cliff.  But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
            We need the gifts of those who are still strangers to us.  God keeps sending strangers to us challenge our ideas when we get too settled in our little ideas about who belongs in God’s community and who doesn’t--   and open ourselves to bigger and more inclusive and gracious ideas about community.  Jesus won’t force us to listen   or to change our minds.  But he will keep calling us to care about those he loves, including refugees and immigrants… and the people of Flint… and anyone who lives on the margins… anyone who needs healing or longs to live in safety and freedom.  His teachings challenge us to see people through the eyes of love… and to see the face of Christ in the face of those we see as “the least of these.”
            God in Christ keeps passing right through our midst and go on the way of self-giving love, bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives and recovery of sight to those who are unable to see, freeing those who are oppressed, and proclaiming the year of God’s favor.  
            Jesus calls us to follow, but we have to choose.
            How will we respond?           

[1] Luke 6:35
[2] Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good about the Good News? (New York: HarperOne, 2007), p. 39, cited in Feasting on the Word.
[3] Fred Craddock, in a lecture at Columbia Theological Seminary, January 1983, quoted by Patrick Willson, in his sermon “Mission as a motive for murder,” at

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