Year C — The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for February 3, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Jeremiah 1:4-10
The striking line is in v. 7: “Do not say to me, ‘I am only a boy….'” Jeremiah is not allowed to excuse himself from doing his duty — nor is anyone else allowed to dismiss him —  because of his youth or inexperience.

This will play in to the gospel reading for today, where the synagogue-goers of Jesus’ hometown see him as merely “Joseph’s son” — who is he to speak so sharply to them, to deliver a message of God’s faithfulness to outsiders while passing over those who ought to be first in line for the blessing?

There are a number of “boys” (and a couple of “girls,” too) who figure fairly prominently in the ongoing story of God’s work in the world. Joseph and David spring to mind — so does Mary. It appears that both Jeremiah and Jesus are in good company.

Psalm 71:1-6
The psalm continues the theme of God’s watch care over the young. Perhaps a psalm David penned after one of his near brushes with death?

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Ah, the lofty language of 1 Corinthians 13! 

What an awesome text — beautiful as it may be for wedding ceremonies — it fully deserves to be read in this context and considered for the power of its challenging call to “true love.”

What preacher would not like to be gifted with the “tongues of mortals and angels” — to be able to call for “prophetic powers” and to “understand all mysteries and all knowledge?” (Not to mention that whole moving a mountain thing — cool!)

But, in the end, we want to be sure that — above all — we are faithful in our love with and for one another. The power to heal in community is profound. Couples, families, friends, churches, communities of all sorts need to be reminded of this erstwhile treatise.

Luke 4:21-30
We have the “rest of the story” from last week’s gospel reading. After Jesus sat down from the reading of the scripture, he goes ahead with the “sermon” for the day. It’s a zinger, for sure!

They all thought that he read well (v.22) — no doubt, his Torah teachers were proud of his enunciation, accent, and projection. When he got to his interpretation, however, things did not go so smoothly. 

“That’s Joseph’s boy” turned from a badge of pride to an epithet filled with rage (v.28.) Preaching is oh, so much, a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” kind of gig, sometimes, isn’t it? I’ve known a lot of friends who have been hurled off of cliffs by congregations over the years — and not all of them deserved it!

I’ve also seen plenty of situations that the best choice was simply to pass through the midst of them and be on your way.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Ravi Zacharias was a grad student at Cambridge when he made a daytrip over to Bedford, the hometown of John Bunyan, the writer of The Pilgrim’s Progess. He was not disappointed. There in the middle of town was a life-size statue of the tinker/preacher/writer, and his restored house, and a museum, and the church he pastored in the 1600’s.

Zacharias had a great day wandering around town, praying in the church, examining the house, looking over artifacts in the museum. Finally it was time to go home, but he lingered in the gift shop of the museum, looking over the various editions of The Pilgrim’s Progressfor sale. He struck up a conversation with the young clerk. He asked her where she was from.

Right there in Bedford, born and bred. He asked her about Bunyan and she told him all the vital statistics (when and where born, books written, times in jail, death, etc.) He chatted with her about the different copies of the book available, and she told him all about covers and paper quality and print size. Finally, he asked her what her favorite part of the story was, what bit stuck with her? She said, “Oh, I wouldn’t know, I’ve never read it. It’s quite old and boring isn’t it?”

In today’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus talks about how a “prophet is not without honor except in his hometown.” Bunyan was honored; but his teachings are now ignored. Is this the way it is with the church today; remembering Jesus but forgetting his message?

Following his baptism and time in the wilderness Jesus has comes to his hometown of Nazareth and goes to the Synagogue and reads the text from Isaiah about being the Lord’s anointed. It is here that our text begins. Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

At first people were pretty impressed. Verse 22 says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” They are impressed.

It is in verses 23-27 that he makes them angry. Apparently they were pleased with his preaching, but they had heard that he had done miracles and healings elsewhere and they wanted him to do some for them. And Jesus refused. Apparently, he believed they wanted was a show, an exhibition. They weren’t interested in people being healed; they wanted to be entertained and Jesus was having none of it. We can read between the lines and hear the homefolks saying things like, “Who do you think you are? What’s the matter, you too good for us now? You gone off to the city and now you’re too big to do miracles for us?”

Jesus responds with two Hebrew Bible stories of healing; Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath and Elisha and Namaan. What’s important here is that both the widow of Zarephath and Namaan, were gentiles, foreigners, aliens. 

Jesus points out that there were many widows and lepers in Israel, but God chose to use Elijah and Elisha to heal the outsiders, and God has chosen Jesus to bring God’s love to everybody, not just the Children of Israel. This made the crowd furious. They ran him out of town and tried to kill him, but he eluded them.

Now, here’s the question for us today. Are we like the people in Bedford, honoring the memory of Jesus without actually knowing what he said or meant? Are we like the people of Nazareth, pleased with Jesus as long as what he says sounds good to us, but turning our backs on him when he says things we don’t like?

Now, most of us would never come right out and say we disagree with Jesus, so we often use wriggle room to avoid it. Whenever we hear something we don’t like coming out of Jesus’ mouth, we blame it on somebody other than Jesus: the professors, the liberals, the over-educated preachers, the bleeding hearts, the conservatives, the fundamentalists; anything to avoid admitting that Jesus said it and I’m supposed to believe it and obey it.

For example; I confess that I am a little hard-hearted about poor people and homeless people. My gut reaction is; “Get a job, go to work, get busy. If you’re poor, it’s your own fault.” Despite a UNC and Duke education and years of prayer and Bible study and living with a social worker for 38 years; somewhere in a place I don’t visit very often, somewhere deep in my psyche, I still feel that way.

And yet Jesus said the Holy Spirit had anointed him to preach Good News to the poor. He told the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor. There is that great judgment parable in which Jesus said, “If you did unto one of the least of these, the cold, the hungry, the naked, the poor, you did it unto me.” And he said many more things about the poor and my, our, obligation to help them. We have to deal with that. Do we sort of ignore it, like the nice lady at the Bunyan Museum ignored The Pilgrim’s Progress?Do we get mad about it and turn our backs on Jesus, like the people of Nazareth? Or do we swallow our pride and obey our master.

Have we stopped listening to Jesus? He says many things about loving the stranger and the foreigner, about turning the other cheek, about living a life of prayer, about selling what we have and giving it to the poor. Do we take Jesus seriously; or are we giving him the “yada, yada” treatment, nodding and smiling, but not really listening, putting him off and putting him on?

Listening to Jesus is hard. Many things he said challenge us; they challenge our ideas and our prejudices and our actions. But Jesus not only challenges us, he also invites us. He invites us to think about things in a new way, to think about others in a new way, to act toward others in a new way. Jesus invites us to join him in living in the world by the rules of the Kingdom of God, not the rules of earthly success and happiness. 

Jesus invites us to join him in blessing the world with God’s grace and acts of healing and love. Jesus invites us to join him in going out to all lands and all peoples with the great Good News that the Kingdom of God has come and we are all invited to be a part of it.

Amen and amen.

2 thoughts on “Year C — The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

  1. Rev. Dr. Delmer, Thank you for your sermon: what a challenge to us! Thank you for the specific examples of Jesus' statements that we may be largely ignoring. It could be uncomfortable to take them seriously. Thank you for starting off with the story from Bedford. We all (well I did) react with righteous superiority to the gift shop worker – imagine knowing all about Bunyan and his famous book and never having read it! Then you turn the tables on us and it's a real eye opener. I pray my eyes (and heart) will remain more open to what Jesus is really saying to me and to my local church.Rev. Dr. John, thank you for tying in the other scripture readings. As I commented on the podcast for Jan 27th, I really like to connect all the lectionary readings together in my mind. I did take note of what the three of you seemed to agree on in that podcast, though, that a sermon with all readings involved can be unwieldly.I look forward to listening to the podcast for Feb. 3rd.Blessings to you both from Eva in Nova Scotia where the snow is gently falling

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