Sermon almost preached at Gorbals Parish Church, January 31st 2010 – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. The service was cancelled due to maintanance work on the building which hosts our congregation. The sermon was preached the following Sunday, February 7th.
When I read the passage I was going to preach on, I knew I was in trouble. Because, if you read that passage carefully, you will realize that after Jesus preached in the synagogue, people took him outside of their town and almost threw him off a cliff. So, the logical conclusion is this: if I get this sermon right, you may just want to do the same to me. Well, that doesn’t sound very good. I’m glad this building is not very tall, and there are no hills within walking distance. Nevertheless, just to be on the safe side, I think I will try to get this one wrong. It’s OK to be wrong from time to time. It keeps me humble…
So what is happening here? Why are these people so angered? What set them off? When Jesus quoted from the prophet Isaiah and announced good news for the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom from oppression, they all loved it. And when he told them that ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’, Luke tells us that they ‘all spoke well of him and marvelled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth’.
Who doesn’t want to hear about good news for the poor? There were many among them who were poor themselves. Who doesn’t want to hear about release to captives? They were under Roman occupation. Who doesn’t want to hear about sight to the blind, and freedom from oppression? There must have been blind people among them, and surely they felt oppressed by the Romans. And who doesn’t want to hear that all this is being fulfilled today? No more waiting and hoping. Of course they marvelled at the gracious words that came from his mouth. Who wouldn’t?
So what went wrong? Well, you see, they expected him to start with them. He was one of THEM after all, and he knew their expectations. That’s why Jesus quotes the proverb: “Physician, heal yourself.” And then explains what he means: “What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.”
So far, so good. It makes sense: you start with your own people, and THEN worry about the rest. But then Jesus tells them: “Truly, I say to you”, which means “Pay attention to what I’m saying, this is important”: He says: “no prophet is acceptable in his hometown”.
Ouch! They probably did not expect that! It was not something they wanted to hear. Because, you see, the nation of Israel had a shady history when it came to dealing with prophets. Being a prophet was no picnic. It was not a job a father wanted for his son.
Imagine a conversation between a father and his three sons:
“What do YOU want to be when you grown up?”
“That’s very nice – healing the sick. Good boy!”
“What do you want to be when you grown up?”
“Uhhh… A fireman!”
“Very good, very good! Saving lives, putting out fires! Very noble!”
“What do you want to be when you grown up?”
“What??? A prophet? Why not be like you brother: a fireman. He puts OUT fires. You want to be the one who starts them??? Go to your room!!!”
It was not easy to be a prophet in Israel. They had this terrible habit of telling the truth to people. And that made people angry and more often than not, prophets were terribly persecuted and even killed. It was certainly not easy to be a prophet. That is a job I’m not sure I would want myself.
And after Jesus implicitly tells them that he IS a prophet, he reminds them of two prophets that did not save Israelites, but foreigners. Elijah helped a foreign widow in Zarephath, but no widows in Israel. In the time of the prophet Elisha God healed Naaman, the Syrian, of leprosy, but not one Israelite leper.
Jesus was painfully true to the calling of a prophet to tell the truth, and they hated him for it. That was certainly not something they wanted to hear. God was the God of Israel! They felt they had exclusivity on God’s favour. He is OUR God! WE are God’s chosen people, which makes everyone else God’s un-chosen people. They did NOT want to hear that God blessed a foreigner, and not them.
“When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath.” Notice the word ‘all’. Every one of them got angry and took him outside of their town, wanting to throw him off the cliff. Jesus almost ended up as many prophets in the past. But not this time – “passing through their midst, he went away” – Luke tells us.
But, you know, this tribal view of God is nothing new. We still see it today. This is what often nationalism is about. When I was growing up I had a teacher in high-school who tried to convince us that God had abandoned the Jews, and took on Romania as his new chosen nation. To be a Romanian was to have a unique destiny. WE were now God’s chosen.
An American Episcopal Bishop was appalled by how often he heard American politicians cry out: “God bless America!” It makes you wonder, he said, if that is command, or a prayer. He goes on to mention several senators calling on God to bless the State of Utah, or California, or Washington. The representative Charlie Rangel of New York asked God to bless New York, which greatly concerned the Bishop, because he was the Bishop of New Jersey, just outside of New York. He could see God blessing flowing through New York and then come to a screeching halt at the Hudson River, before crossing over to New Jersey.
How often have you heard athletes invoking God’s favour, as if God can favour one team over another? Have you heard people say that God loves Scotland, but hates England? Or that God loves and favours Christian nations, but hates non-Christian ones? Perhaps it is not surprising when we hear irresponsible Christian leaders trying to explain natural disasters by saying: There are no Christians there! And because there are no Christians, that means they must hate Christians. Therefore God hates them too and punishes them.
You see how easily people fall into this tribal religion trap? He is OUR God, therefore he favours us. We are the insiders, they are the outsiders. You are either God’s chosen, or God’s un-chosen. And what do you do with God’s un-chosen, or God’s rejected? Logically, you reject them too.
The more moderate position on that is to turn the outsiders into insiders. Convert the heathens! That way, they won’t be rejected anymore; they would also get to enjoy God’s favour.
This kind of thinking was deeply ingrained into the minds of the Jews. They were the chosen people. To hear Jesus say that foreigners were blessed at the expense of the chosen people was more than they could handle. If I am convinced that I enjoy God’s favour, it is very difficult for me to hear that God also favours my enemies.
What the Jews did not understand is that nobody can own God. No nation can own God. No religion or denomination can own God. Nobody can claim exclusivity on God’s favour: “For God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only Son!”
Alright. So what does that mean for us? How do we fit into this story? Are we the insiders claiming exclusivity on God’s favour, or are we rather the outsiders who received God’s favour undeservingly?
I think everyone of us here have experienced rejection at some point in our lives. I will take a chance here and assume that every one of us felt like an outsider at least once in our lives. We all know what that feels like: you’re not rich enough to come in here; you’re not smart enough to go to this school; you don’t have the right passport to come into my country; you’re not good enough to be a part of our club; you don’t have the right papers or enough experience for this job, etc.
A few weeks ago we read from the Gospel according to John: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
We were ALL outsiders. None of us here, I venture to say, were part of God’s chosen people. WE were the foreigners that God reached out to. We were not the insiders. We were the outsiders. But God loved us, and gave us the right to be his children.
The nation of Israel was indeed chosen by God. But they were chosen to be a blessing to all nations. And through Jesus Christ they were. They were chosen to minister to all nations, and not for some kind of special favour at the expense of other nations.
This is also true of us. We were called to minister to all people. That is why we have seen such generosity in our church towards the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. We don’t know any of those people. We’ve never met them, and probably never will. And yet we were moved by the Spirit to share of our blessings with them, because we know we are in this together. We cannot operate with the insider-outsider model anymore. We are ALL God’s people.
So we are moved and inspired to minister to all people not only because the Gospel is good news for the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed; but also because the Gospel is good news for the outsiders and the rejected.