Fourth Sunday after Epiphany 2004

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on February 1, 2004. 
Based on Luke 4:21-32 (Epiphany 4, Year C).

It’s a rough homecoming. Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, tempted in the wilderness, acclaimed for his miracles, and then he returns to Nazareth. His hometown. And his former neighbors want to toss him off a cliff. 

In theory they should have been proud of him. He’s the hometown hero. And, let’s face it, Jesus put Nazareth on the map. Without Jesus, Nazareth is long forgotten. It’s a historical footnote relegated to some dusty, old atlas of ancient Palestinian. He’s not known as Jesus of Tiberius or Jesus of Jericho (though that does roll of the tongue). He’s Jesus of Nazareth. And people are usually exceedingly proud of the local boy who’s done good. When someone we know “makes it,” that bright glow of celebrity shines upon us too and we feel somehow responsible, in a small way, for the person’s success. In high school I was in a science class with Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly. We walked the same halls, had the same teachers, and drank from the same water fountain. And she made it! She’s famous! So, obviously I dramatically impacted the course of her acting career. And heck, one of the Beastie Boys even went to my school.

Everything starts out well enough for Jesus back in Nazareth. He starts teaching in the local synagogue, just as he had done to great acclaim throughout Galilee. And at first the people are impressed. They’d heard what others were saying about him and here he was, back home, in the flesh, to dazzle the hometown crowd. So when Jesus stands up and begins to teach in the synagogue, Luke tells us that the people were “amazed at the gracious words that came out of his mouth.” But then something goes terribly wrong. 

As Jesus continues, we are told that the people are “filled with rage.” That’s quite a leap, from amazement to rage. You could easily enough see a progression from amazement to confusion or annoyance or even anger but rage is different. It’s an out-of-control emotion. It’s not a ‘sit down and compose a letter to the editor’ emotion. It’s a raw, gut wrenching and passionate response. Things get broken when someone’s in a rage. Or, in this case, there’s a great urge to throw Jesus off a cliff. 

And Luke doesn’t use this word “rage” lightly. It’s intentionally inserted to convey the full depth of unbridled emotion taking place in the synagogue at Nazareth. It’s the only time this particular word appears in the Gospel of Luke. So, Jesus’ words cause not merely a negative reaction but a violent one. They precipitate rage.

The underlying question then is what was it that so filled Jesus’ own neighbors with such rage? Certainly the people’s familiarity with Jesus was a factor. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they ask. In Mark’s account of this story, they go even farther. With great indignation and offense, they ask, ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” In other words, ‘you can’t be divine, we know who you are. You might be able to fool those gullible folks in Galilee but we know you.’ Familiarity did breed contempt.

But the root of rage runs deeper than indignation. It goes beyond a simple ‘who do you think you are?’ So there’s something else at work here. And I would contend that Jesus’ message provoked such a response because he was suggesting a new way of relationship. For Jesus is telling his friends and neighbors that the world as they know it is false. If Jesus is indeed divine, then their entire religious and social structure is forever changed. Nothing is as it appears. The son of Joseph, this young man they’ve grown up with is actually the Son of God. And if this isn’t bewildering enough, the people of Nazareth will not benefit in the least from their association with him. Jesus as native son won’t bring honor and acclaim to Nazareth, just the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha did nothing for their own hometowns. In fact quite the opposite: because of their unbelief, the people of Nazareth will not be blessed by God. And to add insult to injury, God’s favor will come upon those who aren’t even Jewish. The Gentiles who accept Jesus will be closer to God than the Jews who do not. And this is unheard of! Jesus’ message of radical inclusion is frightening. And it’s the source of their rage. 

Radical inclusion still frightens us. The current struggle in our own Episcopal Church over issues of human sexuality makes this abundantly clear. Fear of the unknown divides us. It unravels what we believe is the rightful ordering of society. And this leaves some enraged. 

But rage isn’t the end of this story. The emotional journey of Jesus’ neighbors moves from amazement to rage to silence. The story ends as Jesus passes through the midst of this riotous hometown crowd and goes on his way. Christ’s ministry and purpose has not yet been fulfilled. And so Jesus walks away unscathed. He walks silently past this crowd whose collective passions were so inflamed that they had every intention of hurling him to his death. Jesus simply goes on his way, on to the unfinished work he came into the world to do. 

And this pattern of moving from the amazement of acceptance to the rage of rejection to the solitude of silence is the very story of Jesus. It’s the story of moving from the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday to the “Crucify him” of Good Friday to the silence of the empty tomb of Easter. This brief story in Luke’s gospel is a microcosm of what is to come.

In our own relationships with the risen Christ, there are moments of acceptance and moments of rejection and moments of silence. Let us heed God’s invitation in the ensuing silence. And allow Jesus to continue his work in us.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004

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