Imagine that Jesus walked into our service here, today. I it’s likely that I would offer him the pulpit – even though I have worked pretty hard on writing my sermon. I can imagine myself taking a chair, leaning forward interestedly to hear what he has to say.
This is more or less precisely the situation that today’s Gospel describes. Jesus, local boy made good, is back in town after a successful preaching tour of the nearby towns. He shows up at the local Synagogue, and is handed the scroll to read. We don’t know whether he asked for the Isaiah scroll specifically, or whether it was more a lectionary type thing and it just happened to be the week for Isaiah.
Anyway, he reads from the scroll, and then sits down to teach. Presumably that was the custom? It seems a bit counter-intuitive to us, where I’m standing up, and you’re all sitting. Anyway he teaches them – “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” That is, he delivered whatever the first century equivalent of a sermon was.
At first “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth…. Is this not Joseph’s son?” Speaking as a preacher, this is pretty much what I want when I preach. People to enjoy the message, to get something out of it. Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of positive reinforcement? To be honest, if it was me, I would probably have left it at that.
But, typically, Jesus doesn’t leave it like that. He’s not one to let sleeping dogs lie. Instead of bagging a quick win, he goes on to say this:
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 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 none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
Ouch! Not for the last time, Jesus’s refusal to let things be, to accept near enough is good enough, leads to a strong reaction.
The congregation are absolutely outraged. The passage doesn’t fill out the picture very much, but it isn’t hard to imagine the chaos that then ensued – the shouting, people taking sides, pushing and shoving. Partisans of different sides wagging fingers in one another’s faces. Perhaps, in our situation, one might imagine that someone attempted to set light to the organ to get a sense of the outrage. But even that isn’t enough – I doubt that even the most outraged partisans of the organ wouldn’t seriously attempt to, say, throw the malefactor off the Monash Freeway overpass.
However, all their rage comes to nothing, because, in the most anticlimactic ending imaginable, Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
It is, of course, all very unedifying, and we all think to ourselves: we wouldn’t do any such thing. If Jesus was preaching, of course we would just lap it all up. What on earth was wrong with those people?
Actually, that’s a good question. What on earth was going on here? The change from praise to rage seems astonishingly quick. What happened?
<”isn’t this Joseph’s son?>
Perhaps the key to the transition is when the crowd say “isn’t this Joseph’s son?”
There are a couple of alternatives, but in the interests of clarity, I’m going to focus on one particular one. That “Isn’t this Joseph’s son” is a self-congratulatory thing. That, as we have obviously nurtured this impressive figure, he owes us. It matches well with the phrase about everyone speaking well of him at first, and provides an explanation for the sudden transition in what Jesus says.
The feeling of the congregation seems to be quite self-congratulatory – and as though they have a claim on Jesus. You’ve done these amazing things elsewhere. Now you’re home, we expect you to do even more impressive things, because you owe us. We’re entitled.
We are, after all, God’s chosen people. And so we have certain expectations.
It also does a good job of explaining why Jesus uses the examples of the widow at Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian. They are both outsiders – precisely those who don’t think that they have a claim on God.
Neither of them are members of the “chosen people.”
The thread I’m going to draw out here has to do with the theological idea of election. What does it mean to be God’s chosen people? To be called by God?
There are, broadly, two ways one can think about being called by God.
One of those ways is that God has called us in order to bless us. To be singled out by God, surely means to be under his special favour and protection? You can see this sort of thinking at work in New Testament times with what was expected of a messiah – that he would drive out the hated Romans and lead the way to glorious freedom. Perhaps even to greater triumphs, greater domination. It’s one of the visions with which Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness of domination and power without cost.
And it’s the way that Jesus rejected, finally when he said “if my kingdom was from this world then my followers would fight for me.”
The other way of understanding calling is to be a blessing as much as to receive a blessing. It’s not to reject the idea that being called includes being blessed – to be plugged into the source of all things, the unending source of peace and joy and beauty at the centre of all things, to be invited not only to admire, but to collaborate with this, the ground of all being in God’s world-restoring work. What about this is not a blessing?
We are invited, in fact, to share Jesus’ joy. As, for instance, Jesus promises in John’s gospel “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” (John 16:24) Just think for a moment what it feels like, what it would feel like, to be “filled with the power of the Spirit” like Jesus was.
It sounds like being in what psychologists call “flow state” – as Wikipedia puts it: “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Except, intsead of being absorbed in a particular task – writing a sermon where it all seems to flow, getting the consistency of this batter exactly right, all the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle falling into place one after another – it is a whole of life experience, when you know you are collaborating with God in the deepest way possible.
This, however, serves to make things less, rather than more, clear. If being a blessing is such a good experience, then who wouldn’t want it? The people Jesus was brought up with, his townsfolk – or at least enough of them to make a pretty serious bid to toss him over a cliff – for a start.
It’s one thing to receive a gift. It’s another thing to share the gift. It’s one thing to be given your whole life as a gracious gift – but quite another to give it up for others.
There’s a paradox here. As Jesus puts it “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matt 16:25-26a)
Which leads quite neatly on to the Corinthians reading that we have been so exhaustively engaged with today. Love is patient, love is kind, etc etc etc. I often remark on how easy it is for a passage of Scripture to be so thoroughly smothered by memory and association that it is impossible to hear clearly. With its association with weddings and rhythmic, even soporific, repetition of the word “love” it’s easy to be drawn into a pleasant haze by it.
But what does love actually look like in practice? As Christians we say: it looks like Jesus. And here we hear Jesus sound neither patient nor, frankly, kind. Though what it does seem to relate to “it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”
Jesus knew what had to be said, and said it. And, of course, that is kinder in the long run. If the townsfolk really did at base believe something that was in fact cutting them off from God, then better to tell them than not.
Of course, I am not necessarily commending becoming one of those irritating people who prided themselves on telling people hard truths. What makes them irritating is both their self-righteousness, and their distance from the situation which they are criticising. To stand at a distance and say “you’re not only wrong but bad” because of your beliefs and actions can be a way of silencing the inner critic. Of distracting everyone, especially myself, from my own faults.
In fact, it can be the opposite of love.
Let me relate this to the understanding of the passage we have been working with. As one of God’s chosen, it is tempting to think that lets me off the hook, to kind of sit back and relax. To indulge in what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”
But to be chosen by God, to be invited into fellowship and collaboration with the source of all things is more than just being let off the hook in some celestial court-case. It is being freed and empowered for action. The ideal, the aim, is to be like Jesus. To be able to love people deeply – so deeply that you want what really is best for people. And to have the internal resources – to be “filled with the power of the Spirit” – to be able to say what needs to be said, or do what needs to be done, purely for the benefit of the other, and to bear the cost. Which won’t always be people attempting to toss you off a cliff.
So I guess my closing question is this: How do you react to the problem of this passage. What does it mean to you to be elected, chosen, loved by God? And, subsidiary question, what does it mean in this particular place, here in Glen Iris?
A sermon preached at Glen Iris Road Uniting Church on February 3rd 2019,
 I’m following Mark Davis’s argument on his blog: http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/01/a-rough-and-tumble-reception.html