(a sermon for January 24, 2016, the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, based on Luke 4:14-30)
Arguably, the most famous sermon ever delivered in all of American history was preached by one Jonathan Edwards on July 8, 1741 at Enfield, Connecticut. It was entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and as the title suggests, it was a powerful evocation of God’s vengeance upon wicked unbelievers and the torments of hell; this was, in fact, the very sermon on which our expression “hellfire and brimstone” preaching became coined! Historians say that Edwards’ preaching of this sermon was so powerful that it caused members of the congregation in Enfield to “scream, faint, cry and gasp” right there in the pews. It also served to spark the beginnings of perhaps the greatest spiritual revival in American history, that which is often referred to as “The First Great Awakening,” a cultural shift that most historians see as one major factor that led, albeit indirectly, to the eventual war for American independence!
But here’s an interesting sidebar to this story: apparently this wasn’t the first time Edwards preached this particular sermon! He’d in fact already delivered it three times; the first time for the congregation of the church where he was currently serving as pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts. But here’s the thing: it’s said that when Edwards preached this message about “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” before his own congregation, they listened politely, “ho-hummed” and yawned, and then went home! In other words, amongst his own parishioners, there was scarcely any notice of what he’d preached; the very same message that heard elsewhere had caused such a stir!
But, then, this shouldn’t surprise us too much. For whereas familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, familiarity certainly leads to complacency! And quite honestly, pastorally speaking it goes with the territory: most preachers will tell you how difficult a thing it can be to speak boldly and prophetically to all these people in the congregation who you’ve come to know and love over the years; because at the same time you’re wrestling with the real possibility of your sermon upsetting these good, loving Christian people, they’re sitting in the pews totally used to you and everything you have to say as a preacher, and thus have become pretty much unflappable!
I remember early on in my ministry, I had it on my heart to preach boldly and assertively regarding a small ethical issue that had arisen in the church; and friends, I can tell you now that I was so moved on this particular issue that I was really going to give it to them! I mean, I was going to bring forth the hellfire and brimstone in great abundance; or, anyway, as much hellfire and brimstone as a 24-year old mainstream congregational pastor fresh out of seminary could muster! But I was determined; for this was a matter of faith and conviction!
And come the following Sunday, I preached that sermon; and you know what? I’m not sure anybody noticed! After worship, there were still the smiles, handshakes and hugs that greeted me every Sunday morning; in fact, as I recall, everybody went on and on about what a nice sermon I’d given that day! Doggone it… (!) That wasn’t what I wanted to hear! I expected anger; I expected outrage; I anticipated righteous indignation that I would dare make hamburger out of one of their sacred cows! And what I got… well, there was Alberta. Alberta – God rest her soul – who I used to call “Sunshine,” because she always was there smiling in the pews, her eyes closed in joyful anticipation of what the Spirit might bestow in her time of worship! Just this little bit of a woman; and that day she leaned close to me, took my hand in hers and said very quietly, “That was very nice, dear, but you don’t want to do that too often; people might not like it.”
It was then that I understood a bit of what Jesus meant when he said “Truly, I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Or, as you might have heard it said, a prophet is not without honor except in his own country. And it’s still true; that’s why adult children sometimes have a difficult time establishing their own identity in the shadow of parents, family members and neighbors who live in the same town; that’s why local “reformers” oftentimes find it impossible to fight city hall. And ultimately, that’s why Jesus ultimately met with such resistance from the folks of Nazareth as he preached there in the synagogue. These people knew Jesus; they’d watched him grow up, for Pete’s sake; so how could they take him seriously now. They actually knew him too well; and so now, they really couldn’t know Jesus for who he really was.
Now, we read this morning’s scripture and wonder how they could have possibly missed the obvious; after all, what Jesus preached in the synagogue that day has been called by many “a mission statement” as to his entire ministry, taken straight from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… release to the captives… the recovery of sight to the blind,” to proclaim “the year of the Lord’s favor!” And then for him to claim that this very prophecy was now fulfilled in their hearing? Well, this was powerful and radical stuff, a message designed to bring the world as they knew it on its collective knees; but the problem was that to the eyes and ears of the Nazarenes, the messenger – this man Jesus – was just this hometown boy; the carpenter’s son, one of their own!
And honestly, that was okay… at least at first. Jesus was their fair-haired boy, so to speak, and they could not have helped but have been suitably impressed with him and his great knowledge of scripture.
But then Jesus starts to talk about the coming of the day of the Lord, that time when God would at last come to redeem his own… and Jesus dares to suggest that those being redeemed might include not just the “righteous uprights” who have gathered at the temple; and not even just the nation of Israel, but maybe… others as well… maybe outsiders and foreigners… remember the stories of Elijah coming only to the widow at Zarephath in the midst of a famine, or of Naaman the Syrian, who alone was cleansed of leprosy? They were foreigners who received the blessing of God, says Jesus, and so it will be on the day of the Lord.
And it was at that precise moment there in the temple of Nazareth that the smiles faded and the room went silent. Because now, all of a sudden Jesus was no longer the “number one son” of Nazareth, but a troublemaker; a rabble-rouser and disturber of the religious and historical peace, which was more than they were willing to take. We’re told that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage,” so much so that now they’re this angry mob bent on tossing Jesus off a cliff; and of course, Jesus was forced to leave Nazareth altogether. As Luke describes it, he “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” But the point is that Jesus preached this one very pointed sermon, and now he’s gone.
And here’s the irony of it all, friends: there was nothing in Jesus’ words that the people of Nazareth hadn’t already heard and didn’t already know! These were people who were well-versed in scripture; they understood, all too well in fact, the words of the prophets of old; and they knew their history: those stories of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman, those where like Sunday School stories to them! But, you see, there’s a difference between telling the story and knowing what it really means; just as there’s a difference between talking about prophecy in theory and actively anticipating its true fulfillment! What happened in the synagogue that day was that Jesus spoke truth to them; truth about prophecy fulfilled in their midst, and the truth that God’s grace is more surprising, more complete and more all-encompassing than they (or we) could ever imagine; and when suddenly, the people of Nazareth were confronted by the utter reality of that which they already knew to be true, it scared them.
And the truth is, friends, we can understand that.
The thing is that I suspect that most of us here can say something of what we believe as Christians. Even those with a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible and Christian tradition can give you the basics: that we are created and loved by God; that God “so loved the world” that in the fullness of time he sent his Son Jesus to be the atonement for our human sin; so that we “may not perish but have eternal life.” Moreover, I think that we all “get” that things like hatred, injustice, sin and evil are bad, and that peace, joy, justice and morality is good; and that we are to love one another as Christ has loved us. We’ve heard all these things from childhood; they are the vows of our baptism as Christians; this is all stuff we already know!
But is it our reality; that’s the question! We read the gospel; we hear Jesus’ words, but the question is whether those words represent for us something more than the quaint advice of an ancient text; or if they offer a truth that cuts like a knife into our lives and our living? Do we sense the consequences of Jesus’ teaching for the here and now; does it determine for us that which is right and wrong? Does Jesus set before us what we need to know to make the good and moral and ethical choices for ourselves and our relationships?
The thing is, friends, it’s all right there before us; everything we need to know to live the faithful life, all the tools necessary to do what we need to do as disciples of Jesus Christ. Granted, it’s not all black and white; sometime we have to discern for ourselves the truth of the gospel, and very often we have to struggle through some of what makes us uncomfortable in the process; that’s why faith is a journey and not a destination. But mostly, you see, in and through that journey it’s living unto what we already know! And that can be scary at times; because friends, ultimately it’s not what we don’t understand about our faith that makes us afraid. It’s what we already do understand about our faith that makes us afraid.
The good news of the gospel today is that Christ comes to bring comfort and support, and to lift us up out of our despair; he brings release to us in captivity, sight in the midst of our blindness, and justice in the face of any and all oppression that would bind us. Christ comes to set us free! But understand that does not mean that we are to made wholly comfortable, and certainly not complacent.
I remember one summer going sailing with my high school principal (!) who had himself grown up on the coast of Maine and who had sailed all his life. Now, understand that in those days my approach to sailing was to simply raise the mainsail, raise the jib, and then put my feet up and let the wind take me wherever it will! It seemed fine to me, but my principal was very quick to point out that this wasn’t a particularly wise approach! He said to me, “When you’re out on the wind and the water, you can’t ever let yourself become complacent… because being complacent gets you capsized.” (Turns out he was right… but that’s a story for another time!)
Jesus came, you see, that we might never be complacent as to our relationship with God and our faith in the world. The very presence of Christ is meant to shake us out of the societal and cultural molds that lead us to everything except God; indeed, you and I are meant to live unto a faith that is holistic in nature: not relegated to the practice of religion on a Sunday morning, nor to be expressed only within the silent confines of our own hearts. We are meant to proclaim what we believe by how we live, to show forth that faith in the very places we dwell, amongst the people – all the people – that God loves and that God claims as his own.
And if you’re thinking, there’s nothing new about that, well… you’re right.
It comes down to living what we already know… it’s who we are; it’s what we do; and it’s how we are called to live today and tomorrow and “from season to changing season, from age to age the same.”
So might it be for each one of us today, beloved.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry