Sermon for January 30, 2022

Epiphany 4, Luke 4:21-30

The gospel writer, Luke, once again provides particularly vivid snapshots of the human condition in his narration of the events of Jesus’ ministry. Today we see the fickleness of the people of his hometown, Nazareth, in response to his public reading of scripture and his subsequent commentary.

Oh, how quickly they turned! At first, as Luke reported, it was that “All spoke well of [Jesus] and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”

Then Jesus opened his mouth again with further commentary, perhaps in response to their query, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

What Jesus said next provoked the ire of the hometown crowd. Luke says that “when they heard [Jesus’ further statements], all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove Jesus out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

Wow. But there you have it: the fullness of what human beings are capable of, perhaps especially in relation to those closest to us, with whom we are most familiar. Hence the saying, “familiarity breeds contempt.”

What exactly caused their rage? Maybe they got mad when Jesus said, perhaps sarcastically, “Doctor, cure yourself!” Or when he acknowledged that “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Or maybe it was when Jesus recounted the stories of how aliens received divine truth more willingly than the chosen ones. Or maybe hometown crowds want their own to be chaplains to the status quo and not rock any boats. And on and on.

But the long and the short of it is that Jesus begins his public ministry in the thick of the human condition of brokenness and sin. It is precisely this reality that he has come to address and ultimately to redeem.

Jesus told the truth to the people in his hometown, revealing their willful incapacities to receive that truth, the truth about himself.

Ultimately what Jesus is about is the gospel, the good news. But you cannot get to the good news without first hearing the bad news. That’s the gospel way.

We get a sense of this reality in today’s first reading recounting the call of the prophet Jeremiah when the Lord reassuringly said to a young, doubting Jeremiah, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over realms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow…” but also graciously “to build and to plant.” The plucking up and pulling down, the destroying and overthrowing happen before the building and planting. These are words of law and gospel, of judgment and grace, of death and of life.

So it was that Jesus had to confront the hometown crowds with the truth of the law’s claims and not just offer words of gracious gospel consolation, which is what the people wanted – they wanted a cheap grace and not a costly grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it centuries later.

But the crowds raged at the truth. This rage in defensive reaction to truth telling is a common feature of the human predicament.

We see this today in defensive, denying reactions to truths about all sorts of things, about the coronavirus and climate change and racism and wealth inequality and more. There is angry denial of truth on all points of the political spectrum, from left to right and points in between. It’s the human condition!

Oh, and there is so very much rage, as there was in Jesus’ hometown. And the powder kegs seem poised to blow at any moment now on the right of us and on the left of us. We feel the weight of these burdens big time, and people sensitive to these dynamics are no doubt kept up at night.

Yet, and again, it is precisely the rage of the crowds that Jesus enters into.

But in today’s gospel reading, we are also told that “Jesus passed through the midst of [the raging crowds] and went on his way” – precisely to continue his ministry in earnest leading up to the last days of that ministry in Jerusalem.

Which is to say, the incident at the hometown Nazareth synagogue, when the crowd wanted to kill Jesus at the very beginning of his ministry, is a foreshadowing of the end of Jesus’ earthly life when the crowds would finally prevail in sending Jesus to his death via the authority of the Roman empire to execute people. In Nazareth, it was the brow of the hill on which the town was built where they sought to send Jesus to his death. At the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry on earth it was a different hill, namely, Mount Calvary. Golgotha.

But even there, Jesus ultimately passed through the raging of the crowds, if not to say, passed over them from death to life in resurrection, from the cross to the empty tomb.

Thus, through his own death and resurrection, Jesus becomes our Passover as well, our means of passing through the raging of humanity’s sinful brokenness, from death to life, from raging divisiveness to ways of engagement that are more life-giving and reconciling.

Our baptism into Christ in the name of our Trinitarian God, our eating and drinking of Christ’s presence at the table, our communal immersion in the sacred word in proclamation, study, and devotion, the absolution when we confess, our accountability-seeking but grace-filled conversations with each – all of this makes for the means through which we in Christ pass through our broken, human raging passions, to find ourselves in a transformed communal landscape.

Our second reading for today reveals the qualities of this new place, this new way in Christ. It is the so-called love chapter in First Corinthians, commonly read at weddings. But the love that the apostle Paul refers to is not reduced to the love between partners in a marriage. No, it’s more about life together in the church, in Christian community and assembly.

It is the love that we know in Christian community that prevails, love that wins the day in response to our raging. And not just any old love, but agape, the unconditional love of God that transcends human capacities. This is the divine love that is the passageway through our raging passions to a still more excellent way.

Listen again to the highlights in 1 Corinthians: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, 13) Oh, what a gift this love is to our raging world.

God’s unconditional, agape love finds fulfillment in Christ Jesus, on his cross and from his empty tomb. His death, his resurrection, prevail and have the last word, as full expressions and embodiments of God’s great love for us. And when it’s all said and done, we can try love instead of rage only because God first loved us.

Such gracious words come on the heels of truth-telling and the difficult, damning words which we must also hear. Thus, it is a tough love. A costly grace.

God’s trustworthy promise is this: when it’s all said and done, our violent defensive reactions to the hard word of the law will not ultimately prevail against or prevent the fulfillment of the word of gospel grace.

Our faith, our trust in this promise renewed, may we not waver and lose hope, and let us love one another as God in Christ first loved us, and all of this for the sake of calming the rage in our troubled world.

Amen. Let it be so. Amen.