Praise and Rage
Rev. Ed Searcy
University Hill United Church : Sun, February 1, 2004
The text begins “Then Jesus”. We are picking up the story in midstream. Jesus has been led into temptation and been delivered there from evil. Then Jesus returns to Galilee. But he comes home a different person than the one who left to be baptised by John in the river Jordan. Jesus has been filled with the Holy Spirit. Luke is at pains to make this clear to even the slowest of readers. After Jesus’ baptism, Luke tells us that “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” The divine breath takes on materiality. It descends in bodily form. Then Luke tells us that Jesus, “full of the Holy Spirit” is “led by the Spirit in the wilderness”. And now, back in Galilee and in his home town of Nazareth we hear once more that Jesus is “filled with the power of the Spirit”. We talk frequently about spirituality and widespread contemporary longing for a more spiritual life. But this depiction of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, seems somehow different. Luke is testifying to an extraordinary occurrence. Jesus - the carpenter’s boy from Nazareth - is overtaken by a power from above and is changed. He is full of Holy Spirit and is led by this same Spirit into danger and an unexpected path. This is due warning that our Lenten mid-week gatherings to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit be result in unexpected change in our life. To receive the Holy Spirit is not simply to be given energy and health, it is to be changed and to be led into danger. At first glance this change strikes Jesus’ hometown friends and neighbours as wondrous. Luke is at pains to note that Jesus is “praised by everyone” in the province of Galilee. And when Jesus shows up in church - I mean, synagogue - on the sabbath “all eyes are fixed on him”. He stands to read the scripture, and finds it in the book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. There it is again. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit. He is, quite literally, inspired now. Now the poetry of Isaiah’s promised time of restoration is not simply a wish or a dream. It is, as Jesus reads it, the truth here and now. YHWH has “anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim good news to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of YHWH’s favour”. This is a beloved text in our small corner of the Christian church. If some Christians hold up signs reading “JN3:16" in the end zone at the Super Bowl, we would surely bear a sign that reads: “LK 4:18". The text is so familiar to us that we often overlook what it actually says. There is nothing in the text about justice, though it is often heard as a clarion call for justice. Nor does the text suggest that its speaker will do anything but speak. No action is called for. The Spirit of the Lord anoints the prophet to bring good news - to bring the evangel - to the poor. The prophet is to proclaim release to captives, to proclaim sight to the blind, to say to the oppressed that they are free, to announce the year of God’s favour. This is an announcement that the Year of Jubilee - the 50th year in the cycle of Israel’s calendar - is at hand. After seven cycles of seven years, each with their own sabbatical year for the land, there is now a great sabbath year of release when everything is to be forgiven - financial debts, prison terms, broken relationships - everything goes back to square one. This is not to say that everyone who is in debt has been treated unjustly nor is it to argue that all prisoners are without guilt. This Year of Jubilee is not so much about doing justice as it is about receiving God’s favour - God’s inexplicable grace - that restores even the undeserving (rich and poor) to a place of dignity. The outlines of this radical social policy are laid out clearly in the Book of Leviticus. But you can understand why there are skeptics who suggest that this Jubilee Time is all a dream and has never yet been put into practice. There is no hard evidence that any such 50th year was ever marked in ancient Israel. But it is on the books as God’s own law and God’s full intention for God’s people. When Jesus opens the scroll of Isaiah to this particular passage he is asking for trouble. Surely there are some within the congregation who stand to lose property, to lose servants, to lose income if this year of God’s favour is finally at hand. But when Jesus begins his preaching by saying: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” he is not met with grim faced stony silence. No. When Jesus preached the arrival of God’s year of release “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”. He sounds nothing like Joseph’s boy. They all like what he has to say. He is a golden voiced preacher, with a wonderful message of hope. They are all smiles. Jesus is a model preacher. Or is he? Just when the whole congregation is enthralled with his preaching Jesus provokes them. They are delighted that he, too, loves Isaiah’s vision of the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed set free from the debts and despair of the past. But Jesus doesn’t intend to delight his hometown. He senses that they expect him to do more than announce Jubilee. He knows that they want to see it. They say something like: “Jesus, you are a poor peasant like us. Your family is indebted to the local landowners like the rest of us. You are as captive to Rome as anyone here. Doctor, cure yourself.” The congregation expects dramatic signs of this new age, this new year, this kingdom of God breaking out in Nazareth as they have heard it did in Capernaum when Jesus stopped there. But Jesus confounds his own people. He says that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. This is the definition of a prophet. Prophets speak an unexpected, unwanted, unheard of word. That is what makes it prophetic speech. Like the folks in Nazareth we are tempted to domesticate prophets and prophetic speech. We claim to be a prophetic church and then recite the political jargon of one party or another. But a prophetic word is a word that comes from beyond the banter of our old familiar arguments. Such a word is beyond the comprehension of the hometown folks who want to lay claim to their homegrown prophet. It is, says Jesus, unavoidable that a prophet will be rejected by that prophet’s own people. The irony of it all is that a people that claims to be prophetic rejects the very prophets that God sends because these prophets are dissenters whose voice runs counter to prevailing common sense. The congregation frowns at Jesus. His sermon is moving from preaching to meddling. He tells them of their great heroes Elijah and Elisha, prophets that Jesus learned about as a boy in synagogue school. Both of them worked beyond the borders of their own people. Elijah was sent to a widow in Lebanon. Elisha cleansed a Syrian leper. Jesus alludes to his calling to leave home and to serve others who are beyond the pale of acceptability. And now the congregation’s collective frown turns to violence. Hearing Jesus, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage”. They act as one, driving Jesus out of town, leading him to the brow of a hill, intending to hurl him off the cliff long before another cruel hill and another lynch mob tries to finish him off on a cross. It is a startling turn of events. Reading the account it is difficult to discern just what enrages the congregation. This isn’t just a sermon that troubles them. This is a preacher who is so dangerous that they are determined to eradicate him now, before he speaks another word. To be honest, I recognize the congregation that Luke portrays. I can not speak for you, but I will speak for the congregation that I know best - namely, those of us who frequent pulpits every Sunday. We are rather like Jesus’ own people. We like to imagine that we know him pretty well. After all, our lifetime vocation is to speak about him and for him. And we rather like what he has to say, most of the time. But inevitably Jesus speaks and acts in ways that offend us, his own colleagues in the pulpit. And when he does this, when Jesus doesn’t say what he want him to say or do what we want him to do, we do violence to Jesus. Not just some preachers, not just fundamentalists of the right or of the left. No, all of us in the synagogue - the congregation - of preachers regularly lead Jesus out of town and push him off the page so that his prophetic voice and life will not offend sensibilities or leave our people confounded and confused. We do our job well. Perhaps it is not only preachers who do violence to Jesus. Perhaps the church - Jesus’ hometown folks - also regularly seeks to get rid of him so that we can get on with being a non-profit, service provider doing good works and speaking up for justice, love and peace. But if so, in the end it is not up to the church or its preachers to be Jesus. Jesus is the one who is full of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the one who overcomes the temptation of the devil in the wilderness. And Jesus is the one who simply passes through the midst of the crowd that intends to get rid of him and goes on his way. Luke’s gospel is an extraordinary testimony to the power of Jesus to overcome temptation and to endure rejection. Even the rejection of his own people, his own preachers, his own congregations will not stop the Holy Spirit that is at work in Jesus. He does not flee for his life. Jesus simply passes through the midst of the congregation and goes on his way. I find the final verse of this text to be extraordinarily powerful and full of hope. Even the church’s rejection of Jesus cannot stop the good news of God that is met in him. Jesus passes through the midst of us, even as we try to control him and change him and make him what we want him to be. He is here, in the midst of our wrestling with him, present at the Table. And then he is on his way, always calling back over his shoulder to those who long to give up trying to change him and are finally eager, instead, to simply follow him.