Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
January 24, 2016
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany – Year C
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
During my many years as a religious studies teacher, I was always reminding my students that—no matter the religion involved—a scriptural text without its context often becomes a pretext for anything we may want it to say. I said this so often that it became a kind of “mantra” in our classroom. And over my many years of preaching, I have discovered that the compilers of our lectionary are often the worst offenders in this regard. Our Gospel readings are often plucked from their context in the larger narrative and, as a result, they skew any interpretation and frequently fail to convey the thrust and purpose of both the evangelist and, most importantly, of Jesus himself. This morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke is, regrettably, a case in point.
Our reading this morning from Saint Luke’s Gospel comes just after Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River and his forty-day confrontation in the wilderness with Satan, the enemy of our true nature. Having resisted the Divider’s allurements, Jesus then undertakes his solo public ministry, not in his home town of Nazareth, but in Capernaum, where he has apparently performed a number of “signs and wonders” as a testament to his messianic claims. Then, in today’s reading, he moves on to Nazareth and its synagogue for the local observance of Shabbat. His reputation has clearly preceded him because the synagogue leader calls Jesus—now something of a local celebrity—up to the “bema” or lectern for the privilege of reading the “haphtarah,” the weekly “parashah” or “Torah portion” from the prophets of Israel. Like almost all Jewish males over the millennia, Jesus, despite his humble origins, is both literate and well-versed in his people’s sacred scripture. He is able to turn to the passage in the Isaiah scroll quoted in this morning’s Gospel and read it to the congregation in Hebrew—by this time no longer a vernacular language to most people living in the Roman province of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. And, like Ezra and his scribes in this morning’s reading from Nehemiah, he is expected, as a learned rabbi, to explain the sense and the meaning of the text for the assembly of his co-religionists. It’s the basis for both the synagogue liturgy and the Christian “Liturgy of the Word” to this very day. In fact, I would like to think that something very like it is happening here at this moment: the “people of God” have come together as a community on the Lord’s Day to pray and to reflect on the word of God.
It’s what comes immediately after this morning’s lection that is both surprising and galvanizing in Jesus’ time and in our own: Jesus, as we heard, has made the rather startling claim that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy. Saint Luke tells us that Jesus “began to say to them, ‘Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” Yet even this claim of messianic fulfillment, by itself, would not necessarily have startled the assembled Jews of Nazareth. During Jesus’ life and times in Roman-occupied Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, there was widespread expectation, among all Jewish sects except the Sadducees, that the Messiah was on his way to free the Jewish people from their Roman yoke. And that’s the end of the story insofar as the editors of our lectionary are concerned this morning. Today’s Gospel gives the impression that the congregation simply nodded in agreement, and that’s the end of the story.
But that is not the end of the story because the really crucial portion of this narrative is the reaction of Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes to his rather bold claim in the verses immediately following his messianic declaration. After an initial positive response to Jesus’ words, the people of Nazareth go from approval to rage in the “blink of an eye” because nothing happens after Jesus’ proclamation! Jesus chooses not to buttress his declaration with “signs and wonders” as he apparently did in neighboring Capernaum. He simply resumes his seat in the congregation, and the rest is silence.
Well, the folks in Nazareth are not at all happy about this in the verses immediately following this morning’s reading. Surely, the hometown rabbi with pretensions to something much greater, they expect, must have something spectacular in store for his compatriots in Nazareth as well. But Jesus doesn’t oblige. Moreover, he responds to their grousing by making it quite clear that he has no intention to do anything in Nazareth beyond making his startling proclamation, and he cites as precedent the examples of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha who performed no miracles among their own people, catering instead to the “goyim,” the gentiles, the nations. His fellow Nazarenes become so enraged over this that, according to Saint Luke, “they rose up and put him out of the city and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. But passing through the midst of them, he went away.” I have stood on that same bluff overlooking lower Nazareth, and I can attest that it’s indeed a very long way down!
Now, the conventional wisdom among many people both then and now, is that the Messiah will bring with him an era of perfect justice and peace, together with a restoration of all things to God’s intended purposes at the Creation. And yet, it didn’t seem to happen on that Sabbath two-thousand years ago in Nazareth, and it certainly has not happened yet. A brief survey of the news of the day will testify to that sad reality! So what did Jesus mean when he told his fellow Nazarenes in this morning’s Gospel that “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”? Was Jesus mistaken, or did he have something else entirely in mind?
Certainly, if we think of “fulfillment” as merely the achievement of a personal goal or the conclusion of an historical process, then, sadly, Jesus was wrong, and the Messiah is yet to come—and for the first time, no less. But if, instead, we regard “fulfillment” in its biblical sense as the inauguration of a new era in our personal lives and in human history, brought about in this instance by the redemptive, suffering love and work of Jesus Christ to free us from our bondage to sin and death, then everything is possible, and we need only claim the mercy and grace of the biblical “Jubilee” or, as the holy prophet Isaiah calls it in this morning’s reading, “the acceptable Year of the Lord.” Because if it’s true that, as Saint Paul expresses it, “in Christ, God was reconciling the whole world to himself,” then humankind already possess the resources of grace and the fruits of redemption won for us by this Jesus of Nazareth, who was entirely human and perfectly at one with God. With the incarnation, ministry, passion, death, and, most importantly, the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ, everything is now possible for humanity by God’s grace, and God has fully vindicated God’s “suffering servants” in all times and places. Through steadfast, covenantal love and mercy, our faithful God has graciously made all peoples—Jews and Gentiles alike—God’s co-workers in God’s ongoing work of the as yet unfinished Creation for, according to Jesus, “salvation is from the Jews.”
Nourished, strengthened, and empowered by the Word of God and the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, “that wonderful and sacred mystery” (BCP) we gentiles now have all we need to engage with God in the work of “tikkun olam,” the “repair of the world,” because for us, the “kingdom of God” is already among us; “eternity” is now; and the “resurrection of the dead” is our new life in Jesus Christ. Or, as Saint Julian of Norwich put it so much more eloquently and succinctly, “the greatest deeds are done already.” Our task is to appropriate the graces of this messianic era through our life of prayer and participatory attunement with the healing and salvation already wrought for us by and in Jesus Christ. We are living in the biblical Jubilee, and the “poor” and the “blind” and the “captives” and the “oppressed” are waiting for us to bring them the “good news” of restoration and salvation in the “already, but not yet” of our own times and seasons. And it’s our choice: we can, like the frustrated people of Jesus’ hometown, rage and blame God for an alleged failure to act, or we can be about the sacred work of telling a weary and hopeless world—by word and, most importantly, by deed, that God in Christ has already acted on their behalf. We are either impotent puppets in the hands of a “Cosmic Puppeteer” or creatures with freedom will made in the “bet’selem,” the “image and likeness of God”—we simply cannot have it both ways. So, with the certain knowledge that we are indeed free and creative creatures in the image of God who—for better and for worse—are moral agents who must choose, let us pray, by grace, for the resources of grace to go into the world from this place and to proclaim that we have seen God’s steadfast, spousal love and mercy in the face of Jesus Christ; that “the greatest deeds are done already” because “Today, these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.”