God's Infuriating Grace

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 4
January 30, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The fact that God loves all people has not always been well received. But because of God's love for us, we have a responsibility to grow into maturity, including healing our emotions.

When we attend a study group at church, we likely want to learn more about the Bible, theology or maybe even church history. A study like that feeds our heads. We need that. We need to dig more deeply into scripture, and to understand the teachings of the church as much as we can.

Yet, we have to ask, is it enough to feed our heads? Don't we need something for our emotions? Even if we understand, do we have visceral reactions that need healing? Doesn't our gut affect us, for good or bad, at least as much as any lack of knowledge?

In today's gospel reading, Jesus faced a mob surging with emotion. The event almost ended in disaster. How did Jesus get himself into this situation?

Jesus begins his preaching ministry

Just before the event recounted in today's passage, the fiery prophet John the Baptist had baptized Jesus. The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to face temptation. Jesus aced the test in the wilderness and then began his ministry. Luke tells us that Jesus has taught in other synagogues, so his sermon during his visit to his hometown congregation was not Jesus' first. At first, as recounted in verses 16-21, Jesus read aloud from Isaiah. Then, in today's passage, everyone in the congregation "spoke well of him" initially.

That warm, fuzzy feeling didn't last, however.

Jesus read from two passages in Isaiah, one from chapter 58, and one from chapter 61. Added together, they sounded like this, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Jesus read about good news to the poor and the people thought the good news spoke to them. They thought they would find release. Why shouldn't they have heard it that way? When they heard "good news to the poor," they might have thought about heavy Roman taxation. They wanted to find release from the occupying army. They wanted the good words from the prophets to apply to them.

Those words did apply to them, but then Jesus opened the door of God's grace more widely. Curiously, the trouble started when Jesus recounted two Old Testament stories. The people should have known these stories. We cannot help but feel touched by the first one. The prophet Elijah went down at the Lord's command to Zarephath, a coastal city in Phoenicia. He went in the middle of a drought and met a widow who busied herself picking up sticks to build a fire. She and her son faced starvation soon, but she wanted one last good meal together before they both died. In the midst of her own anguish, she offered Elijah a drink of water. Elijah called her to step out in faith: "cook your meal and make a little extra for me." The prophet promised her that her food would last until the drought ended.1 What a wonderful story! A poor widow, choking back her bitterness, offered a drink of water and a meal to a foreign prophet, and trusted him. Why would that story cause such an explosion of rage?

In the next story, Elijah's successor, Elisha, healed a Syrian army officer, Naaman, of leprosy. Naaman's wife's slave girl told Naaman about Elisha, so off Naaman went. After some banter, Elisha persuaded Naaman to bathe in the Jordan river. Grumbling about how good the rivers in Damascus were, Naaman dunked himself in the Jordan. Instead of anger, the story might have evoked much laughter, imagining the scowl on Naaman's face as he went to the Jordan.2

The rage of the congregation

After hearing these two stories the people "were filled with rage." Jesus did not teach them anything new. In their heads, they knew these stories. Anger is not always a rational response, however. We talk about anger with words like controlling our tempers . Perhaps we say that because too often our tempers control us. Fury builds inside us, and before we know it, we have said or done something that causes great harm. In our best moments we would never do what we do under the influence of rage. Did Jesus' congregation see themselves as the kind of people who would murder a teacher in the synagogue? In a crowd, anger seems to feed on itself. Inhibitions drop. The unthinkable becomes doable.

We think of race riots, such as the Tulsa massacre of 1921, in which an accusation of disrespect toward one woman ended with perhaps as many as 300 dead, massive property damage and economic devastation. Would any of the people in Tulsa have considered themselves capable of such actions? A more realistic comprehension of the evil we can actually do would make for a sobering wake up call.

We know that the passage of time has not caused us to evolve out of our capacity for brutal behavior. Once Peter Storey, a Methodist Bishop from South Africa, and Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop, went to help a cleric who had been detained without trial under the old apartheid government. Both men had reputations for courage and prophetic zeal. When they arrived at their destination, they faced hostility and ultimately banishment. Driving away from the scene, they decided that they were lucky that no one had killed them. They later found out that a military officer had ordered their deaths, but the order for some reason was not carried out. The officer who ordered the execution later repented and asked for forgiveness from the two men.3

How will we respond?

We know the outcome of the incident with Bishop Storey and Archbishop Tutu. But what happened to the crowd after they chased Jesus off? Just as in the incident in South Africa, the planned killing was averted. What came next for the mob in Nazareth? We can imagine several possibilities. They might have felt remorse after the whole thing ended. They might have experienced deep shame, leading to soul searching that produced spiritual growth and a transformed synagogue. They might have made excuses, blamed Jesus for his outrageous sermon, and missed the chance to find a spiritual blessing. They might have shrugged the whole thing off, put it out of their heads and stayed stuck in emotional and spiritual immaturity.

We could imagine a scenario in which different members of the group reacted differently. Although in the narrative they all act as one, with no voice challenging the others, by the time the incident happened, some might have grown, while others nursed their hurt feelings. Luke leaves the story open-ended, with no follow up. He focuses on Jesus escaping and continuing his ministry. An incident like this can lead to different outcomes.

When Luke provides an open-ended story, he may want to invite us to provide the ending for ourselves. Consider Jesus' prodigal son parable, which Luke records. When the father urged the elder brother in that parable to join the celebration over the younger son's return from the far country, we don't know what the elder brother decided.4 Likewise, Luke also tells about Jesus' visit to the home of Martha and Mary. We don't know from that account if Martha learned anything from Mary's example of listening to Jesus.5 Luke simply gives us open-ended stories.

God offers us good news for our poverty, whatever our impoverishment may be. God offers good news for those who face the deepest of poverty, the kind that crushes a soul. God offers us release from a variety of things that weigh us down. God offers release to those trapped by trafficking, exploitation or repressive governments, though we may not know that good news and release fully until the resurrection.

Even now, God offers strength, comfort and courage. We respond by growing our spirits, our emotions. We respond by becoming the voice that speaks out when the whole crowd turns ugly. We respond by learning from our failures, and accepting honestly that we let God down, just as the crowd did at the synagogue. We grow our spirits as well as our knowledge. We listen when the church tells us that God's love reaches far and wide, beyond us and our concerns. We choose not to use our anger to control others, and not to bully those who can't fight back.

With God's help, we become those who heal, and those who extend God's love to those not like us. We become those who listen to the stories of scripture, seeing their expansive message. We become those who tame the rage and selfishness in ourselves so that God can work through us.