Epiphany 4, Year C

Donna G. Joy

 Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-1; Luke 4:21-30

This morning’s readings talk about a love that is so huge it cannot be confined. A love gone viral. A love that is all inclusive. All encompassing. A love represented in the news this past week speaks of such love. I’m referring to a vocal minority in today’s Israel; a vocal minority that consists of people who are trying to start a movement that is committed to this kind of all encompassing love. They have designed and are wearing T-Shirts and carrying signs that boldly state, “IRANIANS, WE LOVE YOU!” And the astonishing things about this is that through Twitter and Facebook and YouTube a response is coming back – largely from the younger generation in Iran – a response which says, “ISRAELIS, WE LOVE YOU!” Somehow, some way, ordinary people, in spite of their governments, want to break a century of hatred and distrust, that has existed even before Palestine was divided, just like India and Pakistan, or North and South Korea, and other divided regions throughout the world. There is a recognition that God’s love (whoever you consider this God to be) is better than that. And where there may be prejudice or bigotry here in our city, community, neighbourhood, Our God asks us to move beyond this small mindedness and become part of God’s bigger plan to love fully, completely, perfectly. Our call is to live into God’s ever-reaching, ever-lasting Love. 

And indeed, today’s readings are all about the power of God bringing love and hope to places we might least expect it, with a strong reminder from Paul that love (Christ’s love) is the source of this power. As Christians, we believe that this love has been made known universally in and through Jesus and that we are called to be channels through which that love is made visible to others.

Our first reading speaks of God’s call to the prophet Jeremiah, who is to make God known not only to Judah, but also to the wider world.

It is this theme of God’s universal love that is focused so intensely in Luke, and is the emphasis of this morning’s gospel reading where Jesus is making the point that this vision has been fulfilled in him and that his ministry must be shared far and wide. To Nazareth, Capernaum, each of the surrounding regions and beyond: new hope – new life has come.

Just before this morning’s Gospel we heard Jesus reading from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new light, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.” And this leads us to where this morning’s reading begins, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” After generations of waiting for this liberty to come, this gathering hears, “Today . . .” In the midst of all the political and personal unrest known to that gathering, they hear these words, “Today . . .” In Jesus, the promise of God’s new way of being with the poor, the blind, the lost, the forgotten, has been fulfilled.” That is, a new way that offers love and hope and joy in places and people where we might least expect it.

Prior to this event, people in Jesus’ hometown has heard of his accomplishments and growing popularity, so they already had an image of him and some growing anticipation about what positive ways that might impact on their small, insignificant town of Nazareth. So his dramatic sermon at the synagogue, his powerful bringing of the words of Isaiah into the present – for a brief moment anyway – fulfilled their every expectation. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”

But quickly the mood changes. Once again, here we see Luke shedding light on the universal impact of Jesus’ ministry. In Jesus, God is saving the lost, and that means the lost everywhere, wherever they may be found. In Luke this often serves as a threat to those who want to make God’s salvation purely local and somewhat confined – just here and not there – just for us and not for them. In Luke’s parables of Jesus, it’s the Pharisee, who thinks God should approve of him but not the Publican, who gets surprised. It’s the older brother who insists that the father should favour him, and not that lost and misguided prodigal brother who gets his world turned upside down. In Luke, God has an enormous banquet table to which all are invited.

So, the mood changes. Some say, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” Although there are various interpretations about what this means, I tend to think it reveals a sense of local pride in this well-spoken young prophet; a desire to claim Jesus as a hometown hero. (Kind of like us Winnipeggers - the butt of many jokes in others areas of Canada – snow, cold north winds, mosquitoes, and such – really excited about how people like Jennifer Jones, Clara Hughes, Cindy Klassen might put Winnipeg on the map – improve our image. … another reason why we pin such hopes on the Blue Bombers and the Jets, and why things get so ugly when we feel they’re letting us down, or embarrassing us.) So in effect they may have been saying something like, “Jesus is one of us; Joseph’s boy, from our own home town. They’ll never make a joke of Nazareth again! God’s favour has fallen at last upon us and not, as usual, upon others.”

But as this mood changes, Jesus responds with prophetic resistance. “Doubtless you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” In other words, Jesus seems to suggest that these people from his hometown are expecting him to focus in Nazareth the hugely successful ministry he has been doing elsewhere. He seems to think they expect him to take what has been happening out there and confine it to them.

In short, their attitude is precisely contrary to the theme in Luke that emphasizes the universal nature of Jesus’ love. And once again, Jesus draws on teachings and stories from Scripture. He makes his point by referring to two stories from Scripture, the first being a story from the First Book of Kings which speaks of the role of the prophet Elijah in the life of a poor widow and her son. The point Jesus seems to be making here is that this widow would have been a foreigner following a belief system that would run contrary to that of the Israelite people and living in a location that was far away from the attentions of the king. But, this far off woman – lost and forgotten, hungry and poor – is the person to which Elijah’s attention is given. During their time together she survives a time of testing, receives sustenance in ways she never expected, and experiences a new sense of hope as Elijah calls on God to restore life to her son.

It seems that Jesus recalls this story because it speaks of God’s power made known in a place and to people where it would be least expected, or deserved. The news in this story is that God’s power to offer new life has now come. And, in Jesus, it has now entered into humanity’s midst in a brand new way.

The second story that Jesus refers to from Scripture in order to make his point can be found in the Second Book of Kings. Here, again, is a story of the power of God’s love made known in the last place you’d expect to find it; this time to a man named Naaman who is the supreme commander of the Syrian army with whom Israel had recently been at war. But Naaman is also a leper and surprisingly when he asks for healing from the God of Israel he receives it. Naaman’s cure is an example of God’s love made known to a person who is an enemy, a foreigner and a leper.

Once again, a story that speaks of God’s universal love. Clearly Luke wants to tell a story of salvation that cannot be confined or restrained or restricted in any way. And when the congregation in Nazareth indicates that they expect Jesus to shift his ministry from out there to a focus on them he responds by reminding them of these two stories, which speak of God’s universal love – now made known in and through him.

In effect he is saying, “Scripture clearly says that this is not the way God has ever worked. God’s grace is not just a local event.” (At this point the people become enraged, chase him out of town in an attempt to hurl him off the cliff. But he passes through the midst of them and continues on his way. This serves as a foretaste of his death on the cross, but this piece of the text is a whole other sermon that I won’t pursue today.)

Just as God’s promise was fulfilled in and through Jesus in that congregation in Nazareth, it is fulfilled in this congregation in River Heights in Winnipeg, and we are works in progress in terms of living into that state of perfection known in Jesus. We’re not perfect as Jesus is perfect, but we’re working on it. Each of us is given the opportunity to be touched and transformed by that gift. But the point of this gift is to become channels through which that gift is made known in our communities, neighbourhoods, our families, our workplaces.

It seems that congregation in Nazareth had a vision of removing Jesus from the surrounding communities and harnessing him to them; keeping him confined so that he may respond exclusively to their wants and their needs. But in fact the exact opposite is true. Jesus’ vision is to move from that centre and spread this gift to the ends of the earth. I think the church has continued throughout time to struggle with this vision. I think the church all-too-often is focused on seeing Jesus confined in our liturgies and the things we share within the walls of the church, when in fact, this is the place where we come to hear God’s Word and be filled with God’s love and Grace, so that we – in turn – are expected to carry with us and share that transforming gift wherever we may go.

And finally, if we are looking for a manual to discover exactly what this looks like, I suspect there is no better place that 1 Corinthians 13, which is our epistle for today. What Paul speaks of here is what it looks like when the love of Christ is made visible in those who choose to follow.

Through Word and Sacrament we discover and are filled with that love, and as we move among one another and out into our communities, neighbourhoods, workplaces, and families we will be Christ’s messengers only when and where that love is the true motivator for all that we say and do.

In this passage from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth, he is extolling the power of love - the greatest of all the gifts – but not just any kind of love. He’s not referring here to a sentimental or romantic love. In the Greek words that were so familiar to him, Paul writes not of Philia, friendship; nor of Eros, desire; but of Agape, a caring, unconditional love. That is, the quality of God’s love for us – and in particular – God’s love for us made known in Jesus.

We might say or do or sing or pray or teach wonderful things, but those words and actions will fall empty if said and done without love.

We might feed the hungry, house the homeless, but if we think and speak poorly of each other or our neighbours we are nothing more than a sounding gong or a clanging symbol.

Love is the love of Christ put into words and action; offered simply and humbly.

Love is not meant to score brownie points with God, or draw attention to ourselves. Love is co-operative, works well with others, and focuses on what is best for others.

Love never ends; through us with Jesus at the centre it is a constant work in progress. God’s love continues, and new possibilities are always appearing. 

In Jesus this love has been made perfect; in us it is a work in progress. For us it is something like looking into an imperfect mirror. We see a reflection, but it's not quite right, not quite true. We are the body of Christ, the image of God - but not perfectly, not completely, not totally... not yet.

The day will come when we will see and know more clearly. But until then, we are called to live in faith, trusting in God's love fulfilled and made known in Jesus. Until then, we are called to live in hope, hoping for the continued gift of God's love. Until then, we are called to live in love, showing/living/sharing God's love as best we can; because love is the point of it all.

The two scriptural examples to which Jesus referred in today’s gospel spoke of prophets who carried God’s love into those far off, unexpected and uncomfortable places. In these stories we are challenged to ask of ourselves: what are those uncomfortable places and how am I called to share this love in ways that will bring healing, and hope, and new life. Each of us has to determine for ourselves where we will find those far off, uncomfortable places; perhaps they exist in the form of people we don’t like or don’t get along with; or old prejudices; or offering the light and love of Christ through mission and outreach ministries that require our time and attention. Today we are challenged to discern where we are called to share God’s love with those who are lost, lonely, forgotten; those who have been abandoned by this world in which we live.

And indeed, we are challenged to follow this call with hearts that are firmly rooted in and nurtured by Jesus’ love.

Jesus has come so that all people may know this gift. Through Word and Sacrament we discover and are filled with this extraordinary gift, and when that love is the true motivator for all that we do and all that we say – that is when the love of Jesus continues to spread.