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Sermon for Sunday 23 January 2022

First Reading: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

1All the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.

5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

8They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. 9And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Psalm 19:1-14

1The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. 2One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. 3Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, 4Their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world. 5In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber; it rejoices like a champion to run its course. 6It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens and runs about to the end of it again; nothing is hidden from its burning heat. 7The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent. 8The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes. 9The fear of the Lord is clean and endures forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. 10More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold, sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb. 11By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward. 12Who can tell how often he offends? cleanse me from my secret faults. 13Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense. 14Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

12Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

Gospel: Luke 4:16-30

16{Jesus} came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” 24And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, 26and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30But passing through their midst, he went away.

Epiphany The Tragedy of Rejection

I’ve shared this story before, but it’s worth sharing again.  It’s about a lion who was stalking his way through the jungle.  He was returning from a showing of the movie the Lion King and he really believed what was said about lions, that he was indeed the king of the jungle, the greatest beast of the wild.  And on this stalk, he wanted to make sure everyone else knew that too.  First, he grabs a tiger that happens to be passing by.  

The lion put a strangle-hold on the tiger and growled ferociously, “Who’s the king of the jungle?”  The tiger, trembling and shaking, said, “You are, O lion.  You’re the king of the jungle!”  A short time later a bear passed by.  Again, the lion grabbed him, put him in a strangle hold and growled ferociously, “Who’s the king of the jungle?”  The bear, like the tiger, says, “You are, O lion.  No question about it.  You’re the king of the jungle!”

Feeling cocky, the lion continued through the jungle and next comes upon an elephant, huge, massive, towering many feet above the lion!  Thinking he was invincible, the lion, with a ferocious growl, demanded “Who’s the king of the jungle?  Who’s the greatest beast in all the wild?”  Without a word, the elephant picks up the lion with his trunk, whirls him around several times, and smashes him against a tree.  As the lion gets up, broken and bleeding, he says to the elephant, “Look, just because you don’t know the answer to my question, that’s no reason for you to get so rough!”  You could say, that for the lion, this could be considered a moment of sudden awareness; an epiphany.

In the church, most of us think of the season of Epiphany as simply a gap on the church calendar, a pause, a flexible number of weeks between Christmas and Lent.  It’s a season that, in reality, many don’t understand all that well.  We may recall that we’re celebrating the revealing of Christ to the Gentile world, via the Wise Men.  We might even recall that the season opens with the Baptism of our Lord and ends with Jesus’ Transfiguration, but not much else.  What we seem more aware of is that the stores have put away the Christmas decorations and have begun to emphasize Valentine’s Day; otherwise, we give this season little thought. 

The dictionary, however, may be helpful, because it adds further dimension to the word epiphany: epiphany is “a sudden, intuitive perception into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.”  This is important, because this definition applies in a profound and unique way to our Lord Jesus.  We, therefore, have good reason to write His Epiphany with a capital “E”; it’s not only a special day on the calendar, it’s also revealing, a revelation which sets the pattern for all other theological revelations. 
            True to the literary definition of the term, Jesus brought perception “into the reality or essential meaning.”  During His time here on earth, especially during His ministry, Jesus stripped away the superficial from life and the artificial from the Jewish religion.  What we need, He told Nicodemus, is a new birth: not just a reformation or higher resolves, but an utterly new start.  To the woman of Samaria, He prescribed water which would satisfy the deep, eternal thirst.  For the rich young ruler, He commanded a whole new set of values, a change which the man, unfortunately, was unwilling to make.  In every case, Jesus drilled down below the surface — down to reality.  

Even the physical changes said as much:  the blind could now see, the deaf hear, the leper felt new flesh.  To Zacchaeus He revealed, without saying a word, that his grasping publican values were meaningless; Zacchaeus then gave exuberantly to the poor and righted his economic wrongs.  But when Jesus pointed out their hypocrisies to the scribes and Pharisees, they began seeking ways to destroy Him.  There is a responsive pattern to notice here.  Depending on our willingness to accept it or not, an epiphany can be exciting, or it could be upsetting.  Such is the story in our gospel lesson for today.  

Jesus stops in His home of Nazareth, after His ministry had begun to make Him a topic of conversation elsewhere.  Filled with the Spirit, Jesus enters the Synagogue and is handed the scroll containing the writings of Isaiah.  After reading the magnificent passage about the One who would proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and who would set at liberty those who were oppressed, Jesus announced that the scripture has been fulfilled, and they were witnesses to that fulfillment.  So far so good. Jesus is saying what the people want to hear.
            According to St. Luke, the initial reaction to Jesus in the synagogue was one of approval and amazement.  Luke tells us that they “spoke very well of him,” because the words were gracious.  They sensed, despite themselves, the wondrous hope which He embodied.  In that moment, they had an epiphany.  They saw the possibilities of God in their lives, the prospect of being set free, and of sharing in the freeing of others.  True to the dictionary definition of epiphany, the experience had come through a “simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence.”  And what could have been more commonplace to the people of Nazareth than a visit by their native Son, the boy who had grown up in the local carpenter shop?  But this Sabbath turned out to be anything but commonplace.  

The Sabbath service in the synagogue was an every-week affair; and while it’s true that Jesus had gotten some notoriety by His teaching and miracles in other places, He was no stranger to the people of His hometown.  Now grace was coming to them through His lips.  Sadly, the initial response of wonder was quickly put aside.  The “commonplace” channel by which God’s graciousness was being revealed was perhaps too commonplace.  A murmur began to slip through the synagogue gathering:  “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  It’s a question you and I understand.  Most of us appreciate the wisdom of our friends or parents much better as we get older.

We quote them avidly because they’ve gained the authority that comes from age and wisdom.  But it’s hard to appreciate their wisdom when we dwell under their roof or live next door to them.  Very few prophets get a good hearing in their own country.  It’s hard sometimes, to see someone we grew up with as something other than the reserved, awkward kid who played in the vacant lot down the street.  We may feel great affection, or in some cases contempt, for the person next door, but either way, it’s hard for us to see him or her as an authority. 

However, people who didn’t watch the prophet grow up, generally see them differently.  And to no surprise, Jesus, knowing the hearts of men, sensed their attitude, and threw down the gauntlet.  “Doubtless,” He said, “you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’  And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum’ ” (v. 23).  In essence they were saying prove yourself to us; show us a sign.  You say that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, that you are the anointed One”, prove it.  All we see is the snot-nosed kid who used to help his dad build furniture.  If you’re the long-sought Messiah, then free us from our oppressors.  To this, Jesus reminded them, that a prophet is seldom, if ever, welcomed in his hometown.

Perhaps if He had stopped there, the people would have admitted, grudgingly, that it was difficult for them to look at Jesus as outsiders might.  But He pressed the issue in a way that offended them.  Jesus reminded them, there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s day, but, because of their hardheartedness, because of their turning their backs on God and instead worshipped the idols of their neighbors, God chose to use a widow in Sidon to care for Elijah.  But Jesus didn’t stop there, He pressed the issue further.

Jesus then further underlined the point by recalling that in the days of Elisha, there were many who suffered from leprosy, but that the one who was healed was Naaman, a Syrian.  This must have stung their national pride and their sense of chosenness.  We can easily imagine what they said: How dare this carpenter’s son tell us that God chooses Gentiles over His chosen people.  Who gave Him the authority to instruct us and even to insult us?  They knew the examples Jesus used were true, they knew their history and of the nation’s unfaithfulness, but that didn’t make them any less offended.  But that’s the way some people are, even Christians. 

As long as the message is about the gospel, about God’s great love and of what God is doing in the lives of the people, then the words of the prophet or messenger are accepted.  Verse 22 tells us that, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  However, when the message contains the law, when the words spoken tells us of God’s commands, of our sin, of wrath or judgment, things change.   These are the passages that sting, that unsettle us and show us our fallen-ness and people seldom want to hear that.  They want the comfort of the gospel, but they don’t want to hear the bite that comes with facing our failings.

So instead of facing the realities of their shortcomings, they became angry, and they drove Jesus outside the city, to the precipice bordering their town, intending to throw Him over the cliff.  It was a strange development considering that moments prior they were impressed with the graciousness of His words.  Somehow these words about the Sidonian widow and the Syrian leper were not received as gracious!  But then an even more bizarre event occurred; when the people were about to cast Jesus over the cliff, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (v. 30).  Bruce Barton contended, in a popular biography of Jesus, that “this was a demonstration of the unique power of the Master’s personality.  The mob spirit which was set on violence, was somehow intimidated by Jesus’ sublime inner strength.” 

If we were to continue reading, we would read about the next place Jesus went to visit, the Galilean town of Capernaum.  There, as in Nazareth, He taught the people on the Sabbath.  This time we’re not told what Jesus said.  But Luke reports that the people “were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority” (Luke 4:32).  To the good fortune of the people of Capernaum, they weren’t handicapped by a hometown image of Jesus.

They didn’t lay the insight and power of His words alongside the discrediting measuring stick, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  They accepted Jesus’ words and person in their own right, and they saw authority.  And as a result, they were privileged to see miracles.   An epiphany — a wondrous revealing — is only as good as our willingness and ability to receive it.  A sour soul can look out into a beautiful sunset and say, “Bah!  Humbug!”  An indifferent person can sit through a superb recital of Bach or Beethoven and be bored.  The people of Capernaum listened to Jesus with open, unprejudiced minds, and were filled with awe; while the people of Nazareth found it necessary to discount Him, to discredit Him, and then, in bitterness, seek to destroy Him.

The Nazareth tragedy was compounded by the fact that the people were at first inclined to hear Jesus appreciatively.  But then something in them made them want to cut Jesus down to size; specifically, their size.  They wanted to be able to “manage” Him, by recalling that He was the boy they had seen through the years in the carpenter shop.   The same could be said of our culture; we still try to make Jesus manageable.

Novelist Flannery O’Connor observed one very painful thing about writing as a Christian — that which is the ultimate reality for the Christian, the Incarnation, is something which nobody in her reading audience believed.  Her readers, she said, were largely people who thought God was dead.  To speak of a God who has come to earth in Jesus Christ, who is not only alive, but is profoundly involved in human affairs, is offensive in the extreme.

The secular world is happy to recognize Jesus as a fine teacher and an admirable moral example.  That’s the modern equivalent of seeing Him as the carpenter’s son.  Jesus is manageable, so long as we can keep Him in the categories of logic and human morality.  But when the secularist is asked to see Him as the singular revelation of God, Jesus becomes an intellectual embarrassment.  For them, Jesus’ teachings are seen as outdated, as out of touch with the current culture.  For the unfaithful, God’s Word must be filtered through the lens of society.  And far too often, church members too, have their problems with Him.  

We, too, like a manageable Jesus: one we can come to in times of trouble, who comforts us and sympathizes with our human need.  But things change when the demands of God’s law come into play.  The reality is, He is also King of kings and Lord of lords; and, as such, He insists on being Lord of all of life.  And because of this, we too are tempted, in our own way, to follow the people of Nazareth in pushing Him over some cliff. 
            Our hymnals contain a variety of hymns which plead for an epiphany — a moment of revelation.  “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,” we sing.  Or, “Open my eyes, that I may see / Glimpses of truth thou hast for me.”  And again, “Talk with us, Lord, thyself reveal, / While here o’er earth we rove.”   But I’m not sure how ready we are, for such a revealing.

Often the revelation begins with new insight into ourselves and that “revealing” is usually a painful process.  The people of Nazareth managed pretty well with Jesus’ revealing of Himself, as long as His words were gracious.  It was when He began to reveal their own sinfulness to them, that they became upset.  Jesus’ inference that they were like their ancestors in Elijah and Elisha’s day, idol worshipers, one’s who had turned their backs on God and were therefore bypassed for blessing while “outsiders” were favored — was utterly unacceptable.  And the same can be said of many people today.

No significant glory is going to burst into their lives unless they deal honesty and earnestly with themselves.  These who have rejected God or neglected their relationship with God cannot be healed until they acknowledge that they’re ill, they cannot learn, until they confess their ignorance, and they will not find fullness of life, until they admit that they’re not presently complete.  If the people of Nazareth had bowed humbly before Jesus’ analysis and had sought deliverance from the blindness and pride which consumed them, that might have been the setting for far greater manifestations of the glory of God.  Instead, there were virtually no miracles there, because of their unbelief.  And their unbelief stemmed, not from some inherent spiritual lack, but from their unwillingness to confess their sins.

Think about it.  The church is the only institution in our world which challenges us, again and again, to be better than we are.  We come to a service on Sunday morning, or to Sunday school, knowing that we’ll hear something that will ultimately lead to the conclusion, we aren’t all God wants us to be.  God meant for us to be more than this, and we must commit ourselves to that higher goal.  Whatever the failings of the church and of church people, we’re virtually unique in our willingness to put ourselves in a setting where we’ll be challenged and corrected.  If we accept that challenge, if we honestly listen to God’s word, both Law and Gospel, then the potential for God’s blessings and Him working through us is unlimited.  Unfortunately, the people of Nazareth rejected it.  

When the gracious revealing of Jesus became a painful revealing of themselves, they wanted to be done with the carpenter’s son.  We’re always in danger of following their example.   Over the past 21 centuries we have examples of people — some well-known, but most of them virtually unknown — who have seen the revealing of Jesus and of themselves, and have accepted the challenge.  For them, it has been a path from faith to faith from glory to glory.  Like the people of Capernaum, they’ve seen the authority of Jesus Christ, and life has been made anew.  We need to look past the carpenter’s son and see the Messiah.  We must always be willing to accept and act upon both the words of God’s admonishment and instruction, as well as His words of grace.  When we do, epiphanies will happen, and God will reveal Himself to us.


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