A sermon by the Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
This morning’s gospel reading [Luke 4:21-30] follows immediately on from last week’s verses. So, as TV serials say, the story so far is that last week’s reading finished with the words:
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him [v20]
The transfixed congregants had just heard Jesus, in that sacred moment in any synagogue service where a scroll of scripture is read, on that occasion Jesus had read from Isaiah which started:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me. [v18]
Last Sunday, in the context of Aboriginal Sunday, our Dean preached on the contemporary significance of the rest of the message that day, namely:
To bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release to the captives … (and) to let the oppressed go free. [v18]
Bishop Chris challenged us with these words:
Where injustice continues no-one is totally saved; no one is totally free.
This morning, I want to explore another aspect of this contemporary challenge to us of the events recorded in our gospel reading of that service in the synagogue in Nazareth. Consider the magnitude of what the young man Jesus had done that day; verse 22 told us that afterwards the congregants asked one another, ‘is not this Joseph’s son?’ They were amazed, but also impressed both by his reading and his concluding commentary upon the reading:
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. [v21]
That we have all heard this reading many, many times, has the danger of devaluing the power of what took place that day. Imagine if you will, a young adult from our own congregation here, known to us from childhood, standing in this pulpit and proclaiming that a biblical prophecy read according to our lectionary during the service had been fulfilled by his or her very person. How would we react? ‘Isn’t that Betty and Harry’s child?’ we might say. But would we be as amazed and impressed as they had been that morning when we are told they:
All spoke well of him. [v22]
Our gospel reading went on to tell us that the mood of the congregants then changed dramatically; but it had not changed due to a negative perception by Joseph and Mary’s neighbours about the seeming hubris of this young man they had known from childhood.
After a short period of time where Jesus had let the congregants speak well of him, he then plunged a theological stake right into their hearts of belief. He said:
Doubtless 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’. [v23]
Jesus knew what was in their thinking, following his self-proclamation, they were now expecting him to bring a roadshow of his miracles of healing to Nazareth. The start of Luke chapter 4, tells us that Jesus had rebuked Satan during his time in the wilderness when, in response to Satan’s goading that:
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written … [God will] protect you. [vv9-10]
Jesus had said:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test. [v12]
Now, just weeks later, Jesus told those congregants that they were not to put God to the test by expecting a sideshow of miracles. He did so by attacking a profound heresy of belief that had grown up amongst many of God’s chosen people. Repeated hearing during synagogue services of scroll readings from the Torah, Isaiah and other scriptures over generations had convinced many that God expressed favoritism towards his people, that they were deserving where other peoples were not. That morning, Jesus demolished that hometown hubris of believers when he cited the stories of a famine and a plague of leprosy. Jesus stated:
But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel … (and) there were many lepers in Israel. [vv25,27]
Despite these afflictions of God’s chosen people, Jesus went on to say:
Elijah was sent to none of them (in the famine) … (and that) none of them were cleansed (of leprosy). [vv 26-27]
It would only be the gentile widow at Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian who would be saved. It was then that the congregants erupted – this was too much! They could accept the hubris of this young man, known to them from childhood, proclaiming his own messiahship; but to say that the proverbial ‘other’ could be favoured over the chosen ‘us’ saw them rise from their places. They were no longer a congregation, they became a mob:
They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill … so that they might hurl him off the cliff. [v29].
Parenthetically, have you ever wondered about how Jesus managed to escape that day from the lynch mob the flock of the faithful had suddenly become? Escape he did, for our gospel reading ended with:
(Jesus) passed through the midst of them and went on his way. [v31]
To me, the answer is clear and echoed the words of Satan when he had tempted Jesus in the wilderness:
[God] will command his angels concerning you, to protect you. [v10]
Not wanting to be part of a sideshow, Jesus had rebuked Satan then; but now, when Jesus was in real danger, God’s angels had indeed cleared a way through the murderous crowd.
The events of that service in the synagogue and afterwards were dramatic; but they should mean more to us than just a ripping yarn about the Messiah that turns up from time to time in our lectionary. We need to find in the gospel narrative lessons for us in our own faith.
In 1986, when he gave the inaugural Playford Lecture in Adelaide, the author Morris West, in an oration entitled A pilgrim’s progress – a personal retrospect and a prospect, made reference to ‘the precious gift of uncertainty, of not knowing’. He described it this way:
The summary for me – and I speak as the man standing up there on the ridge looking down into a deep valley – the summary for me of Christianity is not certainty. It is the willingness to admit not knowing, because the last words of Christ on the cross were ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ That sense of not knowing. A sense of being overwhelmed by the mystery of the world, the mystery of man’s fate, is the human experience. [p12]
Inter alia, West went on to say that his experience then led him to writing his book The Shoes of the Fisherman.
I am certain that West was not proposing that Christian faith is agnostic by those comments; rather that he was saying that, in the midst of eternal absolutes, sits our own uncertainty as we journey on by worship and prayer to understand better what Christ would have us know. Indeed, I have long felt that such temporal uncertainty is part of our process of being pilgrims. For as Paul wrote in his first letter to the Ephesians:
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen [3:20]
And acknowledged his own uncertainty as to his understanding of those eternal absolutes in his first letter to the Corinthians which we heard read this morning:
For now we see through a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. [13:12]
‘Abundantly more than all we can … imagine’, ‘see(ing) through a mirror dimly’; our constant faith challenge is to be pilgrims journeying on with this gift of uncertainty in constant search for understanding eternal certainty.
Our Hebrew Bible reading this morning from Jeremiah (1:4-10), contained this line quoting God speaking to the prophet:
I appointed you a prophet to the nations. [v5b]
The prophet had responded:
Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak. [v6]
God responded by saying:
You shall speak whatever I command you. [v7]
In other words, Jeremiah was to listen to God before speaking. Rather than speak from the certainty of his own experience, he expressed his uncertainty to God, and then knew what to say. By contrast, the C11 rabbinic scholar, Rashi, commented on that call for Jeremiah to be prophet to the nations in a manner consistent with all the supposed certainty of the lived experience of God’s people who had survived centuries of vicissitudes at the hands of abundant enemies:
‘A prophet for the nations’ (can be interpreted) ‘to give them to drink the cup of poison, to prophesy retribution upon them.
In a similar vein, the congregants in that Nazareth synagogue were interpreting the blessing ‘to proclaim good news to the poor … freedom for the prisoners … [and setting] the oppressed free’ as not applying to any but their own kind. It was not Jesus proclaiming himself as the anointed one that was heresy to their ears, but Jesus’ assertion that the ‘other’ came within God’s compass of anointing. Those listening to Jesus suffered from the certainty of their own convictions that the ‘other’ was excluded from God’s mercy, they lacked the gift of uncertainty. For if they had had that gift, they would have listened with an open heart to Jesus’ words:
No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. [v24]
In the hometown of the certainty of our own presumed knowledge of the anointing call of God, where we so often feel comfortably sure about what that call expects of us, will we instead listen to it with the gift of uncertainty?
Let me close with a quote from James Elroy Flecker’s The Golden Road to Samarkand, where the pilgrim Ishak responds to the gatekeepers question ‘but who are ye?’:
We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go/ always a little further; it may be/ beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow/ across that angry or that glimmering sea./ White on the throne or guarded in a cave/ There lies a prophet who can understand/ Why men were born:
Who are we? Why were we born? To seek answers to those questions, may we listen to such gospel readings as we heard this morning, saying to ourselves: ‘please God, I don’t know what lesson you are wanting me to take from this reading, may your Holy Spirit lead me on from my own uncertainty through the certainty of your Son.’