The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
Feb. 3, 2019
It started out as a good day for Jesus. He had been away from home. He returned to his home town and entered the synagogue on the Sabbath. He was even given the honor of reading from the scroll of the Scriptures and the chance to preach.
The crowd was ready to welcome their hometown boy made good, he had left as Joseph’s son and now he returned as a rabbi, a teacher. We hear this story this morning. We hear what is, for Luke, Jesus’ first recorded sermon.
It starts out well enough. Jesus tells his people, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He was proclaiming that Isaiah’s prophecy of setting captives free was coming to pass. But it all turned very, very quickly. The gathered townsfolk had welcomed Jesus with excitement. But once he finished his sermon they were ready to kill him.
Why? Because of Jesus’ sermon told them God’s love was bigger than they expected.
Jesus included in his sermon two stories that would have been known to his hearers. He tells them of the time Elijah helped a widow at a distant town. They would have even known that Elijah had raised her son from the dead.
Jesus also told a well known story of when Elisha healed a Syrian army officer of a dreaded affliction. It was these stories that made Jesus neighbors livid; murderously livid. But why? The stories sound benign enough. What is it about these stories that would have changed the citizens of Nazareth so quickly against their favorite son? It was because in these two stories Jesus chose to focus on God’s concern for the Gentiles, those considered unworthy of God’s love.
The verses just before our reading this morning tell us that Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He read the following verses: 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. From that passage Jesus began his sermon.
He could have focused on any number of stories from what we call the Old Testament. He could have warmed up his neighbors by reminding them that they were God’s chosen people and, just as they had been delivered from bondage in Egypt, God was delivering them from the oppression of Rome.
Or Jesus could have reminded them of the vision of Abraham, that God promised Abraham that he would have descendants that would outnumber the stars and that they were a part of God’s vision being fulfilled.
He could have said these things, but he didn’t. Instead he told them that Elijah and Elisha, two of the most prominent prophets and heroes of their faith, had been called to help their enemies, the ones they despised. His sermon told them that Jesus had been called to do the same.
Perhaps the Nazarenes’ desire to throw Jesus over a cliff was a bit strident, but I can understand that they would have been upset. The pride of their village, local boy made good, had just publicly told them they weren’t good enough for his ministries. To add insult to injury, he went on to tell them that God’s prophecy was being fulfilled for their enemies and not them. It was not a good first sermon.
But it was true. Most of us here this morning would not have been considered worthy of God’s love and grace by Jesus’ hometown. Most of us here this morning are Gentiles and would have been considered godless and vile.
But Jesus taught otherwise. Paul taught otherwise. The entire message of God has taught otherwise and still does so today.
It is human nature to feel uncomfortable and even slighted when God works outside our expectations. It seems, though, that it is God’s nature to push against and beyond our expectations. If we consider the large arc of the history of God and the message of his salvation in Christ we can see a recurring idea: God’s love is always broader than we expect it to be.
The Jews hated the Gentiles. Yet Jesus died for both. The Church once believed that any sin committed after baptism was unforgivable. Yet we now understand God’s grace is limitless. The Church once believed women did not have souls, yet now women have full stature in the Church, at least in the Episcopal Church. There was a time when people of color, too, were thought to be without souls. None of us would make such a repugnant claim today.
Those of us who strive after God, who seek to live righteous and faithful lives, understandably expect God’s favor and blessing. But God’s grace is such that it cannot be diminished. God’s grace is no less valuable or available to us when God seeks after others different from us. The Nazarenes heard Jesus's sermon and thought they were being cast aside by God or insulted by Jesus.
Jesus, instead, was stating his call to seek those who were considered outside of God’s love and grace. Where, after all, would we expect God to go? God once sought after us, why would we be surprised to see God seek after others? We finite humans cannot begin to fathom the infinite depths of God’s love and grace. We speak of them, we believe in them but we cannot understand them.
It is disconcerting when God loves someone we do not understand or those we even wonder if they are worthy of love. But God’s love is no more diminished by that than the sun is diminished by its shining. In fact, it is a great testament to the depths of God’s love that he loves those considered unlovable. At times, we ourselves are not so lovable. At times we ourselves are in dire need of God’s grace.
What hope it is that God’s love is deep enough and wide enough and everlasting enough for each of us, all of us, each and every one of us.