How Jesus’ First Sermon totally Bombed:
And other odd things that Happen when Luke tells Jesus’ story…
Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; Luke 4:14-30
Sunday, January 20, 2019 — The Third Sunday After Epiphany
Knox-Metropolitan United Church — Regina, SK — Treaty 4 Territory
In 2014, we arrived in Regina on the first Saturday in May. Elizabeth and David Calam met us in the airport and informed us it was snowing. The next morning we attended worship here and I had a chance to meet people, though I took no role in the service.
Two weeks later, after I had eased in with a few children’s times and leading of prayers, it was announced that I would preach the sermon for the first time here the following week. Now after that service, Bill Johnson, came up to me, noting that I had some big shoes to fill, and wondered if I felt up for the task.
I said that I was feeling quite ok.
I was indeed quite comfortable with what I’d been preparing…but also, like many others who do this for a living I always have in the back of my mind when preparing to preach the thought that it couldn’t possible go worse than Jesus’ first sermon from the scroll of Isaiah at the Synagogue in Nazareth that we read about this morning.
I’d also of course checked topographical maps of the area and felt that I was in little danger of being chased up a hill and hurled off a cliff.
We read today the story of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry as told in the Gospel of Luke — the third of what are called the Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke which offer a synopsis or summary of the life, work, and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. The book of John which follows is a different sort of thing.
Maybe a bit of context for this piece of writing — because I think it is always good to remember that we don’t believe that our texts, even when considered sacred, merely fell from the sky — but emerged in really earthly conditions of human and communal life.
The book of Luke, which we read from throughout this year in the Lectionary (the appointed readings for the day) is likely the last of the Gospels written, and was likely written around 120-130 in the Common Era (about 100 years after the events it narrates), which means by this time, the Christian movement is in its 5th generation.
The book of Mark which was the first, is likely written around 68 CE and the book of Matthew in between 85-95, in the closing decade of that century (which is also likely when John is written) — and this means a few notable things, one that the these other writings were already known, and in fact about 40% of the material in Luke is identical to parts that can be found in Mark (the same goes for Matthew).
The second thing is that the Christian movement is that much further along than it was at the time these other writings emerge, and in a newly developing movement, the 2-3 generations can make quite a difference — especially since at the time of Mark, the Temple in Jerusalem is being destroyed and people are moving throughout the mediterranean world and figuring out what it means to be a Jew or a follower of Jesus.
We don’t see it when we read these things in English but all these books of what we call the New Testament are written in Greek, and of them all, Luke is the first one that shows an authorship that is really comfortable with the language and the vocabulary.
Also, of them all, only Luke sets its intention of writing right within the book itself. Before the Angels come in, Luke opens like this, a passage that doesn’t show up in our appointed Sunday morning readings…
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
There are many who have undertaken to set out an orderly account of what has happened within this movement, but the author seems to state, they haven’t yet gotten it right — that Mark, his sentences were too short, and Matthew, he puts the events into the wrong order, and John, what’s with all his poetry.
Now I’d caution us to recognize the fine distinction about historical accuracy versus “orderly” the terms used here, because the prior is not philosophically a concept of interest in the Ancient world — it’s not saying that the other Gospels got it wrong, as much as it is suggesting that this version will paint a clearer picture for the intended audience of what this movement is all about and what it means to be part of it.
If you’ll indulge my foray into literary history for a bit longer, it is likely that the other accounts being referred to here include Matthew, Mark and John, and perhaps some others who have disappeared from memory. Some of the gnostic (or wisdom) Gospels like Thomas and Mary of Magdalene are unlikely to have yet been widely read.
So who is Luke’s audience, well it seems obvious from reading this, someone named Theophilus, who is addressed as “most excellent”, perhaps a Roman of some note, but is it an individual? The name Theophilus, means Beloved of God, or friend of God, so could refer to one person, or a community — likely a Greek speaking community, and likely educated.
Now in the Ancient Near East, education is synonymous with status and wealth, so it is likely that the intended audience of this book has both — and certainly other historical accounts do note that it by this time that the Christian movement is attracting the attention of wealthy educated Romans — so two notable things to consider.
One, by this time, the Roman Empire is moving from the stage of the Imperial Court, wherein the Emperor is synonymous with God on earth, to the time of the Stoics, the philosophers, and there are many moments in Luke where the writing seems to appeal to the stoic or cynic philosophical movements, but with confrontation, especially around issues of wealth and status. There are moments where Luke seems to frame Jesus’ radical teaching as being more in line with Stoic and Cynical Roman philosophy than the society claiming to base itself on them were.
Also, persecution, which certainly was a thing within the Roman Empire, but sometimes popular Christian literature of the time or evangelical interpretations of it, gets it wrong (incidentally, for any former Lumsden Beach Campers, the game Christians and Romans in which the Christians must search for the Chapel while avoiding the staff playing the Romans — also, way off the mark). There is no sophisticated state apparatus of decrees, and organized efforts to snuff out Christianity, the persecution, and it is real, is neighbour to neighbour, small-scale, community based.
The town coffers seem empty, we need a scapegoat — it’s the Christians — that sort of thing, and who begins the rumour, the people who are actually skimming off the town coffers. Two neighbours come before the magistrate to resolve a difference and one makes their case — it was clearly them, they’re Christians, lacking an allegiance to Rome!
With all of this, when we read Luke, it is worth paying attention particularly how Jesus addresses things like community dynamics, and taxes (and another week we’ll talk about what tax collection looks like)…because as opposed to Mark who is writing in the midst of a civil war and Roman invasion, and Matthew who is trying to help a diaspora find focus, Luke us writing to a movement that has gone through these cataclysmic movements in attempts to bring focus in the years that follow.
So with this in mind, let us look in brief at the reading of the day, Jesus sermon, in the synagogue at Nazareth.
Now in the time of the narrative, synagogues are not religious centres, but community meeting halls, but by the time this is being written down, they are just beginning to be the centre of worship after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which while cataclysmic is 50-60 years ago. This is like the first few generations who (remembering life expectancy in the Ancient world) have no one who live through the Great Wars, or the first generation who never lived in a pre-911 North American society.
What interests me in the reaction to Jesus’ sermon is that we get two reactions from the crowd. Midway through we read…All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
But by the end…When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
When Jesus read from Isaiah the people were enthralled: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God 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.”
But then Jesus refers back to the prophets of old, and spoiler alert, this is a reoccurring theme in Luke whose Jesus is always comparing back to the prophets whose job it was in some cases to comfort the people living under oppression, but often to call the powerful to account — and remember this is the first Gospel whose audience likely has any meaningful social power to begin with.
In particular Jesus refers to Elijah going to a widow in Sidon and Elisha going to heal a leaper who is a Syrian.
Elijah and Elisha are two prophets whose accounts can be read in the Hebrew Scriptures we call the Old Testament, or as one of my Professors quips, the Left Side of the Bible. They lived about 200 years after David the great king of Israel, and in their time the Kingdom was split in 2 with the elite ruling in Jerusalem in the South and Prophets like Elijah and Elisha in the North, where Galilee was located.
So for Jesus’ audience that day, Elijah and Elisha are like their heroes, from their neck of the woods (or hill country as it was)…but Jesus has the gall to remind them of the moments in Elijah & Elisha’s stories in which they ministered, not to the local people, but to the foreigners…in fact to a Sidonite and a Syrian, both who come from peoples who have historically been at odds with the Israelites, and who in fact were persecuted and oppressed by them.
So Jesus reads this beautiful passage from Isaiah about freedom, and then subtly reminds the audience, hey remember when our ancestors were the ones on the oppressive side?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, speaks about how in his community, when one is asked, How are you? that the custom is to answer in the plural, We are well, or We are not well, the meaning being that one’s individual wellness is only part of it. Perhaps an individual is in fine health, but a neighbour is ill, We are not Well. If one has found successful employment, but recalls a family in the village in poverty, We are not Well.
I believe that Jesus’ audience is affronted because they have the sense, quite rightly I would argue, that their value system is being challenged as too narrow, and perhaps Jesus naming of the foreigners in Elijah/Elisha’s stories hits too close to home in a 1st Century Jewish Palestine in which ethnic purity, though in reality a fiction after generations of interbreed, is still held to so tightly.
May we watch for this dynamic throughout Luke, for it will come to us again and again. And may we allow this to challenge our notions of wellness.
Tomorrow, many will mark a day of remembrance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and while it is right to do so, let us remember that though now revered, in his moment, many mainline churches thought him a troubling rabble-rouser, and despised his overly political rhetoric.
In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail King penned his now often quoted words, “[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
Over this coming week, we’ll be posting writings, audio and video of King’s ministry…to challenge our often held assumption that we live in a time in which his famous I Have a Dream has been realized, and allow this to continue to challenge us.
For perhaps it is only in seeing ourselves in the angry crowd that would seek to throw Jesus ( but please not your current preacher) from a cliff that we might learn to become those who will eventually hear his words, and pick up the spirit of them to continue his work empowered by his abiding presence with them.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
And We are not well. But we can move together towards greater wellness.
For the Spirit of God rests upon us to proclaim Good News to the Poor and freedom to the oppressed…And in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us and we are not alone.