Luke 4.14-21 - St. Luke's Presbyterian Church, Rolling Hills Estates, CA
Good morning and God’s Peace to you.
In the name of our LORD Jesus Christ.
God with us.
The Alpha and the Omega!
The beginning and the End.
The very presence of Christ.
Christ abides in us.
And we in Christ.
And this morning, the question:
Who is Christ?
This morning, all across America, and all around the world, preachers and teachers, of every kind and cut, from the tallest steeples to the smallest gathering, from the sublime to the crazy, words will go out, for good or for ill.
“This is Christ,” they will say.
“Here he is.”
“Believe and be saved.”
“Do what he says!”
Books continue to be written by the dozen, by the hundreds … libraries grow all the more … shelves bend under the weight of books …
And if not hardcopy, then the cloud … digital books, audio books … podcasts, blogs, and YouTube …
Each in their own way, answering the question: Who is Christ?
On this Third Sunday in Epiphany, a Sunday of “further revelation,” which is what Epiphany means - a revealing of something new, something good … something unexpected …
No better place to begin, or to end, then our reading this morning from St. Luke … (fitting, indeed, that we pay special attention to your namesake) …
Jesus returns to Galilee, says St. Luke.
Here’s where Jesus grew up.
He knows the hills, the people, their ways of life … the smells, the sounds, and the shape of every home … and all the stories they tell.
His reputation as a teacher is growing.
Upon his return to Nazareth, he goes to synagogue.
As was his custom.
Jesus is a man of the synagogue.
He stands up - the Isaiah scroll is handed to him.
And so he reads …
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."
Jesus rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, and sits down to teach.
The eyes of all in the synagogue are fixed on him.
Jesus says, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
And the people rejoice.
Comfort and consolation.
God on our side.
God’s favor upon us.
The people speak well of him, amazed at his gracious words.
Hometown rabbi come home to his own, and what a speaker he is.
The Word of the LORD is upon his lips.
Jesus might have done well to end the sermon, then and there … enjoy the accolades, and head downstairs for the potluck.
The people would have been pleased.
Yet Jesus continues to speak.
Of the widow of Zarephath who welcomed Elijah into her home in a time of famine, and offered Elijah the last of her bread, and it was then that Elijah promised her that the LORD would keep her jar of meal filled, and her little jug of oil with plenty. The widow of Zarephath is a gentile.
And then Jesus speaks of Naaman the Syrian, healed by Elisha’s command to bath in the Jordan. Naaman the Syrian is an enemy.
Jesus opens the text to include “other people” … people beyond the borders of Galilee … beyond the usual markers of theology and faith and culture.
It dawns upon the congregation - their take on the ancient story is challenged … what had started out so pleasantly now takes a hard turn …
“This far” they said, “but no further.”
Us … not them.
Here’s the boundary; here’s the border.
This far … and no further.
I’m reminded of two chapters in the American Story:
The first is the Pilgrim event, the Mayflower, the establishment of Plymouth … people searching for a place to call home.
Before the English arrived. Dutch and French traders brought with them foreign germs … wave after wave of disease swept through the Indigenous communities … once prosperous towns now lay desolate, fields fallow, bones of the unburied littered the ground.
And what said the English preachers?
Disease and death killing thousands of Indigenous People was a sign of God’s favor, “the year of the LORD’s favor.”
Because the Indigenous People are heathens, full of idolatry, full of evil; they’re savages … they don’t belong to God’s purpose … small pox and other disorders are all a part of God’s holy will to give us undisputed claim to the land,” in spite of the fact that many Indigenous Peoples had adopted Christianity from the Dutch and the French and then the English, learned to speak and write French or Dutch and then English, with treaties negotiated; treaties broken when more land was wanted, and the numbers of English insured superiority in battle.
The Puritans had a firm boundary for God’s love: “This far,” they said, “and no further.”
I think of the American South before the Civil War … for years, preachers and philosophers had told the story: “Black People are inferior to White People; Black People need to rescued out of ‘darkest Africa,’ brought to America in chains and enslaved - to save them from their evil ways. It is there lot in life to be enslaved.
Then something happened: thousands of enslaved peoples adopted Christianity.
White Christians in the South now had a problem on their hands: “Can we enslave fellow Christians?”
To answer the question, theologians and preachers went to work - Presbyterians among them … they decided that salvation went only so far.
The souls of enslaved Christians were saved, bound for glory, but salvation did not include their earthly bodies … so it was perfectly acceptable to continue their enslavement - “this far,” they said, and no further.”
And then, one other story … in the early 70s, Altoona, PA … an older man (likely younger than I am right now), a gifted musician, thespian, story-teller, and jokester, and in his retirement, church custodian - I saw him every day; we often went out for breakfast - eggs and toast, and, of course, scrapple … one morning, he asked me, seriously and thoughtfully, “Did God love the Russians as much as God loved Americans?”
“This far, and no further.”
Jesus continues to speak - the grumbling deepens:
The shaking of heads; it turns to rage …
They drag Jesus out of the synagogue …
Take him to the brow of a hill …
The hill on which the city is built …
They’re going to throw him over the edge …
They’re going to send him to his death …
“This far,” they said, “and no further.”
The story ends abruptly … Jesus passes through their midst and goes on his way … traveling to other towns, to speak of the Kingdom of God …
Who is Christ?
I end with a word from Isaiah 43.19:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
“For us, for us,” cry the people.
Jesus says, “Yes, yes, yes, of course, for you … and many others, as well.”
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind,
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
“This far,” says Jesus, “and farther still, to the very ends of the earth, world without end.
Amen and Amen!