The Epiphany IV
Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30; Psalm 71:1-6
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
The world was not ready. The people were not ready, they were not willing to hear the local hometown boy stand beside his neighbors with the temerity to teach based on the confidence of his own experience with God – and nothing else. But that’s what Jesus did, anyway.
Jesus walked into his hometown of Nazareth, and in the synagogue there courageously proclaimed that God’s love has no limits. What Jesus said was unacceptable to the people of Nazareth – they were offended by the idea that they, as people of Israel, did not have exclusive status with God, that were not God’s favorite. How could God love a Gentile as much as God loved a child of Israel? They closed their ears to the message of this prophet who proclaimed just this.
To restate that this has always been God’s plan from the beginning, Jesus reminds them of his prophetic ancestors, Elijah and Elisha, greatly revered prophets amongst the people of Nazareth. Elijah was a prophet from Israel’s past who lived during a time of great famine in the land. During this famine, God sent Elijah to care for a woman, a widow, who was a foreigner, not a daughter of Israel.
When he arrived, Elijah discovered she had no food, and only a meager amount of meal to make bread. Elijah instructed her to make bread, and with God’s blessing, the bread she made, she was able to make again and again, it was never depleted. She could eat. She was restored.
Again God sent Elisha, Elijah’s successor, to heal Naaman, a Syrian military commander, and enemy of Israel. Naaman was afflicted with a disease, and Elisha instructed him to go wash in the Jordan River seven times and he would be healed. Naaman followed Elisha’s instruction and he was healed. This Syrian warmonger – an enemy of Israel, God healed. The love and mercy of God are without limit.
When Jesus reminded the people of Nazareth of this fact, they were not very enthusiastic to hear the message that the limitless mercy and love of God are present to all people, regardless of race, class, or gender. So enraged were they when they heard this message they tried to kill Jesus by driving him out of town and throwing him off a cliff. But Jesus does this cool thing and just passes through them and walks away.
The crowd was angry because Jesus turned their idea of a God as Santa Claus upside down. “Santa Clause” God is a kind of God who rewards the good kids with toys and punishes the bad kids with lumps of coal. God isn’t Santa Claus! If you don't have a mature spirituality or an honest inner prayer life, you'll end up thinking God is Santa Claus, and the Gospel becomes a cheap novel of reward and punishment.
This has been a hard lesson for the church to learn. After Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, the great biblical concepts of mercy, forgiveness, and God’s love gradually were controlled by formulas. Soon the Church created equations: this much sin results in this many years in purgatory or hell; this much penance results in this much time released from purgatory. Grace and forgiveness became juridical concepts instead of deep spiritual realizations.
The work of the priesthood became sin management and the church largely became a "worthiness attainment system" managed from clergy, instead of a transformational system awakening us from within. When forgiveness becomes a weighing and judging process, then those who are in charge can measure it, define who is in and who is out, find ways to earn it, and exclude the unworthy. But the church, thank God, is not how God works, because God is mercy, and God’s mercy is poured out upon everyone.
A priest recently wrote of his visit to the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the Twin Towers in New York City. He described the memorial - a huge waterfall drops down into the darkness of a lower pool the depth of which appears invisible to the human eye. For this priest, the 9/11 Memorial became a metaphor for God’s love: mercy eternally pouring into darkness, never stopping, always filling an empty space. That is exactly what God does, God pours out mercy upon us. The mercy and love of God is not contingent upon our fidelity, our good taste or even our common sense. The widow received it, Naaman received it, and today, that mercy flows to you. It is God’s gift, a gift that cannot be measured or compared, more valuable than any prized possession, and it is yours. Who will you share that mercy with today? AMEN.