Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – February 3rd, 2019

Text: Luke 4:21-30 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

21 And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Caper′na-um, do here also in your own country.’” 24 And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. 25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Eli′jah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; 26 and Eli′jah was sent to none of them but only to Zar′ephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Eli′sha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Na′aman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. 30 But passing through the midst of them he went away.

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

What went wrong?

It had started out so well, this session in the synagogue. Jesus, the hometown boy, had taken the scroll offered him and read from Isaiah. The he’d said that the scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing that very day. “And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth.”

And then, in the space of just a few minutes, it had all gone south: “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him up to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong.”

So, again, what had gone wrong?

Jesus had as much as told them that they were as sinful as Israel back in the bad old days when Elijah and Elisha (and even God for that matter) saved their best “stuff” for people outside of Israel.  Jesus was saying, in effect, “You can keep your amazement and you can keep your nice opinions of me because I see the truth: it’s all shallow, it’s all empty and hollow. All you’re really after is what you can get out of it for yourselves. But I see the truth, and I am here to tell you that I don’t care about your opinion, good or bad.”

And, predictably, the people reacted with fury.

But we get the sense that their anger wasn’t just because what Jesus had said offended them – I think they also sensed that what Jesus was saying had an uncomfortable ring of truth. Think about this for a second – if somebody accuses you of something that is just ridiculous, you might either laugh at them or, depending on your mood, get maybe a little hot under the collar. But that passes. On the other hand, if someone points out something about you that you believe is true, down there in your heart of hearts, your reaction might be positively volcanic.

That’s why the life of a prophet is so hard. Jesus was taking on a prophetic role – not the role we’re most familiar with, not the one where they foretell what God will do in the future, but the role of telling the truth to people who don’t want to hear it.

“Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country.” This has become as familiar a saying to all of us as “it’s as American as apple pie.” Jesus and the citizens of Nazareth know each other too well. “That Jesus, isn’t he Joseph’s boy? Right! We knew him when he was just knee-high to a grasshopper! So we don’t need to listen to what he says!”

For his part, Jesus also knew these people, warts and all, because they were his people. And he did, after all, return to Nazareth to teach in the synagogue where he had grown up. He did it, I truly believe, not to stick his thumb in their collective eye, but to share with them God’s love and to interpret for them the Scriptures in the light and warmth of that love as it had been revealed to him. That it didn’t turn out as planned doesn’t change that a bit.

Or maybe it did turn out as planned, because …. Well, let’s see.

One important thing we can take away from this passage is that Jesus really was born truly human, that he was born into and then lived in our very real world. This is a very human story. “The drama here is so familiar to us all.  We know how this feels.   We sense the community dynamics here. God’s Son was present there in the flesh—and actually had been for many years by this time when Jesus finally launched his public ministry—but his divine presence was so earthy, so mundane, so common that Jesus blended in to the community woodwork and was caught up in the same web…as any other human being in Nazareth at that time.”[1] He was hiding in plain sight, you might say.

Jesus came to us, knowing who we are and how flawed we are – he saw it played out before his very eyes every single day – but also how great we can be. Once again, I have to repeat that “God does not choose the perfect; God makes perfect those whom he chooses.” Jesus looks beyond who we are to what we can be, what we can become, to who we are made to be.

And there is only one reason for it: And that reason is love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, RSV)

Paul takes up that theme in today’s Epistle lesson, I Corinthians 13:1-13, that soaring hymn to the eternal, unflagging, never-ending love of God that is ours through Jesus Christ.

We know it practically by heart. Just about every wedding I’ve been involved in – including mine – has featured that chapter from I Corinthians.

It can’t be stressed enough how wayward, ornery, stubborn, and even defiant those members of the Corinthian church were. They were as divided as any group of people could possibly be. At the beginning of his letter, he writes: “Brothers, I urge you through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you should make up your differences and that you should see to it that there may be no divisions among you, but that you should be knit together in the same mind and the same opinion. Brothers, it has become all too clear to me, from information that I have received from members of Chloe’s household, that there are outbreaks of strife among you. What I mean is this – each of you is saying: ‘I belong to Paul; I belong to Apollos; I belong to Cephas; I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been partitioned up? Was it Paul’s name into which you were baptized?”

Things were very serious; yet it is in exactly that context, one that was about as far removed from unity as it’s possible to get, that Paul wrote his hymn to love: “I may speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but if I have not love, I am become no better than echoing brass or a clanging cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy, I may understand all sacred secrets and all knowledge, I may have faith enough to remove mountains, but if I have not love I am nothing.”

To all the problems that church was having, Paul tells them that love is the antidote:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love knows no envy; love is no braggart; it is not inflated with its own importance; it does not behave gracelessly; it does not insist on its rights; it never flies into a temper; it does not store up the memory of any wrong it has received; it finds no pleasure in evildoing; it rejoices in the truth; it can endure anything; it is completely trusting; it never ceases to hope; it bears everything with triumphant fortitude. Love never fails.”[2]

That is the standard Paul holds up to these argumentative people. I think that every one of us reading this list of attributes can recognize how far short of them we fall; William Barclay writes that “[h]ardly any passage in Scripture demands such self-examination as this from those who consider themselves to be good.”[3] But Paul doesn’t trot these out by way of condemnation, but rather by way of illustrating the “still more excellent way” he referred to at the end of Chapter 12.

The point is this: At the end of the day, nothing else matters but what’s in our hearts. Everything else – even faith itself – means nothing without love: “[B]ut if I have not love I am nothing.”

Keeping that attitude in mind and these fifteen attributes close to our hearts as we live our lives can’t help but move each of us, slowly but surely, into a deeper love for Christ, as well as into deeper and more satisfying relationships with each other.

It is a lifetime’s work. But it is the work Christ sets before each of us. And God gives us each other to help achieve it.

As we strengthen our bodies and souls this morning with the Body and Blood of our Savior, let us resolve anew to love one another as Christ loves us!

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.




[1] Hoezee, Scott,

[2][2] The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anglicized Edition, © 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America

[3] Barclay, William, The Letters to the Corinthians, The New Daily Study Bible, Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, © 1975, 2002, The William Barclay Estate, p. 140