Epiphany 4 • 31 Jan 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

Rev. Chris Udy

Jesus finished reading
from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah
and he sat down -
“Today this scripture
has been fulfilled in your hearing” he said -
and the people in the synagogue
were amazed at the gracious words
that came out of his mouth.
They all spoke well of him,
and they said
“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

There must be something missing
from the end of that paragraph.
Jesus has come home to Nazareth,
and his neighbours have just heard him speak
for the first time.
They seem to be impressed -
they’re amazed at his gracious words,
and they say “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it,
he’s one of us - a local boy -
he seems to have done well.”
But the next thing Jesus says
incites a riot.
“You’ll doubtless quote me the proverb
‘Physician, cure yourself’,
and you’ll ask me to do the same things here
that were done in Capernaum -
but I’ll tell you the truth:
no prophet is accepted in his home town.”

If all the prophets
were as confrontational in their home towns
as Jesus seems to be,
it’s not too surprising
that they had a lukewarm reception.
People who begin conversations
by saying “I know you’re going to hate me”
often find their prophecies fulfilled -
but what is amazing - and a little disturbing
is that Jesus would choose such a negative way
to approach the people who knew him best.

Jesus was certainly correct.
When they heard what he said
the people in the Synagogue
drove him out of the town
and up to a cliff - intending to throw him over -
but somehow he passed through the crowd
and went on his way.

But why would Jesus speak like that -
what possible reason could he have
to stir up such a reaction?

Luke - the writer who tells this story -
has a reason.
Luke was a committed supporter of Paul’s mission
to take the Gospel beyond Israel
and into the gentile world.
That had been a very difficult decision.
The Christians in Israel
found it very hard to see
that God could even possibly be interested
in anyone beyond his chosen people -
and when some of the early Christian communities
almost pulled themselves apart
in conflict between Jews and Gentiles,
Paul and Luke were very concerned
to keep the doors open,
to keep the Gospel free,
and to fight the home town prejudice
that was threatening the Christian mission.
So when Luke is telling the story of Jesus,
he highlights and emphasises
those times when Jesus found
a wider acceptance for his message
in people who were not his own -
in Romans and Samaritans and other foreigners.
So Luke has a reason for telling the story
as he does;
but does that mean he made up
this conflict between Jesus and his home town crowd,
or did he build on an event that really happened?

We can’t really tell -
but taking the Bible seriously
means we can’t be too quick
to write off difficult passages -
and usually,
when we live with hard passages for a while
we discover some truths that need to be said.

No matter which way we look at it,
the theme of the passage is prejudice.

Every one of us is prejudiced.
We live with a powerful set of expectations
about people and about the world.
We find it very easy
to hear and accept and remember the things
that fit with those expectations -
both positive and negative.
We find it very hard
to hear and accept and remember
those things that don’t fit our expectations.
And that’s prejudice.
Prejudice helps us live in a complicated world.
It lets us make quick decisions
about complex issues,
and it keeps us comfortable
with who we are, and what we’re doing.

Prejudice is formed in jokes and stories -
it’s impatient with statistics or analysis.
It’s suspicious of differences,
it paints in black and white,
it’s learned in families and close communities,
and it’s very, very hard to change
once attitudes are set,
and emotions are raised,
because even small adjustments in some attitudes
can lead to major re-arrangements
in almost everything we think and know.

Looking at possible changes
to the Australian flag, for example,
isn’t just a matter of our taste in colours,
it raises our interpretation of history,
our political allegiance,
even our relationships with friends and family.
Changing attitudes can lead to awkward
and uncomfortable conversations -
or even to being rejected and isolated
from people we care for and love.

In the synagogue at Nazareth
Jesus was surrounded by comfortable people:
people like us.
Well regarded, socially acceptable,
fairly affluent people -
good, nice people.
There weren’t too many problem people there -
not many poor - no prisoners -
not many who were blind or deaf or seriously ill,
very few who felt oppressed -
people like that didn’t go to synagogue -
in fact they were actively discouraged.
They made the others feel uncomfortable,
and it was just easier if they stayed away.

But Jesus had just read about good news
for people like that -
we read it last week:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me - he read
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 favour.
The passage Jesus read
was for the people
who weren’t in synagogue that day -
and when he finished it he said -
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”.
The people in synagogue that day
were just like us -
they’d heard Bible passages like that many times before,
and they automatically - prejudicially -
heard them as good news for them -
the Bible made them feel comfortable -
it was their book -
it was for them and for people like them.

Only this time it wasn’t.
It wasn’t for them;
it was for the people they’d discouraged.
It was good news for the people
who weren’t in synagogue that day -
and that meant it wasn’t good news
for comfortable people.

There’s really no easy way
to challenge prejudice.
There’s no easy way
to change a fundamental attitude.
Challenging prejudice in ourselves is hard work.
It makes us feel awkward and uncomfortable;
it often isolates us from our friends and our families;
it’s tiring, confusing and complicated
and it takes great energy and courage.
Challenging prejudice in others is even harder work.
It doesn’t happen smoothly or peacefully.
People hang onto their beliefs and values
as long as they possibly can -
and confronting them
usually brings tears and anger,
arguments and explosions.

So maybe that’s why
Jesus was so provocative
with the people in the synagogue in Nazareth.
Maybe he knew
that comfortable people like us
weren’t going to challenge their prejudice
and change their attitudes
just because he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
They’d need something more than that -
something disturbing,
something that would stir them up
and give them the energy they’d need
to examine their attitudes
and question the values they’d lived with all their lives.

It certainly worked -
the people of Nazareth were so disturbed,
so stirred up -
that they tried to kill Jesus.
What we don’t know
is whether his challenge
helped any of the people in Nazareth to change,
or whether his confrontation
just made their prejudice stronger.

Luke’s point in telling the story
was to give authority to the work of the Church
beyond Israel -
to show that even Jesus found
working with his neighbours - with people like us -
could be difficult and dangerous.

So what do we do
with this difficult passage?

We could just ignore it -
say Luke put it in for his own reasons
and say that times have changed:
we’re all Gentiles here -
it doesn’t apply to us.

We could also say -
we wouldn’t have been like that -
if we’d been there
we’d have defended him against the crowd,
we’d have stood in their way,
we’d have reasoned with them,
helped them understand what Jesus was saying.

Or we can recognise ourselves in the crowd,
either in the angry leadership,
who wanted to defend their prejudice with murder,
or in the people who just followed along,
not really all that stirred up,
but not wanting to draw attention to ourselves either.

We’re all people of prejudice -
if not in race, or religion,
then politics, or class, or age, or occupation -
and every stupid joke we tell,
and every stereotyped story we repeat,
and every time we read a headline
and say to ourselves -
“well what can you expect from people like them” -
we’re reinforcing the divisions
that Jesus came to challenge,
and feeding the evil
that broke him on the cross.

We’re living in times of enormous change,
and it often seems easier
to give up trying to understand,
or to listen with an open mind
to someone whose difference
makes us feel uncomfortable.
But maybe more than ever before
our neighbours and our families
need people to help them see
that being different doesn’t mean being bad;
that truth can never be compromised by loyalty;
and that building trust and respect
is much more important than winning.

We’re so used to being manipulated by mass media
and persuaded by advertising
and deceived by people
who get paid to tell us that wrong is right
that we despair of hearing truth,
and we’re afraid to say what we think
in a way that’s fair and honest
and open to question.

But Jesus wasn’t.
“I tell you the truth” he said,
and then he reminded people
of things they knew - but wanted to ignore.

We know lots of things
we’d rather ignore.
We change the channel on the TV
when someone says things we don’t agree with,
we smile and walk away
when someone gets a bit too passionate about anything,
we avoid people and places
that threaten our comfort.
But sooner or later
truth catches up to us,
and we find ourselves living
in a world we don’t recognise, and can’t understand.

So before that happens
we can choose to do something different -
to challenge our prejudice,
and to hear the voice of God.

This year we face a number
of important conversations,
and significant decisions:
planning our life and work together
as a community of faith;
searching out inspiration
for the Church to find a way into the future;
polarising elections at home and abroad;
responding to international crises
in health and climate and development -
and in all of them we’ll be tempted
to stay with the things we know,
to dismiss those who disagree with us,
and to look for quick and simple solutions
to problems that we know are complex and difficult.

But in the end,
God is in the truth -
not in the stories that make us feel comfortable
or the jokes that make us feel a bit superior.
God is in the now, not in the past,
he’s in the statistics, not in the anecdotes,
he’s in the people, not in the stereotypes.
When we listen carefully to what people will tell us
we discover that even people we thought we knew,
even our families and our neighbours
can give us insights and teach us skills
that we wouldn’t have known,
if we’d just kept things comfortable,
and never looked for the truth.

The people in Nazareth
never really listened to Jesus -
all they could see was Joseph’s son -
not a prophet -
but if his neighbours and his family
had questioned their prejudice
and listened to him,
they’d have discovered
that they were in the presence of God.