Sunday, January 30, 2022
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany / Lectionary 4, Year C

Prayer of the Day
Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Jeremiah 1:4-10   I appointed you a prophet to the nations
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13   If I speak without love, I am a noisy gong
Luke 4:21-30   Jesus says a prophet is not accepted in his hometown

Title:  As the Audience Turns

Have you ever been part of audience that turns on the person or persons they have come to hear or see?  I saw it happen at a pastors’ retreat once when a presenter offered some unexpected, and for many controversial, material.  However, being a room of Lutheran pastors, it was hard to tell they had turned.  Maybe you’ve seen it happen more obviously to a stand-up comedian.  Comedians being especially vulnerable. One bad joke and the audience can turn fast and completely.  Remember when Seinfeld’s Michael Richards got in trouble because he attacked an audience that had turned on him?  Never good to fight back.  The odds are always stacked against the solo performer.

I heard a great story on NPR’s This American Life, about an amateur production of the stage show Peter Pan.  As you probably know, there is obligatory flying involved in any production of this magical story. And this company did not have the flying technique (and all its support elements) quite securely in hand by the time the show opened.  The audience watched as the kids in the nursery flew awkwardly and into the furniture.  As any audience would, they were concerned for the actors’ wellbeing.  But, in the spirit of theatre, the show went on.  Flying into Never Never Land did not improve their aerodynamics, as they knocked over scenery upon their arrival. But things really turned when Capt. Hook’s hook went flying off his hand and into the audience.  At that point the audience lost all concern for the actors and they started to be eager for more mishaps.  The audience had most certainly turned.

Talk about losing your audience.  In just seven verses of Luke’s description of Jesus returning to Nazareth, the hometown crowd goes from “All spoke well of him” to “so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”  This return to Nazareth has been told in two parts.  Last week we heard Jesus, attending services in the Nazareth synagogue and reading a most inspiring passage from Isaiah.  Let me refresh your memory in the spirit of that television staple – “previously on…”  Last time, Jesus read:

 18“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,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And when Jesus says (which is repeated in this week’s reading) “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The crowd must have been thrilled.  Who doesn’t want to hear good news? Or be released, given new insight, and be set free?  No surprise the narrative goes on to say: 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  So, what turns them? 

Well, the next thing that is recorded is the crowd asking:  “Is this not Joseph’s son?”  Perhaps this was asked in doubt. As in, “how can a simple carpenter, who we have seen grow up here, who appears to be just a normal guy, how can he make promises like this?  He’s just going to disappoint us in the end.”  Nothing worse for a crowd to have someone get their hopes up and then not deliver.  There is a whole parade of politicians who can attest to that.

Or maybe the “Is this this not Joseph’s son?” is more stated than asked and it is a statement of tribalism. As in, “this amazing guy is ours, he is going to do this just for us, we don’t have to share him with anyone do we?”

Jesus’ response sort of suggests this latter one because he references a proverb that suggests that looking out for oneself or one’s own is normally what it is all about. And, in the spirit, he predicts that are going to start asking him for equal time, attention, and miracles.  But Jesus goes on to remind them that there is a long history of prophets having the hardest time with the hometown crowd. 

Maybe their tribalism is further aggravated with examples showing that, contrary to hometown opinions, God is not a tribal God. From the Hebrew scriptures, Jesus points out that there have been plenty of times when folks who are deemed outsiders have been recipients of God’s healing and salvation. This certainly touches a very large communal nerve, and this is certainly where Jesus’ audience turns.  Luke records that: 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.

Their rage is so intense that they don’t just leave in a huff.  No, they drive him out and come really close to throwing him off the cliff. Not only was their tribalism robbing themselves of this God-given gift, but they came close to making sure no one else received its blessings either.  They clearly wanted the good news, the release, the insight, the freedom that Jesus was fulfilling, but on their terms.

Jeremiah knew full well how the hometown audience can turn on one.  Especially when they wear the name prophet, when they speak for a God whose love and mercy knows no tribal boundaries.  And knowing what he knew, when Jeremiah is called by God, he comes up with excuses why not him. But, as some of us know well, sometimes God just refuses to take no for an answer.  Jeremiah’s career will be a perpetual crowd-turning-on-him affair.  In fact, it will be so consistently turned on him, that one should ask, did he ever have them on his side to begin with.  But he speaks truth to power, truth to the people.  He speaks the word of God.

And while Jeremiah’s contemporaries may not have felt it, he was speaking God’s word for love’s sake – God’s love.  Really, it’s got to be the only reason for putting himself through what he was put through.  Love doesn’t mean the message is easy to hear.  But love does mean that he put God’s word before himself. As in love for God and love for the folks who need to hear what God has to say.  Because love – does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. (I Cor. 13) according to Paul’s beautiful examination of love in his letter to the Corinthians.

4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. And so, Jesus, the one who comes in the name of love, slips away through that hostile crowd.  There is no retaliation.  There is no hell-fire rained down upon the town. Jesus goes quietly. Probably with a tear in his eye.  Not for the rejection.  But for the fact that the people of his own town have plugged their ears to the good news he is proclaiming.  They are not allowing themselves to be released from the captivity of tribalism. They are not seeing him for who he is.  They remain oppressed rather than embracing the freedom that he brings.  All this because they are not seeing the hand of the surprising God who turns up in the most unlikely places.  Even in the person of this carpenter that they think they know so well.

What causes us to turn on Jesus?  Do we doubt that he can come through with all that he has promised?  We don’t see enough confirmation and reassurance, so we turn our attention else where.  Maybe we even get angry.  Or do we wish he would just be a bit more discriminating who he lets into the family, who he works through, speaks through, who he provides for.  Perhaps this turning up in the most unexpected places is just too challenging to put our trust in.  (That rejected man on the cross can be just so hard to stay with.  Much easier to turn on and search out something or someone less – tragic.)

12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now we know only in part; then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. Known by our God whose greatest display of love is that God in Christ does not turn on us.  Known by our God whose greatest surprise is that God though the Holy Spirit shows up in us.

And so, whether we are able to see with hope or are at wits end and ready to turn, whether we see with faith or are drawn to turn away in doubt, whether we proclaim God’s inclusive love or are prone to judge and exclude, we can have confidence that in the name of the Triune God – faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Three reasons to one more time, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, to, if not turn to, at least not to turn away.

The Rev. Mark Erson,

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