Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Luke 4:18-32

If I was Jesus, and it’s a good thing that I’m not, I’m afraid I would have begun my next sermon in Capernaum with some lame introduction like “I have good news for you, and bad news.  Which one do you want first?”  They congregation in the synagogue would answer, “Let’s get the bad news first.”  Then I would say, “I’m not in Nazareth anymore.”  After they stopped laughing, I would give them the really bad news, “They didn’t believe my word.  I had to leave them.  Now here is the good news:  I am here, in Capernaum, and I have come to rescue you from every one of life’s problems.”  In the text today, we find good news, bad news, and more good news.  The question that faces us, as it did the people of Capernaum, is “what are you going to do with the good news?”  Take it for what it is, and treasure it as the most wonderful thing you have ever heard; or dismiss it as something that is too good to be true?  No one can answer that question for you.  I can only announce the news as Jesus did: the good news and the bad news, and then I will have more good news—at least today I do.  We recall Jesus’ words in the Gospel, focusing on the second half of his sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth.

18   “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19      to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ ”
24 “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. 31 Then he went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and on the Sabbath began to teach the people. 32 They were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority.
Luke 4:18-32

First the good news
Jesus preached good news to the poor.  To everyone who has been humbled by their life’s experiences, he announced a solution.  No, it wasn’t anything that you can do to improve your life—no 10 steps, or 7 steps, or any steps to a better life.  He announced that he had come to the rescue.  To the blind he had come to give sight.  He came to set the prisoners free, and release the oppressed.  He proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor.  That last phrase would remind Jews of their Year of Jubilee—a year of the Lord’s favor, which God commanded to be celebrated every 50 years.  That Year of Jubilee was a year when all debts were forgiven, as a reflection of how God forgives.  If you had to sell some land to pay off a debt, it was given back to you.  If you had sold yourself as a slave to pay off a debt, your debt would be forgiven, and you would be released.  Jesus announced this year of forgiveness, when God would forgive all our debts to him, and set us free from the prison of our sins. 
I’ve never heard such good news.  Every fault of the past has been erased.  Every rebellion against God, and every ignorant or selfish act has been taken off of the leger.  All is forgiven.  Jesus announced that this has been done.  Every time his Word is proclaimed, as it is today, that announcement of forgiveness is made.  This is the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then the bad news
The bad news is that the people in Nazareth were skeptical.  They said, “How can this be true.  Isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s son?”  It seems that they were too familiar with him.  Jesus noticed their skepticism.  He said, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ Do in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.”  They were skeptical that he really could rescue them from all their troubles.  They wanted to see some miracles.
Jesus diagnosed their skepticism as unbelief.  Just like their fathers had done, they rejected God’s prophet because they knew him too well.  “No prophet is ever accepted in his hometown,” Jesus said.  And he gave two historical examples to show how true this was.
Jesus told the story of Elijah and the widow at Zarephath:  “I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.”
What a slap in the face that was to those people in Nazareth!  That story took place when wicked Ahab was king in Israel—well known as one of the most wicked kings that Israel had.  He was the one whose 400 prophets of Baal challenged Elijah to a duel on Mt. Carmel.  He was also the one who murdered Naboth so that he could take his vineyard.  It was a time when only 7000 still had faith in God out of the millions in Israel.  They knew who God was and they had heard of his miracles in the past, but God was no longer important to them. They rejected God’s word to them through the prophet Elijah.  God tried to shake them up by sending a three and a half year famine on the land, but they wouldn’t change their ways.  God sent Elijah elsewhere, to help someone who would believe, to a widow outside of Israel, in the town of Zarephath.  The widow only had a little flour and oil left, which she and her son were going to eat, and then she expected that they would die.  Elijah told her to go home and make her bread, but that the flour and oil would never run out.  The woman listened to Elijah, and every time she made bread there was more flour and olive oil left over. Just think what Elijah could  have done in Israel, if they had believed too!  The same thing was true about Nazareth.  Just think what Jesus could have done for them, if they would have believed in him!  They were just as bad as wicked Ahab and the other Israelites who rejected Elijah.
Jesus also told the people in the synagogue that they were like their forefathers who rejected another great prophet, Elisha.  In those days Naaman was a commander of the army of the king of Aram, one of Israel’s enemies.  He became sick with leprosy, a deadly skin disease.  His servant girl was an Israelite though, and she told him about a prophet in Israel who could help him.  Naaman went to the king of Israel, King Joram, and asked to be healed of his leprosy.  King Joram didn’t know what to do.  The country thought so little about God that the king didn’t even know that he had a prophet of God who could cure leprosy!  It is no wonder that God didn’t send Elisha to help any of the Israelites who had leprosy.  He helped Naaman instead, and when Naaman was cured he believed.  In the synagogue at Nazareth, when Jesus brought up this story, he was saying that they were just as bad as wicked king Joram and the Israelites who paid no attention to Elisha.  Jesus would not help the people of Nazareth either, because they did not believe.
When Jesus saw that the people of Nazareth were skeptical of his power, he was right in calling it unbelief.  We see that because they got angry, and carried him out to throw him off of a cliff.  They didn’t succeed, though.  Jesus walked right through the middle of the mob and left.  That’s the bad news for them.  Just like Elijah and Elisha, Jesus left to go help other people. 
That might be bad news for us too.  Skepticism is evidence of unbelief.  When we think about coming in to church, but decide that it isn’t going to be all that important today—that’s skepticism.  Like the people of Nazareth were too familiar with Jesus, maybe we are too familiar with our church, and it doesn’t seem so valuable to us.  If waking up and not feeling like coming to church is a good enough reason to skip, I’m going to say that you aren’t taking Jesus seriously when he comes to announce freedom to the captives.  He was in the synagogue every Sabbath preaching this because he thought it was that important for us to hear it.  But who really thinks that church is that important, that you should be here every Sunday.  Watch out.  Skepticism can grow into full-fledged unbelief.  If Jesus sees that you don’t appreciate his Word and you no longer believe it, he might decide to leave and go help other people.  If you ignore your church, the day may come when you don’t have a church anymore. 
These last six months, church attendance here has been horrible.  As a congregation, we have despised God’s Word.  To despise something means to treat it as something that is worthless.  When Martin Luther explained the Third Commandment he wrote, “We should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but gladly hear and learn it.”  We have despised God’s Word—every time we have skipped, and every time we have come but not gladly, every time we have daydreamed while the precious words of God are read and preached.  I repent with you, because I have despised God’s Word too.  I have not always gladly preached it.  I have not always trusted the power of God’s Word.  I have despised it. 
We do not deserve to have God’s Good News announced to us again.  I can see reasons why Jesus could take his Word away from us and take away our church.  Perhaps others would appreciate the power of his Word more.

The good news
Today though, I have more good news for you.  Jesus has not left you yet.  He has taken his Word away from others who were skeptical about his power to help, but he hasn’t taken it away from you.  Jesus is in your midst.  His Word is being preached right now.  The Sacraments he commanded us to use are here.  When the service began, we opened in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, because our baptism is still important to us.  God declared that he would always be our God, and we would be his children.  You were all told that your sins were forgiven in God’s name.  As long as there is still a Christian who can look you in the eye and tell you that your sins are forgiven, you know that Jesus is still with you.  He has not taken his Word somewhere else.  The good news is still announced to you—good news of forgiveness for people who have despised his Word.  Later in the service we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  Jesus will be there among us, as he has promised.  He gives you his body and blood in that meal, as a way of sharing the forgiveness and eternal life that he won by his death.  That meal sets us captives free from our sins and the sentence of hell.   As long as we still have a church where the Word of God is preached, people are baptized, and believers gather for the Lord’s Supper, we know that today, Jesus is with us.

The really important point that I get from this story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth is that we should grab hold of Jesus’ words while we still have them.  Jesus will not stay among people who don’t consider him worth their time.  All of the people who say that they will come back to church and give Jesus their time later in life are making a big mistake.  He might not be around anymore.  Churches disappear when they are neglected.  Jesus takes his Word elsewhere.  But today he is with you, so don’t let today slip away.  There is an ancient saying, “Carpe Diem!”  “Seize the Day!”  It means that you don’t know if the same opportunity will be there tomorrow, so take advantage of every opportunity today.  Jesus is with you today.  Take hold of him.  Amen.