Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Readings for the day

This morning’s Gospel reading starts in an unusual place… That would be in the middle of a thought… Luke tells us that Jesus reads from Isaiah and says – “… today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing…” But we don’t hear anything being read… I don’t know about you, but I’d be curious to know what is being fulfilled. So, let’s take a little trip back in time. 

Last Sunday, in the Gospel according to Luke… Jesus read from the Prophet Isaiah…  From the 61st chapter to be precise. This is the scripture Jesus says is being fulfilled in our hearing: “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” It’s a pretty important passage of Isaiah. And it’s pretty central in the Christian story.  

Prophet Isaiah

But here is an interesting thing… Luke tells us that Jesus is reading from the scroll of the book. But for some reason Jesus takes liberties with Isaiah. It’s a bit murky, but there is no doubt that Jesus has left some things out and put some things in… Isaiah calls for binding up the brokenhearted and a day of vengeance for our God. Jesus strikes those, but brings sight to the blind, unlike Isaiah. I think this is Jesus taking control of the story. This is no longer Isaiah’s story. 

These seem like little things, but they make quite a change. God, as known in the Hebrew Scriptures, is a god of vengeance. But, with the incarnation of God in the person Jesus, we know God in a different way. We know a God of forgiveness, of compassion, and of love. Jesus is not mis-quoting Isaiah. Jesus is transforming Isaiah. 

So that is the thing that leads to this week’s reading… Jesus transforms Isaiah and then tells his listeners that today they have heard this scripture fulfilled.  

Now on to this week’s reading…  

Here we have Jesus talking to the hometown crowd. They are loving him. All eyes are upon him. Words like “approval” and “astonished” describe the crowd. “Hometown boy makes good” is the headline. 

And then how quickly the mood changes… Suddenly words like “enraged” appear. They want to kill Jesus. All this within a few sentences. How can this be? Well – Jesus has a way of saying what is true, not what is popular.  

Jesus has gained a reputation as a healer and the crowd wants Jesus to cure everyone… to fix everything… to be the Messiah that they are longing for. And more than that, they want to share in Jesus’ glory. They know him… they grew up with him… they want to cash in. But whereas the crowd is all about healing the sick, that is a part of Isaiah that Jesus has left out. Bringing sight to the blind is as close as it gets… 

The truth is Jesus is not “that” messiah… not “that” illusion that people hope and long for. And, true to form, Jesus doesn’t let them down gently. He shatters the illusion – a dangerous thing, but essential for spiritual growth as much then as now. Our illusion of God stands between us and God.  

Here is a crowd primed for healing miracles and Jesus reminds them that there were lots of sick widows at the time of Elijah in Israel. Elijah wasn’t sent to any of them, but rather to a widow in Sidon… And there were lots of sick people in Israel at the time of Elisha, but they are all left to suffer while Naaman the Syrian is cured.  

Jesus with angry crowd as portrayed by Giotto (wiki commons)

In case you missed it – the people helped are gentiles… heathens… not God’s chosen people. And yet they were chosen over the chosen people. Jesus isn’t just shattering the crowd’s illusion of messiah; he is shattering the very foundation of their Jewish identity as God’s chosen people. That will change the mood… 

Shattering illusion is painful. When our illusions are shattered, we often respond in anger. But truly, we should be grateful. 

Jesus is not illusion. The illusion belongs to the crowd, to us. Illusions must be shattered because they are not real. Illusions distract us from what is real. Think of a magician, an illusionist, who uses various props like wands, or hats, or seemingly magic words to direct our attention away from the true action. 

The crowd cannot know Jesus until their illusion of Jesus is shattered. Could Jesus have been more gentle in the disillusioning? I don’t think so. Illusions are powerful and beguiling. A gentle nudge away from illusion is not likely to break its spell. 

Our illusions need to be shattered. Otherwise, we cannot be in a meaningful and constructive relationship. Not with Jesus. Not with a spouse. Not with our community. Nothing real can be built on illusion. That is one reason why Desmond Tutu’s work of Truth & Reconciliation was and is so important. 

Nonetheless it hurts when our illusions are punctured. When it happens, we get angry, and it seems natural to focus that anger on the object of our illusion… Just exactly as the crowd does to Jesus. Look how far they go. They could have said, wow, I never noticed that before… They could simply have gotten up and walked away… But instead, they try to herd Jesus off a cliff. Better to kill Jesus than let Jesus kill their illusions.  

In this passage from Luke, Jesus puts two big agendas in front of us. First, he has come to release captives – to release us… to restore sight to the blind – to us… to bring good news to the poor – to us… and to declare God’s favor. In other words, Jesus comes to make us whole.  

Second, Jesus calls us into full relationship, not as powerless dependents waiting to be rescued. That is illusion. But as people of God… as heirs to the Kingdom of God with Jesus as our brother. That is real. 

We must be willing to see – to see reality. We must be willing to give up being oppressed and to give up oppressing. We must be good news to the poor. We must let go of the illusion that Jesus is some great external power. Jesus is in us. We are the body. We are the power. 

It is a comfortable illusion that if we are devoted enough, prayerful enough, faithful enough, God will rescue and protect us and make everything nice.  

The truth is that if we are devoted and prayerful and faithful, God will walk with us into pain, sorrow, hardship, even death – for these are in abundant in our world and this is where God’s love is most needed. Jesus tells us that we must take up our cross and follow.  

This section of Luke begins with a recognition of the power of Jesus’ baptism, of anointing. We are, in the same way, also anointed. The Spirit of God is upon us just as it was on Jesus. This does not mean an end to our own struggles and adversities. It does mean that Jesus, God in human flesh, walks with us through our earthly journey – sometimes in sorrow, always in joy. 

1 thought on “Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany”

  1. Now that’s powerful, Scott & just what I needed to hear – to jolt my I love complacent just as it is self into what’s real & right in front of me – if I’ll but look!
    Thanks – with appreciation for you as a Companion in the Way
    Laurel S

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