February 3, 2019, Epiphany 4C, Luke 4:21-30
Greta Thunberg recently spoke at the COP24 summit in Poland. COP24 was a UN summit focused on climate change. In her speech Greta shamed the climate negotiators who were gathered on their lack of action telling them, “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is.”
While that comment might not sound too surprising coming from most climate change activists who probably regularly call out government officials in such a way, Greta is a fifteen-year old Swedish student activist. She knew with her age and inexperience she had a daunting task in front of her in speaking to such a prestigious audience and she knew her message would likely not receive a warm reception. However, she pulled no punches as she told her audience that she and others in her generation won’t stay silent even if they do because unlike them she said, “I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.”
Greta knew her message would be met with resistance at COP24 just as Jesus knew his message would be met with resistance in going home to preach. At first it seems though that having the hometown advantage is playing to his favor. Last week we heard how this episode began innocently enough as Jesus went to his hometown congregation in Nazareth on the sabbath day and read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
“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.”
Once done he rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, and sits down. It seems all’s well that ends well. The crowd doesn’t even bat an eye when he says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” You’d think they might react just a little negatively as he’s saying that their centuries of waiting for God’s blessing have ended. The long-awaited and promised prophet has arrived! And he’s it! You might think he’d get just a little push back from that, but no. Instead, we read, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’” Instead of being upset it seems that they are more surprised at how good Joseph’s kid has turned out. That they never would have guessed such gracious words could come from a mere carpenter’s son that they once saw crawling around on the floor in diapers.
By all appearances everything seems to be going well for Jesus until he takes a page from the Greta Thunberg playbook and tells it like it is. He knows how this usually goes for a prophet in their hometown – eventually they get rejected because the crowd doesn’t like the message the prophet brings. So, Jesus raises the subject of the elephant in the room and brings the message he knows they don’t want to hear and the situation takes a turn to the way he figured it would.
Those listening to Jesus likely would have known what came immediately after that passage he read from Isaiah. They would know that after the prophet spoke of the year of Jubilee or the Lord’s favor and the blessings that will come with that – the poor receive good news, the captives receive release, the blind recover sight, the oppressed go free – Isaiah tells of how the Lord will punish Israel’s enemies and lift Israel up in favor over them. That kind of preferential treatment for themselves is likely what they expect when they hear Jesus’ message of the arrival of the year of Jubilee or God’s favor. They likely think they will go to the head of the line before everyone else in receiving blessings now that the long-expected prophet has come in Jesus.
Jesus however knows he needs to tell it like it is and burst their bubble. The message he brings is that their expectation isn’t how the Lord works. The Lord won’t give them any preferential treatment above anyone else. They won’t be favored as the insiders over everyone else that they view as excluded outsiders. Instead, Jesus has come to tell them that the Lord loves and favors ALL the world, especially those they might think should be left out of God’s favor entirely because they define them as outside the limits of that love. But Jesus lets them know that with God no one is an outsider. God’s love has no limits. God has sent him to bring the good news of God’s love for all, not just a few. He tells them that just as God sent Elijah to the widow at Zarephath in Sidon to save her and her son from famine and Elisha to cleanse Naaman the Syrian from leprosy – both considered outsiders by the religious insiders of their day – Jesus was sent to go to those on the fringes and on the edges here and now in their day. Jesus was sent so that no one would be left beyond the range of God’s love.
And so the hometown crowd quickly turns on Jesus because this clearly wasn’t the message they thought they were hearing from him when he first spoke to them. They thought the coming year of the Lord’s favor meant the Lord’s favor FOR THEM ALONE, the people of Israel. It was fine for Jesus to say God loved and favored them, but when he told them that love and favor would have to be shared they got angry. In those days people like the widow of Zarephath in Sidon and her son or Naaman the Syrian were thought to be outsiders. Just like the tax collectors, adulteresses, the blind, the lame, Gentiles, or any of a number of people classified as sinners that Jesus made sure to hang out with to the consternation of the religious insiders.
As the religious insiders of our day we likely can come up with our own lists of folks we’d like to exclude today too. Immigrants? Refugees? Those who identify as LGBTQI? The homeless person begging on the sidewalk or at the stop light? The wealthy CEO? Republicans? Democrats? We might like to think we don’t have our own lists, but as Christians and today’s religious insiders whether we like it to admit it or not, we have our own lists of who we think should be in or out and there are times that we too think others should be excluded from the reach of God’s radically inclusive love and grace.
I think of the recent example I’ve mentioned before of Christian singer Lauren Daigle who many in conservative Christian circles looked to boycott after she appeared on the Ellen Show a few months ago because they said she was condoning homosexuality – a clear sin to them – by appearing on the show of a known lesbian. While she said her only job was to love as Jesus loved – without restriction.
And I think of the story of Christian pastor and author Rob Bell back in 2011 when he released his book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Many in conservative Christian circles accused Bell of advocating for universal salvation or the idea that God will save everyone and not just a certain limited number of favored people. These conservative Christians violently rejected Bell and his book, boycotting him as he continued to advocate for the idea that God’s love is for “everybody, everywhere.”
In both of these cases Christians or religious insiders simply couldn’t accept the same message that Jesus brought to the religious insiders in his hometown in our gospel reading today – the message that God’s love is so radically inclusive that no one is excluded. R. Alan Culpepper in his commentary on this text in The New Interpreter’s Bible says the problem here is, “The paradox of the gospel, therefore, is that the unlimited grace that it offers so scandalizes us that we are unable to receive it.” This was true of Jesus’s hometown crowd as they rejected him and tried to run him off a cliff, it was true of those who made efforts to boycott and ostracize Lauren Daigle and Rob Bell as they shared that same message of God’s radical love and grace for all, and it is likely true of us at times too as we want to limit Gods love and grace to those we think are the ones deserving of it. The problem is as Culpepper points out is that when we do that we miss out on receiving that love and grace fully as well.
The good news is however that this is why God sent Jesus – to destroy the boundaries and tear down the limits we try to erect to keep others and ourselves from God’s love. God doesn’t want anyone to miss out on God’s love. We might try to reject the radical inclusivity of God’s love by boxing it in in an effort to control it, but God won’t be controlled. As Brendan Byrne in his book, The Hospitality of God, writes, “Rejection does not have the last word: it, too, can be drawn into God’s saving plan and made to further, rather than restrict, the outreach of grace.”
And that is what we see here in our gospel with Jesus. Those around him try to reject the message of God’s radically inclusive love and grace, but all that does is lead Jesus to head out and push the boundaries of that love out even further to the edges and fringes of society to reach those who have never before experienced that love and grace. Here even as the hometown crowd rejects him we read that he passed through and went on his way. And if we read on right after this in Luke’s gospel we’ll find that his way led him to Capernaum where the first thing he did was to reach out to another outsider as he healed a man possessed by a demon. Jesus will not allow God’s love to be limited. Nothing will stop him from sharing it, not even death as his way eventually leads him to Jerusalem where he overcomes crucifixion, death and the grave to rise again to new life so that God could be sure that no one would ever be left out or left behind by that love again. That is the message we all need to hear from our reading, insiders and outsiders, those who want to hear it and those who don’t. We all need Jesus to tell it like it is so that we hear his message that nothing – not even death or even ourselves and our resistance – will ever put any one of us beyond the reach of God’s radically inclusive love for all. Amen.