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Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4–10; 1 Corinthians 13:1–13 & Luke 4:21–30

I think it’s fair to say that over the last three or four decades we in Australia have become a far more inclusive and accepting country than we used to be. While pockets of racism, bigotry and prejudice may still exist in our society, I believe the vast majority of people today are very accepting and tolerant of differences in ethnicity, sexuality, lifestyle and belief. 

It could be argued that one aspect of today’s gospel reading addresses the notion of acceptance. The reading is the continuation of the story introduced in last Sunday’s gospel, which is the story of Jesus ministering in his hometown of Nazareth. And as I mentioned last Sunday, this version of the story, from the Gospel of Luke, is different in a number of ways from the accounts recorded in the gospels of both Mark and Matthew.

One major difference in Luke’s version, is that Jesus appears in Nazareth very early in his public ministry, with Luke giving us no details of any miracles or healing that Jesus might have performed prior to coming to Nazareth. Mark and Matthew both, on the other hand, provide us with a number of stories of miracles and healing that Jesus does in other parts of Galilee before coming to his hometown. And as I said last week, the reason Luke places the story where he does in his gospel, is because he uses it to announce to his readers the “swearing in” of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

Another significant difference between Luke’s account of the story, and those of Mark and Matthew, is that in Luke’s version, Jesus is the antagonist who provokes to anger the crowd that is listening to him in the synagogue. In both Mark and Matthew’s accounts, we hear that those in the synagogue can’t believe their own ears when Jesus addresses them. They recognise Jesus as a member of their own community, as the carpenter Joseph’s son. They wonder where he has suddenly got this wisdom and power that they are witnessing. And we are told that they take offence at Jesus because of. 

But Luke tells us that all in the synagogue spoke well of Jesus, and that they were amazed “at the gracious words that came out of his mouth”. They seem to be proud of their local boy made good. It’s actually then Jesus who goes on the attack. Anticipating that the people in his hometown will want him to do the same things for them that he’s being doing in other towns and villages in Galilee, Jesus declares to all in the synagogue that no prophet is accepted in their hometown. 

He then recounts two stories from the Old Testament. The first is the story of Elijah being sent by God to a widow in Sidon during a severe famine that had struck Israel. There were many widows in Israel at the time who were struggling to feed themselves and their children during the famine, but God chose to send Elijah to help one particular widow in Sidon. The second story concerns Elijah’s protégé, Elisha. Naaman, a general in the Syrian army, is sent by God to Elisha to be cured of leprosy. There were many lepers in Israel in Elisha’s day, but God chose only Naaman to be cleansed by Elisha. The distinguishing feature of both Naaman and the widow in Sidon, is that they were Gentiles. When those in the synagogue in Nazareth hear these stories, they are furious with Jesus. 

When Jesus had earlier quoted from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, in announcing his own prophetic mission, the people no doubt thought this related specifically to themselves and other Jewish people. They were to be the ones to be released from captivity to sin and to be recipients of God’s salvation. But having heard Jesus tell two stories from the Old Testament where the recipient of God’s mercy is, in each case, a Gentile, they realise that Jesus is saying that all people, Gentile as well as Jew, will be accepted by God. So now, instead of accepting Jesus, the people of Nazareth reject him.

Perhaps the reason why Jesus was so antagonist toward the people in his hometown, is that he sensed their initial approval of him was only superficial, and that it didn’t involve any real, or meaningful, change of belief. The salvation that he offered, the release from being captives to sin, and being restored to a right relationship with God, was something that required a genuine acceptance and conversion.

This is also implied in today’s passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The passage is perhaps one of the well known in the Bible, even among people who aren’t Christians, because it often features in wedding ceremonies. However to treat the passage as the depiction of a perfect romantic relationship is to take it totally out of context. It was intended by Paul to be an description of the “more excellent way” to exercise one’s spiritual gift. 

The situation that Paul was dealing with in Corinth, was that members of the church were self-centred, and their behaviour self-destructive. They were envious of one another’s leaders, status, and spiritual gifts; they were arrogant about their own spiritual and social status, and even about their own immorality; some were acting act rudely and shamefully in legal and sexual matters; some were resentful and did wrong. Few, if any, were demonstrating the kind of faith, hope and endurance that is generated by God’s love.

So Paul set out to correct both their attitude and their behaviour. He was really arguing that  they all needed to be accepting and tolerant of one another and their differences. One example he gave was that there was no point in people having amazing prophetic powers, or incredible knowledge, if they then behaved as though that somehow made them better than everyone else. In other words, Paul was telling them that as members of the body of Christ, being one together in Jesus, they needed to be accepting and tolerant of others, and their differences. 

The same is true for us and the church today. The church has often been criticised in the past for being exclusive rather than inclusive. It has not always been accepting or tolerant of people holding different views on key social issues, and historically we’ve seen that with issues such as contraception, abortion and homosexuality. 

Jesus and much of his teaching was counter-cultural, and we see that demonstrated in the Gospel of Luke more than any of the other gospels. Today’s passage is a further reminder that Jesus often challenged what were seen as the “social norms” of his day. The consistent message of his teaching is that ALL people are welcome in the kingdom of God, and that people are the same in the eyes of God.

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