Agents of Strength
Geographically speaking, we’ve not moved all that far from where we were last week, at the wedding in Cana. Cana, depending on which of four present day villages you think is the best candidate for that long-ago town, was somewhere between four to twelve miles away from Nazareth. That would have been a one or two day walk for an older woman like Mary, the mother of Jesus, who attended that wedding as did Jesus and His disciples. Mother and son were likely relatives of the bride or groom, and so attended to share in the joy of the making of a new couple and the renewing of the health and strength of the family as a whole.
That wedding was important not only for the health and strength of an extended family, but for the redemption of the world. It was at this wedding that Jesus performed His first miracle, turning something like 180 gallons of well water into the finest wine with no more than the exercise of the Father’s will in Him. A gracious gift, delivered in the relatively intimate setting of a village wide family celebration, foreshadowed the greater gift of His life on the cross for the whole of creation as the final sacrifice for sin. This morning we hear Jesus’ first sermon, and like His first miracle, the setting is relatively intimate, in that Jesus preaches for the first time in His hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
It didn’t go well.
Unlike the miracle at the wedding at Cana, everyone in the synagogue that day would have heard Jesus preach. In Cana, only the servants and Mary, Jesus’ mother, knew that He had somehow turned water into wine. Jesus may or may not have been invited to preach that day. Unlike present day synagogues, there may or may not have been a rabbi associated with the facility. The primary religious focus in all of Israel was the Temple, which had been rebuilt by King Solomon generations before the days Jesus walked the earth. Synagogues grew up as “holy places” where those unable to go to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple for reason of distance might hear God’s Word and have it explained to them. If small, community elders rather than a rabbi would have seen to the organization of shabbat or kaddish services and that there was a minyan, ten men, present to allow the services to move forward. So, it is possible that the elders decided among themselves who was to read the Torah and preach on it, or someone so moved stood up and volunteered to take on that responsibility during the service. However it came about, Jesus stood at the proper time and took the Torah scroll, read it, and then said something quite remarkable.
Those in the synagogue likely expected something quite remarkable, for though Jesus’ ministry was still young, He had already earned a reputation as a healer. In addition, He had called a cadre of twelve disciples to follow Him, support His ministry, and learn from Him. By this time, the base for Jesus’ ministry was in the Greek seaport city of Capernaum. Even so, His one-time neighbors had doubtless heard what the carpenter’s son was up to, and so either invited Him to preach or waited in anticipation for what He had to say about God’s work, His work, and their own work.
This is where the trouble begins.
We are all of us aware that even churchly gatherings are occasionally troubled by human sin, for while we all hope that our more godly selves show up for worship and fellowship there is no guarantee that we will remain godly throughout our attendance. We are not, alas, all sweetness and light all of the time, perfect reflections of the love and mercy of God. Even bishops are want to behave badly at times, as we remember Athanasius slugged the heretic Arius in the middle of a well-attended churchly squabble about the nature of Christ. Pope Leo invited the monk and priest Martin Luther to an inquisition in Rome which likely would have ended with Luther being burned at the stake. Pope Urban actually did execute his enemies in the fourteenth century. And, lest we think ourselves superior to our ancestors in the faith, we remember that Robert’s Rules of Order were written in the late 1800’s after a meeting in a church that went badly. More recently, and in our own bailiwick, there was that Greek orthodox priest north or east of here who stuck a knife in the council president, who, thankfully, survived handily.
So maybe now it is easier to believe that the very same people who watched Jesus grow up and who took their broken stools to Joseph for repair would suddenly turn on Jesus to such a degree that they sought to throw Him off a cliff. Still, we have to wonder why they would turn on Him and on a dime, too. What happened during this first sermon to lead to such a malicious response?
It was definitely the sermon that enraged those in synagogue that day. Our own service of the Word is patterned after those synagogue shabbat services, so we know that the service began with prayers and psalms which were likely sung. This would be followed by two readings, one from the Law, meaning the Torah or the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, and one from the prophets. Remember, there would be no Gospel reading as the Gospels were written only after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was given, we are told, “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah,” which He unrolled to the 61st chapter, and from which He read the first two verses. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus stood, as custom, at the table which held the scrolls as He read as a matter of respect for God’s Word, as we stand out of reverence for the Gospel. But He sat down to preach as the congregation likely remained standing, for those in authority sat as they preached, and the congregation indicated its willingness to learn by standing. So far, so good. And the first words of His sermon were the best ever uttered, for He said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This would be great news for any Jew, for this part of the Prophet Isaiah’s scroll spoke of the restoration of Israel, a restoration so very great that Israel’s oppressors would become her servants. All the destruction wrought in Israel by Rome and other oppressors like the money lenders and their petty kings and the taxing authorities and even the Temple establishment would end, and all would be free to live their lives independently of tyranny and extreme taxation and poverty. So great is this restoration that even the disabled will be made whole.
The problem is that, first, Jesus claims to be the One to bring this restoration about, and second, He pronounces that this restoration will not be limited to Israel. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus implied, and “He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives.” Jesus addresses the first issue by noting that no prophet is accepted in his hometown. The people who swiped at His runny nose when He was a toddler or who watched Him playing hide and seek with the rest of the town’s children will not then look on Him as the adult Messiah. But the thing that really sent the Nazarenes around the bend was Jesus’ reminder that many times in the past the blessings of God have not been given to Israelites, but rather to Gentiles in need and willing to believe.
Jesus did not speak as a politician, as one pandering to His neighbors to gain their favor. He could have come across as the hometown boy done good, but instead He spoke the hard, objective truth to people whom He doubtless loved. Nor did He speak from human weakness,
but rather from the strength of the Almighty God. He did not fear the response of those in synagogue that day, and we see later that He had no need to fear them, for even as they sought to take His life He walked through them and away from them. He preached to those whom He once lived among that they might be the first to hear the truth of God’s fulfilment of His plan for our salvation. We are not saved because we belong to the right herd, but because we believe in Him Who created us, sustains us even as we sin, and will redeem us from sin and death. The Spirit of the Lord was upon Him Who was born of the Virgin Mary at the will of the Almighty God, and it is He Who will set His people free. It is not just that Jesus proclaims the Good News to the poor and others, but that He IS the Good News. And that Good News is for all who believe, not just Israel.
We have all heard this lesson many times, yet like the townspeople of Nazareth, too familiar with the boy Jesus to see their Messiah in the adult Jesus, we let its lessons roll over us, too drowsy, too focused on other matters to hear and to attend. It’s obvious that we are not much better at accepting the Word as He walked and talked among us than our Jewish forbearers, for often we choose to act out of human weakness and not the strength of our Redeemer. The other readings of the day proclaim that the joy of the Lord is our strength, and the Lord is our strength and our Redeemer, but we set aside that joy and look to temporary, human means for our strength.
And those human means tend not to be on the joyous side, nor are they effective or strong. They’re also habitual, so we might not always take note of what we’re actually doing when we turn to human weakness and not divine strength. Clearly, Jesus did not worry about the response of those listening to His sermon that Shabbat morning. He preached objective truth, truth that did not cater to his listeners’ feelings and insecurities but to what God is doing in the world. So He did not pat his one-time neighbors on their figurative heads, but pushed them to understand what He said and what it meant for them. Only one of us is preaching from this ambo, here, but it’s highly likely that you have felt threatened one way or another for the faith you hold. What do most of us do, in that circumstance, but back off what is true not only for us but everyone else. Well, we’re told, it’s just the way you see it; it’s just the way you interpret the Bible; it’s just that you’re an unsophisticated low information citizen holding onto your faith, your guns, your beer, or your diet Dr. Pepper Cherry, or whatever. But what we preach is not only subjective, the lens by which we alone look at the world, but the truth as God has made it. If we opt to work, with the help of the Holy Spirit, out of God’s strength, we can happily, even joyfully assert what is true, not just because we believe it, but because that truth is written in the creation and in our lives.
When we lean on Christ’s strength and assert that objective truth and live in it, the world has a clarity it otherwise lacks. It is not so hard to determine what is right and what is wrong when God’s saving grace through Christ’s death and resurrection is clear to us and real to us. It’s more a matter of giving in to that so very real truth. If what we know of Christ is objectively true, then we know to treat others as if we see the face of Jesus in their faces. We cannot disrespect them, for Jesus willingly died for them. We feed them when hungry, care for them when poor or ill or aged. We do real things to promote faith to real people and provide real stuff to real people with real needs.
When we work out of God’s strength and not human weakness, possibilities become apparent to us that we otherwise would never see. When it’s just us, we go for the lowest common denominator, letting self-doubt, convenience, or the kind of tiredness that frustrates us when our lives seem meaningless and busy with too much. But with God all things are possible, because God’s strength, as opposed to our own, is inexhaustible.