the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
“Truly, I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Luke 4:24
We talk a lot about expectations. The best teachers have high expectations for their students. Parents have certain expectations, both spoken and unspoken, for what their children might do with their lives. You can say what you want about today’s Super Bowl match-up, but we all expect that Tom Brady will have another incredible game.
Things can get tricky when we face competing expectations. Maybe your job places certain demands on you that get in the way of being present for your family. It’s hard to negotiate the expectations of your boss or your colleagues alongside the expectations of your children or your spouse or your parents.
Perhaps the worst feeling is when we have high expectations of ourselves but keep falling short. We want to meet some imaginary standard that we’ve created in our own minds, but for whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem to happen.
When we meet up with Jesus in today’s gospel, it’s an immediate continuation of last week’s gospel in which he stood up in front of his hometown synagogue and declared that he fulfills a Jewish prophetic text promising good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. He is essentially saying to a crowd of people who have known him his whole life that he is the messiah, the Savior who has been anticipated across centuries of Jewish history.
If you had a chance to read the first four chapters of Luke this week, perhaps you noticed how this gospel sets up some high expectations for Jesus.
When the angel Gabriel comes to announce to Mary that she will be the mother of this holy child, the angel says about the baby: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” This baby will have a royal pedigree, descending from King David as the messiah was supposed to do (Luke 1:32).
When Mary sings her song of praise after meeting up with her relative Elizabeth, she sings of a Savior who has the power to topple the powerful and lift the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty – a bold vision, but one that, as she reminds us, is “according to the promise [the Lord] made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:55).
An old man named Zechariah speaks another prophecy about Jesus before he is born: “The Lord God of Israel…has raised up a mighty savior for us…that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:69-71). Zechariah reminds his listeners that the arrival of this Savior is a fulfillment of that long-ago promise that God made to Abraham – to be rescued from all enemies, to receive forgiveness and salvation.
We see scenes of Jesus growing up as a good Jewish boy. He is brought to the temple at eight days old to be circumcised. His parents bring sacrifices to the temple according to the law. When Jesus is twelve, his parents take him to Jerusalem for the Passover, and when he goes missing, they find Jesus having deep conversations with the teachers in (where else?) the temple.
Before he is born, when he is a baby, when he is an adolescent, when he is a grown man – so many expectations to be all that the Jewish people throughout time have been waiting for.
With those weighty expectations as a backdrop, imagine the crowd in today’s gospel as they try to bring together this man they’ve known for years with the messiah he claims to be. They have watched him grow up. He played with the neighborhood kids and loved his parents and occasionally got into trouble. But now he’s standing before them declaring that he is going to free the oppressed.
At first the people seem pleased. All spoke well of him, it says. All were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. But five minutes later they are trying to throw him off a cliff, filled with rage at what they’ve heard. What happened? What turned Jesus from hometown hero to heretic?
One possible answer is in the two stories to which Jesus refers. In the first story he reminds them of a time when there was a great famine throughout the land, and the prophet Elijah was sent to help not the widows of Israel, but a widow in Zarephath. Zarephath – a Syro-Phoenician town in Sidon, along the Mediterranean Sea. So Jesus is pointing out that Elijah assisted a Gentile woman, a non-Jewish person, saving her from starvation.
In another story a different prophet – Elisha this time – guides Namaan the leper, a Syrian, to some healing waters that remove his disease. There were plenty of lepers in Israel, but it’s the Syrian who is cured. God is healing and blessing even the enemies of Israel.
It’s almost like Jesus is taunting his audience, deliberate riling them up by challenging their expectations of him. You’re supposed to be our guy, they must be thinking. Surely there will be some perks to knowing you. Surely we will get some preferential treatment.
But instead Jesus seems to be saying: I am more than what you expect me to be. I am not limited to what you want me to do for you. I have come for all people – even the ones you can’t stand.
We can dismiss the fickle nature of Jesus’ audience all those centuries ago, but what happens when we try to understand Jesus’ expansive love in our own time? Imagine if Jesus showed up here and reminded us that he is not here just to hold our hands and tell us everything is going to be OK. He’s also here to move beyond the boundaries of nations and denominations that we’ve drawn so firmly. He’s here to defy the categories that we’ve created. He’s here to care for the neighbor who is nasty to us all the time. He’s here to love the adversary who brings out the worst in us. He’s here for the KKK member. He’s here for the homophobe. He’s here for the drug dealer.
We don’t like to hear this part of Jesus’ mission. One of my favorite writers Anne Lamott has famously quoted her priest friend Tom, who says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.[i] Picture the person who makes you the most angry – someone you know personally or someone you know only by reputation or from the news. Jesus is here to love that person too – to pursue that person’s redemption and transformation.
And Jesus would go on to tell us that he’s here for the people we often overlook – the homeless and the hungry, the prisoners, the addicts, the victims of violence and abuse and all of the “isms” of our own making. He asks us to join him in standing with them and for them.
Jesus comes to change our way of seeing and responding to the world around us. In spite of all that we’ve done or not done, all the expectations met or unmet, all of the hatreds and prejudices that we hold in our hearts – Jesus is here to transform us.
We may not always like it, but that’s why Jesus is Jesus and we are not.
Before we throw him off that cliff, maybe we should let him do his thing. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ