who is jesus? and who are we? (year c, third sunday after the epiphany)

This is My Beloved Son, photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP
This is My Beloved Son, photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP

Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.

Reading through the gospel appointed for next Sunday, I first noticed the poetry, the beautiful lines from Isaiah about God’s upside-down kingdom.  I have a deep love for these words; they resonate so powerfully within me.

As with any text, from scripture to science fiction, it can be easy for our eye to jump to a word or phrase that catches our attention so that we skip part of the story.  This isn’t a bad thing, but it means that sometimes we miss something important.  And in this story from Luke’s gospel, there are some good things we miss about Jesus, if we let ourselves skip to Isaiah’s poetry.

Before this story, Jesus is baptized by his relative John, and then he immediately withdraws into the desert for 40 days.  Now he returns to his homeland, to a wonderful welcome from people who have heard amazing stories about him.  Jesus goes into the synagogues to study and to teach, and everyone loves to listen to him, to learn from him.

Release to the Captives, Fordham, photo by the Rev. Steve Day
Release to the Captives, Fordham, photo by the Rev. Steve Day

Then he goes home to Nazareth, and things are different.  Jesus goes to the synagogue where he grew up, as was his custom, but his neighbors and friends have no praise for him.  Instead, they try to throw Jesus off a cliff and stone him to death.  They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but this is beyond mere contempt; this is active violence!

These four sentences from Luke’s gospel tell us three things about the kind of person Jesus was, and if we take them to heart, they tell us about the kind of person we can be.

  1. Jesus is filled with the power of the Spirit
  2. Jesus is faithful in study and in worship
  3. Jesus knows what is real and eternal, and what is temporary.

Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee — this is how Sunday’s gospel lesson begins.  What does it mean for us to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit?  Is any one of us more filled than another?  How do we recognize the power of the Spirit in each other?  In the stories of Jesus, we have a number of manifestations of the Spirit’s power in Jesus.  We see him instantly heal the sick, give sight to the blind, give movement to the lame.  We see the Spirit descend on him like a dove when he is baptized.  We see him transfigured on the mountaintop.  We see him risen and appearing to his friends so that they can see him and hear him and touch him.

But that’s easy, that’s Jesus.  Regular people like us can’t do those things.  After all, when was the last time you saw a dove flying down to take part in a baptism?  When was the last time you saw someone touch a person, healing them instantly?  And yet, Jesus tells us that through our faith, we can do acts more powerful than his own.  I have to admit: I don’t have that faith.  I struggle to understand the miracles of God-with-us, sneer at television pastors whose followers throw away their canes or crutches, and wish so powerfully that I could heal some of the brokenness around me.  My daughter has an injured knee, which hurts her so much that she trembles as tears run silently down her face.  What would I give to be able to lay my hands on her and say, “Get up, take your mat, and walk”?  Yeah, Jesus may be filled with the power of the Spirit, but I don’t think I have more than about a teaspoon of Spirit in me.

Jesus is filled with the power of the Spirit, and Jesus knows that we can be filled by the Spirit, too.  The only ones who prevent this are ourselves.

Synagogue Church, Nazareth, by seetheholyland.net
Synagogue Church, Nazareth, by seetheholyland.net

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom — Those last four words say so much, though they are easy to dismiss.  It was the custom of Jesus to go to the synagogue on the sabbath day.  He learned and taught in the synagogues on his way home to Nazareth, and once there, he went to the synagogue to do the same.  But Jesus got a very different reception in his hometown, didn’t he?

Think for a moment about a youth in your congregation or in your neighborhood, a young man or woman you’ve known for several years.  You saw them as a child, bumping elbows and skinning knees, and now you see them growing into adulthood.  Think about this youth going away to university, and returning at the Christmas break.  In Sunday worship, they stand up to read the lessons, as they have while they were away, and then they begin to interpret those scriptures.  “Who does he think he is?” you might ask.  “Who gave her the authority to preach to us about the bible?  Didn’t she grow up here?  Don’t we know her parents?”  While you probably wouldn’t chase this youth to a cliff, your scorn and contempt would certainly be obvious.  And yet, you know this young man or woman to be regular in worship, to be in church every Sunday and to study scripture and display keen insights.  You’ve heard about the reputation she or he is getting at college, that peers come to listen and learn.  But you just can’t get past knowing this youth as a kid.

Jesus was faithful at study and worship, but not everyone could see and understand this.  He did not punish his neighbors who were blind to him, but slipped away so that he could live into his ministry in another place.   God calls us to worship in our community, to read and learn from scripture.  And sometimes God calls us out of one place into another.

Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran at Israel Museum, by KOREphotos
Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran at Israel Museum, by KOREphotos

He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.  And yet, a few lines down the page, Jesus encounters people who not only don’t praise him but actively try to kill him.  People with power usually evoke mixed feelings in us.  We like that they did this, but we wish they hadn’t done that.  We agree with these decisions, but we rail against those.  Being filled with the power of the Spirit, Jesus is no different.  The gospels contain many stories about those who loved and admired Jesus and about those who hated him, scorned him, tried to trip him up at every opportunity.

Jesus knows something we struggle with: the praise — and the scorn — of other people does not last. It is a temporary thing, and it has nothing to do with the things that are eternal, the things that give life.  Jesus keeps his eyes on what is real: God, faith, love, justice.  The reactions of others may hinder us from time to time, but they have no real or lasting power.  Jesus shows us how to respond to those who get in our way: he doesn’t bash through them like a linebacker, but he slips around them, always finding a way to let the Spirit work through him.

We can learn about Jesus even in these few sentences, these few lines that set the story for us.   Our invitation this week is to find meaning and lessons for ourselves in just a few words.  God invites us to be faithful in worship and in learning from the Word.  God reminds us to pay little heed to the things that are of this world and fleeting, so that we can fix our eyes on what is real and eternal.  And Jesus shows us what it looks like to be filled with the power of the Spirit.

Give us grace, O Lord,
to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ
and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation,
that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Amen.

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