What Kind of Church Do We Want to Be?: Epiphany 4

What Kind of Church Do We Want to Be?: Epiphany 4

Year C, Epiphany 4: January 30, 2022
The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

Year C: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-17; 1 Corinthians 14:12b-20; Luke 4:21-32

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The gospels for the last two weeks are told in the season after the Epiphany, revealing exactly what the word Epiphany implies.

What do I mean when I say Epiphany. Quite simply, the manifestation of Christ to the peoples of the earth. In those days, the winter solstice was kept on January 6 at some places during the first centuries of the Christian era. Christians chose this day to celebrate the various manifestations or “epiphanies” of Jesus’ divinity. The coming of the Magi is celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany in the Book of Common Prayer. The Baptism of our Lord is celebrated on the Sunday after the Epiphany. The gospels for the other Sundays of the Epiphany season describe the wedding at Cana, the calling of the disciples, and various miracles and teachings of Jesus.

This morning’s gospel is a story told in two parts, this Gospel account of Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. Today’s gospel needs to be heard and can really only be understood in the context of last week’s gospel. So let’s take a look at where we are.

Jesus has been baptized, has overcome the temptations in the wilderness, and returned to his childhood synagogue in Nazareth. He read from 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.”[1]

The story told last week and this week is carefully crafted. Just as our lectionary readings in Epiphany have a structure and theme, there is an arc in Luke’s telling of this story of Jesus’ ministry.

This story is told later in Jesus’ ministry in the parallel gospels of Mark and Matthew (Mark 6:1-6 and Matthew 13:54-58).

For the Lukan Jesus, the bold repositioning of Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth and its dramatic expansion sets up this passage as the cornerstone of Jesus’ ministry.[2] Luke is telling the prophetic truth that Jesus is depicted as identifying himself as a prophet (4:24); the body of his message from last week is almost wholly a citation from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61; and Jesus’ interpretation of the passage he read is prophetic.[3]

While Luke recounts Jesus’ length Sermon on the Mount and several other extended speeches yet, this sermon is a one-sentence interpretation of Isaiah: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That speech would be brief even for a President known for few words, Calvin Coolidge.

And the impact of one word in this one sentence cannot be overstated. In Luke’s Gospel, the first public word of Jesus as an adult, apart from reading from the scroll, is “today.”[4]

“Today” is prophetic in its sense of declaration. We were alerted last week to Jesus returning to Galilee “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” (4:14). We are alerted in this morning’s scripture to the importance of today. Today speaks to authority, as when a President or Governor takes executive action: “Today, I am giving an order.”

There is a sense of an imperative in the word “today.” It challenges us to pay attention to those persons of particular concern to God, which is precisely what Jesus was saying when he read the scripture from Isaiah. Jesus had come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor.[5]

What Jesus was saying to those in the synagogue that day is the age of God’s reign is here. The time when God’s promises are fulfilled, and God’s purposes come to fruition has arrived, there will be changes in the conditions of those who have hoped and waited. The time of God is today, and the mission of Jesus and the church, according to Luke, is in the here and now.

I’ve talked a bit about the word “today” in the sense of this scripture. I want to talk a bit about another verse in today’s scripture.

“Truly, I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”[6]

It started well enough. The “[townspeople] spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”[7] They recognize Jesus as one of their own. They know him. He knows them.

We also hear how this story ends, and it isn’t pretty. All in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and were ready to throw him off the cliff.[8]

It went from 0-90 in no time. So how is it that this prophetic man, the son of God, indeed, God manifest in humanity, has come to this moment where his hometown folks were ready to kill him?

I think that fundamentally it comes down to cultural norms and an assumption that Jesus, as the hometown boy, will give deference to his own people. And why not? They gave him his start. They helped make him what he is today. They are the village that raised him as a child. They expect not just to be remembered but to be repaid.

But Jesus has a different vision. He hearkens back to prophets of old and lets people know that God’s mercy, God’s justice, God’s love are available to all. Remember that later in Luke’s gospel account, Jesus will touch and cleanse leapers. He will eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners. He will heal on the Sabbath. Each one of those things is a violation of the accepted norms.

What apparently sent the crowd into a rage is that Jesus reminds the people of Nazareth that Elijah was sent to a poor, non-Jewish widow, an outsider, a nobody. And of all the lepers in Israel during the time o Elisha, the only one to be cleansed was Naaman the Syrian, another outsider.[9]

Jesus has a vision for his ministry, and the people have another, a different idea. In short, Jesus reminds his hometown that God’s grace and generosity are not reserved, or those who – whether family, friends, or neighbors, think that they deserve it.

We will have our annual meetings at Emmanuel and Saint Andrew’s Church in the next two weeks, and we will elect Vestry members for the coming year who will take care of the church’s governance.

But where are we headed as a congregation, as a community? Do we hear the prophetic vision that Jesus was offering in this scripture?

As we move into the next part of our shared life, we have some discernment ahead of us.

 What kind of church do we want to be? What things do we want to do? How do we want the community to see us? Most importantly, how will we be faithful witnesses to God?

Do we want to be a prophetic church? And what does it even mean to be a prophetic church? Ultimately, to be prophetic means to be a community formed by the life and death of Jesus Christ.

What’s our plan? That’s not me asking; it’s a question God asks each one of us.

[1] Luke 4:12-21, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”), Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Third Sunday after the Epiphany

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 207.

[3] David L. Tiede, “Telling the Prophetic Truth: Advent – Epiphany according to St. Luke,” in Currents in Theology and Mission 33:6 (December 2006), 476.

[4] Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Luke (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox press), 62.

[5] Luke, 4:14-20, cf. Isaiah 61:12, 58:6, NRSV

[6] Luke 4:24, NRSV

[7] Luke 4:22, NRSV

[8] Luke 4:29, NRSV

[9] Luke 4:27, NRSV

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