“Familiarity Breeds Complacency”
First Baptist Church, Lawrence, Kansas
3 February 2013
Luke 4.14-30; 1 Corinthians 13.1-13
Familiarity breeds contempt. Or so the saying goes. But perhaps more accurately on a day with quite familiar and beloved scriptures – Jeremiah’s call story, Paul’s “Love Chapter,” – is that great familiarity often breeds complacency. This is a truism Jesus faces in today’s Gospel story.
Jesus goes home. Jesus returns to his homeland – to the tiny throwaway hill country town of Nazareth to start his ministry.
Why does Jesus start in Nazareth? What is going on here? Here we could rely on the platitude that we ‘can’t go home again’; anyone who has returned home after any time away knows the truth of these words – are we ever fully realized as adults in our childhood homes? It’s challenging at least, and impossible at worst. Jesus returns home, and by the end of the story he narrowly escapes the crowd’s wrath. This is a pretty popular story among seminarians – but this is not a story about how difficult it is to return to your home church to preach once you’ve studied exegesis and homiletics and all sorts of other things, prepared to enlighten and rattle the folks at home. (Though it is, also about that, I believe.)
Rather, this is a story about Jesus declaring and realizing his mission. The Spirit, we hear, has descended upon him at his baptism, declaring Jesus God’s Son, with whom God is well pleased. The Spirit has followed him into the wilderness, sustaining him through temptation, hunger, and sleep deprivation. Through his wilderness exile, the Spirit has guided Jesus, and now the Spirit has empowered him in returning home to initiate his ministry.
The beginning of the passage reports on the gathered crowd – folks who remembered Jesus in diapers, his first word, his first attempts at carpentry, learning alongside his father – the folks who know the altogether and thoroughly human Jesus. The crowd is gathered in the temple for worship, and Jesus, invited to read from the scrolls of scripture, turns to a familiar passage in Isaiah, one that promises justice and freedom:
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.
Then Jesus, rolls up the scroll, hands it back, and looks around the room, and meets the eyes of men and women who fussed at him, fed him, doted on him; he catches the gaze of peers, young men and women with whom he’d run and played pranks, and alongside whom he had learned about the religion of their ancestors – he looks these folks in the eye and places himself and his ministry at the center of Isaiah’s proclamation.
Jesus tells those gathered in the synagogue, “Today this scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.” The crowd, hearing these words, were, Luke reports, “amazed.” They “spoke well of him,” looking at each other asking, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” You know those moments when a child grows up and starts to behave with responsibility and maturity, or when someone you’ve known since birth speaks with grace, intelligence and wisdom, and you can hardly believe that this is the same person? Sometimes it’s hard to believe. Often those folks at home can’t get past the days of your youth and seem not to be able to embrace fully your adult identity. That could be part of what’s going on between Jesus and the worshippers in Nazareth.
We could also hear in this story a bit of provocation on Jesus’ part.
In the midst of their amazement, he jumps in with some assumptions about what they’ll say in response to his words, his identity, his ministry: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ …Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” He seems to be telling them how they will respond before they’ve actually had a chance to respond. He goes on to compare himself to Elijah and Elisha, both prophets who had better news for those outside Israel, those outside their hometowns, than those closer to home.
Much like a politician, who returns home to begin a campaign, Jesus returns to Nazareth to initiate his ministry – his call to be the Messiah – his call to fulfill the words of Isaiah.
Likely most politicians aspire to a warmer welcome and response to their platforms than Jesus received.
Most politicians, though, show up to tell us what we want to hear – everything will be exponentially better, and we won’t have to try as hard or give up as much to achieve better results.
Jesus, though is telling people God’s own truth: that God is for the oppressed. That God’s m.o. is release from captivity, and good news for the impoverished.
Something clicks for the crowd between his homecoming and his elaboration on what it means for Jesus to fulfill the scriptures. Maybe he doesn’t think they’ve actually listened – perhaps the message has gotten lost in the puffed up chests of the crowd’s pride at a hometown son made good. Amidst their pride, Jesus might be looking around asking, “But did any of you even hear what I said?”
Maybe it’s just gotten lost in the familiarity. Whatever is going on here, the people turn on him, “le[ading] him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” Jesus escapes, though; Luke reports that “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Luke doesn’t give us many details here about Jesus’ escape, so I prefer to think of this more like “The Princess Bride,” and Jesus responded, like Wesley, “Aaaaaaaaaaas Yoooooooou Wiiiiiiiish,” hurling himself down the hill, back through the wilderness and onward to continue his ministry. (It could have happened.)
We turn to this passage today, along with a couple of other likely familiar passages, and perhaps, like some of the folks in the crowd, the message has been buried in the familiarity. Perhaps, familiarity has bred complacency.
We read the story in the Gospel and fancy ourselves one of Jesus’ nameless followers standing silently by, though offering definitive judgment on the crowd who rejects Jesus and his message. Or, we fancy ourselves like Jesus, rejected among those who know us best. At worst, this story has been used to fuel latent or even explicit anti-Semitism as proof text for Christians superseding the Jews as God’s chosen.
What gets lost in the re-telling of the story, though is the response of a crowd to the message of well-known words. Jesus is not reading from an obscure, apocryphal text, nor is he telling them that their scripture is invalid or wrong.
He angers the crowd at least in part because he is telling them, in no uncertain terms, that God’s message is what it has been since at least the time of Isaiah, and Jesus has come to fulfill that message. He is saying that God really is for the poor, the oppressed, the prisoner, the downtrodden. That the fulfillment of the messianic promise, that the year of the Lord’s favor will be a fulfillment of the promise for good news, liberation – for filled stomachs, hands, and souls.
We, too, often turn to the Bible looking for comfort or reassurance and miss the ways that the scripture calls us to change, incites us to anger – if we are really listening to the proclamation from the prophets through Christ – on some level we ought to identify with the crowd’s response of fear and anger.
The Gospel is and ought to be thoroughly unsettling. These are not words fit for framed calligraphy or embroidered pillows.
Paul’s words that we read earlier are even more familiar to us; we likely recite them over and over with images of romantic twitterpation, forgetting the Corinthian Church to whom Paul addressed his letter. For much of this letter, Paul focuses on the toxic conflict that threatens to undermine this church. The Gospel has been lost in competition, ego, and forgetfulness about the church’s purpose. In the previous chapter, Paul elaborates on spiritual gifts and the integrity of all forms of gifts from the spirit – all have a place of importance in the body of Christ – you know how this goes. He follows this exhortation with poetic words about love.
After assuring the Corinthian Christians that all have spiritual gifts, and all are important, he goes on to say that the exercise of any of these gifts, apart from the exercise and attitude and reality of love amounts to noisy gongs or clanging cymbals – you know how it goes.
We can understand, speak well, posses all amount of faith, but devoid of love, we are devoid of everything. We have turned these words into special occasion scriptures for use in celebration of love in the context of marriage vows. And that is lovely, it really is.
But Paul here is speaking of love’s even bigger embrace than two persons making vows of ‘for better and for worse.’ Paul’s words on love echo with the greater and all-encompassing reality of God’s presence – God is love. This is God’s kind of love – perfect, eternal, abiding – patient, kind, humble.
What we forget when we rely on Paul’s words as a riff on romantic love, is that he begins by acknowledging the sheer un-human quality of this kind of love. He is, of course, talking about agape love, God’s perfect love, which is not a feeling, not an emotion, but is, at its very core, “embodied;” it is “God’s love for humankind in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
This love is not, and cannot be reduced to romance. It is the love of Jesus that confronts a hometown, it is the love of Jesus that speaks of release and liberation – it is, as pastor Lewis Galloway describes, “active, tough, resilient, and long-suffering.”
What do we do, then, with these familiar passages, now, this Sunday, straddling that all-too-human space between the light of epiphany and the darkness of Lent?
In light of Luke’s story of Jesus’ declaration of his ministry, Paul’s words here demonstrate the “inclusive nature of God’s embrace.” When the reality of God is one of good news, of liberation, that God’s own self is love – perfect, patient, eternally faithful, hope-full, abiding, and enduring – then we are called to live out God’s love in the pattern and example of Christ.
These passages ought to prompt us to question ourselves: What if – What if we declared, like Jesus, in the words of Isaiah, this will be the year of God’s favor – meaning the year of God’s good news, God’s liberation, God’s release? What if – What if we acted on love – not trite, superficial, romantic, or mere feeling – but love that embraces, behaves, challenges, welcomes all?
On a day with such familiar words – the comforting words of Paul’s poetry on love, the familiar story of Jesus – the prophet without a home – how are we challenged to make the familiar strange again? The promise of today’s scriptures is that we, too, gifted by the Spirit, emboldened by God’s love, will do the things that Jesus promised and proclaimed – that Jesus initiated in his ministry as the Messiah. The promise of God’s Kingdom is that Jesus remains at work through us, in the work of “proclaiming, freeing, comforting, releasing.”
The challenge is to take these familiar words and see them as calls to concrete actions – to comprehensive changes in how we live.
The Good News of God’s liberation is that it cannot be contained. It is inclusive and for all. No wonder the folks in Nazareth responded with hostility – God is supposed to be for us – to the exclusion of those not like us – whether race, gender, denomination, any of those dividing lines that separate us from them. God is supposed to be comforting – to the exclusion of any challenge or call to change the way we live, the assumptions we have, the rules by which we play and live and work.
What Jesus declares is that all the lines and boundaries that separate us from them exist because we created them – not God. God’s release is for us – from our pettiness, shame and fear – and it is also a challenge for us – to release others from their own captivity – the captivity of cycles of despair, fear, poverty. Even more than proclaiming release from emotional and psychological oppression (which are – to be clear – real and present forms of oppression), Jesus proclaims that God’s release is also – and foremost – social and political: Theologian Letty Russell puts it this way: “The oppressed whom Jesus has come to set free are the crushed ones, the bruised of society; the nonpersons who have no room to breathe or live as human beings…” If we are paying attention, if we are willing to hear the word anew, if we are willing to ask how we might take part in this good news, it ought to upset us on some level.
This is uncomfortable news, but it is good news. The promise of God, through these stories, is good news. It is troubling news, but it is good news. May we, as partners in God’s church, be agents of God’s love. May our love not be reduced to sentimentality, but, when called for, confront and provoke ourselves, our neighbors, our systems and structures, out of what is comfortable, out of complacency, into actions that embrace the stranger, the oppressed, the captive.
We sing that old song, “They’ll Know We are Christians, by Our Love.” May they also be troubled and transformed by our Love – by God’s love.
 Lewis Galloway, Feasting on the Word, Year C., vol. 1, p. 304
 Peter Eaton, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol.1, p. 311.
 Letty M. Russell, “Prophet Without Welcome,” Christian Century, 1992.