Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, Luke 4:16-30

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

It is said so often that it has become a cliche, originally from the mouth of the Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Ghandi. And who could dispute it? In Ghandi’s day Christians in South Africa were proclaiming that it was God’s will for races to be divided and that Apartheid was a fulfilment of God’s plan. In Europe many of the national churches had been unable to oppose the tide of facism in the early part of the 20th century and it was British Christians who applied the bandages to wrap up the wounds inflicted by British colonial power.

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.”

Jesus had returned after his Baptism by John to his home town of Nazareth. At this time the Jewish people had begun to associate their Sabbath day of rest not only with the sacrifices of the temple, but with coming to share in teaching from the old scrolls of what we now call the Old Testament. As I said last time I preached, during the time of the exile when there was no Temple, the Hebrews began to meet to pray and read the ancient writings of their prophets, poets, and story-tellers. This is a tradition they continued as they returned to their homeland and a practice in which Jesus fully participates.

Jesus is well-liked, and who wouldn’t like him? He had come back from his wilderness wandering thinner, sharper, more focused and with a message which echoed like thunder. You see, at this time the Jewish people were controlled by the Romans, who took their wealth and had only the most superficial regard for their unique culture and faith. Jesus walked into synagogues, where the people gathered to pray for their liberation, and he announced that the time for their prayers to be answered was here! Today is the day of liberation! This is the year of the Lord’s favour! The poor, crippled and oppressed will blessed!

I like that Christ. Don’t you?

Jesus starts his sermon so very well, and everyone is amazed by his gracious words, yet as we heard this sermon ends with a riot.

(I’ve been called some pretty interesting things by church leaders over the years, but never yet have I seen a sermon end in violence. Perhaps we’re all too British to get this excited?)

Jesus is not the first person to be attacked like this. In nearly every generation God called people to proclaim his word to his people. These people are usually called Prophets, and a good amount of the Old Testament records their words. Isaiah was one such prophet and we heard earlier the story of Jeremiah’s call. Do you remember what Jeremiah said when the Lord came to him?

“…I do not know how to speak, I am too young!”

You can’t ask this of me Lord, this is too hard!

As it turns out, the people rarely want to hear God’s word and many of the prophets end up persecuted and killed for their messages. Jeremiah knew this, and Jesus knows it. The message they bring is costly and not many who hear will accept it.

There was this prophet called Elijah, and Elijah preached against King Ahab and his wife Jezebel who abandoned the worship of the God who had saved them from slavery in Egypt and set up altars to a god called Baal. This progressive king executed the priests and prophets of the old religion and embraced the god that virtually everyone in the region worshipped. Now there was a drought in Israel, which is ironic because Ahab had chosen to worship the god of rain and storms, but that’s another matter. There was no rain in Israel yet God provided for his faithful prophet, Elijah by sending him to a pagan town called Zarephath where they had no knowledge of Elijah’s God. Elijah meets a widow who has a young son and they are well on their way to starving to death. Elijah saves their lives by miraculously making their jar of flour never go empty, yet the widow’s son dies anyway. The woman blames Elijah, for it must be that now God has come to judge her for her sins. Yet even in here in the midst of this tragedy amongst a people who do not know God, God makes his power and love know by raising the widow’s son to life.

Now because of the ministry of Elijah and his disciple, Elisha, many people who were not part of Israel came to know that Israel’s God could work wonders of power and healing. Naaman was the commander of Syria’s army yet suffered from leprosy so the king of Syria sent a message to the king of Israel asking him to cure leprosy. Now, the king of Israel was terrified by this and thought the king of Syria was trying to provoke a fight, but Elisha sees that this is simply a man in need of God’s hand to touch him. Elisha cures the leprosy, and in gratitude Naaman swears that from that day forth he will only worship Israel’s God.

In their many years of ministry Elijah and Elisha saw more lasting impact from their preaching and miracles amongst people who had no relationship with God than they ever did when they preached to the people who have sworn to follow his laws and honour his ways.

So Jesus has sat down to preach and everyone applauds. Yes,! Year of the Lord’s favour! Sight to the blind! Freedom to the oppressed!

I like this Christ

Jesus reads their thoughts like they have written them on their foreheads: You want a sign.

Do here what we heard you did in capernaum!

Jesus cooly responds by telling them through the stories of Elijah and Elisha that he will do no such thing. You see, he is like Elijah battling Ahab or Elisha opposing Jehoram, kings who worshipped idols and hated the law of God. And so Jesus will go to those who are far from Israel’s God: Romans, Gentiles, and Samaritans, and he will show God’s wonder and grace and love. He will free those who have been captured by demons and evil and whose souls are ensnared by sin.

This is not the good news the people of Nazareth wanted.

As one they drive Jesus from their house of worship, ready to throw him off the brow of a hill, perhaps even picking up rocks to stone him to death!

They did not like this Christ at all!

They loved and adored the Christ who would give them the salvation they longed for, the recompense and restoration of their freedom and justice. They despised the Jesus who would dare call them sinners and rebels against God. This young radical who had grown up under their feet, now telling them that he is the Elijah to their King Ahab. Unforgivable.

Jesus, we loved you and you told us things we did not want to hear. How dare you.

Now it seems to me that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of Christianity, is not always welcome. I’m sure you’ll agree. But some days even I find it unwelcome. It’s all well and good to imagine that President Assad, or Hugh Hefner, or the Danish Parliament, or Tommy Robinson, or a thousand other people out their in our lives should hear the Gospel and respond to the call to repentance. It is most grievous to me, that I too must kneel.

I want freedom for all, without surrendering all my idols.

If this is the case, our very presence here is a pretty good start. You see like those people of Nazareth we come together each week on our Sabbath day to hear from God’s word and I have not yet seen us rise as one to cast Matthew into the canal.

I mean, I suppose we’d need a church meeting for that anyway…

Each week we gather to hear the word of God both read aloud and interpreted for us by someone who loves and cares deeply for our souls, and each week we have the choice of whether to receive that word or reject it. This is in essence why we are all here.

If the very purpose of our being here is that we may learn to lay down our idols and listen to the saving words of Jesus, then already in being here this morning you have have made a good start. You have given over to God some time in your week for the purpose of coming to worship him. You have made room for your spiritual brothers and sisters by sitting with them, by making sure to park your car so everyone can get a space. You have joined in the great chorus of voices in worship, giving up your need to be heard or admired. You have given of your wealth, declaring that all you have earned belongs to God. Many of help prepare and sustain many parts of the life of this church, bringing before God our skill and professional experience.

You are learning to lay down your idols and listen to the voice of Jesus.

Ghandi said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

I’ll be honest. I don’t like this saying.

I mean, it may well be that our life together here makes us look not only like the Christ who is adored for his wonderful universally-approved message… but we might also find ourselves looking like the Christ who is violently rejected by the people he loved. I don’t know if I’m quite ready for that.

Yet perhaps it may be, that as we learn together the discipline of listening patiently, that we would be transformed from that angry assembly in Nazareth, into the likeness of Jesus Christ himself and that we might go from this place to declare his wonderful, frightful, weighty, costly word to the world which needs to hear, but refuses to listen. Perhaps we will learn to speak up, and with the courage of Jesus who did not fear rejection but loved the voice of his heavenly Father.

And perhaps, after encountering God in this place we would be so transformed that we would lean upon God for our strength and hope, taking refuge in him before the raging rejection of those who would rather cling to their dead idols than come to know the wonder-working Living Lord.

Amen.

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