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The 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 3, 2019

 

     The Jesus who stood up to read in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth in today’s gospel was not the same Jesus who had left there a bit earlier.  He was a changed man changed by experiences both dazzling and harrowing. He had followed the crowds to the Jordan where he had been baptized by John and seen the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending on him.  And he had heard his Father’s voice: “You are my son, my beloved one.  My favor rests on you.”  That was more than enough to change a man!

     But there had been even more: from the lofty pinnacle of his baptism, he descended into a dark valley: forty days of fasting in the desert, forty days of prayer and struggle that culminated in a terrible encounter with the Evil One who tried to divert him from his mission, enticing him with temptations that must have seemed so very sensible, temptations to use his gifts and his powers for his own advantage -- to turn stones into bread, to turn the whole world into a kingdom for himself. In other words, temptations to turn God into a magician or to redefine God in terms of radical selfishness.  And to each of those temptations – at what cost we can only guess -- Jesus had said “no,” and that “no” must have steeled him for that one great “yes” that still lay in his future.

     So, yes, the Jesus who returned to Nazareth was indeed a changed man. Nazareth may have been home, but there really was no going home for him now: no returning to the way things used to be, and certainly no pandering to the hometown crowd by telling them things to make them feel good.  No, instead, he took them to places the prophets had always taken God’s people: uncomfortable places, scary places.  And they took him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, determined to hurl him off the precipice.

     Some homecoming!  It hadn’t started out that way.  Luke’s account of Jesus’ return to Nazareth indicates that the people’s first reaction to him was positive.  “All spoke well of him…they were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  But when he began to invade their comfort zone: when he went beyond reading prophetic words from Isaiah to speaking pointed prophetic words of his own, amazement quickly turned to indignation and then to fury, proving that prophets don’t often play well at home.  Who, after all, was Jesus to remind them of how, because of people’s hard-heartedness, the prophets Elijah and Elisha had worked their wonders for outsiders only - heathen foreigners?  Who wants to hear a message like that?  The people of Nazareth certainly didn’t. And we probably wouldn’t have, either. And yet it is a recurring message in all the scriptures, including the gospels. Outsiders become insiders.

     St. Luke’s gospel, which is this year’s gospel, is literally loaded with stories of God favoring outsiders. It’s one of his central themes.  Here are some of Luke’s lineup: the shepherds who were first at the manger, the tax collectors and prostitutes who dined at table with Jesus, the band of women disciples who followed Jesus to minister to him, Zacchaeus up in his tree.  Outsiders, each one of them.  Then there’s the Good Samaritan of the parable and the Prodigal Son. Only Luke tells us about those. The same goes for the good thief who stole heaven from the cross and the Roman Centurion who found faith at the foot of the cross. Outsiders each one of them, but insiders for Jesus the preacher and prophet.

      But Jesus is not the only prophet in today’s readings.  Jesus the prophet is paired with Jeremiah the prophet.  Jeremiah’s call, like Jesus’ call, had come to him while he was still in his mother’s womb – a way of saying that his call was woven right into his very being. Unlike Jesus, he tried to resist it – pleading youth and ignorance – but to no avail.  “I will be with you,” God had said, “I will put my words in your mouth.”  And what were the words God put into his mouth?  Hard words, disturbing words, anything but comforting words.  “State my case against my own people,” said the Lord.  “Brace yourself.  Stand up and speak to them.  Confront them by telling them everything I bid you…They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you to deliver you.”

     You see why today’s first and third readings belong together. I wonder if Jesus, driven from his hometown synagogue on that wave of fury, his own townspeople clamoring for his life, thought of Jeremiah and his lot?  If he did, he must also have taken comfort in God’s promise to be with him.

     The call to be prophet. It’s our call, too: given us on the day of our baptism. And it’s a call that can take us to Jeremiah kind of places and Jesus kind of places, places where we’d rather not go, places that will stretch us, and cost us, and catapult us beyond our comfort zone – as when, for instance, we take a stand for the value of human life – each and every human life from womb to tomb; or when we speak up on behalf of migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers; or when we advocate in favor of stricter gun controls or against the proliferation of nuclear weapons; or when we speak out against the death penalty.

      The possibilities are many and the likelihood is that answering the prophetic call will bring us more grief than comfort, that it will make our lives less comfortable, not more. Yet it is our call – our baptismal call -- and God says to us as God said to Jeremiah, “I will be with you…I will put my words in your mouth.” My friends, it is here at the Eucharist more than anywhere else that God does just that!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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