Sunday, February 3, 2019
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “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.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
The book of Job is one of the oldest books in our Bible. But its message is contemporary. It concerns the reality of human suffering and the resilience of faith, in the face of suffering. Job has suffered some incredible losses: his whole family, with the exception of his wife, his health, and his fortune. Yet Job refuses to relinquish his faith in God. His wife, who has watched him suffer and suffered herself, is perplexed by his resolute faith. And so one day, at the end of her rope, she taunts him with these chilling words: “Do you still persist in your integrity, husband? Why don’t you just curse God, and die!”
I was 28 and in my first call. And I was living through what the mystics call “the dark night of the soul.” Everything I had ever believed was suddenly up for grabs. My house of faith was collapsing around me and I felt powerless to stop it. And because I had been taught that God could do anything, I was angry at God for seemingly doing nothing. I was angry at all the unanswered questions about my life. And I was so angry at the church. And so, one night as I lay in bed, unable to sleep, I looked up at the ceiling and followed Job’s wife’s advice. I cursed God with all the emotion and anger and despair that I actually felt. I cursed God and then I rolled over and went to sleep.
I could not know it then, but what actually happened that night was the violent birthing of a profound spiritual transformation. It was the demolition of all I thought I knew, and the beginning of the construction of something brand new. My faith, once small and smug, would become expansive and inclusive and more grace-filled that I had ever dared to dream.
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story "Revelation," the character Ruby Turpin is sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, judging everyone around her. Ruby imagines herself to be superior, by more than a grade or two, to everyone there, especially to a poor, unkempt teenager seated across from her, reading a book. Ruby thinks it sad that the girl’s parents did not groom her more attractively. “Perish the thought of having a child as scowling as this one,” she thinks.
As for the child, named Mary Grace, she listens for a while as Ruby chatters out loud about the superiority of poor blacks over "white trash." Then, without warning, Mary Grace fixes her steely eyes on Ruby and hurls her book across the room. The book hits Ruby in the head and she falls to the floor with Mary Grace on top of her hissing into her ear, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!"
This, says O’Connor, is the violent, shocked beginning of Ruby’s redemption, the catalyst for her repentance and her heavenly vision. O’Connor reminds us that revelation often begins when a large book hits you on the head.(William Willimon, The Christian Century, 2004)
And that, it seems to me, is the Gospel truth. The most significant spiritual experiences I have ever had began in pain or anger or fear or disillusionment. They were not the bright memories of a kind Sunday School teacher, or a wonderful sermon I once heard, or sublime music in worship. More often than not, transformation begins in a dark place. It is “The Gospel of Disillusionment.” And it’s not something we’re not keen to talk about it in the church, for fear it will scare people off. Why are we afraid of that, since disillusionment is a universal human experience? Renowned preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion – about ourselves, about the world, about God – and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”
And that is the subtext of the Gospel lesson today: the pain of losing the lies we have mistaken for the truth. The story this week picks up where we left off last week. Jesus has just preached his inaugural sermon. And Luke says that those who heard him were amazed at his gracious words. This was a moment of light and celebration and promise. The people were proud of him, and by extension, they were proud of themselves. After all, they had helped to raise this Jesus. Their village life had formed this Jesus. They, perhaps better than anyone else, understood this Jesus. They were insiders, or so they thought.
Everything was going along so nicely until Jesus took a verbal wrecking ball to their self-satisfied self-understanding. Or as Flannery O’Connor might say, Jesus threw a large book at their heads. And he did that to save them.
“No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown,” declared Jesus in an apparent non sequitur. And then he told some stories to prove his point and to demonstrate just how out of touch they were with the way God works the world.
Their common, beginning assumption was that they were the chosen people of God. And they knew that Jesus had recently done some mighty works in a town called Capernaum, which was a Gentile stronghold. And if Jesus did mighty works for unclean outsiders - surely he would do even more for them, since they were insiders.
So Jesus told them two stories, taken from Scripture, that contradicted their assumption of privilege. And when he did, they were outraged. To be displaced from a place of privilege makes all of us angry.
Jesus said: “In the time of Elijah, there were lots of widows in the land of Israel.” (Now we pause here to remember that widows in that time were completely dependent upon male relatives to care for them. If not, they faced potential starvation or forced prostitution.) --But, Jesus continued, of all the widows in the land, God sent the prophet Elijah to a widow at Zarephath, a foreigner, not part of the covenant people. And here, I imagine, there was the first uncomfortable and ominous silence from the crowd.
Likewise, Jesus continued, in the time of the prophet Elisha, the land of Israel was filled with lepers: unclean, untouchable. But of all the lepers in the land in need of healing, God sent the prophet to Naman, the Syrian, another outsider and unclean, a pagan and a foreigner.
Well, this was just too much for the comfortable, church-going folk of Nazareth. Their compliments suddenly turned to rage, such rage that a mob surrounded Jesus and drove him to the brow of the hill upon which Nazareth is built. They had every intention to throw him off and then, if he survived the fall, to stone him to death. This was a punishment for blasphemy, implying that what Jesus had said struck at the very heart of their religious self-understanding.
Now it’s easy to judge them, but I think that their rage was completely understandable. They felt threatened. Their place in society was no longer secure. And so they did what we do: they fought back and tried to eliminate the threat.
So what was Jesus up to that day? Was he just being a provocateur? Was he just being a rabble-rousing prophet? Or did he actually love these hometown folks? Did he love them enough to refuse to leave them where they were?
Luke ends the story with the angry mob. But knowing us humans, I bet you that that was not the end of the story. I bet that not all of them remained angry. Some of them went home, and after they smoothed their ruffled feathers, were actually haunted by what Jesus said. They too had this nagging suspicion that maybe the love of God was broader than the religious boundaries they loved. Others of them had no doubt broken the law of God, and they too felt like outsiders or were treated like outsiders. Some of them were hiding sicknesses or secrets that would one day exclude them from the community. And for those people, these words hurled like a book across a room, were the painful start of a new beginning.
Job, we are told, survived his ordeal and had all of his fortunes restored. Ruby, we are told, left that doctor’s office that day with a sore head, but the beginnings of a changed heart. And I woke up the next morning, surprised to still be alive – but here I am, a different man than I was.
The Gospel of Jesus saves us. But the work of salvation is not for the feint of heart. Before anything else, there is the wrecking ball of the truth. But after the dust settles, there is the construction of something brand new: beautiful and beyond compare.