Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Christ the King, NormalLuke 4:-21-30

Jesus, the Nazareth boy who’s turning into a bit of a celebrity in the region of Galilee, checks the serving schedule at his familiar hometown synagogue on the Sabbath, and discovers that he’s down to do one of the readings. So he shows up for the service on time, and, at the right moment, gets up and goes to the lectern and reads the appointed lesson, which is from the 61st chapter of Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, and has anointed me to bring good news to the poor …”—you know how it goes … we heard it last Sunday: recovery of sight to the blind, healing for the brokenhearted, release of prisoners, and so forth. Then, instead of just saying “The Word of the Lord” and sitting down, Jesus ad libs an inflammatory tag line: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” As we heard in the gospel reading a minute ago, the situation went rapidly downhill from there, and the crowd was soon ready to throw Jesus off a cliff. Before they arrived at that point, however, we hear Jesus utter one of his most well-known sayings: “No prophet is acceptable in his hometown,” or as Mark’s version of the same incident puts it, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country.”

As Christians in the developed western world in the 21st century, we can readily identify with what Jesus was feeling and saying in that moment. Even though Christianity originated in the Middle East, and has long been a worldwide religion, it blossomed and flourished most fully in Europe, and, eventually, in the Americas. Europe is considered Christianity’s home turf. Yet, this is a time of angst and insecurity among Christian communities in Europe and elsewhere in the western world. Sunday attendance is way, way down. Church buildings are being converted into concert venues, restaurants, nightclubs, and apartment buildings. U.S. Senators suggest that membership in the Knights of Columbus disqualifies one from serving as a federal judge. The public articulation of norms for human behavior that are ancient and universal are now widely regarded as hate speech. Indeed, the gospel is “without honor in [its] own country.”

Church leaders across all denominational lines are seeing more and more clearly that, if these trends don’t get reversed, we are staring into the abyss of oblivion. Christianity in Europe and North America may become a subject of study by historians and archeologists rather than something alive in the present. We all feel this, and try to do our own part. I know I do, at the level of the diocese and the national church. I’m pretty sure you do as well, at the level of the parish and, for some, the diocese. We take our fair share in the struggle to reclaim lost territory, but it can be discouraging. The task is indescribably huge, and the precise contours of the situation we are facing are constantly shifting; it’s like playing an endless game of Whack-a-Mole. We are overwhelmed both by the enormity of the task and the rate at which the contours of the situation we face are changing. It’s all quite daunting.

Jesus, as we have seen, was in similar straits when his relationship with the synagogue-goers in his hometown of Nazareth went from very good to very bad very quickly. But their attempt to herd him into non-existence failed; he escaped—we don’t know precisely how; the point is that he did.

And I would invite us to consider that Jesus’ escape from being thrown over a cliff is a sign—a sign that points to a pattern, which is simply this: the gospel perseveres. The gospel perseveres. It keeps on keeping on. Like Timex watches back in the day, it takes a licking and keeps on ticking. When Jesus was rejected in Nazareth, and the crowd cornered him and tried to force him over a ledge, Luke tells us that he “passed through their midst” and went on to Capernaum. As I said, we don’t know how; the point is that he did. And when, eventually, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, after the Day of Pentecost, the gospel was largely rejected in Judea, among Jesus’ own people, Paul made the decision to take it to the Gentiles. This gospel according to Luke that we’re reading from this year in the lectionary cycle, you know, is just the first of a two-volume set by the same author, and Volume II, which we know as the Book of Acts, brings us the eventual result of the incident about which we read this morning: Gentiles hear the word of God and respond to it favorably, and, within just a few short years, there are disciples of Jesus all throughout the Mediterranean world.  Luke attributes Jesus’ popularity to “gracious words”—one translation suggests “charming” instead of gracious, but—charming or gracious—Jesus’ words are irresistible wherever they go. The gospel keeps on keeping on. The gospel perseveres.

So … it’s all up to us … except it’s not, it’s completely not up to us. It’s both up to us and not up to us. When I walked the Camino pilgrimage route across northern Spain in 2016, I did a lot a praying; there just wasn’t much else to do much of the time! I prayed for the diocese of Springfield. I prayed that the Lord would do something among us for which he alone could receive the credit, something not of our own making. I asked for this to happen while I was away on sabbatical. That part of my prayer didn’t get answered in just the manner I had in mind, but I’ll tell you this: I continue to see signs that the Holy Spirit is blowing, with sovereign freedom, in the Diocese of Springfield. Just last Sunday, I visited Trinity, Lincoln. The church was fuller than I’ve ever seen it, and the median age was way lower than I’ve ever seen it. We confirmed two young adults. Where are all these people coming from? Most of them are associated in some way with Lincoln Christian University, right there in Trinity’s back yard. Now, neither Fr Evans nor I planned this. We didn’t strategize to forge ties with the university. It is clearly a “God thing.” So, being stewards of God’s mission, plotting strategy and tactics, developing and submitting Mission Strategy Reports to the diocese (!)—these are good things, these are faithful and responsible things. But if our strategies are ill-conceived or ineptly-executed, if we’re stupid or lazy or both, you know something? The gospel will still persevere. Jesus will slip through the crowd and move on to the next village, and preach good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind, heal broken hearts, and release those in prison. You and I are in line neither for credit nor for blame. God gets the glory. Amen.

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