When I was a little boy, I had one of those illustrated children's Bibles. Maybe some of you had one of those too. And in the little Children's Bible that I had, Jesus, of course, was depicted as a white guy with blond hair and blue eyes. And even though he lived in the Middle East, he spoke perfect English. And he hung around with a whole bunch of white guys who had very Anglo names for people living in the Middle East, people like Philip and Andrew and Matthew.
So it wasn't the most historically accurate, but that's a sermon for another time. The reason I share the little Bible with you today is because when I was a boy, there was one picture in that Bible, one illustration, that so fascinated me.
I spent so much time looking at it, because I was trying to figure it out. It was a picture of an angry mob of people pushing Jesus off of the edge of a cliff. And I was so confused by it, because I had been taught that Jesus was a nice man, a man of love and peace. What in the world could he possibly have said or done that would make people so angry that they wanted to push him off of a cliff?
Well, I share that with you today. Because obviously, that is the lectionary reading for the fourth Sunday after Advent, the Gospel story of Jesus being pushed to the edge of a cliff. It is told to us in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels. And you see the front cover of your bulletin today says “Prophet on the Edge”, because Jesus is both figuratively and literally being pushed to the edge.
Now, even though I just read the story for you, you may still be feeling or thinking the same question I had when I was a boy. What in the world did Jesus say that got the people so angry?
Let's look at the story together. It's a continuation of last Sunday's Gospel. And if you remember, Jesus has returned home to his hometown, to his boyhood synagogue. He goes there to worship with his people. Now, Jesus has just returned from 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, wrestling with the devil. I've told you this many times before – Jesus was not wrestling with some red guy with horns and a pitchfork. Okay? The story is symbolic. Jesus was wrestling with himself, with his demons, with his ego, with his false self.
He was coming to terms, in the wilderness, with his Christ-self, with His Divine Self. He was coming to terms with his purpose for being. And when he emerges from the wilderness at the age of 30, he begins his ministry.
And as we hear, he returns home and gives his inaugural address, if you will, announcing to the people what his ministry is going to be all about. And so he gets up there in the synagogue, he unrolls the scroll and does the reading. And the reading is from the prophet Isaiah. And it says, “The Spirit of God is upon me, God has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor, and to set the oppressed free.”
Jesus is letting people know on day one of his ministry that his central focus is going to be on the poor and the oppressed.
Now, interestingly enough, Jesus leaves out a line from that reading of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah ended that reading, saying something about there being a day of judgment from God. Jesus leaves that line out, and he replaces it with a line of his own. He says, there's going to be a year of favor from God, not a day of judgment, but a year of favor.
He's announcing that God's favor is going to be upon the poor and the oppressed. He's announcing that his ministry is going to start a new social movement, where the poor and the oppressed, the least of these, are going to be first – where the last are going to be first. And the people that are sitting on your thrones are going to be pulled down.
So he says to the people, my ministry begins now, who wants to join me? I've come to proclaim good news to the poor and to set the oppressed free.
Now you would think that people In his boyhood synagogue would think, ‘Wow, this is great! One of our own is starting a ministry, how wonderful!’
But you see that they don't. Instead they say, ‘Isn't this Joseph the carpenter's son? He hasn't been to rabbinical school! Who is he to start a ministry?’
And that's why Jesus gives that famous line, that a prophet is never accepted in his own hometown.
And so they say to him, Well, if you're a prophet, do some miracle for us. We heard you did miracles in Capernaum. Do a miracle for us in our hometown. And Jesus refuses to do that. Instead, he reminds them about their ancestors. He says, you know, when our ancestors were experiencing a famine, God's favor was upon a Gentile widow, someone who wasn't an Israelite, someone whose beliefs were different from ours. And when our ancestors were suffering from leprosy, notice that God's favor was upon a Gentile man, someone who our ancestors considered unclean.
Jesus is saying to the people of his hometown, God's love, and God's favor is not just for you, the chosen people of Israel. God's love is for all people, especially those who you consider the unclean or unworthy. Jesus is getting rid of all the boundaries. He's saying, No, God's love has come for all people, all are worthy.
That's what gets him driven out of town. Because the people don't want to hear that. They don't want the circle including more and more people. They don't want to hear the truth, because it goes against everything they've been taught to believe.
And so they not only run Jesus out of their synagogue and out of their town, they go to the edge of a cliff to try to silence him permanently.
A prophet is never accepted in his own hometown.
And how true has that been throughout our human history? Prophets are truth tellers, people who speak truth. And you know, people don't want to hear truth. We're living through a time right now where people don't want to hear truth.
But think about it: Whenever prophets in the past have tried to widen the circle to include more people, they've been silenced. Whether that's Abraham Lincoln, or Mahatma Gandhi, or John F. Kennedy, or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Oscar Romero, or Harvey Milk – they were all silenced for speaking the truth.
And how many of you have been pushed to the edge for speaking the truth – for speaking your truth? How many of you got pushed away by your family members, friends, or from the Church of your childhood, for speaking the truth about your sexual orientation, or your gender identity? How many of you have been pushed out for speaking the truth about the abuse that you suffered as a child or in the workplace? And how many of you have been pushed away by friends and coworkers, because you spoke the truth against their lies and conspiracy theories during this political time in this time of COVID?
When we speak the truth, people will push us away. But we must speak the truth. That's what we've been anointed to do. That's what we've been called to do.
But it's risky.
That's why most people remain silent when issues come up like this, because they're too afraid to speak. We heard this morning in one of our lectionary readings, our Call to Worship was the call of Jeremiah. God calls Jeremiah to go out and to announce this good news to speak truth to the nations, and Jeremiah says ‘I can't do that. Who am I? I'm afraid.’ And God says, “Do not be afraid. I will give you the words to speak. I will give you the courage. I will put the words in your in your mouth.”
Now, my friends, I know if you were here last Sunday, I was talking about this. We're living in such a divisive time in our country, maybe the most divisive I've experienced in my lifetime. And some of us may say, ‘I am afraid to speak truth, I'm afraid.’ But notice what Jesus did. Jesus didn't stay in his hometown. He didn't say, ‘These people want to drive me out, they won't listen to the truth. I'm going to stay here. And I'm going to try to convince them that I'm right.’
No, it said, Jesus just left. He just moved on to another town. And it's why Jesus told the first apostles, he said, “If you want to follow my way of life, you have to leave mother, father, sister, brother.’ If we really want to follow the way of Jesus, if we really want to speak truth, we're going to be pushed to the marginsd by people in our families, by our friends and coworkers. But that's exactly where we should be. The margins are where the poor and the oppressed and the outcasts are. And we should be standing on the margins, on the edge, because that's where Jesus stood.
So let us continue to speak truth to a world that doesn't want to hear it, much like the people in Jesus's hometown. God is going to give us the words to speak, the courage. So speak your truth, even if your voice is shaking. And I promise you, love always wins. Always. For as we heard this morning, there are in the end, only three things that last – faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
Rev. Greg Carey
Lots of our public conversations these days relate to boundaries. Should we welcome refugees? Do we consider immigrants likely contributors or potential criminals? How should our society respond to others who have immigrated here without government approval? Our Gospel lesson this week has lots to do with boundaries. After spending 40 days and nights in the wilderness, Jesus returns to Nazareth, his hometown, to deliver his “inaugural address,” if you will. He reads a proclamation declaring freedom to the oppressed, liberation to the captive, and good news to the poor. When he finishes reading this proclamation, Jesus then tells his hometown crowd that this good news of freedom and liberation is for all people, not just the Israelites. He reminds them that Israel had a lot of famine back in Elijah’s day, but God sent help to a Gentile widow, not a Jewish one. Likewise, he reminds them that Israel had many lepers back in Elisha’s day, but God cleansed only a Gentile man. Jesus is reminding his hometown audience that God’s love knows no boundaries. He’s saying to them, “Don’t think that God’s goodness is only for you.” Well, that’s something his hometown crowd does not want to hear! Rising up in anger, they intend to throw Jesus off a cliff!! Jesus’ message angers them because he extends the boundaries to include outsiders. His message shocks them because it doesn’t recognize boundaries at all. Jesus’s mission is one of liberation for all, and it recognizes no walls.
What did you think?