Epiphany 4/Communion Service
Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:l-13, Luke 4:21-30
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 3 2019
When you have been away from your home town and you go back again, it can be an awkward experience. Sometimes you have changed and it seems that everything else is still the same as it ever was. The longer I have lived here in the United States the more unfamiliar my hometown and my homelands in Great Britain have become when I’ve made a visit.
I’ve noticed some people have reacted to me a little cautiously, in a few cases even critically. My accent… believe it or not… has changed. Some of my views and tastes have altered. When it comes to British culture I no longer know what is ‘in’ or ‘out’, what the latest thing is or the current fashion… so it can be more difficult to find common ground for conversation.
And sometimes, although people don’t come out and say it, you can tell that some folk, (thankfully the exception rather than being the rule), are thinking in a negative way about you. “Well, who do you think you are? Going off to America like that… don’t think you can come back here and tell us anything we need to know!”
Having been in that situation it has helped me gain a fresh insight into what happened when Jesus went to His hometown and started to preach the Good News. There was a familiarity about Him that caused the local folk to feel that they knew who He was and what He was capable of. By suggesting to them that He was more than they realized, it caused not rejoicing but offence. “Oh... for goodness sake, it’s only Joseph’s Son!”
A couple of times in Luke chapter 4 the Greek Word ‘dektos,’ meaning “Acceptable” but also translated as “Welcomed,’ is used. In Luke 4:19 Jesus states His purpose as being “to proclaim the acceptable (dektos) year of the Lord." In Luke 4:24 we read “He said, "Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable (dektos) in his own country.”
Notice that the first instance is a positive one. ‘Today is an accepted time to participate in the work of the Lord, a day to welcome God, a day of God’s favor.’ The second is a negative. ‘This is not the time. You are not that person. You should not welcome this, because we certainly don’t!’
What I want to take out of this passage this morning has to do with spiritual growth. You can call spiritual growth by whatever term you wish. 'Growth in Grace’ 'Discipleship’‘Transformation’ ‘Your personal walk with Jesus’ ‘Growing into your baptism’; whatever term works best for you. No matter how you describe it, the fact is that two principles will be at work; a positive force and a negative force.
The positive principle is that we are capable of spiritual growth. Indeed if we are not growing spiritually we are either in a state of spiritual stagnation or we are spiritually dead. Spiritual growth is highly acceptable and to be truly welcomed.
The negative principle is that there are all sorts of forces in and around our life that are telling us that spiritual growth is not an option and that if we think we can become a better followers of Jesus Christ then we’ve got another thing coming.
Let’s look at both these principles.
Firstly: The Positive
Jesus comes to the folk of His hometown with an absolutely awesome proclamation. That the time for people like them, people who thought of themselves as people that God wasn’t very concerned about, to wake up and see that God had a huge desire to bless them right there and right then. That they were central to what God wanted to do in the world.
Behind His proclamation lies the custom (which I mentioned last week) of the year of Jubilee. During a Jubilee Year, servants were released from their obligations and were set free. Those who had debts that couldn’t be paid were released. Those who had been put into a situation where they had to mortgage their land had their land returned to them.
Jubilee was an amazing time for those who felt themselves unable to help themselves. A time of great grace and new beginning. Here is Jesus standing before His people and telling them “It’s Jubilee! You are free to be all that God wants you to be!”
We need to know that it is STILL Jubilee time. That today is the day of the Lord’s favor. That today is a day to welcome the presence of God into whatever we are doing. That today is the time to seek to grow in our faith and to believe that God can do amazing things in us and through us!
Why is it Jubilee time? Because Christ has died, Christ is Risen and Christ will come again. In Jesus Christ everything necessary for our spiritual growth has been accomplished. What it needs is the application.
Christ died for our sins. We can stop agonizing over them and using them as an excuse to step back from following. It’s Jubilee time. The debts are paid, we are slaves no more, what we had lost has been returned. Christ is Risen. Holy Spirit power is available here and now. The power to change. The power to bring about Kingdom change in our world. Christ will come again. The victory is assured. What is of Christ is eternal, what is of this world won’t last. It’s Jubilee time!
The door to spiritual growth, as individuals, together as a church community is wide open. God invites us, “Ask and you will receive, Seek and you shall find.” It’s Jubilee time!” But no… hold on a minute… look around you… it’s just us… and it’s just me and you… it’s just the same old same old.
Already we’ve moved to the negative. Already, even as Jubilee is proclaimed we’re seating ourselves in the synagogue and saying, “Now hold on a minute, that’s just Joseph’s son isn’t it?”
And Jesus knows exactly what’s going through our minds. Here it is in Luke 4:23: “And He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Physician, heal yourself.' What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well."”
You hear what they are saying? “Listen, if you are so wonderful then show us some fancy stuff, like we’ve heard you did elsewhere, then we’ll believe.” Now why was Jesus able to work miracles elsewhere? It was because the people in those other places believed it was Jubilee time, but the people in His hometown couldn’t get beyond their limited narrow ‘nothing can ever happen here’ mindset. The most limiting factor for those folk in Nazareth was their Nazareth mind-set.
Secondly; the Negative
This was no ‘glass half empty’ pessimism; it was a deeply rooted misplaced pride that cut faith down before it could even flex its wings. To illustrate Jesus uses two stories that were well known to the listeners, one involving Elijah and a widow of Sidon, the other about Elisha and Naaman.
The first story is set in the middle of a drought and Elijah needs something to eat and drink. He goes to Zarephath in Sidon and encounters a widow about to make a final meal for herself and her son. He asks her to make him a meal as well, and tells her that 'The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.'" (1 Kings 17:14). Everything happens just as Elijah has said.
In the second story, Naaman, a great general in the command of the King of Aram, seeks to be healed from a leprous disease. He comes to Elisha, who instructs him to dip into the waters of the Jordan seven times, and eventually he receives his healing. (2 Kings 5)
In both accounts there is an initial reluctance to respond. Both the widow and the General are outsiders. Yet, in both cases, once they humble themselves before the prophet’s words, and act upon what they hear, miracles take place in their lives. They rise above their fears and overcome their misplaced pride.
Misplaced pride prevents God from working in our lives. Such pride grows out of our insecurity and fears. It expresses itself as a control issue. Those worshipers in Jesus hometown had a lot to be rightfully proud of. That was Joseph’s son up there preaching a blazing sermon. He was somebody that their town and their synagogues had nurtured and given a great start to. They had been gracious enough to give Him a platform from which to express His views.
But the offense came when He suggested that there was more to the Kingdom then they realized. That the message of God wasn’t all about them and their town, or even just their nation, but was something that wrapped its arms around strangers and outsiders and people whom they still considered beyond the boundaries of God’s Grace. In fact it was something so close to them, that they just couldn’t see it!
To recast this story into a contemporary mold. These were people familiar with the gospel story, but strangers to the gospel’s power. They were proud of their heritage, proud enough to defend it against anything they perceived as a threat, but that same pride prevented them from experiencing the love of God as something that could work miracles in their midst, something that could change and renew their lives and enable them to experience the Kingdom of God in a way they never had before.
As a Presbyterian Church we have a tremendous heritage. We have some great stories to tell and as a denomination have been instrumental in helping shape the history of nations. But that was then and this is now. Let us not fall prey to the familiarity of the hometown crowd. Let us rise to the challenges of the present, confident that the Lord Jesus Christ, who stands in the midst of His church, the same yesterday, today and forever, continues to lead us and guide us in unfamiliar ways and with fresh insights.
Let it not be said of us that we are people who knew the story of the gospel but not its power. We can grow. As individuals and as a church community God desires our growth. Let us be proud of where we have been but have the humility to recognize that we haven’t yet arrived. That the fields are once again ready for harvest and that we are called to ‘keep on keeping on’ building the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the Glory of God!
Believe it! With God’s love as our incentive, with hearts and lives prepared to make positive investment in the things of God’s Kingdom, I believe that miracles still happen. And there is no better place to strengthen ourselves for service than around a table laid with bread and wine, these symbols that point us to the depth of God's love towards us and the lengths God was willing to go, that we may go and take the jubilee, good news message to our hurting world.
To God’s name be the glory!
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D