3rd Sunday a The Epiphany

January 23, 2022


Not in our image

And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

    and recovering of sight to the blind,

    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him and marvelled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 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.’” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away. (Luke 4:16–30 ESV)

The account of Jesus back home in Nazareth is disturbing. Home town boy makes good is the theme and we expect it to have a happy ending but instead it goes from confusion, to wrath, to mob action that’s an almost successful lynching. We flinch. We grimace. Questions arise in our minds. How could it be like that? And, deep down, we think we wouldn’t’ve done that if we’d have been in Nazareth. We’d’ve recognised Jesus for who he is. Perhaps we would have but I ask you, ‘Have you ever been perplexed by someone you knew?’. Have you ever looked at person – a good friend, a family member – and wondered, ‘Who are you?!’ because something has happened and you have seen or heard them in a new light? Can people change? What if they change in a way that you find problematic? In the living reality of relationships, in the hurly-burly of life, where we realise that we can only control our own behaviour and people can do all sorts of things, it is simply true that we can wonder who someone is. Of course, for close relationships, for friends we all hope that this living relationship is always growing in the same direction, is growing closer but life knows divergence, moving away, difference and the question of the perplexed, ‘Who are you?’.

I don’t approve of the reaction of the Nazarenes but I have some empathy for their perplexity because while Jesus didn’t become a worldly celebrity – though I’m sure the tabloid press of his day were having a field day promoting the ‘miraculous Jesus’ – #miracles, #Jesusrulz – it is natural that Jesus’ home town wants to get in on the action – #Jesus-tourism-starts-here. However these miracles and Jesus’ claims were making divinity hints, suggestions, or claims – and that was something else. And it is at this point that the rejection begins and builds when the other person just won’t do what you want – friend or not, family or not – in fact it is even worse when we perceive rejection from them – I thought we were special? Why are you treating me this way? – that hurts, cuts deep – who the hell – interesting phrasing – are you? Jesus and his linking with God was not going to privilege Nazareth over anyone else because Jesus’ God was interested in all people – and yes, that included the Gentiles – often in contexts where the people of Israel were rejecting God. For all their home ground advantage, the people of Israel had a poor record of knowing God and following him in their behaviour. Jesus came for all and he described his people as ‘the poor’, ‘the captives’, ‘the blind’, ‘the oppressed’. I’m not sure Nazareth recognised the labels. We often don’t either.

Jesus didn’t fit their image. Jesus, more importantly, remained independent of them, choosing to act as he wished and was not beholden or controlled by them. And this has been the struggle for each generation of disciples when Jesus doesn’t fit their image – when Jesus opens the Scriptures, reads from it and then sits down – to teach and explain – and we don’t like what we hear because Jesus isn’t fitting himself around us – around our wishes, our behaviour, our hormones, our circumstances, our society – but instead looks at us and says, ‘Follow me’.

Often Jesus is seen as largely a teacher – he’s into morality, maybe ethics and certainly love and acceptance – but turning him into a teacher removes Jesus from being close to us and allows us to ‘take or leave’ Jesus – or rather ‘pick and choose’ which parts of his teaching is appealing to us. When C S Lewis in ‘Mere Christianity’ argued that the only logical explanations that explain all Jesus said and did – either he is mad (delusional), either he is bad (deviously deceptive), or he is telling the truth that he is God among us – the one thing we couldn’t do said Lewis was what his generation was doing, what his society was doing – and that was turning Jesus into a ‘great moral teacher’.

Who is Jesus today? A social justice warrior? A promoter of personal fulfilment? An equal rights champion? Is he ecological? We can find words and deeds that lend support to such views. And Jesus is then drawn to support various causes – just as he is drawn in art differently over the centuries.

I sometimes wonder if Jesus turned up in front of us and challenged some of our cherished ideals or views about him, whether we wouldn’t reject him and say to him, ‘You’re not Jesus’. What we’re saying, of course, is ‘You’re not my Jesus!’. More often, however, I think people in the world when they push Jesus away, refuse to consider him or engage with him are rejecting a caricature of Jesus or a version of Jesus promoted by the Church – Jesus the personal genie, Jesus the cheerleader for certain economic systems or politics, a Green Jesus. When Jesus and theology are sloganized – even ‘grace alone’ – flattened, made one dimensional – we forget that Jesus is a living person. We can’t capture a person on a screen or 280 characters and claim a deep relationship. That is the challenge when you have a resurrection – that Jesus doesn’t get turned into our interpretation of history – but Jesus is encountered and a relationship forms and hopefully grows because there are two living people involved.

Thus to meet ‘all of’ Jesus, so to speak, is to read all of the Gospel accounts and return to all of them and not play off one verse or scene against another but recognise that just as people are complex and layered, so Jesus is more so. This doesn’t make him unknown to us but it does lessen our sense of control – of proprietary rights to his story – and leads us into a relationship with a person. 

Why would we want to be in a relationship with Jesus? Good question! Especially since everywhere you look at Jesus, every time you hear Jesus, the cross is not absent. It is either close by prominent or on the horizon, distant, but never absent. Terry Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, has said, 

“The New Testament is a brutal destroyer of human illusions. If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do. The stark signifier of the human condition is one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains. The traumatic truth of human history is a mutilated body.”

(Terry Eagleton (2009), Reason, Faith, and Revolution – Reflections on the God Debate. Page 27.)

I would go further and include the Old Testament and when it comes to the questions of love and justice, I’d want to make sure that I understood those biblically. But this is the issue and struggle one has when confronted by Jesus – you have him alive – scarred but very much alive having defeated death’s power – and giving life to ‘the poor’, ‘the captives’, ‘the blind’, ‘the oppressed’ – who are not just those we regard as victims – especially when it is ourselves – but those terms can refer in others ways to the perpetrators who cause such labels to fall on others – and that can strike home when those perpetrators are us. Whether wrong is done to us or we do wrong to others, Jesus has come to set us free – so we can take up our cross – and follow him – and that isn’t just an intellectual exercise!

Who is Jesus? He is someone who can disturb us. Often it is his cross that is problematic – we want to ignore his and if we follow him, ours as well. But Jesus and his cross are compelling. What happens there – what leads him there – and what follows afterwards – is not Jesus on our terms – but Jesus on his terms coming to us speaking, sitting down, dwelling with us. His grace and his mercy are foundationally unchanging – that Gospel gives us life! But Jesus also isn’t our creation and won’t be turned finally into our image but challenges us each day to follow him and that’s where Nazareth comes in as a response we don’t want to make. Jesus walked through the crowd and away – he didn’t smite them – and while there is life, Jesus continues to walk – towards us, and speak and act as one who serves. 

Bible References

  • Luke 4:16 - 30