Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
4 Epiphany, C: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6, 15-17;
1 Corinthians 14:12b-20; Luke 4:21-32
January 28, 2007
Rev. Lauran Pifke,
Guest Preacher, St. Philip’s, Scotts Valley, CA
There is a lot going on in today’s gospel reading that isn’t obvious. Without reading what came before these verses or what follows them, one is left wondering what in the world Jesus is talking about. Even if you are pretty familiar with the Bible, which of course all Episcopalians are, you would be left with questions like: What scripture was Jesus referring to? and Why was he talking about the widow of Zarapheth and Naaman the Syrian? and Why did the people of Nazareth become so enraged that they wanted to hurl him from the cliff? and What does any of this have to do with the season of Epiphany?
Jesus told the people in the synagogue: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The scripture he was referring to was the passage from Isaiah about good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed. In this story Jesus designated himself as an anointed prophet; it was in him that the Old Testament promises would be kept and scripture would be fulfilled. It was here that his ministry, bringing in of the kingdom of God, began. The rage of the people had to do with the fact that the stories he referred to – both the widow of Zarapheth and Naaman the Syrian – were stories about God helping foreigners (rather than the people of Israel) through the prophets Elijah and Elisha. That was important for Luke because his gospel was written for a community of “Christian” Gentiles – a community that would have been able to relate to the foreigners in these stories, because they themselves were not Jewish. In the first story, in the midst of drought and famine, God sent Elijah to a widow in Zarapheth to ask for water and bread. Although she had very little, she shared what she had with him. In the middle of the story, the widow’s son died and was brought back to life by Elijah’s prayers. At the conclusion of the story, the widow proclaimed belief in the God of Israel. In the second story, Naaman the Syrian was a leper. He was sent to Elisha for a cure. Elisha told him to wash in the Jordan River and he would be cleansed. He did and he was and the story concluded with his proclamation of belief in Israel’s God. Both of these stories are about prophets as evangelists and healing as a way of bringing people to God. Both Elijah and Elisha, as prophets, acted as facilitators of encounters with God. In referring to these stories, Jesus was telling us something about himself as an evangelist and a healer.
In the Old Testament reading for the day, we heard the wonderful story of the call of the prophet Jeremiah. I love the part when God said to Jeremiah: “I knew you, I consecrated you, and I appointed you prophet before you were even born” because it speaks to me of a God who knows each of us intimately. But there is an important part at the end of that story that is easy to miss – it’s the part where God told Jeremiah that he was appointed over nations and kingdoms in order to build and to plant. When this reading is paired with today’s gospel, it helps me understand how Jesus understood his own ministry. He, like a prophet, was anointed and sent to build and to plant the kingdom of God.
And Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, was talking about the difference between speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues. He explained to the people at Corinth that the whole point of spiritual gifts was to benefit others by bringing them closer to God. He said that, without interpretation, the “outsider” would be lost and unable to say amen to the prayers. In other words, it doesn’t really matter what you are saying if no one can understand you. Paul’s mention of the outsider reminds me of the widow of Zarapheth and Naaman the Syrian.
And it also reminds me that, at the end of the gospel reading, we heard that the people were astounded because Jesus spoke with authority. Authority, in this sense, was not about ruling over others or being set apart from them by powerful gifts, but about serving them and bringing them closer to God. Jesus had a natural authority that people responded to – they left everything and followed him. Not because he spoke in tongues but because he interpreted the word of God in order to bring the kingdom of God to all people. That was his mission. And because it was his mission it became Paul’s mission and the mission of every Christian.
I also find it interesting to compare the account of Jesus being rejected in Nazareth as it is told in Luke’s gospel to the one in Mark’s gospel. In Mark, this event immediately precedes Jesus sending out the twelve with instructions to take only one tunic and to shake the dust off their feet and move on if they are not welcomed. It makes it even more clearly a story about evangelism to outsiders.
So what, if anything, does this have to do with the season of Epiphany? Epiphany is a season symbolized by the light of a star; a season celebrating the appearance of God in our midst, God made manifest in Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, Jesus talks about “inner light” being “light-giving.” I think that this is the message for us. In the collect this morning we prayed that we, being illumined by God’s word and sacraments, might shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory SO THAT God might be worshipped and obeyed to the ends of the earth. It is a prayer that our light will in turn light the world, not just our own communities, but to the ends of the earth because that is how the message of the prophets is fulfilled. The gift of light is given to us so that we can give it to others – it is for the building of the kingdom. It is up to each of us to figure out how we do that.
And evangelism isn’t always as difficult as we might imagine it to be. Thinking about prophets and encounters with God and Epiphany reminds me of a story I once heard about a Puerto Rican woman who said that if she were asked to draw a picture of God, she would draw her grandmother smiling. I understand what she meant by that because I too had that kind of a grandmother. She had a smile that could light up a room – a smile that invited you in, embraced and healed you. It was an all-inclusive light-giving smile and even if she had done nothing else to build God’s kingdom, when she smiled, my grandmother was an evangelist.