Sermon - Epiphany 4 (Ordinary 4) Year C - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Who will God bless?

The real nature of Jesus was gradually revealed to world, although only a few at first perceived his divinity. Soon after he went to teach in the towns around Galilee his fame began to spread. What people were saying about him must have been reported back to his home town of Nazareth. As his reputation grew there must have been many a question in the minds of people who had known him well in the carpenter's shop. They would have heard the news that he was coming home for a visit and they might expect that he would be asked to say something at the synagogue next Sabbath Day. What were they to make of the carpenter turned preacher and, they say, miracle worker! Would he do something special for them to prove what they were saying? Would he reveal himself to them?

In recent weeks we have followed the various showings or manifestations of who he was - his epiphany - when he was a child in Bethlehem and especially his showing to the wise men from a far country which symbolised his kingship of all nations; then his visits to the temple as a baby and again at twelve years of age when some people recognised his special character; and we saw his glory revealed at the wedding feast in Cana. Last week took note of how his glory is also revealed in the spiritual gifts which are freely given to the members of the fellowship of believers which is his body. Today we see how, after he had begun his ministry in Galilee, his increasing recognition raised questions for those who had known him best in his youth as they often are when someone unexpectedly becomes famous.

There are several important messages for us in the account of Jesus' return to the synagogue in his home town, which we find in Luke 4:16-30, the first part of which was read last week. (See also Mark 6:1-6, and the parallel but shorter passage in Matthew 13:54-58).

The main points are:

1. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one [chrio christos], the Messiah expected by the prophets. This claim is difficult because it is intended to be unique. There is only the one true Messiah.

2. God blesses people in unexpected ways, both far away and near to us. We need to be aware that God calls and equips people in our own families and communities, even when they are young and inexperienced. [cf. Jeremiah in OT lesson].

3. The signs of his coming and of the Kingdom include justice for the poor, healing and victory over sin and death. Wholeness of the person is inseparable from wholeness of community -- in which all things are brought into a unity in Christ.

4. There is no guarantee of special blessing to those linked in a natural way to people who are chosen. There is no natural inclusion in the family of God -- we are children of God by adoption.

5. The apparent arbitrariness of God's blessings can be understood as part of the uncertainty of life in this imperfect [uncompleted] world; and it is an aspect of the free gifts of grace that nothing comes to us as a right.

In the big picture of what God is doing to fulfil his plan and purpose in Christ, Jesus proclaimed the message that the Kingdom of God has come near and it will have unexpected consequences. We live in the mystery of God's grace and providence, relying upon our Lord and Saviour for new life beginning in the world we know and extending beyond this uncertain world with hope of fulfilment in the Kingdom established by Christ. What Jesus did at Nazareth was to point out the changes which should be expected with the presence of the Messiah announcing the Kingdom of God. There are many things which follow, but in the limited time available, let us look more closely at two of these implications of what Jesus did at Nazareth.

Jesus is the Christ

He was the talk of the time: the passage in Luke that we began to read last week and completed this Sunday, about his return to Nazareth, speaks of Jesus as `filled with the Holy Spirit' and of the excitement his ministry was beginning to generate:

Jesus invited attention to what people were saying about him by choosing to read the particular passage in which Isaiah speaks of the anointed one (that is the Messiah), and then saying:

That was much the same as saying `The Kingdom of God is at hand' which is how Mark describes his message at the opening of his ministry:

The coming of the Messiah and the coming of the Kingdom are necessarily related to each other in Jewish expectations, because it is the Messiah, the Christ, who will establish the Kingdom. The people were excited because they thought, perhaps the time has indeed come. The Messiah is the anointed one. That is also what the Greek word Christ [Christos] means - from Chrio as in Chrism, sacred oil - the one anointed with oil as a king. So Jesus read from the prophet,

The anointing of kings was practiced from earliest times: the prophet Samuel anointed Saul, the first king of Israel, and David, the great king more than a thousand years before Christ; and when our Queen Elizabeth was crowned in 1952 she too was anointed as part of the ancient ceremony. Kings have been known traditionally as `the Lord's anointed'; hence Shakespeare in Richard III: `Let not the heavens hear these tell-tale women/ Rail against the Lord's anointed.' [Act 4, scene 4, lines 149-150.]

For the anointing of Saul as the first King of Israel we read:-

This anointing marked a person as chosen by God; the anointing carried with it a duty of obedience to God; so the prophet Samuel had to remind King Saul:-

After Saul has be found wanting the Lord's favour was withdrawn and Samuel anointed David to be King:

See how `the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward'. Jesus, as Messiah was seen as a successor to King David, came filled with the Holy Spirit after his baptism by John. In Christian tradition anointing with oil, like the laying of hands with prayer, is associated with the gift of the spirit, in the rites for baptism, confirmation, ordination and ministry to the sick. [There is no magic in these acts; nothing follows necessarily from such acts in themselves: they are symbols of what we believe God will do in answer to our prayers.] John the Baptist said of Jesus:

[Holy Spirit and fire - fire is another symbol of the spirit, as on the day of Pentecost: {2} And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. {3} Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. {4} All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. -- Acts 2:2-4]

The point for us of Jesus' proclamation that the prophecy was fulfilled was that believers who are baptized into his life of the Spirit share that blessing: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. So sharing in the life of the anointed one, we share in the Spirit of God. Those small biblical phrases like `The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me' which Jesus read so that it could be applied to himself have great depth of meaning touching the lives of millions of people in many ways over thousands of years. We believe that he is the Christ, the anointed one filled with the Spirit of God, and we believers share in the same gift! What Jesus did at Nazareth made a big claim of blessing for all who believe in him.

God blesses people in unexpected ways

In recent weeks we have been celebrating how the great love of God includes everyone [ref the hymn by D T Niles: The great love of God is revealed in the Son, who came to this earth to redeem every one]. We have been celebrating how it was God's purpose in creation to bring all into a unity in relationship with himself through Christ -- that great secret, hidden for long ages but now revealed and shown to the world. That showing to the world of what had been hidden is the Epiphany of our Lord. No doubt we all have much to learn about how God blesses the weak and the poor, the outcast and the foreigner, how his love reaches beyond our natural human communities; but we need also to be prepared to accept the fact that the unexpectedness of his love may be seen not only in the way he blesses people who are far away, but in his sometimes blessing in special ways people who are close to us.

I don't know what your experience is but I have seen many times husbands who have had difficulty in accepting the way that God has blessed their wives, or fathers who have had difficulty in seeing that God has called their sons into ministry, or local people who cannot see the leadership gifts that others have recognized in a member of their small community.

The clue to understanding how this can be in regard to people close to us is the same as the clue to understanding how God can bless unexpectedly the foreigner or the poor or the meek, those who are apparently undeserving. The clue is that such blessings are not earned or bestowed on those who deserve them. The fact that some are marked especially is a measure not of their worth, it is not a reward, but it is measure of the greatness of God's love, of the grace of God. His gifts of the Spirit are gifts of grace, which means that they are absolutely freely given.

We were thinking last week of how the spiritual gifts which show his glory in people who a members of the body of Christ are freely given. They are gifts of grace for the common good. So it is with all blessings. They are unexpected because they are undeserved. They do not fall upon those whose merit is clear to all. So the people were amazed at the gracious words Jesus spoke, because they thought of him as an ordinary man, undeserving of any special favour from God:

So Paul said in general:

And, John, in the Christmas lesson:

The graciousness of God in blessing people we might think undeserving is emphasised by pointing out how foreigners were blessed. It was the point of Jesus speaking to the people at Nazareth about the old story of Elijah [1 Kings 17] concerning the widow of the foreign village near Sidon who was saved from starvation when she shared what she had with the prophet, and the story of Elisha [2 Kings 5] when he healed the general of a foreign army. He was saying to the people of Nazareth that they should not expect anything special from him just because they were related to him in a natural community. There were many occasions when Jesus found it necessary to correct such expectations. Jesus even had to say this in regard to his own mother and his brothers:

It was difficult for Mary and his brothers and sisters, but in the end some of them at least did believe in him: Mary was present on the day of Pentecost and his bother James later became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. But first they had to learn about the grace of God. The unexpected and undeserved nature of God's love is the universal experience of all true believers, commonly expressed in Christian piety: And can it be that I should gain and interest in the saviour's blood? - Amazing love! Died he for me, who caused his pain - for me who him to death pursued? Amazing love! how can it be that thou, my God, should'st die for me! Tis mystery all! ... -- Charles Wesley AHB 138

So faith is a matter of accepting the amazing undeserved offer. If that is what we believe we need neither to claim privilege nor to reject as impossible any blessing which comes our way. Let us then be ready to accept what God offers to us in our own lives and in our own community as well as what he gifts to the least of the brothers and sisters and to those far away or very different from us. If we can see how God blesses unexpectedly even the least of his children we can begin to accept blessings which come unexpectedly even on people close to us, for it all a matter of his grace. If only we can accept it as a free gift it can happen here amongst us.

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