Epiphany 4c, January 31, 2016

February 2, 2016

The Pesky Truth
Luke 4:21-30

4:21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

What am I supposed to do with a passage of scripture like this? I want you to put yourself in my place this morning and think about what you would say in response to this scripture. What do you say to a group of well-meaning people like yourselves who came to church this morning in hope of hearing an encouraging word, and here’s this story of Jesus telling the good people of Nazareth things they didn’t really want to hear.

On some level, it appears to me that the effective delivery of the truth can be as welcome as a hot poker in the ear. What kind of response should I hope to receive from a sermon on this text? In all honesty, I like to hear people say how nice my sermon was – even when it isn’t. But that’s not the way Jesus was. He seems to have been pretty intent on poking some people in their sore spots.

Now it may be that the people of Nazareth were particularly misguided and in need of exposure to some raw truth. We don’t really know what kind of people lived in Nazareth or what kind of history Jesus had with some of his childhood neighbors. Different towns have different personalities, and I believe there are some places that need a little more prodding than others, but I don’t really think this is what was going on. I’m thinking it would have been easy for the people of Jesus’ hometown to be blindly enthusiastic about their native son who had gained regional notoriety for the amazing things he had done in Capernaum, but Jesus didn’t want that.

Jesus didn’t just want a bunch of people getting excited about what he was going to do. For one thing, that wasn’t politically expedient. We tend to think it’s a good thing to have a bunch of people talking about how great you are, but that’s not such a good thing when you live under an emperor who considers himself to be a god. Roman soldiers were on the lookout for people who were drawing a crowd, and Jesus had work to do before he became the object of the governor’s attention.

I think the people of his hometown would have easily become excited about the possibility of great things coming from one of their own, but he didn’t need that kind of attention and he knew what to say to squash their enthusiasm. He reminded them of the ways in which God had overlooked the needs of the Israelites and extended grace to outsiders.

So once again I say, what’s a preacher to do with a passage like this? Honestly, I’m hoping when I finish speaking this morning you’ll be inclined to tell me how nice my words were this morning, but Jesus doesn’t give a preacher much to work with in this story. This probably would have been a good weekend for me to go to Kansas City!

But here I am. And here you are. I know we’re all hoping we can get out of here this morning without exchanging any unpleasantries, but this isn’t an easy story for those of us who claim closeness to Jesus. The message for all of us is that Jesus doesn’t want blind enthusiasm. Jesus doesn’t just want us to be excited about the grand things he was capable of doing. Jesus wants us to have passion for the truth, and that’s not always what we want to hear.

An epic example of the way people don’t want to hear the truth is revealed in the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, who was a Hungarian physician in the mid-1800s. While working in the Vienna General Hospital, Dr. Semmelweis became distressed by the number of women who died from infections following childbirth in that hospital. So he set out in a very scientific fashion to discover what was going on, and after pursuing a number of different theories he came to realize that it was beneficial for the attending physicians to wash their hands with a chlorine solution. In fact this procedure cut the death-rate of the women by 90%, but this procedure indicated that it was the doctors dirty hands that was the cause of the high death-rate, and they refused to believe it. They wouldn’t accept his finding nor would they institute his recommendation.

The refusal of the medical community to accept his idea was literally maddening to Dr. Semmelweis. He became very verbally combative with his peers, and in time he was commited to an asylum where he was beaten by guards during an attempt to escape, and he died from an infected wound two weeks later. Twenty years later Louis Pasteur would present his germ theory, and it was at that point that importance of disinfecting procedures became accepted, but a lot of people died in the meantime because there were some powerful people were more interested in protecting their self-importance than in knowing the truth.

It’s possible for any of us to become way too invested in protecting what we already believe than in keeping ourselves open to the truth. Jesus certainly understood this and he used the good people of his hometown to illustrate this truth. He didn’t just want to be well regarded, Jesus wanted to help us all see the ways in which we are sometimes inclined to love the wrong things. It was costly for him to be so honest, but he wasn’t confused about what he was out to do. Jesus came to expose us to the truth, and it was by the grace of God that he didn’t get killed before he really got started.

And I suppose this is part of the good news in this morning’s story. Nobody got killed that day. As bad as things got between Jesus and his hometown peers, they didn’t kill him. We don’t know if Jesus escaped the grips of the murderous crowd through an act of God or if his peers came to see what they were doing and stepped back from the edge. The truth always prevails in the long run, but it doesn’t always come to light before good people get killed.

On some level it speaks well of the Nazarenes that they didn’t follow through with their lethal anger. Crowds aren’t known for doing the right thing, but this crowd let him go on his way that day, and that’s unusual for a crowd.

The truth that Jesus brought has the power to transform people, and that is good news for us all. It’s good for us to be exposed to the truth whether we like it or not, and regardless of how we respond to it, it can have a good impact on us. I suppose I could try to do you the favor of trying to expose you to some painful truth, but I think I’ll just expose you to some unusual truth instead.

It has to do with the Dung Beetle, and I know this is something you were hoping to hear about in church today. (You learn the most interesting things on National Public Radio.) One of the great mysteries that baffled entomologists for many years was the navigational system of some Dung Beetles that live in southern Africa. Dung Beetles live off of the dung of large mammals and they do this by creating little dung balls and rolling them away from the dung pile site.

It’s important to get their dung balls away from the dung pile as quickly as possible because there’s a lot of competition for that valuable resource, and in order to keep their newly created dung balls away from their scavenging neighbors these Dung Beetles need to roll their dung balls in a straight line away from the dung pile. If they roll the ball in a circle they’ll come right back in to the dung harvesting fray.

These beetles operate at night and the researches were trying to figure out how they managed to travel in such straight lines. They thought they used the moon for navigation, but it turns out they are able to go in straight lines when the moon isn’t out. They don’t go in such straight lines on cloudy nights, and they’ve determined that these Dung Beetles orient themselves by the light of the Milky Way. They’ve done some testing of these beetles, and when they put them in a planetarium where the stars are scrambled these beetles are totally disoriented. As far as anyone knows, this is the only case where animals other than wise men use the stars for navigation.

I think this little pearl of information illustrates the value of the truth in a way that’s not too threatening to any of us. It’s not so important that we know how dung beetles navigate, but as surely as dung beetles don’t do so well when the arrangement of the stars is distorted, we don’t do so well when we try to travel by anything less than the light of God’s truth.

The truth isn’t always convenient nor pleasant. In fact it can be terrible to encounter the truth about ourselves, and there’s probably some ugly truth about all of us. Just as Jesus found some unsettling things to say to the Nazarenes, I’m sure he could find some disturbing things to say to us if he feared we were going to get too enthusiastic about the wrong things – although I don’t think he would find our demeanor to be something he needed to calm down.

Jesus always provided what people needed, and I’m sure that’s what he seeking to do for us. I’m sure Jesus is seeking to guide us in to the truth, and he’s wanting us to get excited about the right things. Jesus didn’t want to squash all passion – but he wanted people to be passionate about the right things.

Jesus revealed what it truly looks like to live in response to the love of God and that’s what we are all challenged and inspired to do. It is a challenge to live by the light of Christ because Jesus didn’t just do what people wanted him to do. And while it’s never any fun to have our illusions shattered, the worst thing that can happen to any of us is to press on through life with great conviction for false ideals. We shouldn’t fear the possibility of having our cherished beliefs challenged – our greatest fear should be the possibility of living without exposure to people and experiences that cause us to rethink and readjust.

That’s what Jesus did for the Nazarenes, and that’s what he does for us – because he loves us. Jesus loves us and Jesus wants us to live by the light of God’s truth.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: