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Exactly ten weeks from today, right here in this space, you and I will be gathered together to experience what might best be called a liturgical whiplash.
It happens every year. It’s the liturgy for Palm Sunday. We gather outside, bless palms, and march around singing exuberantly. We hail Jesus as he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It’s great fun. We get into the church building, finish the hymn, and then all of a sudden it all comes to a screeching halt. We hear this prayer: “Almighty God, your most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified.” The adoration of the crowds shifts to the suffering of the cross. From that moment the whole tone of the liturgy shifts. The gospel for the day is the story of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion, and we’re catapulted into Holy Week.
Now that’s ten weeks away in calendar time, and far away in Luke’s gospel too—Palm Sunday happens in the 19th chapter of Luke, near the end, and here we are just in chapter 4. But what we experience in the gospel from today, right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, is the same thing we will experience at the end. It’s as if Luke frames Jesus’ whole ministry with these two scenes in which first the crowds hail Jesus; then they reject him. Here at Nazareth, one moment his hometown people are hailing him as a golden boy. A few verses later they’re ready to throw him off a cliff. What went wrong?
One clue might come from what Jesus actually chose to preach on and not preach on. Last Sunday, when we heard the first part of this passage, we heard him apply Isaiah’s words to himself: “God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he stops the quote there. He doesn’t finish the sentence, which in the original from Isaiah goes on to say: “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Jesus preaches the favor part and leaves off the vengeance part.
Which sounds good at first, and the people seem to like it. Most of us like the idea of a God of favor, when that favor is turned towards us. But we also kind of like the idea of a God of vengeance, when that vengeance is turned against those we don’t like. And that’s precisely what Jesus doesn’t do. Instead of throwing brimstone on outsiders and foreigners, he expands the circle of who’s included. He says outsiders and foreigners are just as good in God’s eyes as insiders from your own village. And that’s what seems to turn his listeners against him.
It’s fun to hear that God is for us. It’s less fun to hear that God is for our enemies too.
Now of course we today, like so many other times in history, live in a society that teaches us to think in terms of insiders and outsiders; us and them. Sometimes that’s fairly innocuous—like the Patriots vs. the Rams. Hometown sports loyalties are fun. And yet there are times where even those sports loyalties go too far into something unhealthy. How much more, when it’s not just about a game, but about human lives? Our political scene today tries to teach us that our fundamental identity is about who we are, and that we define that by who we’re not. We hear messages like “America First,” and that may work as a political slogan. But it doesn’t work as a gospel slogan, because in God’s eyes no country is first or last. We hear people who are trying to immigrate or legally seek asylum here described as terrorists and criminals, with no evidence of that; made to seem like scary outsiders threatening our land, our home—our village, if you will. Last week Pamela preached about how our oneness in Christ stands against any attempt to divide us based on race or place of origin—attempts we see too often from people in positions of influence and power.
It may seem like I’m singling out our current government. And the fact is I do think that our current government is responsible for using division and fear of outsiders to try to achieve its political goals. But it’s also true that I’ve seen scapegoating and demonizing come from people opposed to this government’s policies as well. People on the left, right, and in between can be prone to cutting off those we disagree with. In saying this, I don’t mean to create a false equivalence that says, “Well, there’s bad behavior on all sides.” There are times when we have to choose a side. When people in power do injustice, we’re called to stand up against it. The difference is that as Christians we have to remember that what we fight against is wrongdoing and hateful actions. We can oppose other human beings without hating them; because they are, nonetheless, like it or not, children of God. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians puts it this way: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but … against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.”
A couple of weeks ago our country celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Now we often hear quotes from his “I Have a Dream speech.” But we don’t often hear excerpts from a part of the speech where he talks about the spiritual practice of not hating our enemies. He says, “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. . . . Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” Soul force in the end is another way of saying: love. Not love as a sentimental, Hallmark card kind of word; real love, Christian love, love that is fierce. Love that is not a nice emotion but rather a passionate, genuine desire for the good of another. The kind of love Paul writes about in our epistle reading today, the kind that moves mountains and transforms hearts.
Here we stand at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as he opens up scripture and preaches the year of the Lord’s favor, a favor that rests on Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders. A favor that refrains from vengeance. That sermon set in motion a movement of transformation that rippled through the world, and is still rippling today, through you and me. Here today, once again, Jesus is present preaching the gospel of peace. Here today, once again, the scripture is being fulfilled in our hearing.
 Ephesians 6:12