Epiphany 3C 2004 Luke 4:14-21
In a book on preaching there is a description of a cartoon found in a magazine. The cartoon picture showed three men
sitting in a row behind a long table. A microphone has been placed in front of each of them. One man was pretty, pictured
in long flowing hair and a draped white robe. Another was battered, a wreath of jagged thorns on his head. The third was
swarthy, with dark curly hair and a pointed nose. The caption said, Will the real Jesus Christ please stand? (1)
Every Christian sooner or later has to ask the question, "Who was Jesus really?" Wayne Meeks, the chief editor
of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible observed that we ask this in our age in a special way because we are very
historically oriented. We are modern, or perhaps post-modern, people, but all of us have a sense that we want to know what
things were really like. We know that the past is different from the present.
We have experienced rapid change, all of us in our generation. And so we want to know what was Jesus really like. And
that quest to understand what he was really like has turned out to be very disappointing. So how do we really get at that?
We must, first of all, understand that in history facts always lie under interpretations and we never get to the facts. They're
only interpretations. There is only an interpreted Jesus, there are many interpreted Jesuses.
So where do we begin? We begin not with Jesus, we have no access to him. We begin with the responses to Jesus, by his
followers, by outsiders who heard about him.... We begin with those reactions as they're enshrined in the text we have. (2)
President Franklin Roosevelt worshiped often at a Washington church. The rector at that church got a strange phone
call. "Tell me," the voice said eagerly, "if you expect the President to be in church this Sunday? Id like
to come if he is." Patiently the rector said, "I can't promise that the President will be here this Sunday. But
we expect God to be here. We think that's reason enough to attend." (3)
The lections for today teach us about various ways of understanding God and God in Christ Jesus. We call these forms
of revelation. Psalm 113 speaks of the incomparable glory and of the wonderful mighty acts of God. Ezra's public reading
of the law before the Water Gate in Nehemiah 8, and Jesus' citation of Isaiah in his inaugural sermon are examples of revelation
through Scripture. Jesus himself and Paul's analogy of the church as the body of Christ in First Corinthians 12 relate to
revelation through incarnation.
Many current theological issues pivot on the nature of revelation. Much of the New Age movement and creation theologies
center in knowing God in creation. Love of wilderness, conservation of the natural world, and ecological questions arise
from the belief that "the heavens [and the earth] are telling the glory of God." Many are seeking and finding in
nature-based mysticism an intimacy with God which they feel is lacking in the church. They critique Christianity for a theology
which allows us to fancy ourselves rulers who dominate and exploit creation rather than acknowledge that we are fellow creatures
called to cherish and nurture it, to be its stewards. These seekers may love a sense of the transcendence and person-likeness
of God, who is beyond as well as within.
Dogmatists have hefted their particular doctrines of revelation through Scripture like axes to dismember the body of Christ.
Touting one theory of inspiration to the exclusion of others, we often lose the sense of Scripture "reviving the soul...rejoicing
the heart...enlightening the eyes." We reduce the mystery of inspiration and illumination to sterile indoctrination,
or worse yet, mere proof-texting. Yet, Scripture renews itself and those who hear it--the prophet of the Babylonian exile,
Ezra, Jesus and his followers, Paul, and us. Though it is the rock of institution and tradition, through it flows the renewing
lava of the Holy Spirit and a living faith.
At Nazareth the revelation of written word and living word come together in the person of the hometown carpenter whom
everyone praised at first. Just wait until next weeks gospel lesson, though! But for todays lesson institution and incarnation
are for a moment parallel. A new experience of the numinous gushes forth, as Christ inaugurates his mission with the ancient
words of the prophet. He calls on the tradition to enflesh, to incarnate, its ideals. His sermon confronts the traditional
with how it has petrified revelation in the tombs of the prophets, which cover corpses of bigotry and pretension. Paul writes
the church at Corinth, where the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, along with the wealthy, the educated, and the
influential, have become members of the body of Christ.
Todays gospel lesson confronts us with the great paradox of religious tradition. Clearly Jesus owed much to his religious
heritage. In the synagogue he was trained in the riches of law, prophets, and first century Judaism. Here as a young child,
he experienced the stability of familial love and high moral standards. Here he gained his first hearing and his first disciples.
Tradition has great value. It instills belief. What we learn as preschool children in our religious community is imprinted
like DNA in the bones and marrow of our being. Tradition imparts identity. Jesus was a first century Jew, who fashioned
his self-understanding and formulated his mission from within his heritage.
Yet, as Fiddler on the Roof delightfully portrays, tradition is fraught with problems as well as promise. It may become
an effort to control and conceal the outbreaking of the Holy Spirit. It may undo the Year of the Lords favor, the Year of
Jubilee, by keeping in place those unjust structures of society, whose vested interests have too much to lose. When childhood
faith no longer suffices, religious tradition may be the skin we refuse to shed, strangling growth. The child Jesus in the
Temple grew into the man who overturned the tables of the moneychangers, and by and of himself built a Temple not made with
The film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a modern retelling of how St. Francis of Assisi began his order, illustrates the multiple
personality of tradition. After incurring the wrath of his wealthy father and the bishop, Francis, barefoot, dirty, makes
a pilgrimage to Rome, to gain the approval of Pope Innocent III. The simple words of the beggar infuriate the gem-encrusted
hierarchy, but the Pope summons Francis before him again. He not only grants him endorsement, but kneels and kisses his
feet. A courtier whispers an aside that his Holiness knows that Francis will bring the poor back into the church. Tradition
is usually politic as well as pious.
What Jesus announced in Nazareth has yet to be achieved. The poor still need to hear good news, but too often judgement
and damnation are thundered from pulpit and lectern. Captives still long to be released. The blind have yet to see. he
oppressed carry as heavy burdens of violence and fear as ever. And the Jubilee, the ancient Levitical dream of economic justice
and equality, still shimmers like a mirage of Camelot on the distant mountains of the commonwealth of God. (4)
A next to last story: One day a man made a long trip to a distant cathedral in which was said to be the greatest pipe
organ in the world. Weary travel stained from his trip, he went to the side door of the cathedral where he was greeted by
a monk in a red robe who asked what he wanted.
"I understand you have here the most wonderful organ in the world. I have come many miles to see it." The
monk looked at the seedy little man, and reluctantly led him through the corridors to where he could get a view of the great
The man stood at the console looking hungrily at the keys. "Oh sir," he said, "Would you permit me to
play it?" "Not so," replied the monk, "and please don't ask, for only the head organist of the cathedral
plays this instrument."
"Then if I might but touch the keys," the travel worn man pleaded. The monk looked around to be sure he wasn't
seen and reluctantly consented. The seedy stranger sat down, and swept the keyboard and the music echoed throughout the cathedral.
The organ had never sounded like that before.
"Who are you?" asked the astounded monk.
The seedy character answered simply, "I am Beethoven."
The monk uncovered his head, crossed himself. "My God! To think that I almost missed letting you, the master, use
this humble instrument!" (5)
A last story:
A rabbi asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day was dawning.
"Could it be," asked one student, "when you see an animal at a distance and can tell whether it is a
sheep or a dog?" "No," answered the rabbi.
"Could it be," asked another, "when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig
tree or a peach tree?" "No," said the rabbi.
"Well, then, when is it?" his students demanded.
Said the rabbi, "It is when you look on the face of any man or woman and see that he or she is your brother or
sister. Because, if you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, for you it is still night." (6)
1. David Buttrick, Preaching Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), p. 23, extracted from William G Carter,
Today, in Praying for a Whole New World, CSS Publishing, 2000, on eSermons at ChristianGlobe.com
2. Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, in What can we really know about Jesus? a
segment of From Jesus to Christ, Insight, at pbs.org
3. Mosely in Illustrations for Luke 4:14-21, in Emphasis on csspub.com/emphasis
4. John Hamilton, in Sermon Ideas For Luke 4:14-21 Part 1, on SermonMall.com
5. Kirby in Illustrations for Luke 4:14-21, in Emphasis on csspub.com/emphasis
6. in Illustrations for Luke 4:14-21, in Emphasis on csspub.com/emphasis