Vaudeville Jesus, Give Us Some Parlor Tricks

Luke 4:21-30. Preached at St. Paul’s, Brookfield, CT. January 30, 2022

The context of today’s Gospel is given to us in last week’s lectionary reading. It’s such a beautiful depiction of Jesus revealing his nature and mission, that I hope you don’t mind hearing it again. It reads,

“[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.”

Jesus enters the synagogue. Jesus is seen. The people present track his entering, his sitting and his standing. 

Jesus unrolls the scroll, it is large and unwieldy. He begins reading, and the people hear a familiar passage:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

    and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Ponder this: GOD as the WORD made flesh enters the synagogue where GOD is worshiped, enters into community with the believers who are waiting for HIM, the MESSIAH.

Jesus takes the scroll and reads His own/Yahweh’s own words which inspired the Prophet Isaiah some 700 years before.

The WORDS of the Prophet Isaiah given by GOD and inscribed on parchment, are in the mouth of the MESSIAH the prophet FORETOLD. 

This encounter between Jesus and the word of God in the synagogue, brings to mind the simple prayer we all know, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the BEGINNING, is NOW, and forever SHALL BE.”

This gospel scene portrays liturgy: prayers, a reading from the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy), a reading from the Prophets, and a sermon, a pattern of Jewish worship that goes back at least to the time of Jesus, if not earlier. It is the same pattern we follow in the first half of our Christian liturgy.

Liturgy is the response of the community to the sacred. 

When Jesus finishes reading, “. . . he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” 

Theologian Katherine Sonderegger writes, “The provident God has bestowed upon creatures the power to relate to realities at a distance: we human creatures––and not only us––receive the world through the sense organs than are thrown open like shutter and sash onto the good earth” (Systematic, 109).

It is through their senses that the worshipers HEAR God’s word read and proclaimed and SEE the WORD made FLESH. Their eyes fixed on him, they hear Jesus say, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

They HEAR and SEE Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. And as they process what they were taking in, they are “amazed at the gracious words that come from his lips.” The congregation perceives grace and wisdom. 

How does the community respond to the SACRED? Someone says, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Were they dismissive? Sneering? Envious? I offer that we learn more from the gospels when we put ourselves NOT in the place of the HEROES or the FAITHFUL, but in the place of the difficult people. 

Who among us wouldn’t say, THIS GUY? Really? Jesus has just revealed himself to be the anointed one, the Messiah. And the people say, “Yeah, yeah, great. But show us the good stuff, like you did in Capernaum. The miracles, we want to see those.”

This is the community that raised Jesus up, and they feel a certain ownership of him. It reminds me of my son visiting this past Christmas. He’s 25. He would occasionally sit at the piano and plink out a classical piece he was trying to learn. I kept asking, “Play the Peanuts Christmas! Play the Vince Guaraldi….please….it’s my favorite” but he just wouldn’t. 

You are all likely better parents than I am, so bear with me; all winter break I kept asking for the Peanuts Christmas music when he was playing the classical. I kept asking, while thinking, INGRATE! 

We bought this piano for you and I drove you back and forth to piano lessons when you were little, I sat on the teacher’s sofa reading bad magazines. ….YOU OWE ME! Play the Peanuts!!!”

Jesus preaches that morning in the synagogue. And his people, his cousins and his parents’ friends and his old teachers all feel he belongs to them. We watched you grow up and babysat you and saved you from that dog that time. Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah. And the congregation demands, Show us some of the magic stuff! They want parlor tricks.

Jesus responds, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” Then he pivots, referring to Elijah and a 3-year drought. A 3-year natural disaster. Let’s pause here and think about that a minute as we enter into the third year of this pandemic.

Do you remember, prior to Covid pandemic, reading in the Bible about plagues and droughts and floods? I didn’t give it much thought. Maybe I thought, ah, those poor folks in Biblical times. But now, we all know in our bodies what it means: a flood, a plague, a drought means disruption, uncertainty, fear, frustration.

A natural disaster means struggle and death and grief. It means encountering the limits of self-reliance. It means waiting for God, both spiritually and materially.

Jesus refers to the time of Elijah, when Elijah prophesies that the heavens will be shut up for three years and six months, meaning no rain will fall. 

Jesus explains there were many widows in Israel. But Elijah didn’t go to them. When the ravens stopped bringing Elijah food and his source of water dried up, God sends Elijah to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. Sidon was in Phoenicia, a country north of Israel.  

Elijah’s own people are starving, their children and their crops and their livestock are dying. Local water is drying up and God directs Elijah to this foreign widow who herself is close to death. 

Elijah goes. When he finds the widow, he calls out to her for bread and water. She says to him, “I have nothing baked, nothing but a handful of flour in a jar, and a little oil in a jug. I am just gathering a couple of sticks, so that I can go home and prepare a meal for me and my son; we shall eat it and then we shall die.” (1 Kings 17)

Let’s unpack what the widow is saying. She has almost nothing left to eat, which means she has been watching in fear for some time as her pantry dwindles. 

With what energy she has, she is gathering sticks in the countryside to build a LAST fire, to prepare a LAST  meal. She is already grieving that her son will eat this meal and die.

Elijah says, “Do not be afraid.” The widow does as he has told her; she feeds the prophet and her oil and flour do not run out. By recognizing Elijah as a messenger of God, she is BLESSED and SUSTAINED.

It is the stranger who offers hospitality to Elijah. It is the stranger who sees the work of God.

In the synagogue in Nazareth that day, the worshipers see and hear the living God in Jesus Christ. In their minds they perceive and are astonished. They are happy to see that the local boy made good. But to hear Jesus say who he is and with what authority he speaks, and that he came for ALL humankind, now that’s a bridge too far.

Where do WE fail to perceive Jesus? In the poor? In the man on the corner with the cardboard sign? In the prisoner wrongly convicted? In the prisoner rightly convicted? 

How do we respond to the sacred: in community, where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, in the Eucharist, when we are united in the sacrifice of Christ, in the proclamation of the WORD or in our private prayer?

May we open our senses like shutter and sash and recognize Jesus, who has promised to be with us always, even til the end of the world. Let us fix our eyes on him.