Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
January 31, 2010
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30
Jeremiah 1:4-10 • Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Luke 4:21-30 • Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 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?” 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.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 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; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
So, Jesus’ career is not off to a good start. At least, not from a public relations standpoint anyway.
Jesus has just gotten done reading from the book of Isaiah, that passage that we read from last week: “The spirit of the Lord God has anointed me to preach good news to the oppressed….” Words that we said defined Jesus’ ministry but also served to identify Jesus as the one whom God had anointed: the anointed one, the messiah.
And then with the eyes of all the synagogue fixed upon him, he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Now, we all know that this ultimately does not go well for Jesus. We know that the crowd reacts badly to this first visit to the synagogue of Nazareth since he began his ministry. But oddly, it is not because he dared claim to be God’s anointed one. No, in fact, we are told that “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came out of his mouth.” That hardly seems like a bad reaction.
They do wonder of course: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” To which Jesus responds by quoting a proverb that says that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.
But then it gets worse. Because then Jesus goes on to talk about two stories from the Old Testament. He mentions that during the drought and famine of Elijah’s time, Elijah was not sent to any of the widows of Israel, but was sent to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. That is, a Canaanite widow. And then he goes on to mention that during the time of the prophet Elisha, the only leper that was cleaned was Naaman, a Syrian king.
That made them mad.
As the Gospel tells us, “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” They tried to throw him off a cliff, they were so angry, but we are told, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
II. THE ANGER OF THE CONGREGATION
So, what were they so angry about?
See, we always assume that they’re angry because he identifies himself as the messiah. They get angry in a “who-do-you-think-you-are?” sort of way. But clearly their anger is due to the other things he says. Clearly they are furious that he should talk about a Canaanite and a Syrian receiving blessings from God. Now, people are quick to make all manner of assumptions about this that aren’t accurate. People will talk about how Judaism at that time was particularlistic, they thought God only loved the Jews. It was Christianity that was universalist, that saw God as everyone’s God. So, when Jesus talks about God blessing people who aren’t even Jews, it offends them. That’s a nice theory—except that it happens to be wrong.
The Jewish people had long understood that God was the god of all the nations. We read that in the Old Testament lesson for today. God appoints Jeremiah as “a prophet to the nations” saying, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Clearly, God’s jurisdiction was everywhere and over everyone.
Besides that, the Hebrew scriptures are replete with stories of righteous non-Israelites: Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the Moabite, Uriah the Hittite, Job, and many others. In addition, the prophets often spoke of God’s deliverance of the nations. Micah, Isaiah, and many others. Christianity didn’t invent universalism, Judaism was well aware of the concept for a long time. So, it’s not that they were shocked that God could heal, or even love, a non-Israelite. Then what was it?
And here we must remember the context of the story of the Gospel. The Jews are an oppressed people, living under the domination of the Roman Empire. They are longing for deliverance, for what they would have called “salvation”. They are crying out to God for one who will come and lead them to victory, the way David did in days of old. They are hungering for their messiah, their anointed king of Israel.
And so, when Jesus stands up and announces that the passages of scripture have been fulfilled, at worst they seemed to have adopted a “wait and see” attitude toward the question. “I suppose he could be, but isn’t that Joseph’s kid?” But when he starts talking about how not just out-of-towners, but downright foreigners will be the ones who will accept Jesus, they fly off the handle. Because it’s a pretty strange definition of a national messiah who’s going to spend time and energy on the very people who seem to be oppressing the nation.
Could you imagine a presidential candidate, declaring his candidacy and then announcing that if elected, he will likely be unpopular at home and very popular abroad, and that he will focus on foreign aid? That guy wouldn’t get elected dog catcher.
And so we see that the congregation’s anger isn’t religious indignation. It’s nationalist. They don’t want a messiah who’s talking about other nations; God is on their side, not anybody else’s.
III. A NEW CANAAN, HERE
Fortunately, we don’t think like that, right?
In 1630, the ship Arabella was arriving in the Plymouth colony, carrying a “great company of Religious people” (whom we would later call “pilgrims”) and led by the Hon. John Winthrop, governor of the colony. He wrote a sermon given on the deck of the ship that has been emblazoned into our national consciousness ever since:
Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it likely that of New England.” For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us.
In fact, the pilgrims understood that they were to be a “city upon a hill” for the benefit of their puritan brothers and sisters back in England. They were to set up a society so perfect that it would be a model for the puritans back home. However, once the Puritan revolution was overturned and Cromwell’s republic replaced by the Restoration of the Monarchy, there was not much hope that England would be a puritan nation after that. And so, the puritans of New England began to focus more and more on where they were. They began to focus on the “new world” as the place carrying God’s favor.
This theme was picked up and has been carried throughout our history. In 1771, Philip Freneau wrote in The Rising Glory of America: “No traces shall remain of tyranny. And laws, a pattern to the world beside, be here enacted first… A new Jerusalem, sent down from heaven, shall grace our happy earth—perhaps this land—a Canaan here, another Canaan shall excel the old.”
America—which did not even exist as an independent nation yet, was viewed as the “new Jerusalem” in the midst of a new Canaan, a new Holy Land, that will exceed the old one. (I wonder what those folks in the synagogue in Nazareth would have thought about that.)
In 1776, Ebenezer Baldwin would carry this theme even further: “America will be “the principal seat of that glorious kingdom, which Christ shall erect upon the earth in the latter days.” I bet you didn’t know that. When Jesus comes back, he’s going to set up shop in America.
But this vision of America as God’s shining beacon to the world has not diminished with time, it has only entrenched itself all the more. The then-Governor orf California Ronald Reagan made famous use of the “city on a hill” idea in a speech welcoming back Vietnam war POWs (among whom was John McCain). In which he said the following:
You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage. 
This idea of our special nature as a nation was an idea that would resonate later when he ran for president. An idea that Americans have long shared. America is a special place, blessed and loved by God in a special way. An idea that received explicit expression when then Governor Bush said in the 2000 presidential campaign: “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world”. 
Now, there is nothing wrong with believing that your nation is beloved of God. There’s probably nothing wrong with believing that God has high expectations for you as a nation. That’s probably a good thing. The problem comes when one comes to feel that God prefers one nation over another or has taken sides when it comes to one nation against another.
This was an idea specifically challenged by the prophets—prophets like Amos, who wrote:
Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the LORD. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7 NRSV)
IV. GOD ON OUR SIDE
This was an idea that Bob Dylan satirized in his famous song “With God on Our Side”.
Oh my name it is nothin’ / My age it means less
The country I come from/ Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there / The laws to abide
And that land that I live in / Has God on its side.
Oh the history books tell it / They tell it so well
The cavalries charged / The Indians fell
The cavalries charged / The Indians died
Oh the country was young/ With God on its side.
Oh the First World War, boys / It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting/ I never got straight
But I learned to accept it/ Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead / When God’s on your side.
When the Second World War / Came to an end
We forgave the Germans / And we were friends
Though they murdered six million/ In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too/ Have God on their side.
This last point is all the more ironic and bitter given that prior to and during the Second World War, the Germans also believed they had God on their side. Great banners with the words “Gott ist mit uns” (God is with us) could be seen on display in the Reich. The Germans claimed that God was on their side. Now, the Soviets never claimed that God was on their side—they didn’t believe in God—they claimed that history was on their side. I don’t know that that made them any more correct.
And perhaps that’s exactly the problem. We start from a good place. God loves us. God is capable of doing great things with us as a people. But then, like all human beings, we quickly make it about us, rather than about God. We quickly imagine that what we do is, by definition, what God wants. We begin to imagine that our will and that of God’s is synonymous. We wind up spending a lot of time imagining that God is on our side that we do not ask the real question:
Are we on God’s side?
Throughout scripture we know where God’s sympathy lies. It’s not with nations, kingdoms, or empires. It is with the lowly. The poor. The oppressed. The marginalized. The “least of these.” It lies in what theologians call God’s “preferential option for the poor”. That solidarity with the lowly that Jesus announces in that synagogue: to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” That is a solidarity with all in need.
God is on our side. Not the side of any given nation, or people, or race. God is on all our side.
That is Jesus’ entire message. God declares solidarity with us poor mortal humans. Jesus’ messiahship is all about the solidarity of God with the poor, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the suffering. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are all about the solidarity of God with us in all our brokenness.
Jesus’ messiahship was not just for Israel. It’s not just for us. It’s not just for the Church. Not just for the West. Jesus’ messiahship is for the entire world.
The radical solidarity with humanity that God makes through Jesus Christ is one that embraces us all. Oh, that might make us angry now, but it’s a good thing. I am sure there will be people in the world to come that I don’t think ought to be there. That’s all right. I am sure there are people who don’t think I should be there either. Fortunately for both of us, God’s love is greater than ours.
We are called not to claim God’s love and favor exclusively for ourselves, we are called to share it with everyone. In the words of the Book of Revelation, with that “great multitude that no one could count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages….” We are called to be on God’s side, loving those whom no one else will love, standing in solidarity with all who suffer.
God’s love is greater than any one people’s. God’s story is greater than any nation’s.
So great is God’s love, that we can say together, all of us, every last human being: “God is on our side.”