Fourth Sunday of the Year. Fr Colin Carr preaches on the bravery of the prophet who listens to God rather than public opinion.
We like what is familiar; it’s nice to greet familiar faces at your regular meeting place. If someone from our community does really well, say at sport, we feel proud and we hope that they’ll still see themselves as one of us, and be willing to open the Christmas Fayre, and show that they’re proud to be from round here.
But there are ways in which someone might change through going away or being successful; they might become snobbish, or uncouth, or politically extreme; if our area depends on arms manufacture for employment, they may challenge the morality of such an industry; even someone who doesn’t go away or become successful may begin to seem — well, odd, marching to a different drum.
It’s what happened to prophets like Jeremiah; they became very unpatriotic; Jeremiah — who didn’t enjoy being different — told the people of Jerusalem that they were wasting their time trying to resist the Babylonians; God was not going to rescue them, so they might as well surrender. Not a good way to be popular or make religion popular.
In fact the religious people refused to accept Jeremiah as a true man of God. For most of them the task of religion was to bless the national effort. It’s not everyone who can find the courage to listen to God more than to public opinion. God’s call was for Jeremiah to become a figure of conflict and confrontation.
Jesus, in the synagogue of his home town, was doubly offensive to his hearers, and for opposite reasons: first, he was too familiar; and then, he was too positive about the unfamiliar world of the Gentiles.
He was too familiar: the man who had grown up in their midst and apparently not been remarkable, is suddenly speaking about the meaning of the Scripture, not like someone who’s done a correspondence course and learned a lot about the Bible; he was speaking as if he knew at first hand what it was all about, as if he was at the cutting edge of God’s revelation. ‘This text is being fulfilled today, even as you listen.’
After a moment of admiration people began to think more negatively. What sort of talk is that? Who does he think he is? He’s not one of the official teachers, he’s the local person who seems to know something at first hand that the rest of us expect to be told by experts who know it at second hand. The notion that God might speak to ordinary people is frightening; if God can come that close, there’s no taming him.
But then Jesus goes on to offend them in an opposite way: he talks about how the God who comes close also loves those who are far away. We may not want God to come too close, but we do expect him to be more on our side than on anyone else’s; it’s a belief common to most of the human race that they’re a bit more special to God than the rest; I’m not sure whether God laughs or cries at this.
Jesus offended by showing that God’s love and care were not restricted to the people of Israel. In fact in the two cases he mentioned he suggests that God neglected people in Israel in favour of foreigners, and, in one case, in favour of an enemy soldier.
The question is, quite simply, whose voice do we listen to? If we listen first to the voice of our family, our tribe, our nation, our allies, we may not be ready to hear the voice of God. If we try to listen first to God’s voice, then we could find ourselves in conflict with that family voice. It happens now: there are many heroic Christians — and others — who are working hard to offer dignity and help to asylum seekers; it’s not a popular line to take, but it’s one of those instances when you have to choose between your faith and the Daily Mail or the Sun, to put it bluntly.
We can either be on the side of outcasts, with Jesus; or we can make him an outcast, as the good religious people of Nazareth did on that occasion.