"But Not For Me"

For Epiphany 4C

"He's reading words of hope / But not for me..."

You can almost hear Judy Garland singing in the heartbreak of the moment when Jesus' audience in Nazareth realizes that they're in for the other half of prophecy, the uprooting and destruction rather than the rebuilding and planting. Of course, Judy didn't leave scene, grab Mickey Rooney, and try and throw him off a cliff. (Gershwin women aren't like that.)

There were plenty of perfectly good Israelite widows, when the sky refused to rain for three-and-a-half years. And God sent the prophet to a city in Sidon, on the Mediterranean Sea, to a widow in a foreign land, to show mercy. Of course, that whole "no rain" thing was a curse upon Israel because Ahab raised an altar to Ba`al and worshiped the asherah, so there's a reason for this.

Ahab's son, Jehoram, was a bit better in that respect, demolishing the altar to Ba`al—though he didn't completely fix the liturgical innovations of his ancestor Jeroboam, so the author of the books of the kings still doesn't like him. (Moral: never piss off a liturgist.) And things were still pretty bad in Israel at that time, though not because of any curse. But the prophet heals Naaman of his leprosy—a Syrian in command of the forces of Aram, a foreigner in command of the armies of the enemy! And later that same day, Elisha will curse his own servant, and his whole lineage, with leprosy for seeking to profit from Naaman's cure. But the other lepers in the books of the kings stay lepers. There's no reason for this. It's not a curse, it's not from God, but God doesn't make it go away, either.

God is good to a Lebanese widow, and a Syrian general, and Israel goes begging. Now that inspires some jealousy! The kindness of God for others, "but not for me." But it isn't the prophet's job to be nice to his own people, most of the time. He's not a prophet because the people have been good. God makes a prophet when there's a problem. And the people know there's a problem. That's why they look with such hope toward the prophets that God sends to them.

But prophets are only incidentally miracle-workers. Those miracles are just signs, little demonstrations of the way that God's power is at work. They aren't the point; they point to the point. The works of a prophet are not a panacea. They are not redemption. They are not salvation. They simply show that the God who does this for others, still does this. That healing, and feeding, and all of the other actions that are part of salvation—that these are still what God does, even if they happen over there. Even if we are left waiting for them.

The prophet is not the one who delivers the people. The prophet is just the one who delivers the message. It is the prophet's job to remind the people that, in spite of the circumstances, God has not abandoned them, no matter what has happened, no matter what they may have done—and that God will not abandon them, no matter what happens to them because of it. God will redeem. God will save. But bad things have happened, and bad things will happen, in the meantime.

The people don't really hope for a prophet. They hope for a redeemer. They hope to be delivered. And for some people, the prophet is speaking a message of deliverance. This is true for the poor and indebted and enslaved and oppressed of whom Jesus speaks in the words of the prophet Isaiah. It is for them that the redeemer has come, to see to their freedom—rather than the freedom of Israel from her neighbors, or our freedom from the problems of our lives. For that, we still wait. And this is the way that this scripture Jesus reads is fulfilled in the hearing of his family and childhood friends in the synagogue. But for how many of the people in the synagogue that day—and how many of the people in this church, today—is this good news? And how many are left waiting?

We have problems, too. We need healing, too. We are hungry, too. We feel oppressed, too. Now, some of that is objectively bullshit, and some of it is just "our chickens coming home to roost." I know for certain that people on the receiving end of our injustice toward others think it's obscene when we claim to be victims. But I also know that many of the problems my wife and I face are real, and I know that we pray to God to be delivered from them. I have no reason to think that they are a curse from God. You can all say the same. We suffer, and what we suffer isn't good, and it isn't a curse, and it isn't from God, but God also doesn't magically make it go away. We suffer some things we deserve, directly or indirectly, but we also suffer many things we don't deserve, things that aren't consequences of our actions, or not in any simple way. And we don't understand them, but we would love to be freed from them. And we all cry out to God, as Christians, as adopted children and creatures of God's own making, and say, "O great Physician, heal your own!"

And yet today, in his home town, surrounded by people he loves, Jesus says, "No." And this may be the worst thing for us to hear, ever in life. He is ours, and we are his, and yet Jesus says, "No." He will not take our problems away. He will not treat us preferentially. He will not do what he in fact could, what we see that he does in other places, for us. What good is a messiah who will not save? Who will save others, but not his own? Who reads to you a passage of hope, who tells you with certainty that God is at work in him to make it happen—and who then dashes that hope, because it is not for you, not today? Would you not kill such a man?

We all would. And in the end, we did. We have always killed the prophets. Not because we do not trust in God, but because they seem to betray our trust in God by speaking to us with painful words. Because they serve God, and insist on telling us the ways that God will not serve us. Surely, such words cannot be those of the God who loves us?

Ah, but they are. This "no" is not the final word of the God who loves us. This justice of God's is only not for us today, but it is for us, and it will be for us. These are the words of the same God who has decreed our salvation, and who is our sure support and defense. These are the words of our rock, from whom there is no hiding place. These are the words of the God who will redeem us with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm, but who before that will also go into exile with us, and who will endure what we suffer along with us. These are the words of the God who tells us so using the words, and the presence, of the prophet Jeremiah. These are the words of the God who will never abandon us, no matter what we suffer in life. These are the words of Jesus Christ, who is God come to earth, not to take away our suffering, but to share in it, and to destroy its power over us. These are the words of the man who will not even save himself. These are the words of the God who really saves us, because these are the words of the God whose "No" today is enclosed in the absolute and ultimate "Yes" of the resurrection to new life.

We have a long and painful road to walk, until then, but we do not walk it alone. We walk it together with our brothers and sisters, all the saints and every sinner, all together, and our brother Jesus walks it with us, every step of the way from birth to death. And on the way, we learn about this love that Paul tells us about, because it is the love of God for us. We learn that God is patient, enduring both rage and suffering for our sake. We learn, even though God will not serve us in the ways we might prefer, that God is kind, and in kindness acts usefully, constantly providing for our good. We learn that God has no shame, and so we learn that God is never put off by any of the things we might find disgraceful in this world. We learn that God, who is greater than all things, has no interest in the great things of this world. We learn that God, who is the greatest good, does not seek to be good without also being good for us—and that God does not seek to be good for us without also being good for all people. We learn that God opposes injustice, and pursues good, and never fails, in spite of everything in this world that is otherwise. We learn that God is love, and that in Christ God is love for us and the whole world. And in this love we trust and hope. It may not always meet our expectations, but it will never let us down.


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