“The Unexpected Revival”
4th Sunday After the Epiphany, C - February 3, 2019
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
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."
In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, "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.
The cultures of the Bible valued older people over young people. Wisdom from elders was considered essential for survival and useful in the pursuit of righteousness. What older people lacked in physical prowess, they made up for in the intangibles. Age was always respected and was considered a prerequisite for leadership in every area of society.
For a long time, those assumptions about age and wisdom remained unchanged. Even when young people accomplished great things, they were considered outliers. They were the exceptions that proved the rule.
But, since about the mid-20th century, Western culture has increasingly devalued older people and elevated youth. The strength and beauty of youth are deeply tied to fame and fortune and celebrity. With advancements in modern technology and the fast pace of entertainment media, young people are considered flexible and open, bold and daring. (Sean McVay, 33, vs Bill Belichick, 66?) Older people are often looked down upon as sticks in the mud, physically, socially, and culturally. Perhaps the pendulum has swung a bit too far in the other direction.
But in light of the fact that the Bible was written through the lenses of such traditional cultures, it is noteworthy how often the main characters and the chosen leaders of God’s people in Scripture are young.
King David, King Josiah (reigned ages 8-40), prophet Jeremiah, Queen Esther, Mary, Jesus and the twelve apostles, St. Timothy.
All of these were unexpected choices for leadership. God worked with these holy women and men despite the handicap that their youth would cause them in their communities. In these lessons from Jeremiah and Luke, both Jeremiah and Jesus are young men. We don’t know exactly how old Jeremiah is, but the word he uses (Heb. na’ar) implies that he might be a teenager. Jesus is said a few verses earlier to be 30 years old; while he was not a youth, he wasn’t exactly a community elder either. Both of these young people speak on the authority of God to people who don’t want to hear what they have to say.
Jeremiah’s message to the people of Judah is never popular. The prophet’s book is 50 chapters long and he repeatedly bumps up against his government, the other religious leaders, and even the populace at large. He is arrested and imprisoned more than once. He eventually dies in exile in Egypt, far away from his homeland and the people to whom God sent him to minister. But all of this happened because Jeremiah spoke God’s truth and his listeners rejected the truth just as they rejected him.
Jesus went through a similar experience. In Luke 4, Jesus returns to his hometown synagogue to preach on the sabbath. At first, the people are impressed with “the gracious words that came from his mouth,” and they marveled that this was “Joseph’s son” (4:22). But then he elaborated on what he meant when he said, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (4:18).
Jesus started talking about Israel’s history of rejecting prophets. He chooses not to mention Jeremiah’s dark past. But he does talk about Elijah and Elisha. At different points in their ministries, God uses them to bless and heal Gentiles. Jesus reminds them that it wasn’t because there weren’t needy Israelites.
In the case of the widow at Zarephath, she was kind and hospitable enough to give Elijah a place to stay even when King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had a bounty on his head. In the case of Naaman the Syrian, Elisha healed the commander of a foreign army (an enemy of Israel at the time) because he was humble and faithful enough to come to him asking the LORD God for mercy. The people of Nazareth found this message so offensive that they tried to kill him. Imagine a world where our churches were decorated with cliffs instead of crosses. That’s almost how our Savior died.
Part of what Jesus alludes to in his sermon at Nazareth is that God elevated these unexpected leaders because the people who should have been leaders weren’t stepping up to fulfill these tasks. When the people in charge fail to live righteously, God calls the unexpected. Jesus’ message is that God works in unexpected places, through unexpected people, because the people and places we expect often become lazy and proud. The centers of power and privilege become content with their power and privilege. Whether that’s governmental, business, or church leadership, God does not wait for the people in charge to pursue righteousness and justice. God sends messengers, often weak and lowly messengers to preach Good News to the poor about freedom, healing, and release from oppression.
Today, we are no less susceptible to laziness and pride. Churches don’t exist for the survival of their own institution. Churches exist for the revival of God’s people and the world around us.
St. Matthew’s has been slowly but surely entering a season of revival. We have an active and growing congregation. We have a young new rector who feels empowered to preach the sometimes-controversial Good News of God’s love and justice. And we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in and with us. We have everything we need to become a center of revival for the people of Savannah.
Will we work together with God in this ministry, or will we force God to send the Spirit on those whom we least expect? Let’s pray that whether we’re young or old, black, brown, or white, Gentile or Jew, we’ll open up our hearts and minds to the Good News of Jesus and the revival that is to come. Amen.
Image Credit: https://millennialpastor.net/2016/01/31/afflicting-the-comfortable-nazareth-synagogue/