Early in this new year I heard a music teacher speak on an NPR program about his New Year’s resolution. While he had spent many years teaching young people how to play instruments and encouraging them through their public performances, he, a cellist by training, had never performed a private recital. This year would be different. It was his goal to finally do that, to prepare the necessary pieces he would publicly perform and take the risk that some will like his musical performance and others might not. He spoke on the radio about both the conscious and unconscious factors that have contributed to years of avoiding taking this risk, of exposing himself to others by vulnerably presenting and performing that about which he cared most deeply. It is very personal, yet it is not unlike the experiences of so many.
In yesterday’s Gospel we get the second half of the narrative that began last week. Jesus, having returned from the desert now filled with the Spirit and ready to begin his public ministry, comes back to his home town. In a public way, he finds himself in a situation where he proclaims a passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, a passage that becomes something of Jesus’s mission statement:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
The rest of the Gospel is an account of Jesus living out what he announces in that synagogue. But before he truly begins what he has been sent to do, he exposes himself to those in his home town, to those who know him and to strangers alike.
And many reject him.
When the people in the synagogue heard this,
they were all filled with fury.
They rose up, drove him out of the town,
and led him to the brow of the hill
on which their town had been built,
to hurl him down headlong.
I think this account of the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, which comes to us in the Gospel according to Luke, presents us — those who profess to follow in the footprints of Christ and bear his name as Christians — with two challenging questions: (a) In whom or what do we place our trust and desire for affirmation? and (b) Are we willing to risk rejection and, by doing so, also risk acceptance?
It can be easy to ignore the mirror this Gospel holds up to the faces of contemporary Christians (I’m talking about you and I in particular). One might wish to read the risk and encounter of rejection Jesus experiences as surmountable because “Jesus was also God, not just human like us.” Certainly it was something divine that allowed Jesus to, as this Gospel passage concludes, just pass through the angry mob and simply walk away. But an overemphasis on Jesus’s uniqueness without due consideration for his 100% humanity is, I believe, just a way for us to make excuses for ourselves.
Where Jesus placed his trust and desire for affirmation is the key, I think, to understanding what was going on here and how it relates to us. Having returned from the desert where Jesus faced the basic temptations that all human beings encounter — wealth, power, security, etc. — he is filled with the Spirit, aware of who he really is because he recognizes his identity and mission through his relationship to the Father.
He doesn’t place his need for affirmation or trust that his self-worth should be decided by others, but instead relies on and is inspired (again, as in “in-spirare” to be filled with the Spirit!) by his True Self found in God alone.
This is what we are reminded of in yesterday’s First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, which opens:
The word of the LORD came to me, saying:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
The young would-be (and yet, resistant) prophet ultimately recognizes his identity and call to live in the world in a particular way according to who God has created him to be. This identity is born out of a love that is so personal, to intimate, that Jeremiah sees it extending long before the prophet was born.
Jeremiah is empowered to risk rejection, to speak truth to power, to announce the good news of God, because he recognizes the love, worth, dignity, value, and true affection that comes from God. It is in this relationship that Jeremiah places his trust and desire for affirmation, a trust that is maintained and a desire that is abundantly fulfilled.
Jesus and Jeremiah are not so different in this regard. But how do we compare?
Do we narrate stories to ourselves, consciously or in less-conscious ways, about how our worth and affirmation must come from without? Do we make excuses for why we avoid entirely or shrink in the face of difficult situations that might otherwise require us to recognize that we are loved by God and likewise empowered by the Spirit to do what is right and just and prophetic?
Jesus’s mission statement, summarized by the passage from Isaiah, is ours too. And the source of Jeremiah’s prophetic call is the same God who loves each of us into existence and continually graces us with God’s own Spirit to live the life of authentic Christian discipleship, provided we decide to choose that.
As we begin a new week, I wonder about myself and offer the reflection to you too: Do I recognize the love that affirms my truest self and then take the risk that I might be rejected by others?
Perhaps its time, like the cellist, to do what we have known, deep down, that we wanted to do and should have done all along.