Change at God's Pace
This past weekend, while my husband and I worked on one yardwork chore or another, I wiped the sweat from my brow and stabbed my shovel into the soft earth in frustration. “I’m exactly where I didn’t want to be right now,” I told him. I’d begun the summer with a set of plans that were set to make some changes in my life—changes that I felt God was asking of me. As a person who isn’t particularly fond of change, this was a big deal. Yet when I heard God’s voice during a morning prayer time early in the summer, the invitation was clear and my heart was at peace; Rework my relationship with my job. Shuffle around my priorities and my calendar to create more stillness. Be more present for my family and myself. Three months will be more than enough time to make this happen, I had thought at the time. Everything will be settled before school starts. But as I stood in the yard sweating in the late August heat, I was mere days before the return to school and despite my best efforts, nothing was settled. Stillness was a pipe dream. Change was a long way off.
A day or two later I encountered a passage of Scripture that I’d heard many times before: Luke 4:14-30. Often simply titled “Jesus Rejected at Nazareth”, I’ve tended to read this (somewhat troubling) passage through lenses of anger and entitlement and shame. In this pericope, Jesus returns home to Nazareth for what looks to be the first time since launching his Earthly ministry in Capernaum. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and, after reading a section of Isaiah which sounds like he is announcing himself as the Messiah, Jesus sits and tells his friends and neighbors that no, he won’t be doing any of those wondrous things that they’ve heard he did elsewhere:
“ ‘Surely you will quote this proverb to me: “Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.”
I tell you the truth,’ he continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his hometown.’” (vv 23-24)
For as long as I can remember, I imagined this passage featuring a stubborn, aloof Jesus sitting among incensed neighbors who thought that “Joseph’s boy” was getting a little too uppity for his own good. I read their violent response—to push Jesus to a cliff’s edge in anger—as the response of a people either concerned for their own safety under the Roman Empire, or fiercely defensive of who gets to call themselves a messiah. As I prayed over this passage in the wake of my yardwork confession, another interpretive possibility hit me like a sack of bricks: what if they weren’t angry at Jesus’ claim, but at his refusal to do miracles on demand? What if they were angry because they desperately wanted the change that such miracles would bring, and they felt that Jesus was denying them? Was the anger of Jesus’ Nazarene neighbors the same as the anger I’d been feeling each time I prayed, “God, you asked me to make these changes, why aren’t any of them happening?!”
Before this point in Scripture, Jesus had been busy in Capernaum. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus had called the Disciples, taught in synagogues, and healed “every disease and sickness among the people” before returning to Nazareth (Mt 4:12-25, c.f. Mt 8). He also gave the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), saved the disciples from drowning by calming a storm (Mt 8:23-27), cast out demons (Mt 8:28-34), sent out the Twelve (Mt 10), and offered the parables (Mt 13)—all before he took a trip back home to Nazareth. Could we blame his friends and neighbors for expecting that they might receive a miracle or two?
My mind wanders around ancient Nazareth, thinking of the people who had watched Jesus grow up and the burdens they bore. What it must have felt like to be a sick person in Nazareth hearing that the carpenter’s son who performed miracles all around Capernaum was coming home? “Finally,” they must have thought, “he is coming back to do these wonders at home. I’ll finally be healed!” Whether it was a demon cast out or a malady healed or leprosy cured, they must have hoped that change was on the way. Even the reading that Jesus offered in the synagogue pointed to change on the doorstep: “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Is 61:2)
But what happens when Jesus finishes reading these very words?
Jesus says that these words of Scripture are fulfilled in their hearing, and that no prophet is accepted in his hometown. He references Elijah and Elisha, two prophets who were sent elsewhere to do God’s work.
I probably would have responded angrily too.
So many times I have thought, “God is coming; change is on its way. Everything will be right just as soon as God arrives,” and then been angry when, at the date and time of my choosing, I didn’t have a full bank account or perfect family relationships or complete health or justice for wrongs done to me, or whatever else it is I think I need.
If I’m really honest, in my most desolate moments, that anger turns to desperation. Why does God give everyone except me what they need?
I ask this question as if God would do such a thing.
Because the truth is that God knows both what I want and what I need. And even when God asks me to make a change, it’s still done within God’s perfect timing. Even when I’m willing, even when I want change, I am still reminded that I can do nothing without Christ. My willingness to respond to God’s invitation is a good thing, but only as far as I’m also willing to accept God’s timing.
As I turn the calendar to September and start thinking about crisp weather and autumn leaves, none of my summer goals have been met. My life doesn’t look all that different, and it isn’t for lack of trying. I’m ready for change, but God hasn’t seen fit to enact that change yet. Some days I rest in the knowledge that God will create this change when the time is right. Other days, I’m tempted to corner Jesus on a cliff like his community did in Nazareth, thinking they (and I) could pressure him into action. With prayer and more grace, I hope I’ll spend more days in the former.