First Reading Jeremiah 1:4–10
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1–13
Gospel Reading: Luke 4:14–30
Sermon: “They Did What?!?”
Today, we are looking at the aftermath of the story from Luke that we started last week.
You remember that Jesus went to his home town synagogue and read a prophesy from Isaiah. He read these words: (Luke 4:18-19 NLT) “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the LORD’s favor has come.” He then told them that the prophesy was fulfilled in their hearing. We talked about the significance of those bold Messianic claims last week. This week, I want to deal with what happened next.
Perhaps you are like me – I don’t really like this story, and yet as I struggle with it, I find that it has quite a bit in it that I need to hear. Like those good Synagogue attending folks in Nazareth experienced, the Word of God sometimes tells us things we’d rather not hear, and just like them, we may find ourselves resentful at being forced to deal with it. We are far more comfortable just going on with what we have always been told it meant rather than carefully pondering what it the text actually says. As Fred Cradock, the famous preaching teacher, says in his commentary: “Anger and violence are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth of their own tradition which they have long defended and embraced.” Relearning or having to unlearn what we already know think we know is often painfully difficult. Most of us know what it is to be at war with ourselves at times, but the consequences are that when we are in that condition we sometimes make casualties of those who are guilty of nothing but speaking the truth in love.
So… just what did Jesus say that precipitated such hostility? There are multiple parts to this incident and the reactions that follow. They start favorably, but slide downhill quickly. At first, Jesus is received as the famous local boy who has begun to draw large crowds for his teaching and healing ministry. He comes home to the Synagogue in Nazareth and does what every devout Jewish man would do – he participates in worship by reading scripture and commenting on what was read.
As I said, his choice of passages is very significant because these words are a sort of mission statement about who he is and what he came to do. His purpose is to be God’s agent of grace. Jesus is sitting right there in front of them saying “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” This is who Jesus is and what he has come to do. At first hearing, their reaction is good – “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” It all sounded very nice and comforting – but then… they got to thinking about it… and began to say “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Now it is hard at this point to know how it was said. Was it said in awe… or…. was it said with a sneer?
Mark’s account leads us to suspect the later: Mark 6:2-3 NRSV “On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” In other words – ’Just who does he think he is anyway, the Messiah or something?!’ Well, yes – you know that line about being the ‘son of Joseph’ – not so much actually as it turns out.
The next couple of verses are where I begin have trouble. Jesus actually seems to pick a fight. As we see multiple times in his ministry, Jesus sees straight to the heart and motivations of people, even those things not spoken out loud. What he seems to react to is an unspoken expectation for him to prove himself with spectacular miracles right there as they had heard he had done elsewhere. First of all, remember that Jesus’ miracles were always done in the moment, out of compassion and grace, never out of a premeditated effort to generate publicity or as a raw demonstration of power. He had passed the wilderness temptations, where Satan offered him a chance at fame and glory – using miracles from his own benefit. That was not his mission; it wasn’t who he was. Those folks in Nazareth assumed privileges for themselves as the ones who had known him before he was famous, and that familiarity blinded them to see who he really was. Perhaps disappointment turned to resentment. It only got worse when Jesus pointed out that none of the Prophets were ever accepted in their own home towns and proceeded to cite a couple of rather inflammatory examples of God’s grace.
How can grace be inflammatory you might well ask? Well – when its given to someone you hate and despise, and not to you, that’s when! Never mind that grace means undeserved in the first place! Jesus cites the time that the great prophet Elijah was sheltered from drought and famine in the humble home of the widow at Zarephath. For three years, there was always just a little flour in the container and a little oil in the jar.p, and so they ate while many starved. It is a beautiful example of the grace and provision of God – except that Zarephath wasn’t in Israel, it was up around the ancient Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre. They were pagans who worshipped Baal and Astarte and had sold Jews as slaves after the Babylonian conquest.
His second example was even worse – the Syrian army general – Naaman, a hated and dangerous enemy, and owner of a captured Jewish slave girl as well, was cured of his leprosy following the instructions of Elisha, while other Jewish lepers suffered on. This was when the normally pious synagogue folks became a murderous mob seeking to silence Jesus by throwing him off a cliff in preparation to stone him to death. All for claiming that the love and grace of God was far, far broader than they wanted to admit. You see, they already knew those stories, and the story of Jonah as well – the reluctant prophet who was sent to save the hated Assyrians in their capital city of Nineveh, but they didn’t like it either. They were the chosen people, God had given the law to them!
But let’s be careful here before we declare them a nasty bunch, those Nazarites! Caution before we swear that we’d never do that sort of thing! We wouldn’t? … would we? I’ll leave it to you to ponder. Just remember to include all of scripture in your musings, not just the parts you like. Parts like loving your neighbor as yourself for instance – not just the nice neighbor who looks after the dog and the mail when you’re gone, but the ones you’re not to sure about too; even the ones who’ve caused you harm; The ones who don’t look like you, worship like you or speak the same language as you, the poor ones fleeing poverty and violence – even those – especially those.
Remember what Jesus said he was all about? And the ones he insisted were included? Luke 4:18-19 NRSV  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Let’s face it, this is an uncomfortable story. It hits us where we live – in our own hometowns, in our own comfortable fellowships. Do you want to know a simple test for whether or not you really love your neighbor? Let something really wonderful happen to them and see how you feel in the depths of your heart. Are you happy? Or are you a little bit jealous? Or do you resent it? How does love respond? I’ll simply refer you to today’s reading of 1 Corinthians 13 for the answer to that one, ask you to note while you’re there that Paul insists that love is an action, not a sentiment – its how and why you act the way you do. Paul claims it solves a whole bunch of nasty problems and is essential for our faith and hope in Christ to have true meaning.
Add to that Jesus’ gracious message that the present time – now – today, is the time of fulfillment of God’s Word. When Jesus said “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” it was a wonderful revelation, a moment longed for – for centuries, but that wasn’t the end. We, the church, are called the “Body of Christ”. Dear Friends, that is not merely an honorary title – it means we are part of something currently living, active and alive, here and now, driven by the Spirit to continue the ministry of our Savior. Otherwise our faith is incomplete and possibly self serving.
Before I close, let me challenge you to turn your thoughts to this coming year. This congregation has existed now for 128 years and we are about to review the most recent of those years in detail at our annual meeting today. What will we find? We are small, and have faced challenges, but have found that together we can serve our God, our fellow congregants and our Community in very significant ways. The great thing about remembering history is that it gives us confidence for the present and hope for tomorrow. And although it’s a great place to visit once in a while, it’s not a heathy place to live in the long term. We must live in the present and look to the future. In recent years we have cleaned up, repaired and upgraded our facility. So far, so good. Now – what are we going to do with it? How can we use it as a tool for ministry? How about us? We have read and studied the scriptures, a least a few of us have anyway, how about the rest of you? There is no substitute for the study of scripture to understand the will of God. Once we know the words, the question becomes how shall we live them out?
We have a good start. Our mission fund is making a real difference; Our building is used to offer hospitality and care to our community; Our giving helps feed and educate and house people who need it. All of this is good, but loving hands and relationships in the name of Christ are even better. My challenge to you for this year is to reach outside of your comfort zone and close circle of friends. Watch who the Spirit brings to your attention and reach out in love. Earn the right to be heard when you offer the good news by first being good news to those who are different from you. Don’t let familiar patterns and habits limit who you are willing to relate to. Why? Because the love of God knows no such limits and we are sent in his name!