January 30, 2022
Last week, we heard Jesus begin his first sermon back in his hometown church of Nazareth. Local boy makes good, right? Everyone came to the synagogue that day, to see what this kid who’d grown up in their midst might have to say.
When they give him the scroll of Isaiah the prophet, he reads a few verses that most people would have associated with the year of Jubilee – the year of the Lord’ s favor. Captives will be released, the poor will get some good news for a change, the blind are going to see, and the oppressed will go free. This all sounds great – unless you’re the oppressor, the rich, or the captor, that is.
But Jesus hasn’t actually started preaching yet. He’s only read them the scripture passage he will use as his text. Today, we get to hear the actual sermon. Get ready. Jesus is about to flip the town of Nazareth on its ear.
Then he began to say to them, “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. (Luke 4:21-30)
If the people of Nazareth were expecting a sermon about Jubilee, they were probably shocked by what came out of Jesus’ mouth instead. “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus told them. And they were amazed.
Luke doesn’t convey a particular tone of voice when he quotes the folks from Nazareth. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” could mean a number of things. Perhaps they were proud of the hometown hero from an “I remember him when he was just a boy – didn’t he turn out well?” perspective.
Or maybe they were amazed to realize that what they had longed for all their lives, the Messiah, had been growing up right under their noses for the past thirty years. “Huh! How about that!” they might have murmured to one another.
They might have been amazed that Jesus was claiming such authority from the Scripture. “Just who does he think he is, anyway? Look who’s gotten too big for his britches!”
And perhaps a few of the more perceptive listeners might have noticed a particular nuance to Jesus’ reading from Isaiah. They might have caught the uncomfortable idea that Isaiah’s words had not been fulfilled until now because Israel hadn’t been ready to accept them.
The people gathered in that synagogue were probably curious about what Jesus meant by proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor”- or as some translation read, “the acceptable year of the lord” – and they were curious to know what he meant when he said it was fulfilled in their hearing “today.”
Jesus astonished them with his explanation. They knew immediately that he meant it as an indictment. Jesus used that same word, ‘acceptable,” they had just hear in the prophecy, to describe how a prophet was NOT treated in his hometown.
Not only was Jesus reminding his listeners of all the times in Israel’s past when the Lord’s prophets had met with opposition and abuse – usually when delivering bad news – Jesus was also affirming his own prophetic identity.
This did not sit well with the hometown crowd. After all, they’d watched him grow up. Didn’t he think they could tell a prophet when they saw one? Wouldn’t they have noticed somewhere along the line that this hometown kid had a prophetic future? Smiles were turning into frowns. Murmurs of approval were turning into grumbling.
But what Jesus said next made them downright angry. He pointed out that it wasn’t always the Israelites who had received God’s blessing. He reminds them of the widow of Zaraphath and Naaman – a woman and a man who could best be described as enemies of Israel, but who received mercy and blessing because of their faith.
Keep in mind that Luke often pairs a male and female experience when he tells the important parts of the story of Jesus. Mary’s song is balanced with Zachariah’s song back in chapter 1. Anna and Simeon each recognize the infant Messiah. Theologian Chris Haslam notes that, in Luke, “men and women stand side-by-side before God, equal in honor and grace, endowed with the same gifts, with the same responsibilities.”
Luke will repeat this pairing of male and female interactions with Christ throughout his gospel. Just a few verses beyond where today’s reading ends, Luke will link the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law with the healing of a man possessed by demons (4:31-39), and in a few chapters, Jesus will encounter the centurion of Capernaum and the widow of Nain (7:1-17). Luke is pointing us to the big idea of Jesus’ sermon to his friends in Nazareth. God’s grace and mercy belong to everyone – male or female, Jew or Gentile – and not just any Gentiles, but the ones you think of as your enemies.
Those disgusting Gentiles, those heathens, those unclean people who Jews were very proud NOT to be – they had shown greater faith than the Jews had shown, and “those people” had received God’s grace. God had worked wonders for people the Jews found to be “unacceptable.” and God had done this because of their faith.
This was hard stuff for the people of Nazareth to hear, especially coming from one of their own kids. “Mob mentality” took over as they rose in anger, unwilling to accept what they had heard. Luke writes, “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.
It’s also interesting to note that this fourth chapter of Luke began with the story of Satan tempting Jesus to throw – or hurl – himself down from the pinnacle of the temple to prove he is the Son of God. Now the people of Nazareth have heard from Jesus’ own lips that he is Son of God, and their response is a desire to hurl him off the cliff.
A few years ago, Bruce and I stood at the top of that cliff. They call it Mount Precipice now. This hill outside Nazareth is nothing like the white cliffs of Dover. It doesn’t have a sharp drop off, as you might expect.
Our guide explained to us that when the people of Nazareth wanted to throw Jesus off the cliff, their intent was to watch him tumble down the rocky hillside, then follow him down and stone him to death.
On the day we visited this hill outside Nazareth, it was raining, and the clouds seemed to settle over the cliff, blocking our view of the countryside around us. We should have been able to see Mount Tabor off to the southeast, but clouds and fog obscured the view. We could barely see parts of modern day Nazareth to the northwest of us.
Not a single one of us got the irony of what we were doing. We were busy taking pictures of what we could not see. Think about that. Look at all these tourists at the top of Mt. Precipice, pointing their cameras and smart phones in every direction, and not one of us could actually see the bottom of the cliff, or Mount Tabor, off to our left.
It should look like this:
Luke writes, “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” I have to wonder, as we were busy taking pictures of things we couldn’t clearly see, if any of us noticed Jesus passing through our midst, going on his way.
This is the season of Epiphany, when Christ is revealed as God among us. Christ passes through our midst just as surely as he did that day in Nazareth. And yet, we often miss him as easily as his Nazareth neighbors did.
How do we let Jesus pass through our midst, unrecognized? How often does the One who died to save us come near us, brushing our shoulder, present with us – and we ignore Him completely? In what ways do we reject the Savior’s love, because we have grown complacent to the familiar news of God’s grace?
How are we, like those folks from Nazareth, unwilling to let our comfortable existence be shaken by the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit? How often do we get angry when our notions about being a Christian’ are challenged by the reality of following Christ, which always means loving people we’d rather hate?
A prophet doesn’t necessarily predict the future. A prophet tells God’s truth to people who need to hear it. God’s truth is almost always uncomfortable to hear, maybe because God doesn’t usually bother to send us prophets unless we need to change our ways.
So what do we do when we hear a prophetic voice, speaking into our stubbornness, or our complacency? What do we do when a prophet calls us to change the way we do things, the way we do church? Do we welcome the good news, or do we get our backs up and find reasons to ignore – or denounce – what we hear? Let’s be honest, most of us don’t like it when someone else points out our failures and shortcomings. We don’t like it when someone reminds us of our sin. We’d rather silence the messenger than acknowledge the message might be for … us.
But here’s the thing. When we set aside our pride, when we stop insisting on getting our own way, when we stop and listen with our hearts as well as our ears, we can hear Jesus revealing the truth, not only about ourselves, but about God. When we surrender any claim to being right or perfect or able to manage life on our own, when we die to our own will, Christ makes us alive again. Christ makes us right with God, and welcomes us into “the year of the Lord’s favor.”