Sunday, July 22, 2012

Hometown Hero (Luke 4:21-30)

21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
22 Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips. They said, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?”
23 Then Jesus said to them, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’ ” 24 He said, “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown. 25 And I can assure you that there were many widows in Israel during Elijah’s time, when it didn’t rain for three and a half years and there was a great food shortage in the land. 26 Yet Elijah was sent to none of them but only to a widow in the city of Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 There were also many persons with skin diseases in Israel during the time of the prophet Elisha, but none of them were cleansed. Instead, Naaman the Syrian was cleansed.”
28 When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. 29 They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the crowd and went on his way.
This week, as the Olympic games begin in London, at least some portion of the coverage will help us make a local connection to the athletes - pictures of family farms in the midwest, somebody’s entire town watching the games from the gym at the Lutheran Church, and there will be interviews with the people who know them - family members, friends, teachers, neighbors.  We love to make a human connection with people who are doing great and extraordinary things.

The situation was much the same for Jesus.  He was out in the world doing great and extraordinary things.  In today’s Scripture reading, Jesus has returned to his hometown of Nazareth.  Jesus - the prophet, the preacher, the healer, the miracle-worker, the teacher - has come to preach a sermon before the hometown crowd.  They are initially excited - but before the sermon was over, the hospitality committee would become an angry mob.  God’s call upon Jesus is to fulfill the kingdom of God, rather than the expectations or aspirations of his neighbors, and they offended at the distance between the two.  May we pray.

A Hometown Preacher
A few months after I finished seminary and entered full-time pastoral ministry, I was invited to preach at my home church - St. James United Methodist Church in Niagara Falls, NY.  The day arrived, and the crowds came.  I looked around and took it all in.  There was my 1st-grade teacher, a pillar member of the congregation, in her usual place on the left side, sitting on the center aisle, four rows from the front.  There were my neighbors, classmates, people whose grass I had cut, whose newspapers I had faithfully delivered.  My hometown had come out to greet one of their own.

At the risk of sounding boastful, I gave a good sermon, too.  If not a home run, at least a solid double or triple.  I remember that feeling of a job well-done as I gave the benediction, and joined the recessional down the main aisle to greet folks at the door as they departed, just waiting for the accolades to roll in.

However, I soon realized that no one had paid any attention to the content of the sermon itself.  They were more complementary about how I looked in my robe and how proud they were just to see one of their own up there, rather than any expressed sense of God having spoken through me to them.  “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4:24).

The 4th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel tells us what happened the very first time Jesus preached.  The headline in the Nazareth Gazette read, “Local Rabbi Makes Good, Will Preach in Hometown.”  The day came, and a large crowd showed up, so large that the synagogue was standing room only, and they were parking donkeys up and down the road for blocks.

Jesus began to read from the 58th Chapter of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.  He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  The year of the Lord’s favor, announced by Jesus, and Nazareth, the home town would have a front-row seat to all the action.

Verse 21: “He began to explain to them, ‘Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it’’ (Luke 4:21).  It was really happening; Jesus says the day is now!  O glorious day for Nazareth, their native son, Jesus, and the entire town who would surely be granted some special place of honor and prestige in Jesus’ new order. Verse 22 says, “Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they about the gracious words flowing from his lips.”

Quit While You’re Ahead
There’s a saying that “You should always leave them wanting more.”  If Jesus wanted to quit while he was ahead, now is a great time for the benediction, at least if he’s trying to win friends and influence people.  Yet, Jesus’ sermon isn’t finished just yet.

Jesus recounts two stories from their past - one from 1 Kings 17 and the other from 2 Kings 5 - in which the prophet Elijah and his student Elisha were instrumental in bringing God’s healing and deliverance to Gentiles.  “You remember these stories,” Jesus seems to say in verses 24-27.  “There were lots of poor widows in Israel, but through the prophet Elijah, God chose to help a foreign widow.  You all remember that story.”  Jesus continued, “Speaking of old familiar stories, how about the one where there were lots of lepers in Israel, but through the prophet Elisha, God chose to heal an officer in the enemy’s army?  Surely, you remember that story, as well” (Luke 4:24-27).

They remembered all right, because Jesus isn’t teaching anything new here.  He’s simply reminding them of their own history and tradition and inviting them to embrace the beliefs about God they already held to be true.  Sometimes the hardest lessons to learn are the things we think we already know, and the hometown crowd didn’t appreciate the review session Jesus offered.  God was blessing Gentiles in those Bible stories Jesus told; can you believe it?  Who does God think God is, anyway?  Gentiles don’t deserve blessing - they are outsiders!  Besides, if God blesses them, how can we be sure there will be enough for us?

Comfort and Affliction
Have you ever watched a group of kids playing together, and there’s that one kid who will attempt to pick up every single toy in the play area, more toys than he could possibly play with at one time, but who has claimed them all as “Mine!” and has to be sure that no one else touches them, even if he’s not playing with all of them?  Spiritually, the people in Jesus’ hometown were like a bunch of two-year-olds, unwilling to believe that anyone other than themselves might have any of the toys to play with.  They wanted exclusive rights to God, they wanted all the toys for themselves, and they were hoping Jesus, the hometown boy, had a message to prop up this belief.

The Bible stories Jesus told, however, reminded them that God’s love, grace, and blessing was bigger than any of them.  Oddly enough, that message of a love and grace that was big enough to extend beyond them is what got them all riled up.  Verses 28 and 29: “When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger.  They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29).  Wow - how’s that for a reaction to a sermon that stepped on a few toes - the most negative reaction I ever get is people sleeping or scowling!

The people aren’t angry because he claims to be the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy.  On the contrary, they’re quite happy about it - that’s the part where they were all impressed with him and raving about him.  It is when he tells them that they should expect no special favors that they turn on him and seek to kill him.  They are ticked because Jesus has erased the line between outsider and insider, simultaneously bringing the outsider in, and revoking the preferred status of the insider.

The Blessing Cycle - Which Direction?
Jesus is telling the hometown folks that in the eyes of God, everyone is special, everyone is unique, everyone has sacred worth, everyone is gifted, graced, and loved by God.  If you have built your life on the false belief that you deserve preferential treatment over others, if someone else playing with toys is viewed as a threat to your own playtime, this is a hard pill to swallow.

The story is similar to others in Luke’s Gospel, including the parables told in Luke 15: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.  In each case, others are invited to rejoice over the lost being found.  We don’t know the response of the neighbors in the first two parables, but we do know that in the 3rd one - the parable of the prodigal son (the lost son, the welcoming Father), the older brother refuses to rejoice with his Father when his younger brother returns home, and won’t join the party.  He would rather sit outside and pout than see the return of his less-than-deserving brother celebrated.  It wasn’t what he expected, it didn’t go down like he thought it should have, and so he chooses not to participate in the wonderful thing happening in his midst.

Likewise, the crowd at Nazareth that day chose to be angry because God didn’t see fit to act as they preferred, instead of rejoicing at the kingdom of God breaking into their midst.  They fell into the age-old trap of trying to tell God how to act, who God should bless and on what terms.  We tend to limit God’s activities to our image of what the divine should be doing, thus, seeking to create God in our own image, rather than the other way around. 

The people in Nazareth recognize and marvel at Jesus’ gracious words; but when the illustrations of God’s grace to outsiders are given, their feelings turn to rage.  They are also hearing that God does not act the way they want God to act.  God does whatever God wants to do - in this case, being gracious to whomever God pleases.  Do we really want a gracious God?  Certainly we do - for ourselves, anyway - but trust in a truly gracious God requires that we believe that the same grace is also given to those outside - outside our doors, outside our faith, outside our own self-imposed bounds of acceptability.

Friends, God’s blessing is not exclusive or exclusionary.  It’s one of the secrets of how it all works in the kingdom of God - the more generous, open, loving, and graceful we are toward others, the more we seem to have ourselves.  We sing that every week – we sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” – not “Praise ourselves for our own cleverness,” not “Praise God from whom some blessings flow,” not “Praise God from whom all blessings trickle” – “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

The implication is when we align ourselves with God and God’s kingdom, we are stepping into a flowing stream of God’s blessing that just keeps coming, washing over us and everyone else – and the flow never slows to a trickle, but just keeps coming and coming, bathing us – all of us – in the goodness of God.  When we realize that God’s call upon us is to serve rather than be served, to give rather than receive, to embrace rather than exclude, then the kingdom of God is in our midst.  The way to experience blessing in our own lives is to actively bless others in theirs.

The Gift of the Story for Us
The gift for us in this story is that we receive it away from the heat of the moment.  We have a chance to study and digest this story away from the the passion, the anger, the hurt feelings, the kneejerk reaction - we have a chance away from all of that to take its message to heart, and practice what it means to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought.

The story of Jesus’ first sermon gives us a chance to check our own motivation.  Are we looking to Jesus to get personal favors?  Or are we looking to Jesus because he is the fulfillment of God’s plan?  Are we participating in religious activities because we want to be served, or because we realize that Jesus calls us to serve?

When it comes to the religious stuff we do, are we trying to get something, or are we trying to partner with God and be part of the kingdom of God being revealed in our midst?  Are we in this for our own good and to meet our own needs, or are we in this to see the incredible good God does in many places and make ourselves available for God to meet the needs of others?  Do we believe so unwaveringly in the grace of God - a grace we sing of as amazing - that we believe in it just as firmly for those on the outside as we do for those on the inside?

There’s yet more gift in the story for us: Jesus didn’t just come for the people of Nazareth; he didn’t just come for those who were already on the inside track.  Thanks be to God, Jesus came for outsiders, too.  If he hadn’t, none of us would be here.  Jesus was run out of town because some people in his hometown didn’t want us - Gentiles, foreigners, outsiders - to be recipients of God’s grace.  Yet, Jesus made room for outsiders like us in the family.  When we put it that way, maybe we can make some room, too.

1 comment:

  1. Dear A.J. that was a great sermon and easy to remember. I think the HS speaks to u every Sunday..
    I am so glad I can either hear or read your sermons on line. Meryl