The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, January 31, 2010. The text for this week’s message is Luke 4:21-30.
We are diving into the second half of Luke 4 this week. We looked at verses 14-21 last week, and I want to take a minute to hit a few of the highlights from last week’s passage to bring us up to speed for this week’s. First off, it’s important to remember that this is the opening of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has been preaching and teaching all over Galilee and has come to his hometown of Nazareth.
He is asked to read and comment on the Scripture during worship at the synagogue. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and he reads from Isaiah 61. It says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” We talked more in depth about what that means last week, so for this week, let’s just say that this passage serves as a mission statement for Jesus’ ministry, and that Luke places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry for this very purpose.
Last week’s passage closes with something that is totally unexpected. Instead of going with the lesson that he learned in synagogue school, Jesus begins his message with where we pick up in today’s reading. He says, “Today this passage has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Anybody that was there would have known right away that there was something different going on during this worship than during the normal Sabbath worship. And that brings us into today’s text, in which we hear a little more from Jesus and see the reaction of those in the crowd on that day.
I am always fascinated about how passages start. Often, we just jump right in and don’t think too much about the opening of a passage, but, sometimes, that can provide us with some very rich insight. And this passage is no different. How does it begin? With one simple word – “today.” We talked a little last week about how it wasn’t normal to talk about fulfillment when one commented on the Scriptures, as Jesus does here. And perhaps what is so unusual is because Jesus is talking about something being fulfilled in their midst, at that very time. A lot of times, these were lessons about their past or about their distant future, but rarely about their present.
Jesus flips their expectations here. He is talking about something that God is doing right at that moment. “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At the time that the people have spent waiting is not more. The wait is over. The prophets talked about a time when all these things would happen; the people learned about a future in which the day of the Lord would take place; everyone expected it to take place… sorta, kinda, eventually. But Jesus starts his preaching by saying that God is doing something right now. He’s not talking about what will happen; he’s talking about what is happening. And people didn’t do that.
As we read through the gospels, we see on a few different occasions that the people are amazed at the authority with which Jesus speaks. A big reason why they were so amazed was because people didn’t speak in the synagogue in the same way that Jesus spoke to them. People worked from strict memorization of what they had heard in the past. And in this era, that’s how things were passed down from generation to generation. But Jesus didn’t do that. He spoke with authority; he spoke as one who knew what was going on in Scripture, and one who clearly saw what God was doing in their midst.
For centuries, the Jewish people were waiting for their Messiah. For centuries, they were watching for that one person who would lead them back into prominence. For centuries, they passed on the stories of the prophets, but hadn’t heard from one until John the Baptist pops onto the scene. And now, Jesus shows up, talking about what God is doing today. Certainly they were caught off guard. They had fallen asleep waiting for their Messiah, and when he finally did come, they weren’t ready.
The obvious questions jump out at us from the page. Will we be ready when God starts working in our midst? Will we be asleep when God is ready to move in a big way in our midst? How much do we have in common with the people of Nazareth? Do we expect God to work today, or do we expect Him to work someday? Are we looking at what God is doing now, or are we looking forward to what God is going to do in the future? Ever hear the saying “He’s so heavenly minded that he isn’t any earthly good.”
I know I’m toeing the line of a social gospel here, but look at the life of Jesus and the disciples. Just a quick aside here, this is the difference between the social gospel and the gospel that calls out to us in our daily lives: the social gospel says that we need to do good works for our salvation; the gospel says that we need to do good works as a fruit of our faith. We aren’t called to spend all of our time in solitude, simply worrying about our own spiritual needs. We are called to be a witness to the world. You know a tree by its fruit. You know a Christian by what he or she does. Let me be clear about this: good works do not give us salvation, the blood of Christ gives us salvation. Good works show the world that Christ is working in our lives. Now, back to the point at hand.
Do we honestly expect God to be at work in our midst today? Today? Or do we expect God to do something eventually, someday, down the road? Have we fallen asleep at the guard tower, so to speak? Think about it honestly this week. You don’t owe me an answer. You owe it to yourself. That some pretty tough stuff to think about, and we are just getting started here.
Another part of this passage that I find interesting is how the people react initially to what Jesus is saying. In a sense, it is almost like they don’t even realize what he is talking about. They “marveled at the gracious words coming out of his mouth.” It’s almost like the magnitude of what Jesus was saying didn’t strike them at first. They speak “well of him.” And a few of them even say, “Hey, isn’t this Joseph’s son?” I think the tone of this question was one full of pride about the hometown boy doing well. At this point, it seems as though things are going good for Jesus. And really, if Jesus had just stopped there, everybody would have been happy, and things would have gone on just like normal. But, of course, Jesus didn’t stop there, as we already know. Quite frankly, that is often the case when it comes to proclaiming the word of God. We cannot always stop at the feel-good parts of the message. It sure would be nice if we could though, wouldn’t it?
As we begin to see, when Jesus continues preaching, there is often an element that is uncomfortable for us when we encounter God’s word. There is often something that shocks us our of our comfort zone and challenges some of the most basic assumptions that we take for granted. When Jesus continues, he reminds the people of two stories from the Old Testament, and there is something in these stories that causes the people to go from being impressed to being enraged. They aren’t saying, “Hey, remember when he was just a little guy!” They are saying, “Let’s stone him!”
The first story has to do with the prophet Elijah, and is found in 1 Kings 17. At the beginning of Elijah’s ministry, he tells Ahab, the king of Israel that there is going to be a severe draught in the land. Afterwards, Elijah goes off east of the Jordan where the Lord provides for his needs during a season. And once that season in Elijah’s ministry comes to a close, he is sent to a widow in Zarephath. Elijah asks the woman for some water and bread. She is a little concerned because she doesn’t have a lot of flour left. And during a draught, food eventually becomes scarce. However, Elijah tells her that she will not run out of flour or oil because God will take care of her. And, indeed, the jar is never empty of flour during the draught. It’s a great little story in 1 Kings.
Jesus then brings to mind another story, this one is found in 2 Kings 5, and is a part of Elisha’s ministry. Elisha was the pupil of Elijah, and is the second major prophet in the book of Kings. Elisha tells Namaan, who was afflicted with leprosy, to go dip himself into the Jordan River seven times and he will be healed. Namaan isn’t crazy about doing this at first, but he relents, does as Elisha says, and is healed.
These are two really cool stories in the history of Israel, but for some reason, when Jesus tells them these stories, suddenly, the people get pretty upset with him. Actually, in my translation, it says that they were “filled with wrath.” Something tells me that “filled with wrath” is a little more extreme than “pretty upset.” So, why are they “filled with wrath”? What was it about what Jesus said here that would anger them so much? These are two stories that they would have known, but what I didn’t say is that the widow and Namaan were Gentiles.
The people of Nazareth have heard about the things that Jesus had been doing all over Galilee, and they probably expected him to do some of those same things now that he was back in his hometown. But Jesus says, “No.” He’s not going to do any of those miracles in Nazareth. In reading through some of the gospels, it seems as though Jesus was calling Capernaum home now. Capernaum was a town that had a lot of Gentiles in it. By his words and his actions, Jesus is saying that what God is doing is not limited to the Jewish people. What is worse, not only was Namaan a Gentile, he was the commander of the Syrian army. Given that the Romans were currently occupying Israel, the analogy was pretty clear, and they weren’t happy about it.
When Jesus first tells them that God is doing something today, in their midst, they were pretty happy about it, but Jesus twists things from what was probably expected. Again, he is saying that what God is doing is not limited to the Jewish people. After all the waiting, all the expectations, all the anticipation, the people of Nazareth are told that what God is doing is not just for their sake, but for all the world – even the Gentiles. And that’s when they get mad.
The Gentiles don’t deserve God’s mercy. The Gentiles don’t deserve to be a part of what God is doing. The Gentiles are the problem. The Jewish people are God’s chosen ones. They are the ones who deserve it. They are the ones who have been suffering and waiting for the Messiah, not the Gentiles. And suddenly, Jesus has gone from hometown-boy-made-good to false prophet deserving to be stoned to death. It’s amazing how quick a crowd can turn when the message is suddenly unpopular and unflattering.
Now, here is where it comes home for us. Today, God is at work in our midst. Today, God is doing something that will blow our minds. But we aren’t getting special treatment. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is for everyone. There are no limits as to who can be the beneficiary of the blood of Christ. And as we enter into the Gospel of Luke, we are almost immediately faced with a dilemma.
What are we to do with the message of Jesus? Are we going to continue following him in spite of the fact that this message might be for some whom we deem unworthy? Or are we going to turn inward and keep this message to ourselves? Here’s the problem with keeping it to ourselves – we can’t. God’s word has a way of getting to where it needs to be; the only real question is are we going to be a part of it, or are we going to try to throw Jesus off the cliff? Are we going to embrace Jesus’ message, or are we going to be enraged by it?
We talked about this at Bible study last week, and I think it is appropriate to mention it here. With Jesus, there can be no indifference. We can either accept him, or reject him. We cannot be indifferent. So, where are you going to find yourself? When God starts working all around you, are you going to embrace or be enraged? Two extremes, but there really isn’t any middle ground.