Psalm 139:1-18, Luke 4:14-30
January 15, 2012
We’re moving forward today in the life of Jesus. In December, of course, we read and talked about his birth. Then last week we talked about his baptism. Now we’re going to start looking at his public ministry. And this was an interesting time! This earth has not seen the like of it, before or since!
Each of the Gospel writers tell us about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in a slightly different way. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, for example, all start with the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Then all four Gospels tell about Jesus choosing and calling his Disciples. And after that, at some point, each of them tell of him moving his “base of operations” from Nazareth to Capernaum. He uses that city as his “adopted home town” during the time of his ministry.
Well, just before that, Luke focuses in on this story we have today. This is the story of the time Jesus came into the synagogue in what was still his home town, Nazareth. And I hope you can appreciate how amazing this is. This is the quintessential example of “Home Town Boy Does Good.” And I know that’s not exactly correct grammar. But that is the expression. You’ve heard it before. It refers to the feelings in a small town when one of their own has become famous in some way, and then they come home to visit. Maybe they’ve been off to war and won citations for bravery, or something like that.
This is sort of like that. This is the story of Jesus coming to his home town. He’s been out and about making somewhat of a name for himself, which we’ll see in a minute. And now he comes home – home where everybody knows him, and his family. And this quickly becomes a case of “Home Town Boy does Good.” At least at first!
This story starts well. He’s in the synagogue and they hand him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Apparently, Jesus is the “lay reader” for that day! So he opens the scroll and reads this passage from Isaiah – carefully choosing a passage with no hard names, of course! Then he sits back down. And Luke tells us that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Everybody was staring at him. They’re expecting and anxious for him to say something!
Now, I don’t want you to forget the first part of this. Verse 14 starts out, “And a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.” (vs. 14-15) As I said, Jesus had been out and about speaking in synagogues all around the region. And he had reached a certain level of fame by this point. And sometimes I think it’s hard for us to imagine that. I think it’s hard for us to imagine the kind of “buzz” Jesus created.
I know it is for me! Sometimes my mental image is too small in all of this. Sometimes I need to remember the later descriptions of the crowds becoming so big that the people were “pressing on him all around.” That would happen more and more frequently. And after a while, we would say in our modern language that he was being “mobbed.” Sometimes he taught them beside the lake from a boat, because that was the only way he could speak and be seen and heard! It would become so bad that in Mark’s Gospel it says at one point that “the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.” (Mark 3:20)
We’re going to talk a little more about that aspect next week. But just know that here in our story for today, even though this was early on in his ministry, Jesus was already well known. His “reputation preceded him,” as the expression goes. So it wasn’t just “his turn to be lay reader,” as I joked about before. He had been speaking in synagogues all around the region, and now he was home. And his people were excited that he was there, and they were anxious to hear him.
I imagine there was a hint of that atmosphere the first time I preached at my home church, Carmel. I had gone off to college to get “edumacated,” and they had kept tabs on my progress. I had served some local churches as student pastor, and finally started my first ordained position at Neshaminy-Warwick Church. For those of you who don’t know, Neshaminy was the sister Church to Bensalem Pres., because three centuries ago, both of those congregations had William Tennant as their pastor. He rode on horseback to both of those churches each Sunday to preach! Can you imagine that ride? Later on, Bensalem Pres. would become our “mother church.” So I guess that makes Neshaminy our “aunt church.” (But I digress…)
Well, I can remember that day when I was back at Carmel for the first time. I was standing there in the pulpit, and all eyes were fixed on me. I don’t know how well I did, but I still remember that feeling. And that is only an infinitesimally small comparison to what was going on in Nazareth that day! And Jesus, unlike me, did very well – again, at first. At first, it says, “they all spoke well of him.” “They wondered at the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth.” And they were amazed, saying “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (vs. 22) But then things took a turn. Jesus started saying what they were thinking, as only Jesus could do! “No doubt you want to see me perform a miracle.” He said. “But I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country.” (vs. 23-24)
They weren’t crazy about that. But then Jesus started challenging their sacred understanding of things. He started “preaching.” And what he said was difficult for them to hear! I can only imagine what would happen if I said similar things in my home church that first time! Essentially, what Jesus said was, “God sometimes favors other people, rather than his own people. And this is one of those times.” And the examples he gave – his “sermon illustrations” – were very troubling for them to hear. “God’s going to deal with other people, not you.” Was that a reference to the “good news of great joy that shall be to all people?” It’s hard to say. But in about four verses, it went from, “All spoke well of him” to “When they heard this, they were filled with wrath.” And if you want to see how angry they were, read on and see how they took him out of the synagogue and tried to throw him off of a cliff.
Now, I’d say that was a bad turn of events! Home town boy didn’t do so good any more! But I want us to think about this. What do we get out of this story? Now we’ve read it, now what?
Well, I think when we deal with Jesus, we are tempted to focus on the parts of his ministry that we “like.” And we forget the parts that we don’t like. Or at the least, we read them with our “Bible voice,” so that they don’t sound as bad as they might actually be. We all have that temptation, don’t we?
I’ll never forget when I was in seminary and the “Readers’ Digest Bible” came out. Do you remember that? People were outraged! “What?! You’ve taken out parts of the scripture?!” “Sacrilege!” They quoted Revelation 22, “…and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life.” (Revelation 22:19) Of course that was really written about the book of Revelation, not the whole Bible. But it didn’t matter. People were upset! But I’ll never forget what one of my professors said. He said, “Which one of us does not have our own version of the Readers’ Digest Bible? Which one of us does not read only those parts that we like? When was the last time any of you read from the book of Nahum, or Titus?” Whenever we pick and choose only the parts we are “comfortable with,” or that go along with our “beliefs” or our “causes,” we’re starting to do that.”
Let me give you an example. Over the years, those who have been concerned with peace have often quoted Isaiah 2:4. “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” And that’s all well and good. I’m not talking against those who work for peace. God Bless them! But listen to what the prophet Joel says. “Proclaim this among the nations. Prepare war. Stir up the mighty men. Beat your ploughshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weak say, ‘I am a warrior.’” (Joel 3:10-11) (I’m guessing they don’t read that one very often at peacemaking conferences)
The Bible doesn’t always say what we want it to say. But, we can make it say whatever we want! Can’t we? And I would say that stories like these show us that we need to consider those parts of the Bible and of Jesus’ message that challenge us! Not just those parts that are beautiful and inspiring to us. We need to hear what God has to say to us, not just what we want him to say to us. That’s always the challenge of faith!
I don’t know why Jesus said what he said that day. Maybe he thought his people could handle it! I guess the question is, can we? Can we handle it when we hear things from God that are difficult?
There’s a great story in Jeremiah 36. I’m not going to read it today, but I encourage you to read it. The prophet Jeremiah brought the word of the Lord to the people on a scroll. It was a challenging word that was difficult to hear, and king Jehoiakim asked that the scroll be read to him. And so it was. And as each part was read to the king, instead of heeding it’s words, he cut that part off of the scroll with a penknife and threw it in the fire!
So the question is, what do we do? Do we seek the word of the Lord, no matter how challenging it might be to us? Do we hear Jesus’ words, even when they are not so beautiful and uplifting. Do we heed what God says to us? Or do we cut and burn the prophet’s scroll?
Eternal God, we your people are humble before you. Or at least we know we should be. Help us to follow Jesus, for that is why you sent him. But help us to follow him even in those ways that are uncomfortable to us. Help us to listen. Help us to heed your word and your voice in our lives. For these things we pray in His name, Amen.