An unwelcome prophet (Luke 4.21-30) [Sermon 1-31-2016 Epiphany 4c]

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January 29, 2016 by jmar198013

Sermon manuscript for January 31, 2016. 4th Sunday of Epiphany, Year C.

Scriptures: Jeremiah 1.4-10

Psalm 71.1-6

1 Corinthians 13.1-13

Luke 4.21-30

An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.


Jesus’ preaching career goes downhill fast

It went downhill real fast, that first sermon Jesus preached. Back in his hometown synagogue. For Jesus, it almost literally went downhill. As Luke tells us: 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.

It had been going so well, too. Our Gospel lesson this week picks up where last week’s left off. You may remember that Jesus had been on a preaching tour of the region, and was praised by everyone, according to Luke. So the folks in Nazareth, I’m sure, were tripping all over themselves to hear the good news from their hometown boy.

And they got good news from him, too. Least that’s what it sounded like. Jesus preached Isaiah 61.1-2. Said God had anointed him. That was a trigger word, anointed. It’s the verb form of Messiah. Jesus was getting their hopes up about him.

Jesus said God had anointed him to preach good news to the poor. To proclaim release to the prisoners. To give the blind their sight back. To liberate the oppressed. To proclaim the Jubilee—the year of the Lord’s favor.

And then he told them this was all starting right now. Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it, he said.

Luke tells us that, Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips.

A flame of hope among the hopeless

Why shouldn’t they be impressed? Why shouldn’t they be raving over his preaching?

I mean, put yourself in their place. You work hard and play by the rules, but you’re still in enough debt for three lifetimes. You can’t get ahead. Between the taxes you pay to Rome, and the tithes you pay to Jerusalem, your money’s gone before you see it. Imagine there was a drought a couple years back, and you couldn’t grow enough crops to pay off your loans. So now you’re a sharecropper on land you used to own. And now imagine your daughter was pregnant. By a Roman soldier. Against her will.

How would you feel when Jesus came to your synagogue and said: The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. I bet you’d say, Hey, that’s me! That’s us! We’re the poor! Finally, some good news for us!

When he said he had come to proclaim release to the prisoners, and to liberate the oppressed? Probably you’d say, I’m the oppressed! We’re the prisoners! Yes, he’s come to set us free from those crooked priests and that rotten Herod and those Roman scumbags!

Or how about when Jesus said he had come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor? Well, you’d know that was the Jubilee. And you’d say, I’ll get my land back! My debts will be erased! I can start over again! We can all start over again! This is the best day ever!

Of course, he also said something about the blind getting their sight back. Maybe you’d sort of shrug and say, Well, that one doesn’t apply to me. I’m not blind, after all. But good for the blind people!

Maybe you’d notice that he didn’t quite finish reading the lesson from Isaiah. That he’d stopped before he got to the day of vengeance for our God. But maybe he just got ahead of himself. Of course the day of vengeance was coming. The Pharisees and the priests and the Herods and the Romans deserved a whole heap of vengeance. God wasn’t going to let them get away with all that!

And here’s this guy. Jesus. And he’s one of you. You know his family. This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it? He knows what you’re going through. He knows what time it is. He’s seen you struggle. His family’s been through hard times, same as yours. He’s on your side.

And when he’s Messiah—and that’s what he’s saying, God anointed him—when he’s the Messiah, surely everything’s going to fall your way.

I’m fairly certain that’s how most of us would have felt if we’d been there in that synagogue in Nazareth that day.

Jesus had lit a fire of hope among his hopeless neighbors that day. But it was a fire that nearly consumed him. Just a few minutes later, they were all ready to toss him off the side of a mountain.

How did it come to that? How did he go from having a room full of people dangling from his every word, to them trying to kill him?

Jesus throws cold water on fired-up people

Truth is, it seems like getting people mad enough to kill him was one of Jesus’ spiritual gifts.

Also, truth is, it was Jesus who poured a bucket of ice water all over the fire he’d lit among the synagogue crowd. Here they were, raving about Jesus, so impressed by the gracious words flowing from his lips. And then Jesus decides to get weird on them. While they’re all abuzz on account of his Jubilee message, Jesus starts browbeating 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.’

You know what’s really crazy there? Jesus hasn’t even been to Capernaum yet. Our lesson today ended with Luke 4.30. But it’s v31 where we are told, Jesus went down to the city of Capernaum in Galilee . . . He preached in the synagogues there every Sabbath. Cast out demons. Healed a whole bunch of sick people.

Why, it sounds almost like Jesus is telling his hometown audience: Yeah, I’m going to go to Capernaum, and do all this great Jubilee stuff there. I’m going to preach good news to the poor folks there. And heal their blind people. And liberate their prisoners. But y’all ain’t getting none of that!

Why, if I didn’t know Jesus any better, I could swear he went back home just to pick a fight.

Doctor, heal yourself. What does that even mean?

I think it means: You’re one of us, Jesus. You and us are the same kind of people. Preach good news to your people. Release your people from prison, and liberate the oppressed of your people. Proclaim Jubilee—God’s favor—for your people.

But Jesus, I think, knew his people’s blind spot. And he knew that blindness needed healing.

I strongly suspect that, Doctor, heal yourself, meant something along the lines of, Charity begins at home. I also suspect Jesus knew that there’s often an unspoken assumption from people who say that the loudest: Charity ends at home, too.

Jesus knew his people’s blind spots because he’d grown up with them. He knew their prejudices. He knew their hurts. He knew their fears. He knew their resentments. He knew their hang-ups. He knew everybody they hated and why.

Jesus also saw his own mission clearly. He saw where God was leading him. Jesus had come to make all people his people. The lepers. The prostitutes. The tax collectors. The Samaritans. Even Gentiles like Romans.

Jesus had come to proclaim Jubilee—forgiveness and freedom and reconciliation and homecoming—for everybody. The hope and the vision he was willing to die for is summed up in the title of an old Funkadelic song: Everybody is going to make it this time.

And he knew his people well enough to know they were going to hate that idea.

He said, “Roman lives matter”; let’s kill him!

So Jesus already had a good idea of what his neighbors would say to him: Doctor, heal yourself. Charity begins at home. You’re one of us. Do right by us. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.

So he already anticipated what his neighbors would say. And he he also had his comeback ready: I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown.

Why is it that a prophet is unwelcome at home? Well, you sort of can’t be a prophet without challenging the status quo. And the status quo is determined by the fears and resentments and hang-ups and prejudices and hurts of your people. But the prophet sees past all those to the bigger picture. The prophet perceives a movement of God in the world that can address and even heal those fears and hurts and resentments. But that also challenges and transcends them.

The prophet cannot simply validate the fears and hurts and prejudices of their neighbors. The prophet has to challenge them to look beyond where they are and where they have been and what they think they know. 

The prophet is unwelcome at home because the prophet challenges the status quo. And the prophet’s family and friends and neighbors can only see that as an act of betrayal.

Jesus challenged his neighbors’ status quo assumptions. And he did it right out of their scriptures.

He reminded them how, during three years of drought and famine in Israel, God sent the prophet Elijah to a widow in Sidon instead of the widows in Israel. And how the prophet Elisha had cleansed the Syrian general Naaman of leprosy, even though there were a bunch of lepers in Israel who didn’t get cleansed.

By the way, according to Gen. 10.15, Sidon was populated by the descendants of Canaan. The widow of Sidon was a Canaanite. One of those hateful, wicked enemies of Israel. Naaman was a Syrian. What were the Syrians doing in Israel? They were invading and conquering. Just like the Romans in Jesus’ day.

Jesus’ point is that God reaching out to people like the Canaanite widow and Namaan the Syrian—God loving his enemies and welcoming strangers—is the rule. Not the exception.

Jesus is telling his neighbors that they are the blind ones whose sight he came to restore. They’re not the only poor people who need to hear good news. They aren’t the only oppressed people who need to be liberated. They’re not the only ones who need a Jubilee.

The lives of prostitutes and tax collectors and Samaritans and even Romans matter to God.

But that’s not what his neighbors heard. All they heard was Jesus running down their way of life. What they heard was Jesus rejecting them. What they heard was Jesus betraying his own people. And that’s when they bum-rushed him and tried to toss him down the hill.

That day, Luke tells us, he passed through the crowd and went on his way. But the day would come when he could not simply escape the crowd and press on.

Chosen to bless the “bad guys”

In the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus spoke loud and clear: I’m not here for you. I’m here for people like that Canaanite widow and that Syrian leper.

Now here’s where I bring it home. I suspect that many American Christians today feel a lot like Jesus’ neighbors in the synagogue that day must have. We feel that our world is changing too fast. We feel that we are being left behind. We are afraid of being lost in the shuffle. We feel cheated. We are afraid that we are losing. We are afraid that the “bad guys” are winning. Sometimes—often—we are discouraged. We are afraid. We are angry.

There are some voices out there who keep telling us that if we just dig in deeper. If we just preach it louder. If we stay angry and don’t shut up about it. If we carpet-bomb the bad guys until the sand glows. If we go back to doing church the way we did it in the 1950s. Whatever. That we’ll get our way. That everything will be alright. God will sort it all out and we’ll win and be on top of the world again.

And I just don’t think the story we heard from Luke today will let us do that.

When Jesus said what he did about the Canaanite widow and the Syrian Naaman—how there were all kinds of widows and lepers in Israel in those days, but God only sent his messengers to those hated outsiders—he wasn’t saying that God had rejected his people. His point wasn’t, God is breaking up with the Jews.

Rather, Jesus was making an essential point about what it means to be an elect people. What Jesus was saying was that being God’s chosen people doesn’t mean that we are entitled to get our way. That we have been chosen to receive all the blessings. Or that we are exceptional. Or that our fears, our hard times, our sufferings are more worthy of God’s compassion than someone else’s. It certainly doesn’t mean we’re the only ones going to heaven.

Being God’s chosen people is hard and challenging work. We were chosen to bring salvation—good news to the poor, release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed—to others. To expand the Jubilee. To Canaanite widows. To Syrian lepers. To prostitutes and tax collectors and Samaritans and Romans.

To whoever in our time and place that Canaanites and Samaritans and Romans could stand for.

The question for us, church, is this: Will we listen to the voices who only validate our fears and anger and hurts and hang-ups and resentments? Or will we follow Jesus in bringing good news to the poor and release to the prisoners and a time of Jubilee to people outside our walls?


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