Preaching Luke 4:14-21
There's nothing like going home. While Thomas Wolfe may have been half-right with the title of his book, You Can't Go Home Again, he was half-wrong, too. Some things do stay the same! The tree you climbed in the neighbor's backyard is still there, even if there are different neighbors there now. The homes you walked past on your way to school are still there in many cases, even if new paint and new colors decorate them. Other children slam their screen doors now, but they remind you of when you were the child of the revolving screen door. Other mothers shout at them, "You kids either come in or go out, but don't keep coming in and out!" but if you close your eyes you can hear your own mother's voice shouting the same words at you.
There's nothing like going home to your family. It is true that "the more things change, the more they remain the same."5 They are older now and some of them may be gone, but those who remain treat you as if you were the same child of those growing years, and, when you are with them, in a way you are. You are the boy or the girl who grew up there. Now you are home. "Let me look at you," they say, "You have grown so tall" or "so lovely" or (but they won't say it) "so wide!" At the family reunion you are "Helen's and Bob's boy, aren't you?" Pass the baked beans as you grin your "yes."
I imagine it was like that for Jesus, going back to Podunk, for Nazareth is Podunk! Nazareth is like the little backwater village with one red light and a greasy spoon with a gas pump out in front whose neon sign is probably predictive: "Eat at Joe's, get gas!" It is the town so small that you don't have a First Nazareth Church because there is no Second Nazareth Church. There was only one synagogue in this town whose sign, "Welcome to Nazareth" boasts, "Population: 200," or maybe even less!1
Imagine him filing into the synagogue that evening. It was the synagogue where he worshipped every Sabbath, sitting next to his father who smelled of wood shavings. He learned not only his Torah here, but his A,B, C's. Perhaps as he enters this night he spies the bench where he sat with the other children to learn.2
There's nothing like going home. He looks around at familiar faces, and they smile back at him. They've heard such good things about him, tonight they will see. It's his first sermon in the hometown church, you see. Ever been there, pastor? Remember your first sermon in that home church?
I remember mine. It was at an evening service. I was nervous. Had I known then what an atrocious sermon I was preaching on Revelation 3:14ff, a text our lectionary selection committees have wisely left out of the 3-year-cycle, I would have been real nervous and for a reason! I remember the title of the thing, Hot and Cold Running Christians. I compared those nice people to the church at Laodicea of John's vision, the one whose very tepidity was a cause for scorn. As I issued forth this stern vision, I looked into the eyes of the person my pastor had suggested I find in the crowd to quell my fright. "Find the smiling little old lady who thinks you can do no wrong," he said, "and preach to her." So I did. And she smiled, not listening to the what of my sermon but admiring the who. "Oh, you're gonna make a fine preacher," they said at the door! If ever you are hunting for evidence of the grace of God at work in the Body of Christ, see how gracious they are after first sermons by returning seminarians!
There's nothing like going home. Yes, "the more things change the more they remain the same," and one of the things they expect to remain the same is you. You are not you there, you are the child of the swinging screen door. You are not you there, you are "little Bobby" or `little Becky" they remember as a little child who spilt chocolate milk down the front of your Easter outfit!
My guess is that when Jesus gets up to read the scroll from Isaiah 61, they hardly hear the words. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me..." he begins, and they are thinking, "Oh, he reads so well!" They hear the music of his voice without the words. Or if they hear the words at all, they think that they are being nuzzled by the Spirit the way a mother hen nuzzles her chicks.
He is telling them why he is the anointed one. Why he has come. Why he has been given the Spirit. The late Joseph Sittler once commented on this passage and said, "...the Spirit is given with the task. The assignment of a task is the occasion for the specificity of the Spirit...The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he sent me."3 It is the because of the Spirit that defines the mission of the Messiah. He comes to bring good news to those whose life has been all bad news. It is the "today"' of the passage that is the announcement they should sit up and take notice of! He is the "me" of the passage! "Today this passage has been fulfilled in your hearing," he says.
All they can say is, "Nice sermon! My, you read well! Your family must be so proud!" "Isn't that Joe's boy?" they say with admiration in their voices! The truth is, they haven't heard a word he's said, at least not as the WORD he's said. They've heard a nice little sermon on a familiar text. Hometown boy makes good! That's what they expected, and that's what they get.
That's just the problem with going home, isn't it? Even when you are 30 or 40 or more, when you go home you are still your mother's son and your father's boy. You are still the predictable person they expect you to be. The problem with going home is that they don't listen to you because they think they have already heard whatever you are going to say. You are homegrown--like them. Through the eyes of the butcher, the baker, or the candlestick maker, you are "a chip off the old block"--Joe Carpenter's son, Mary's little boy. That's why you can go home, but you can't stay there. If you do, there is every chance you will simply become everyone's expectations of you. If the devil has just tempted Jesus with success the easy way--sans cross, perhaps the hometown crew has tempted him with mediocrity the easy way as well.
If he had quit where our text quits, that's what he would have done. He would have convinced them that the Holy Spirit has been put upon this hometown boy to simply cuddle up to them and to keep them warm. God has bigger fish to fry in the sending of His Son than saving Nazareth. The wideness of God's heart is about to collide with the parochialness of theirs--and perhaps ours as well. Perhaps the real problem is that the more things change, the more we remain the same. Next Sunday we will learn, in the words of Paul Harvey, "the rest of the story." And Thomas Wolfe will turn out to be right after all, at least for Jesus of Nazareth--he can't go home again.
1. Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh in their Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1992), p. 295, say that Nazareth's population was a little more than 100 persons. On page 7 of the same book they put the population of Nazareth at 200 persons and compare it to a population of 1,500 for Capernaum and 35,000 for Jerusalem. Charles R. Page II and Carl A. Volz in The Land and the Book: An Introduction to the World of the Bible (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1993), p. 162, estimate the population for Nazareth of not more than one or two dozen families. This is a small town where everyone knows everybody! 2. Jack Finegan in The Archeology Of The New Testament: The Life of Jesus and the Beginning of the Early Church (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, Revised Edition, 1992), pp. 61-62, says that the synagogue could have been the place where Jesus received not only religious instruction but elementary schooling. He cites the Anonymous of Paincenza (570), who made Mary's house in Nazareth into a basilica, as saying "that in the synagogue was the bench on which Jesus sat with the other children, and also the book in which he wrote his ABCs." 3. The quote is from a Search Bible Study Leaders' Presentation by Dr. Joseph Sittler in January, 1983. The publication in which it was printed was from The American Lutheran Church whose publishing arm was Augsburg Publishing House.
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