Preaching Luke 4:21-30
The story, as I remember it, was attributed to Abraham Lincoln. He had just given a rousing speech applauded by a large crowd. As he was descending from the platform, an admirer said something like, "Great speech, and just look at the size of that crowd!" Lincoln replied, "I am always humbled by the knowledge that there would be twice as many people here to see me hung!" Before this sabbath sermon is finished in this sleepy Nazareth synagogue, the crowd that first hails Jesus will want to hang him. Shades of Palm Sunday dissolving into Good Friday.
At first reading, we--and those to whom we proclaim the message--will surely wonder why Jesus does what he does. Rather than the crowd turning on Jesus, it almost seems as if Jesus turns on the crowd! "Great sermon!" they say! Hometown boy makes good! If he weren't already sitting, we would say, "Psst! Say `Amen', for heaven's sake, and sit down!" But the truth is, it is for heaven's sake that he keeps going. If he is indeed to say, "Amen! --This is the truth!," then indeed for heaven's sake he needs to tell the truth.
When he says, "Amen--Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown," he says something very true. Proverbs have power because we know they embody the truth we all experience. The old ditty that the definition of an "expert" is somebody at least 50 miles from home carries the same sort of "truth" that Jesus is telling with his aphorism. But he is saying more than the "truth" that you may be Reverend Jones on the road but to your spouse and children you are just the person who takes out the garbage!
What this hometown "prophet"--and more than a prophet--says today is something very prophetic. The rejection here prefigures the rejection that is to come. Out of that rejection will come a cross. And, as Jesus says in John's gospel, when he is lifted up on that cross he will draw all people to himself (Jn 12:32). "All people" includes more than the hometown crowd, more than those who vote like us, more than those who salute the flag we salute, more than those who file into churches of our denomination. That is the truth he tells today, and that is the truth we still don't like so very much in our day, if the truth be told. For we are far more interested in hearing a sermon that applauds us than one that invites us to applaud God!
I like what the late Bob Benson says in his book, See You At The House:
Sometimes I talk to people who seem to think that God is playing musical chairs and that every so often, he just stops the music. There isn't any rhyme or reason or fairness to it, it's just whether you were around the corner when it stopped. And whether or not you can now beat some big guy to the last chair. And every time the music stops, somebody has to drop out. No wonder they don't like God. I wouldn't like him either if I thought he was playing musical chairs with us. But he has a chair for everybody. If you end up on the floor, it won't be because he didn't have a seat for you. It will be because you won't sit in it. And he plays the music on and on to give you every opportunity to find your place.1
That's what he's doing today at old Nazareth Community synagogue where he grew up. He's proclaiming the year of the Lord's dekton --his acceptance!
The year when God does us a favor--God sends us a truth gift wrapped in the one who sits down to explain Isaiah 61:1-2. God sends us the one who brings good news to the poor--seen any poor folks lately with "good news" written all over their faces? Not hardly--until now. (Of course it just may be that if he brings "good news" to the poor, there's a little bad news in it for the rich, at least if they insist on holding on for dear life to their wallets.) He comes with the key to the cell doors of those whose world has been a jail cell, including the key of "forgiveness" to those who are their very own jailers. He comes with sight to those whose life has been a stumbling in the dark. He comes with restoration and renewal to those "crushed" by every kind of oppression. Of course the ringing in of the new means the ringing out of the old. And that just may be where this hometown preacher stops preaching and starts meddling!
You see, they like it there in sleepy Nazareth just the way it has always been. If you have ever lived in "Nazareth" you know that's how it is. In fact, the older I get, the more I want to live in "Nazareth" if the truth be known. My world is slipping away and I want to hang onto it. I am beginning to sound like my dad when a car full of teenagers comes around the corner playing music that sounds to me like what happens if I drop my metal garbage can on the drive and it rolls down the hill to the street. And loud--they've got those gigumbus speakers that cause the ground to vibrate like a herd of elephants coming around the corner.
Not long ago my mother was visiting us, and we decided to take her to dinner and a Johnny Mathis concert. I am one of those aging baby-boomers who grew up listening to Johnny Mathis along with rock and roll. He's my favorite singer. Our waitress at dinner was a young girl in her early 20s who seemed very pleasant. After we finished our meal, she brought the check. As I was ferreting out the funds to pay for it, my wife says to the waitress, "We're going to see Johnny Mathis tonight." When the waitress smiled a rather confused smile, my wife added, "You know who he is, don't you?" The waitress paused for a moment and then said with a question-mark in her voice, "He sings, doesn't he????" It's a new age, and the age I am comfortable with is passing away.
Change comes hard, even if it brings freedom. When Jesus comes into our lives he rearranges the furniture of our hearts. Sometimes we like the furniture just where it is, thank you very much! In sleepy Nazareth they like the furniture just the way it is. Someone decides to put this young whipper-snapper of a hotshot preacher in his place when he says, along with a chorus of others, "Is not this Joseph's son?" While commentators are divided on whether this is said with admiration or indignation, Jesus' prophetic reading of their hearts which follows surely tips the scales to the latter. He
knows they are thinking, "Physician, heal yourself!" and meaning something more than a truism, much like "the plumber's pipes leak!"
"Do here also in your own hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum." "Authenticate yourself!" "Let us see your credentials!" That's what they are saying or at least about to say.2 He can smell the brewing rejection on their breath the moment they open their mouths with, "Is not this Joseph's son?" Well, if you are going to be rejected as a prophet you might as well be prophetic! So he is.
He is prophetic about who will accept him. Luke's gospel, remember, is written to gentiles and it is "the Gospel to the Outcast."3 God is not stopped when those who need to hear the "today" of the message are more interested in holding onto "yesterday." In their "yesterday" sort of thinking our guys are the good guys and the other guys are the bad guys. Good news for us means bad news for those not us--for the "nations" that are not our nation. Isn't that what Isaiah said in chapter 61:2b--but oh, Jesus forgot to say that part in his sermon today! But no--he left it out intentionally. Because the year of the Lord's favor is a new year, far newer than 1995. This is not a new chronology, this is a new creation.
In this new creation the "outsiders" are invited in: people like the widow of Zarephath, a pagan, who shares her "last supper" with an Israelite prophet named Elijah and, in so doing, finds "life" from God for her and her son (1 Kgs 17); People like a stubborn Syrian military commander named Naaman who wants to argue that their rivers are better than our rivers anyday but finally gives up his pride to cure his hide. When his hide is cured, he learns "there is no God in all the earth except in Israel" (2 Kgs 5: 15).
It isn't that God goes to the "outsiders" as a sort of second-best plan after we have scuttled the first-best!4 It is that the mercies of God are far wider than our own mercies. He would rather sing a song of love to the whole world than have to sing anybody's national anthem as if it defined the extent of his heart. This can get you thrown out of town by a group of good-old-boys faster than anything. But if he is to tell the truth about the heart of God, the "Amen" of the love of God wrapped up in the suffering savior of the cross, he has to tell that it extends to the widow and her son on the wrong side of town and the soldier in the wrong uniform across the border.
I love the midrashic story about what happens after Moses leads the Israelites through the Red Sea. When they get to the other side "a great shout of celebration went up. Then another shout arose when the angels saw the Egyptians drowned." God asked about the celebration. "Your children, the Israelites, passed safely through the waters," the angels said. "But the second shout of celebration?" asked God. "That was when your enemies, the Egyptians, were drowned." "No!" was God's response, "I will not allow you to celebrate while my children, the Egyptians, drown!"5 Telling that story in Nazareth can get you thrown out of town. But not telling that story in Nazareth is worse than getting thrown out of town. Jesus goes to the cross telling that story. Paul faces the rejection of his own to tell that story. We are called to tell that story as well...today.
1. See you at the house: The stories Bob Benson used to tell, selected and edited by R. Benson, Generoux, Nashville, 1986, p. 58. 2. Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh in their Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1992), tell us that this is part of the "challenge-riposte" game of first-century honor-shame societies. They are asking him to defend the "honor/glory" just ascribed to him (See pp. 309-11). Patricia Datchuck Sanchez in The Word We Celebrate: Commentary on the Sunday Lectionary, Years A,B, and C, Sheed and Ward, Kansas City, Mo., 1989, says the question, "Is not this Joseph's son?" challenges him to authenticate himself by doing in Nazareth the great works they've heard he has done elsewhere (See p. 321). 3. T.W. Manson uses this phrase for chapters 15-19 of Luke in The Sayings of Jesus, Study Edition (SCM Press: London, 1949, 1975), p. 282. 4. Sanchez, op. cit., says, "Luke is not implying that the gentile mission was an alternate plan, devised because of the Jewish rejection of Jesus and/or of the church. Rather, Luke understood the universal mission of the gospel as part of God's foreordained plan of salvation." 5. Exodus Rabbah 23.7, quoted in The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, Vol. 2, Exodus-Joshua, edited by Michael E. Williams (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1992), p. 65, emphasis mine.