We hear good news and bad news every day. Few things in our lives are unambiguous and perfectly clear. Each week provided us with good and bad news in our country: The good news includes the fact that we are free people, free to come and go, to vote, to work, and to elect and install our political leadership. The bad news is that in this land it is easier for homeless lunatics to buy military assault rifles and gun down school children than it is to get a driver's license.
Jesus' sermon to the people in the synagogue in Nazareth was made up of good news and bad news. These were desperate folks, part of a desperate people who had been under foreign domination for centuries. They were on the verge of losing the promise, on the edge of their seats praying daily that someone would appear from within their midst to save them and make them a great nation again, instead of the joke of the Roman Empire.
So one day, they came to the synagogue to worship, and a local boy, Joseph's son, stood up to read the scripture and preach. He read what was one of the favorite texts of his day, as well-known and well-loved as John 3:16 is in our day. He opened the scroll and read, The Spirit of the lord has chosen me to bring good news to the poor...
"Yes! That's us!" they all thought to themselves. "We are poor, some of the poorest people of the whole Empire, we need a word of good news..."...To proclaim liberty to the captives...
"Right! Tell'em, Preacher! Nobody knows captivity as we have known it. We are the slaves of the Empire of Rome..."
...To set free the oppressed...
"Isn't it true? WE are the oppressed, WE are the special recipients of God's gracious Word of freedom. He has intended it for us, and we shall see the day when it shall come to pass..."
Then came the best part, like a well-worn but much-loved story, the part that everyone loved the most, like the part in the fairy tales when we all wait to hear that they lived happily ever after...And announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people...
"Yes, Lord, let the time be now. WE are your people, and we await your salvation."
Then Jesus set the scroll aside, handing it to the attendant and said, "This passage of scripture has come true today."
Now that would have been good news.
After 500 years of waiting for God to reclaim his chosen people, it was a little like proclaiming to San Francisco 49er football fans of the 1970s-- both of them--that by 1989 they would have won 3 Super Bowls. Even if you turned out to be wrong, you couldn't go wrong in a hometown crowd like that. No wonder they were impressed with him and marveled at his eloquent words. The old joke among preachers is that the surest way into a congregation's heart is to ignore what they need to hear and tell them what they want to hear. Those people gathered before Jesus wanted to hear that their time had come, that God had chosen this time to save them. What they didn't expect to hear is what came next. They'd gotten the good news; next came the bad.
Jesus said, "I suppose you'll say, `Doctor, heal yourself.' " "In other words, if the kingdom is about to come, then by George let it begin here, right in Nazareth, among your own people. We know what you can do, Jesus, we've heard good news about your healing ministry in Capernaum. What's wrong with Nazareth? Bring your good news here. If you are the one to bring the good news that God's kingdom is about to dawn, son of Joseph, then remember, charity begins at home.
Then Jesus looked them in the eye and delivered the word. The good news is that the train is leaving for the Promised Land. The bad news is that we won't be the only ones on it.
Remember when Elijah was a prophet. There were lots of widows in Israel, largely because Israel has always been a country that has had more than its share of problems. But was Elijah sent to one of the numerous widows of Israel? No, he was sent to a widow of Phoenicia, a gentile nation, people that you and I might not even speak to on the street.
And remember when Elijah's successor, Elisha, was a prophet in the land? There must have been thousands of lepers in Israel. But did God send one of those lepers of Israel to Elisha to be cleansed? No, he sent a commander of the army of Syria, one of Israel's bitterest enemies, and not a very pleasant person either. He made nasty remarks about the muddy water in the Jordan and how all the rivers back home in Syria were twice as nice as that. But that is who Elisha cleansed, a Gentile--one whose army stood poised to destroy Israel all together.
The good news had been announced: the train was ready to depart the station for the Promised Land, the reign of God's peace was about to break into their lives. But the bad news was that there would be no First Class compartment on this train. No matter how much we may want to hear that the kingdom has come only for us, only for Nazareth, only for Israel, it has come for the whole world.
If God is willing to save even Gentile women and lepers, then where do we fit in, the good and chosen people of God? The answer is that we don't fit in at all unless we are willing to understand that God is free to heal and save wherever he finds faith, even among the Gentiles and heavy-duty sinners; unless we are willing to hear that as good news, then we'll only hear bad news.
The people in the synagogue in Nazareth certainly weren't ready to hear as good news that day that Jesus' ministry was to include Gentiles. The fury built up within them like a gathering storm. "Who does he think he is, anyway? Where does he get off telling us that we are like the people of old who killed the prophets?"
The good news had turned into bad news. Then things got ugly.
Now, there are different kinds of ugly in the world. There is an ugly picture or an ugly mess. That's just an ugly that is there. But worse than that is ugly in action. Having an ugly face is not so bad, as making an ugly face.
When the good people of Nazareth received what they heard as bad news, that God was not choosing just them but was willing for his good news to be for the whole world, they got to being ugly in action. "They were filled with wrath."
Not only were they filled with wrath, but they began to act out their rage. They dragged Jesus off to the hillside for what for all practical purposes amounted to a good old fashioned lynching, and would have done him in were it not for the fact that the time had not yet come for evil to dominate the story.
Here is what is important about this ugly little scene: the biggest crime for which a person could be put to death in Israel was the crime of blasphemy, of saying or claiming something about God that wasn't true. Why did they want to kill Jesus, right then and there, in his own home town? Because they believed he had claimed something about God that everyone knew wasn't true...that God loves the Gentiles and all other manner of wicked sinners just as much as he loves the fine upstanding folks of Nazareth. It was too much for them. Surely the God they had been waiting on for hundreds of years wouldn't change his plans and let someone else into the kingdom. Surely this son of Joseph was a blasphemer and a liar to have said it was so.
But that is exactly how God is. God's love is reckless in its sweep. Everyone is included, no one left out. God is not satisfied that just a few of God's children might be saved; God wants them all, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, board chairman and refuse collector, president and prostitute, rich and wretched, visiting foreign dignitaries and illegal aliens, astronaut and assassin, hawk and dove. Think of the one person you can't imagine sharing eternity with, and realize that is a person that God loves as much as he loves you. You may want to throw me off a cliff for saying it is so, but that won't make it any less true today than it was when Jesus said it.
I suppose it's sometimes more than we can stand if we have spent our whole lives feeling "holier-than-thou," to find, after investing countless years in earning Sunday school pins, that the gospel is just as capable of saving those who became believers yesterday. It isn't fair as the world counts fairness, but that's the way God loves his world. We aren't loved less; others are just loved more than we had imagined possible.
Now, our problem is how to communicate that desperately available love to a world that often doesn't know it is there.
When I first moved to Salem, several years ago, I walked around the church building just to look the place over. I realized that the only people who would clearly know the name of our church might be pedestrians walking along Winter or Chemeketa streets. Drivers would be too preoccupied with their driving--I hope--to notice the tiny letters on our church sign board on the front lawn. Apart from that, an occasional person might park in front of our sign that warns them off our parking lot, and realize that this is a church building; or an occasional pedestrian might have seen the faint lettering on our church board facing Court street. In the last two years the lettering on that Court street sign has been replaced with larger, black letters, and the preschool has placed a sign on the building's South side. Still, quite apart from inviting those whom God loves into our midst, outsiders and newcomers might be forgiven for thinking that we are still trying to hide from them! New members of our church who come and go from our West entrance deserve special congratulations if they can name the church they have entered, since we seem publicly shy to name it ourselves.
More important than signs and billboards, though, are the messages we broadcast to others from our hearts. We can be signs of the kingdom ourselves, and tell others of the good news that we have found.
One of the reasons that First Presbyterian Church is here is to say to Salem that God loves God's world. It is good news! There are lots of places in our world where nobody loves anybody. Wouldn't you want others to know that this is one place where people care, because we have been cared for by a God who loves us so much that God sent God's word of love in the form of a flesh and blood human being? A willingness to share this piece of good news doesn't require anything fancy; just sharing the word, whether on a sign out front, or, more importantly, in our daily comings and goings as we encounter others. This church is a place where the love of God is alive. I know it is so, because I experience that reality daily. It is good news that is never bad. So let's spread the news! Today is this saying fulfilled in your midst. The time has come when God will save people. All of them. Every last one. And more good news: We can help.
Robert Elder Salem, OR