What if I declared to you that in the next month, the national debt will be eliminated, new jobs created, and violence stemmed with positive modes of action? Oh, and by the way, all this is for Germany, not the United States. You would either laugh at me, or boo me out of the pulpit, or run me out of town. This is how the people of Nazareth felt when Jesus proclaimed his message to them in Luke 4.
In the Gospel of Luke, this is where Jesus’ ministry started in full. Born of the virgin Mary, baptized by John, and tempted by the devil, Jesus was ready to begin his ministry. And what better place to begin than in his own hometown? These were the people who knew him as Joseph’s son, son of a carpenter. Everyone loves to see a child they have watched grow become someone important as an adult. Many are particularly proud and impressed with those who become clergy. Jesus had been preaching around Galilee, and good reports had come to Nazareth. So they were eager to hear him. As we heard last week, he unrolled the scroll and read scripture. Looking in our Bibles, the words he read came from several different places. Isaiah 61:1 says, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners." Verse 2 continues, as Jesus did a few phrases later, to say, "to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…" Jesus left off the next phrase, "and the day of vengeance of our God." Letting the oppressed go free may have also come from Isaiah 58:6: "Is not this the fast that I choose to loose the bonds of unjustice and undo the throngs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?" Jesus added in "recovery of sight to the blind." So either Jesus was reciting from memory, combining several verses for his message, or he took a bit of liberty to make the message relevant to his audience. Jesus could do that.
Then Jesus gave the scroll back to the attendant and sat down, a common position for rabbis of that day to teach or preach. They were expecting a sermon. But all he said was, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Still, the crowd was pleased at that point, our text tells us. They marveled that Joseph’s son had read scripture in the synagogue. Jesus had quoted familiar texts, had reminded them of the Year of Jubilee, an ancient practice dictated by the book of Leviticus (chapter 25) – a Sabbath year, when the land would be left fallow, with no crops sown; debts would be cancelled; any Israelites who were indentured slaves would be set free. All this was to be done in gratitude for God saving the Israelite people from Egypt, for freeing them from lives of slavery and hard labor. Interestingly enough, though the Jubilee year was well prescribed in the Holy Book, there is no evidence that such a year was ever celebrated. The economic and social change it would have caused would surely have been noted by the historians of the time, because its effect would be felt far and wide. So it must have never happened. Still, the people loved to hear about such words. We still do.
But Jesus then starting pushing their buttons, yanking their chains, or whatever other expressions one can think of for putting the Word to them in ways they did not want to hear. He reminded them of stories they knew, from what we call the Old Testament. In I Kings 17, when a drought had brought famine to the land, many were suffering. Widows, orphans, those without men to provide for them, could be particularly hard hit at such times, long before women were allowed to provide for themselves in healthy professions. But God brought a miracle not to an Israelite widow, but to an outsider in the heart of Baal worship, as Elijah caused a Phoenician widow’s jugs to remain full of meal and oil until the drought ended. And Jesus reminded them also of the story of Naaman, a commander of an army of the country of Aram, or Syria. Naaman had leprosy, and an Israelite slave girl told him about the healing powers of the prophet Elisha. Naaman, a mighty general before his illness, was outraged when Elijah sent word that he should wash in the dirty waters of the River Jordan seven times in order to be healed. But again his servants convinced him to comply, and indeed, he was healed. Naaman was a commander of an army of an enemy of Israel. Healing came to an outsider, not to the Israelites.
So the people of Nazareth heard Jesus saying that healing would come to the land of outsiders, that healing would come to other peoples. Gracious as they might have been to hear the son of the carpenter, the people of Nazareth were not happy with such a message, and they mobbed him, pushing him out of town and towards a cliff. In one of many miracles, the Son of God disappeared through the crowd and went away unharmed. In passages following, Jesus healed many, of demons and of leprosy, and called disciples to follow him.
I would propose to you that we are a lot like the people of Nazareth. We come to church, wanting to hear good news, news that will help us to be better and to feel better. We are not happy when the message does not uplift us, or when it challenges our opinions on current issues or personal issues. We want to hear what we want to hear.
Yet, the truth of the Bible does not always tell us what we want to hear. The messages of the prophets and of Jesus often challenge us to do more for others than for ourselves, to work for justice for those who are most oppressed, to share what we have even if it means "turning the other cheek."
Barbara Brown Taylor, an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church, found herself disillusioned with church work at an important juncture in her life. She left the local parish and moved to rural Georgia with her husband. For a while, she did nothing, but began to be asked to preach. She now teaches religion at Piedmont College in Georgia, but has preached and taught around the country and published many books. A few years ago, she was named one of the most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. Our Doorways group is studying one of her books these days. In her memoir, Leaving Church, she quoted the suffragist Susan B. Anthony: "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants because I notice it always coincides with their own desires" (Taylor, p. 7). In her disillusionment with church work, she challenges the church to see itself not as "a stopping place but as a starting place for discerning God’s presence in this world. By offering people a place where they can engage the steady practice of listening to divine words and celebrating divine sacraments, church can help people gain a feel for how God shows up – not only in Holy Bibles and Holy Communion but also in near neighbors, mysterious strangers, sliced bread, and grocery store wine. That way," she says, "when they leave church, they no more leave God than God leaves them. They simply carry what they have learned into the wide, wide, world, where there is a crying need for people who will recognize the holiness in things and hold them up to God" (Taylor, pp.165-166). Of her own struggle, she said, "I wanted to recover the kind of faith that has nothing to do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God to catch me though I am not sure of anything" (Taylor, p.111).
In our pursuit of God and peace, there are thousands of books that teach us about how to live following Jesus. Many concentrate on spiritual practices, and most will include the kind of activities that Jesus himself employed – time away from the crowds in prayer and solitude; examining our own lives and offering our gratitude to God for the blessings we have; putting our faith to practice in service to others. But read a little further in what may seem to many as simple or even boring books, and you will find that most of them lead us, in the pursuit of closeness to God and the peace of mind that we all seek, to involvement in social issues, in fights for justice and law-making. We all need, yearn, to indulge in the spiritual practices that help us get closer to God. But when we discern God’s will, it may well take us to places we do not expect, or want, to go. The Word of God does not always bring us comforting words. Sometimes it challenges us to go to better places, to do greater things. Sometimes the Word of God pulls us right out of our comfortable chairs and into the unknown, all for the sake of divine love. In another helpful book, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World, author Joanna Weaver said: "Of all the identifying marks of a Christian, Jesus said love would be the thing that gives us away;" and she points us to Jesus’ words in John 13:35: "By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (Weaver, p. 82).
When we preachers get up and talk to you about issues you may think are none of our business – whether it is your personal lives, or abortion, sexuality, or gun control, or anything else – please know that our words do indeed come from our careful study and prayerful interpretation of the Scriptures. But, unlike olden days, when only the priests and rabbis could read the Scriptures, the Word is also readily available to you, and your interpretations may differ from ours. We know that, and we respect that. We offer our interpretations as we try to "speak the truth in love," and we (Chris and Taylor and I, and other staff as well) welcome dialogue with you over important issues in our lives. So, friends, if you disagree with us, do not be like the people of Nazareth and drive us out of here and toward the cliff, and do not walk away, never to come back to church without a word as to why. We invite you to come have lunch and dialogue with us, to come sit in our offices and talk with us, knowing that none of us have all the right answers, but that together, we can seek God’s will for our needy lives, and our needy world. Today’s lesson would remind us to all be open to the fact that God’s Words might not be just what we want to hear, but that we might be challenged to hear something new, and startling and different. This holy yet ordinary table also reminds us that Jesus calls us to something different than the values of the culture around us. Here, a little bit of food and a taste of drink is enough to nurture each one of us to go out into the world with the love of God propelling us to forth make a difference, in God’s name, and in divine love.
Praise be to God! Amen.
Ringe, Sharon H., Luke (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1995)
Taylor, Barbara Brown, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (Harper San Francisco, 2006)
Weaver, Joanna, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World (Waterbrook Press, Co, 2002)