Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Hometown Boy Makes Good

This is the sermon I preached last week at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Luke 4:21-30.

Can't you imagine what the talk of the town would be when the residents of Nazareth  find out that Jesus has come home?

He's here. He's here. Did you hear what he did in Capernaum? Surely he will perform miracles and heal people here. After all, we're his neighbors. He grew up here.

The report of all the works and miracles Jesus had made its way to Nazareth. The hometown boy has made good. These people were expectant! Wouldn't you be?

Today's gospel begins with the declaration of fulfillment  Vv. 21-22. In last week's gospel, in the synagogue, Jesus read from Isaiah about all the promises of what God would do for his people. The fulfillment Jesus speaks of must be rooted in his person. He is the One anointed by the Holy Spirit.

The crowd heard Jesus' declaration of fulfillment as a promise of special favor for those of his hometown. At the same time, Jesus embraces his divine mission and commission for himself.

The worshippers in the synagogue were impressed by Jesus. They recognized in his message the active grace of God and they respond to Jesus according to their own parochial understanding. They exhibited admiration. He's "one of us." The congregation would see themselves as immediate beneficiaries of the Lord's favor. They think Jesus is the son of Joseph, their neighbor,  but we know that Jesus is more. He is the Son of God. As such, Jesus comes to fulfill the purpose of God, without being restricted by the demands of the devil or his neighbors and relatives in his hometown.

The initial, positive response to Jesus' words was based on the people's narrow, provincial understanding of Jesus' identification and mission. They did not have a problem with Jesus' explicit claim that the fulfillment of Isaiah's words specifically related to Jesus. In the abstract his words sounded good. However, Jesus now further unveils the nature and implications of who he is and his mission. This is what gets him into trouble.

Jesus shows his inside knowledge of the thoughts of his audience. Jesus understood that the people were expecting a demonstration of his work reported from Capernaum. We see an omniscience, which is characteristic of a Spirit imbued prophet.

Why wouldn't Nazareth benefit from Jesus' ministry? After all, he was a hometown boy. It was because of their assumption that Jesus will act as one of them. Their inhibiting vision of who Jesus is and what he is to accomplish is the primary obstacle to their receiving God's favor through him.

All three of today's readings mention prophets. Contrary to popular belief, prophets do not tell the future. Rather, they speak truth about the present from God's perspective. More than just a few people are called to be prophets. We all have a responsibility to search for the truth and say it. Jesus risks the rage of his own people in order to speak the truth of God's loving and expansive reign. Are we to do no less?

Today's gospel includes two biblical images of human need: the widow and the leper. Both were excluded from the wider society. They were outsiders in general, even more so because they were Gentiles.

Isn't it ironic that while Jesus is teaching in a Jewish synagogue, he speaks of God's historic care for non-Jews? Everything was going pretty well until Jesus brought up the subject of God's love and care for all. This is the rub with the people of Nazareth and the people of Israel as a whole. Since they believed that they were God's chosen people, instead of using that position to be a light to the non-Jewish people, they saw themselves as having a corner on the religious market and they thought they were better than the rest. 

The crowd reacts with a violent rejection of Jesus, whose message called into question the crowd's assumptions about their privileged status Vv. 28-29. The attempt to kill Jesus foreshadows his crucifixion. Anger and hostility are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth of their own tradition, which they have defended and embraced.

The crowd tries to eliminate Jesus, but he mysteriously is beyond their power. Jesus slips out through the crowd unharmed and "went on his way." The path of obedience to God's purpose is fulfillment of Jesus' mission for which he was anointed. The scene in Nazareth reaches its finale, but the public ministry of Jesus had only begun. God has and will have the final word.

What does this mean to us? Christ lives and reigns and calls us ever anew to experience the abundance of God's love and care, along with all God's children. However, there is a similarity between the synagogue crowd and today's church. Do we sometimes feel possessive of Jesus? He's mine--me and Jesus and who cares about anyone else? Like the crowd in the synagogue, we assume the good news is especially and specifically for us.

Like the worshippers in Nazareth, we sometimes have preconceived ideas of how God will work in our lives. We aren't called to relate to God because of the benefits we will receive. We are called because of the magnitude of God's goodness.

We cannot contain our God and put him in a box. God's favor is loose, unruly, uncontained by presuppositions about who needs it or who deserves it. We should not be surprised by this, since God's favor has long operated in this way. The longing for deliverance, for a champion, a prophet is not relegated simply to ages past. We look for someone who will speak truth, whose words can conquer evil by the very power of divine authority. We see this classic hope for example, in movies when magical words spoken by the good guys can obliterate what is wicked and hateful.

Today, when refugees are so often shown to us as strangers, Jesus reminds us that God's love heals even strangers.

The boundaries around the chosen people are broken down. Now Jesus comes into our streets, into our sanctuary, saying that the prophet's words are now fulfilled. How are we going to react? Are we going to be angry and filled with rage because we don't want to share Jesus with anyone else? Or are we going to be thoughtful, joyful and welcoming because we realize that we are supposed to share Jesus with everyone. God is challenging us because all kinds of people we'd never invite to dinner are being welcomed to the table, to break bread and drink wine. If we stay, an odd thing happens: like a blanket, we find God's love wrapped around us, but it is also wrapped around the ones we called outcasts. It's not quite the same hometown, but it's a lot more like the reign of God. Jesus speaks to religious insiders about God's love and care for outsiders.

Who do we identify with in this story? Do we identify with the Jews worshipping faithfully in the synagogue or do we see ourselves as the outsiders like the widow in Phoenicia or  like Naaman, the Syrian officer? Jesus comes to us as our loving Savior, our liberator, and our healer. Like the widow, we are fed and like Naaman, God cleanses us in the waters of baptism. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in [our] hearing.”

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