Grace Presbyterian Church
January 27, 2019, Epiphany 3C
Right in Front of You
Every gospel has its quirks, something characteristic of that gospel that stands out in an odd way. John talks about “signs” instead of miracles, for example. Some use the language of “kingdom of God,” some say “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew in particular does the latter).
Mark, the earliest of the gospels, has a particular quirk known as the “Messianic secret.” It seems as though any time any person in that gospel starts to speak of Jesus in anything like messianic terms, Jesus tries to shut them up. Something like “Jesus sternly instructed him not to tell anyone” appears. Of course, nobody listens. But since Mark was the first of the four canonical gospels to be written, and seems to have at least been borrowed by both Matthew and Luke in constructing their gospels, you might wonder if this quirk would show up in those later gospels as well.
The account found in today’s reading from Luke blows that theory away.
After all of the stuff that has occupied Luke’s gospel so far – the extensive account of Jesus’s birth taking up two whole chapters, basically – and then the work of John the baptizer, the baptism of Jesus, a quick genealogy, and the temptation narrative, we finally get to the beginning of Jesus’s work. We finally get his first recorded public speaking appearance. And as a bonus, it’s in his hometown of Nazareth.
The way Luke sets up the story, Jesus has evidently been making some reputation for himself in other parts of Galilee. Mind you, we are speaking of a good reputation here, the likes of which no pastor ever really experiences. Seriously, “he was praised by everyone”? When does that ever happen? Not even limiting the question to preachers, when is anyone ever “praised by everyone” in their job? Never, that I know of, that’s when. But as Jesus comes back to his hometown, this is the reputation that precedes him.
Notice that Luke introduces that bit of narrative with the description of Jesus as “filled with the power of the Spirit.” This continues a pattern that began with his baptism, when you might remember that “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove,” and continued at the beginning of chapter 4, when he, “full of the Holy Spirit … was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,” where he experienced temptation directly at the hands of the devil. Now as his ministry begins, Luke repeats this invocation of the Spirit’s work in Jesus. He’s not just striking out on his own here; he is truly led by and empowered by the Spirit as he begins his ministry.
Having made his reputation in the synagogues of Galilee, he now appears in Nazareth, in the synagogue where he was brought up. Not surprisingly he was called upon to read. As was the custom in the synagogue, a local setting for worship outside the Temple in Jerusalem but without a priest in charge, a man was selected in advance to read and expound upon the scripture, typically a scripture of his choice. (Imagine if someone had met you at the door and told you that you were preaching today. Something like that.)
Following the custom of the synagogue, he stands to read, from the prophet Isaiah. He scrolls through the scroll, finding passages from what we would know as the first two verses of chapter 61, interspersed with the sixth verse of chapter 58 (the part about the oppressed going free). By stopping where he does, Jesus is actually doing a bit of selective scripture citation; he invokes the “year of the Lord’s favor” named by Isaiah, but leaves out “the day of vengeance of our God.” Hmm, wonder if that means something?
He reads and, again following the custom of the synagogue at that time, sits down. Luke is building up the suspense quite effectively, with the comment that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” One might imagine dramatic music in the background, a camera zooming in, and finally, the big moment:
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Talk about a … concise sermon.
This scripture – passages from the prophet Isaiah long associated with the people’s expectation of a Messiah – is being fulfilled right in front of you? In hearing this man – this “local boy” – read, we are witnessing the scripture being fulfilled? Wait…what?
No wonder the people were flummoxed.
Well, he speaks very nicely, doesn’t he?
He speaks very … graciously?
This is Joe’s boy, right? Joseph the carpenter?
But Jesus doesn’t leave well enough alone. If you’ve ever wondered where we get “Physician, heal thyself” from, well, here you are. But also notice the next sentence: “and you will say, ‘do here also in your hometown the things we have heard you did at Capernaum’.” You put on a good show at Capernaum, son. Why can’t you do that for us, your hometown folks?
Jesus goes on to give us another familiar saying, the one about how a prophet is not respected at home, and then cuts to the quick. In both the invocation of Elijah’s miracle for a widow in Sidon and Elisha’s healing of Naaman the Syrian general, Jesus strikes at one of the most coveted, most cherished beliefs of the people: the Messiah is for us. Not for anybody else, especially not for them. For us and us alone.
This is how you debut in your hometown?
It’s not as if Hebrew scripture has made any secret of how the Messiah would be good news for all people. Language like “all the nations will turn to Zion,” “a light to all the world,” But here, somehow, it becomes an offense, and things actually literally turn violent. You are reading here about the first attempt on the life of Jesus, at least in Luke’s telling (if you bring in what Herod tried to do in Matthew’s gospel then this is attempt number two).
The people were ready for a good show from the hometown kid, and instead got about the most direct epiphany possible of who Jesus is. One anointed – not just called – to being good news to the poor; one sent – not just called – to proclaim the release of the captive and new sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed and the year of the Lord’s favor, an apparent reference to the traditional Hebrew year of Jubilee, proclaimed in the Torah, in which debts were canceled and land returned to its owners who had been forced to give it up; this is who Jesus announced himself to be.
He also indirectly announced by omission who he was not here to be. In his reading from the scroll of Isaiah, by stopping where he did with “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” he left out something his listeners might have been waiting for. The reading (the full Isaiah 61:2 in our Bibles) actually goes “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” (emphasis mine) But Jesus does not go there. He specifically leaves out that part – the vengeance part.
And let’s be blunt here; sometimes we good church folk – first-century synagogue or twenty-first century church – are guilty of wanting to hear all about how they are gonna get it. Those synagogue folk (or we?) are not interested in hearing from a self-claiming messiah who doesn’t bring the vengeance.
And so, they try to throw him off a cliff.
It’s always possible that part of the problem is that those hometown folk recognized not only that the “them” they so wanted to see punished weren’t going to be punished, but also that the good news for the poor, release to captives, freedom to the oppressed and all of that “year of the Lord’s favor” talk might not be immediately profitable for them either. The year of Jubilee, for example, included a provision that debts be forgiven. But what if you were the one to whom the debt was owed? Maybe this is not good news for you. What if you were the one who had claimed the land another family had given up, but now in this year of Jubilee that family was going to return to it? Maybe this is not good news for you.
Here was a congregation, good synagogue folk, who came looking for a good show from the local boy made good, and instead got Joe’s boy claiming the mantle of being anointed by the Holy Spirit and a kick in the teeth to their very way of thinking about this religion that they had inherited over the millennia.
We don’t know what Jesus had been preaching around Galilee before this. We don’t know what it was he did in Capernaum that the home folk wanted to see in verse 23. But it is at least possible that he was saying and doing the very same things he said and did here. But those were different congregations, possibly? Folks who knew themselves to be poor, captive, oppressed, desperately in need of the Lord’s favor? To them, such a proclamation would have been unabashed good news, right?
It happened right in front of them, this undoing of everything that they had come to believe. What they knew was so … comfortable. What he said wasn’t. And so they rejected him. This was not the response Jesus would receive everywhere, but like the saying goes about prophets and hometowns… .
For the ones who are uncomfortable with Jesus, and yet listen anyway, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #634, To God Be the Glory; #744, Arise, Your Light is Come!; #318, In Christ There Is No East or West; #610, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing