The sermon was fine. It was just what happened afterward that caused things to go down hill so quickly. Jesus has returned to his home town of Nazareth, and its the Sabbath, and so he has gone to the local synagogue to attend the service. Luke tells us that this was his custom, and that makes all kinds of sense. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, and it is more than likely that he has attended Sabbath day services there since the time when he was a tiny child. The people there know him well. They have watched him grow from a little boy into a young man of about 30. He has been a part of their lives his whole life. Jesus is a solid part of their community of faith.
I can’t help but wonder, though, as he was growing up, did the people there in the synagogue sense that there was something special or unique about Jesus? This is actually a very important question to ponder. We now live in a very private and nearly anonymous world. And this is absolutely stunning to me because there are dozens of ways to connect with one another via social media. And people do this stuff all the time. There’s electronic connectivity all over the globe, and I personally don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. The jury was out for decades over the telephone, and now hardly anyone has one of these things anymore, at least not one that’s attached to the wall in the kitchen.
But in spite of all of this connectivity, go to Wal-Mart sometime and try to catch the eyes of strangers and try to smile at them. It won’t work. Nobody really wants to relate on a flesh-to-flesh basis anymore. And that’s sad. We’re willing to connect with one another behind the veil of the electronic curtain, but face to face stuff, especially with strangers has become a violation of personal space. Are we so afraid of one another that it has become impossible even to smile at one another in a public place? Is a simple smile as offensive as pulling a knife on someone? It seems that way, sometimes.
But in the synagogue, and in the church, by extension, things should be radically different. We aren’t strangers in the church, we’re family. We’re brothers and sisters in Christ. We share a bond with one another that goes far beyond the bonds of blood that we share with our family members and relatives. We are bonded together by the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
And so getting back to the synagogue, in very many ways, it has a special place for Jesus. Because of the people’s close association with Jesus as he was growing up, they had to have known that there was something very special and unique about him. At very least, they had to have known that he was a very bright and insightful little boy. The real question then is, did they nurture this young man, did they encourage him to develop and use his unique gifts? Did they work hard at including him in the life and ministry of the synagogue? I’m almost certain that they did, and that Jesus felt completely at home and welcome at any time in this synagogue. I feel very strongly that this is the reason that Jesus has chosen his hometown synagogue to announce the beginning of his ministry. He knows that he is among friends and he knows that he is among people who love him and care deeply for him. The same, of course, should always be true of the Christian church.
There’s an interesting thing about synagogues that I want to toss in here. Synagogues were operated completely by lay people. There was no paid professional or minister who led the synagogue. A synagogue could be constituted by any ten men who gathered together for that purpose. On any given Sabbath, any one of these men could offer to read the Scriptures and expound on them. Women and children were, of course always welcome even though they couldn’t fully participate, and the synagogue functioned as the social and religious center for the entire community. It was a closely knit family that cared for one another and watched out for one another.
And so this particular Sabbath, Jesus has offered to read the Scriptures and expound on them. He has probably already done this on several other occasions before. But this time he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and so he turns to chapter 61, and he reads the first two verses. And the he says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Now that was probably not the entire sermon. It would be the shortest sermon ever preached. If I tried to preach a sermon that short, I probably wouldn’t get a paycheck. Jesus probably talked about why he believed that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, he probably explained that he was just now about to begin his ministry, and that his ministry would be characterized by reaching out to the poor, and how he intended to show people how they can find release from the sin and destructive behaviors that ensnare them, he probably talked about how he was the light of the world and how he intended to reach out to those who were blinded by hate and prejudice. And he must have talked about the message of hope that he would be preaching that would give people an inner and true freedom, even though they were living under the external and oppressive rule of the Romans. In short, he must have preached about who he was, and the things that he knew that God was calling him to do.
And the people loved it. It was a wonderful sermon, it was encouraging and uplifting and it filled the people with hope. And all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
But after this, something went terribly wrong. It had to have been doubt, and maybe some outright disbelief. Some began to say among themselves, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Now there are some experts who say that this question is really a pejorative statement, that it’s putting Jesus down and raising the issue of the legitimacy of his birth and therefore the legitimacy of his life. Sort of, “Sure, everyone has heard the story of his birth, but nobody’s believing it”. I don’t happen to agree with that. This is not a question of Jesus’ legitimacy, but rather it is a question of his familiarity. This is the boy they know, this is the boy who grew up in their midst, this is the boy who ran barefoot through the streets of their town. Can this boy really accomplish all of the things he’s just told us he’s gonna do? Has he really got it in him? Is the Spirit of the Lord really upon him? It’s doubt that’s creeping in. Jesus is too familiar to them for them to imagine that he is capable of doing these things.
But still, even with the creeping doubt, things are still OK. And things are OK, until Jesus goes straight to the hidden contents of their hearts and challenges them. There is no way to describe what Jesus is doing other than to say that he is baiting them. On one level, he is putting words into their mouths, but they are really words that are already buried deeply in their hearts. He is speaking for them when they do not dare to speak for themselves. He is laying bare the secrets of their hearts. And, of course, no one likes this.
“Doctor cure yourself” simply means prove your ability, be willing to demonstrate that the remedies that you are offering have first worked in your own life. Deep down it means don’t be a hypocrite. Don’t preach to us until you’ve preached to yourself.
And following close on the heals of that is, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” Luke doesn’t tell us specifically that Jesus had a ministry in Capernaum before this, but obviously, Jesus must have, And word has gotten around about it, as it always does. And at first, it simply sounds like the people are saying, strut your stuff, do some miracles here like we heard you did at Capernaum.
But it’s much deeper than that. In the first century, the town of Capernaum was heavily populated with Gentiles, people normally assumed to be outside of the realm of God’s mercy and grace. And word has no doubt gotten back to Nazareth that when Jesus was in Capernaum that he healed and ministered to some Gentiles. And this is a problem. And the people are really showing the prejudice of their hearts. The hearts of the people are really shouting out at Jesus, keep your ministry at home, keep your ministry among God’s people, don’t be reaching out to people who don’t deserve it. Keep your mitts off those grubby Gentiles!
And what does Jesus do? He turns their own Scriptures against them. He reminds them of two very familiar instances when God’s grace was extended to people who were outsiders.
And this throws the crowd in the synagogue into a murderous rage. They drag him off to the place of stoning. They will throw him off the cliff, and then they will pelt him with stones. They have rejected their own boy. But worse than that, because they have rejected Jesus’ ministry to supposed outsiders, they have become outsiders themselves. They have firmly planted themselves completely outside of the work that God is doing.
I wonder, if Jesus came one Sunday to our church meeting how we would receive him, especially if he began to bait us and challenge us on the underlying prejudices and attitudes that are deeply buried in our own hearts? Who is it that we believe is outside of the realm of the grace and mercy of God? Who is it that we would exclude, who us it that we believe is unworthy or undeserving?
These questions can only be answered by prayer and by soul searching self examination, because many of these prejudices and attitudes are so deeply buried that we may hardly know they are there. They may need to be spoken aloud to us. Others may be so well known to us though, that we allow them to intentionally cripple our ministry. Has Jesus become so familiar to us that we no longer hear him?
To me, the most important thing that Jesus says in this passage is, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” On that day, the people were made aware that the Anointed One, the Messiah was in their midst. That day the people learned that God’s grace and mercy would be extended to all people. That day Jesus announced that his ministry was to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to give recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.
In God’s reckoning of time, it is still today. It has been today for more than 2,000 years now, and it will be today until Jesus returns. The mission of Jesus has not changed. It is still being carried on by him through us. It is our calling now, and it is our calling because the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, we are the anointed ones. We are the ones who will extend God’s mercy and grace to all who will receive it. Are we willing to be challenged by Jesus to do just that? Is Jesus calling for a new beginning in our lives?