The sermon was fine. It truly was. It was a wonderful beginning. But after the sermon, things went awry. The beginning might very well have been the end. What started out as gracious appreciation has become murderous intent.
Jesus has returned to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. It was Jesus’ custom for Jesus to worship in the local synagogues, but this one in Nazareth must have been very special to Jesus. Jesus must have attended Sabbath Day services in this synagogue since the time that he was a very small child. The people there know him well. He has been a part of their lives for nearly his whole life. Jesus is a solid part of their community of faith.
And when I was preparing this sermon, I got thinking about that. I have been a part of this congregation for far more years than I have been involved in anything else in my entire life, except for my marriage. I have been alive for nearly 64 years. Nearly 38 of those years have been spent here, with all of you. Almost 60% of my life has been spent right here, in this congregation.
And I can’t help but wonder as Jesus was growing up, spending the vast majority of his life so far in the synagogue in Nazareth, (90% by my calculations). Did the people there in the synagogue sense that there was something special or unique about Jesus? How much were they aware of the unusual circumstances of his birth? Did they know that he and his parents had spent time in Egypt as refugees? Or did they assume that the time spent “away” was simply a way of putting some distance between rumor and reality? For certainly, there were rumors, and many of them.
At very least, the folks in the synagogue at Nazareth must have realized, as Jesus was growing up, that he was a very bright and insightful little boy. And so, knowing this, did they nurture him, did they encourage this young child who became a young man in their midst, to develop and to use his unique gifts? Did they work hard at including him in the life and in the ministry of the synagogue?
I am almost certain that they must have. I am convinced that Jesus felt completely and comfortably at home inside the walls of this synagogue. And that is why that Jesus has chosen his hometown synagogue to be the place where he announces the inauguration of his ministry. He knows that he is among friends. He is among people who love him and care for him.
And that makes what ultimately happens in this passage so unusual and so out of character for this community of faith. Like churches, synagogues were the religious and social centers of their villages. There should have been more patience and acceptance among the people, especially since it is very likely that Jesus has already preached there on several other occasions.
And so on this particular Sabbath, Jesus is handed this scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And he turns to what we will eventually call chapter 61, and he reads the first two verses. And then he says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Now of course, that could not have been the whole sermon. He must have talked about how he intended to bring good news to the poor. He must have talked about how he would proclaim a way of freedom to those who were enslaved by the power of sin and the tyranny of destructive behaviors. He must have announced a vision of hope for those who labored under the oppressive reign of the Roman government. He must have said something to those who were blinded by hate and prejudice and racism.
And at first, the people loved it. It was a wonderful sermon. It was encouraging and uplifting and it really was a hopeful message. People who are held captive by the snares and the snags of this life pray for a word of good news.
But after that, something went terribly wrong. The people got thinking. We know this boy. He’s Joseph’s son. This is a small, backwater town, even though it is ours. Nothing good can come from Nazareth. And because Jesus is very sensitive, he intuits what they are thinking.
Sometimes what we are thinking is not at all what we are saying or showing. Sometimes what we are thinking is hidden from everyone around us. Sometimes it is hidden even from ourselves. But because he came to release the captives, Jesus calls out, names, and releases the thoughts that are being held captive that are being held by the folks in the synagogue, but that are also really holding captive the ones who are having those thoughts. In case we have forgotten, our own evil thoughts hold us captive. We think that we control them, but they control us.
And so Jesus releases those thoughts, gently at first. He quotes his listeners, even though they have not spoken. He says, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb. ‘Doctor, cure yourself!'” The people are thinking, Jesus, 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, Jesus, don’t be a hypocrite, don’t preach to us until you have preached to yourself. We’re not ready to be treated this way.
And then, almost immediately Jesus says, quoting the thoughts of his listeners, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” Luke does not tell us that Jesus had a ministry in Capernaum before this, but if the folks in Nazareth know about it, he must have. Stuff always gets around even without the help of social media.
But the ministry in Capernaum is a bigger problem than it seems to be on the surface. Eventually Capernaum will become Jesus’ adopted hometown. I would imagine that after today’s incident that it would have become somewhat difficult for Jesus to continue to be at home in Nazareth. Capernaum, though, was a town that was heavily populated with Gentiles. And Gentiles are awful people. They are barely human. Racism has always been with us. And word has no doubt gotten back to Nazareth that when Jesus was in Capernaum, that he must have healed and ministered to some Gentiles. And in the minds of the folks in Nazareth, this is a dirty and dark thing. This is something that Jesus never should have done. It is very wrong. Jesus should have kept his ministry in and among God’s people, he should not have ministered to a bunch of low-life outsiders.
But now, Jesus will not be so gentle. He will fight back, and he will fight back with the authority of the Scriptures. He tells two stories, both very familiar stories, about how God’s grace has extended to two undeserving, dirty, filthy Gentiles.
And the racist attitude of the folks in the synagogue at Nazareth boils over into a murderous rage. The worship service has suddenly come to an end, and the pious worshipers drag Jesus off to the place of stoning; this, their little boy who grew up in their midst will soon be thrown off a cliff, and they will pelt him with stones until he is dead. Jesus has been tried and found guilty of extending God’s grace to those who do not and have never deserved it.
I’m going to ask some very difficult questions. In what ways have we thrown Jesus off a cliff? In what ways have we intended to pelt him with stones until he is dead? Who is it that we believe, but would never say out loud, is beyond the grace of God? Who is it that we would prefer that Jesus would ignore?
These questions can only be answered by prayer, and by soul searching, and by critical self-examination. Some of our hatred and bigotry is so deeply seated that it is hidden even from ourselves. And while we do not react with violence, as the mob at Nazareth did, we know that many others have.
I want to finish up this morning with the most important thing that Jesus says in this passage. It is, to me at least, what actually fomented the riot. Jesus says, ” Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” on that day, the world was made aware that the Anointed One, the Messiah, had brought the kingdom of God into their midst. That day the people learned that God’s Messiah would bring God’s grace and mercy to all persons, regardless of race or heritage. 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 two thousand years, 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, his followers and his disciples. Jesus’ proclaimed ministry is now our proclaimed ministry. The spirit of the Lord is upon us, and we are the Anointed ones. We are the ones who are challenged with fulfilling the words of Scripture. We are the ones who are called to be the bearers of God’s mercy and grace to all persons.