January 28th, 2018

Jesus intends to be both uncomfortable and unpredictable. 

Luke 4:14-30


Emotionally drenched

This week has been messing with my emotions. Linda and I are beyond excited about seeing our grandson for the first time when we fly to Honolulu in three days. But our daughter Jeni texted midweek to say she has the flu. Even though she lives in Wilmington, there are so many other people sick with colds and flu we are concerned that we might get something that would alter our travel plans.

You’re also aware of the deaths and illnesses in our church family. I don’t like that some of these may play out while I’m six time zones away. However, we had our note burning last week for the West Campus mortgage, and were able to confirm that we have a new staff member coming August 1 whom we’re absolutely thrilled to have on the team. Ups and downs there as well.

This is all kind of hard on a guy who’s not wired to be very emotional or in touch with his emotions. It’s also good preparation for preaching on Luke 4:14-30. If you are emotion-averse, you’re not going to like this story very much. This is one of the most emotionally drenched and wrenching stories in Jesus’ life.

Here is one more story that is “uniquely Luke,” meaning that among the Gospel writers only Luke tells this story.[1] I suspect he got this story from the same source as the birth narratives – Jesus’ mother Mary. For Luke, this is critical to sharing “details that matter” in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. We find the first words of Jesus speaks publicly in Luke’s gospel. Everything here sets the stage for the rest of Luke-Acts.

How ‘everyone’ responded

What intrigued me about this passage was the repetition of the Greek word “all” at four key places. Luke wants you to get a sense of popular responses to Jesus. The whole community is emoting as Jesus bursts on the scene.

Everyone excited (15).

Verse 14 begins, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” Returned from where? This passage immediately follows Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which probably means the rocky, arid, unpopulated desert south of Jerusalem. Prior to that Luke had Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. It’s also quite probable that the early Judean ministry in John’s gospel fits here. So it’s been somewhere between six weeks and a year since Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

Jesus heads home to the region where he grew up, but not at first to his home town. Galilee has always been a mix of rocky terrain and fertile valleys, much more hospitable to plant and human life than Judea and areas to the south. It’s also most often been a mix of Jewish and Gentile populations. Just three miles to the north of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, was an opulent, thriving provincial Greco-Roman capital called Sepphoris. Jews living in Jerusalem and surrounding areas viewed Galilee condescendingly, if not with disdain, because of its pagan/Gentile contamination.

When Jesus returned to Galilee, he began teaching in the Jewish synagogues, and even performing miracles in Capernaum, north of the sea (23). News about him spread rapidly.

Thus our first “all” in this passage says, “Everyone praised him.” They were excited. What was he teaching at this point? Mark records his first words as, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (1:14-15).

Everyone mesmerized (20).

Against that backdrop, Jesus went to Nazareth, his home town. He had spent almost all of his first thirty years there. He was born in Bethlehem, below Jerusalem, and his family had moved to Egypt for a while when Herod wanted to kill the newborn king, but ever since he had lived a fairly normal life in Nazareth.

Nazareth was a nothing-town. The first century historian Josephus mentioned 45 towns in Galilee in his writings but never mentioned Nazareth. The Jewish Talmud names 63 towns in Galilee but not Nazareth. You would never have heard of Nazareth if it weren’t the hometown of Jesus. Only a few hundred people lived there at the time. Nazareth had low self-esteem. Everyone knew where Sepphoris was and how important it was to politics and economy. Nobody cared about Nazareth.

On arrival in his hometown, with the backdrop of his popularity all through Galilee, Jesus “went into the synagogue, as was his custom” (16). Remember, at age 12, we learned that after the incident in the temple where he was separated from his parents, he just became a normal, though obedient, teenager. Sometime during the next few years Joseph apparently died, and Jesus took the role of male lead in the family. People in Nazareth played with him, worshiped with him, learned Torah with him, sat on tables and benches he made, walked through doorways he constructed. He was one of them, and there’s no evidence he ever stood out. In all those other visits to the synagogue, he apparently never said, even once, “That’s not the correct interpretation of that Scripture passage.” He was a loyal and normal participant.

This time, though, was different. It was the custom for a notorious rabbi to be given the lead role in the worship service. On this day, most likely after a reading from the Torah (books of the Law), Jesus was handed the scroll of Isaiah. Whether there was a prescribed lectionary reading or Jesus himself picked the reading, we don’t know. But what he read and paraphrased from chapter 61 of Isaiah was significant –

The Spirit of the Lord is on me…. Luke has repeatedly emphasized the Holy Spirit. Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah were all “filled with the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit was on Simeon in the temple, and when Jesus was baptized the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert for his temptation, and he returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.

…because he has anointed me…. The word “Christ” comes from the word “anointed,” and this was a passage Jews had come to understand as referring to the Messiah.

…to proclaim good news to the poor…. Jesus is setting up the rest of his ministry, as he seeks to lift the hungry and homeless and naked.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…. “Prisoners” refers literally to captives – POWs, we would call them; in those days, it meant slaves.

…and recovery of sight for the blind,… Jesus will certainly touch the eyes of the physically blind as his ministry unfolds.

…to set the oppressed free,… It’s hard to see what this adds to the other phrases, yet Jesus and Luke inserted it deliberately because it’s not part of the Isaiah 61 passage. It’s borrowed from Isaiah 58. Probably the reason is that the phrase is literally “to send forth the oppressed in release/pardon/forgiveness” – giving a double entendre for what it means to be oppressed.

…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is undoubtedly a reference to the Year of Jubilee, the 50th year which was proscribed in the Law to level the field every half-century. Debts are cancelled. Land reverts to its original owner or tribe. While there’s no evidence that the Jews ever literally functioned this way, the essence of the Law was the hope that everyone would get a fair chance.

All Jesus does is stand up and read this passage, but he captures the attention of the audience. Luke says, “the eyes of everyone were fastened on him.” They were all mesmerized.

Everyone surprised (22).

He then sits down and Luke records one sentence he speaks. He may have said more, but this is all Luke records:  “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

What’s the response? “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.” Here is the turning point. The verse literally reads, “And everyone bore witness to him, and marveled at the gracious words proceeding from his mouth.” “Gracious” doesn’t necessarily mean “words about grace.” They’re amazed at the God-words, the words about salvation coming from him. They never imagined these words from this hometown boy.

Amazement is not necessarily positive. NFL fans were amazed this past weekend that the Philadelphia Eagles performed so well, and they were also amazed that the Minnesota Vikings, their opponents, performed so poorly. You can be amazed at something great and something terrible. Which one it was is not as important as the fact that they were surprised by “Joseph’s son” who could take charge of a synagogue service this way – standing up, reading a well-known text about the Messiah, and confidently declaring, “You are watching this unfold – right now, right here.”

They are all surprised. “This normal kid – the one we played with as children, the one who custom built our homes, the one who sat silent and listened in the synagogue week after week – Joseph’s son is presenting himself as the Messiah?”

Everyone furious (28).

The Jesus you and I prefer would at this point would try to clarify their misunderstanding or at least calm their anxiety. Instead, he inflames their passion.

“Surely you will quote this proverb to me,” Jesus says, “Physician, heal yourself!’” He adds another popular saying, “Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.” Even though this story is uniquely Luke, the second saying in some form is quoted in all four Gospels (Matthew 13:57; Mark 6:4; John 4:44).  Robert Tannehill says, “A prophet is not going to be pleasing to his hometown, for a prophet is not governed by in-group loyalties.”

Now the tide is beginning to turn against Jesus. These folks expect their hometown boy to come home to his nowhere town and raise their profile, increase their notoriety, affirm their dignity and significance. Instead, he’s going to challenge them.

He relates two stories from the Bible. Every faith community has stories or quotes or parts of the Bible they return to often because it reinforces their values. We also have stories and quotes we avoid.

Jesus pulls out two stories his hometown religious folk liked to ignore. “You do remember, don’t you?” he says, “that Elijah went to live with and provide for a Gentile widow in Sidon when there were so many starving widows in Israel. And how about Elisha? How many lepers in Israel did he not heal? Instead he healed a Syrian!”

Everyone was furious when they heard this! Jesus could have made himself a hometown hero that day by lifting up the significance of Nazareth, or at least Israel. He may even have made friends by sticking to the message and the methods from the rest of Galilee:  “Repent, because God’s kingdom is here!” He could have done some miracles to give credibility to his message. He didn’t do any of that. With pagan rituals and games and leaders encroaching from Sepphoris, Jesus has the audacity to say that his Messianic ministry will include people the Nazarenes wanted to go away.

So the men he grew up with turned on him in record time and escorted him out to the edge of a precipice for a lynching! Excitement had turned to rage. Whether by supernatural intervention or just the fact that he still had a few friends and allies, he walked through the crowd and went on to Capernaum… where, by the way, the amazement at his teaching and miracles only continued.

What do you make of this Jesus?

Uncomfortable and unpredictable

I’ll tell you what I make of this Jesus. He resists any preconceived box I want to place him in. There’s not a pastor or church or denomination or religious group – conservative, liberal, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, southern, northern, American, African, or Asian, that shouldn’t be humbled by this passage.

We all assume that if Jesus showed up in our group, he’d say, “Oh, thank you SO much for all you’re doing. You value what I value. You’re doing this so much better than everyone else out there. If I could have a thousand of you… if I could have only a dozen more just like you, we could change the world! You’re the cream of the crop, the best of the best. I’m so proud of you!”

That probably wouldn’t happen. Once again, Jesus surprises us. What do we do with this text?

First, Jesus intends to be uncomfortable and unpredictable. When we imagine Jesus being so understanding and affirming, so clear about truths that are most important to us, we are probably living in denial and arrogance. If I or any other preacher comes across as, “I understand Jesus completely and if you’ll listen to me you’ll understand him fully as well,” you should be skeptical.

Not everything Jesus says is intended to be enigmatic or mysterious. There are many times he speaks in the gospels with great simplicity and clarity. There are times he does affirm what his disciples, and even the Jewish leaders, have come to believe. But he does intend to humble all of us from thinking we grasp him so thoroughly that we have him in our pocket.

Almost every week I talk to someone who has become disillusioned with God because they had come to embrace a formula for how God works – how he works in the church, how he directs, how he answers prayer. That’s when we become disillusioned with him, because he won’t come through on our terms.

At yesterday’s Leadership Retreat, our staff and Consistory discussed a book titled Immeasurable, by Skye Jethani. He pushes back against what he calls “Church, Inc.,” the institutional, organized, missional church that looks more like a corporation than an organic and mysterious body. Jethani challenges pastors and leaders to become comfortable with the uncomfortable idea of releasing control.

Second, let’s never forget that Jesus is most interested in the least likely – the least likely to succeed, the least likely to matter, the most apt to be ignored and overlooked. Whoever you are most likely to marginalize and undervalue – because they’re too poor or too blind or too sinful or too addicted or too irresponsible or too overwhelmed with life or too incapable – those are the ones Jesus has his eye on.

Skye Jethani’s book has a chapter on “Justice,” which challenges the church to resist the false dichotomy of evangelism OR social ministry. But justice goes beyond ministries of compassion. A Brazilian Catholic Archbishop named Dom Helder Camara said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.” Justice asks why they are poor.

The Board of Elders at Corinth has chosen Justice as a priority emphasis for 2018. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, remember this. The Nazarene synagogue crowd reacted because Jesus said he came to shine a spotlight on the needs of the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, and the oppressed. They thought, “We’re not on the list.” Jesus invites those who think they’re not on the list to think again, and meanwhile, to join him in loving those who are. Amen.

[1] There is a parallel story in Mark 6:1-6, but scholars debate whether it is the same event and in any case, Luke gives a lot more detail.

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