Last Sunday was to be the final week of the Upside Down worship series, a focus on how you should be living according to Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Through the first four weeks of the year, I invited you to consider your resolutions for the new year of 2016, and to make your resolutions less about your personal health and well-being, and more about the health and well-being of the life God is calling you to live, a life lived with an intentional focus on sharing the love of God to all in the world. The sermon last week was posted in a video and as a pdf on the website. If you didn’t get a chance to watch or read it over the past week, I encourage you to do so when you have the time this week. For this morning’s sermon, we will move forward with the lectionary text, which calls us to this scripture in the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. It picks right up where we left off last week, with a call to share God’s love with those you wouldn’t necessarily expect in the world.
This scriptural story begins in verse 16, explaining that Jesus has returned to his home synagogue, the one in which he grew up. He has gone to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. The text insists that attending the synagogue was his custom.
As we hear this story, this last comment, that attending the synagogue was his custom, is important to expand upon. Jesus was a man of the Jewish faith. He had grown up in the synagogue, learned the Jewish scriptures, law, stories, and practices as a young boy. Luke, in naming that attending the synagogue on the Sabbath day was still a customary thing for Jesus, is naming that he is still a devout Jew. He has not abandoned the faith practices or beliefs of his upbringing.
What did a normal Sabbath day service look like at the synagogue? The normal Jewish ritual on the Sabbath day was for the community to gather in the synagogue for service – just as we have gathered here today. The service would begin with a reading of the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. It reads, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Following the reading of the Shema, there would be a time of prayers, offered by each and every person attending the service. Some would be offered aloud, others in silence. Following the time of prayer, there would the opportunity to hear stories read from the Law and the Prophets of the Hebrew Scripture. The opportunity to read was often extended beyond the primary rabbi – any knowledgeable person could read from the Holy Text. Following the reading, the reader or another could expand upon the text to offer instruction based on the readings.
Our text in Luke 4 tells us that Jesus has returned to his home synagogue and when it comes time for the reading of the Law and the Prophets, Jesus stood up to read, and someone handed him the scroll of Isaiah. He took the scroll, unrolled it, searched through it, and found a text to read. As the text of Isaiah had not yet been broken into chapter and verse, Jesus doesn’t offer his source’s location, but the text he reads comes from what we know today as Isaiah 61, verses 1-2. He reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Jesus, having finished the reading, rolls up the scroll, hands it to the attendant, and sits down. As he does so, the eyes of all in the room are fixed upon him.
He speaks again, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Everyone around him is amazed by his words. They are shocked by how graciously he has just read the Scriptural text, and they ask one another, “Is that really Joseph’s son?” Could that possibly be the son of a carpenter.
I had a lead pastor who once told me of a chance he had to return to his hometown to preach in his home church. He was from a small town. One of those rural settings where everyone tends to know everyone. In preparation for this local boy to return home and preach at his home church, the church made notice of his return in the local papers. It named that a product of this town was coming home to stand in the pulpit of the local United Methodist Church.”
The pastor went on to say that the day arrived for him to preach at the church. And, being a small town, the church was unusually full. People who had known him as a child had come out to offer support and hear him preach. As he led worship, he noticed two elderly women sitting about half way back. The entire service, he noticed they would look at him, then back at each other and whisper back and forth, and then look back up to him.
Following the service, these two women came up to him to say hello. Laughing, they greeted him and said, “We just had to come and see you today. We saw your name in the paper, and said to each other, ‘Is that the same kid who was in our classes at the high school. It can’t be, there’s no way he became a minister.’ … and yet here you are today! We just can’t believe our eyes.”
It is sometimes hard to imagine that the little children you knew growing up could go off and become something that is perhaps different than you imagined for their future. Jesus was in the same place. This son of a local carpenter had gone off and returned, and he was able to articulate and read the Holy Text so well. People were astonished and impressed. And having impressed them with his reading, he tells this that he is the fulfillment of the scripture.
In what may have been a moment of amazement and marvel, turned to confusion and wonder, Jesus speaks again, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
Jesus names aloud what may have been the proverbial elephant in the room. They’ve heard him read the text so eloquently, and he has just named that the text he read – this text from Isaiah – has been fulfilled in himself. He claims for himself – this local boy, who they knew to be little more than a carpenter’s son, claims for himself – that he is the fulfillment of this Isaiah text. Jesus, this product of their own town, will be the one who fulfills the role as a servant of God to bring hope to the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned. He, Jesus, will be the one to give sight to the blind and to set the captives free. He will be the one to reclaim the year of the Lord’s favor – more commonly known as the year of Jubilee. He will be the one to reinstitute the reconciliation of debts, the returning of land to the original land owner, and the restoration of all that had gone wrong over the past half-century.
Jesus names that he knows that the local people have heard of his healing miracles and teachings in Capernaum. Capernaum is located only about 40 miles Northwest from Nazareth, a city on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. Their wonder in seeing him present in the synagogue is probably a mixture of amazement and great expectation. Think of all he’s done for those in Capernaum, they must have thought, ‘imagine what he can do for us!’
And before anyone can speak or ask for a sign of his miraculous power, he tells them these two stories of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah’s story, found in large part in 1 Kings, chapters 16 and 17, is a story of a Jewish prophet who, on behalf of God, called on the people of the Jewish community to repent. They did not repent as God desired, and a great famine was brought upon the land. Jesus names that there were many starving widows in the Jewish community all over the land. But Elijah, a local Jewish prophet, helped none of them. He was sent by God to Zarephath of Sidon to help a gentile woman – a non-Jewish woman. He not only promised her that God would care for her and her son until the famine was over, with the power of God, he brought her son back to life after he had died of sickness.
Elisha, the second prophet Jesus names, was the prophet who followed Elijah. Jesus names that during the tenure of Elisha, there were many lepers living in the Jewish community. Yet, Elisha went and healed none of them, instead he healed Naaman of leprosy, who was a Syrian. We find this story in 2 Kings 5. Being a Syrian, Naaman was considered an enemy of the Jewish people. It should further be noted that Naaman was not just a Syrian, he was a commander of the Syrian army.
Do you pick up what Jesus is saying to his local townsfolk in the use of these two stories? Jesus is speaking to his lifelong neighbors – those that knew him best as a child, those who helped raise him, those who may have thought of him as a friend, and certainly those who thought themselves close as community members. This is a Jewish town, community was extremely important. And Jesus says to them all, with the use of these to examples of Elijah and Elisha, ‘I am not here to give you any favors as those in the hometown where I grew up. In fact, I am not here just to provide hope and miracles just for you as the Jewish community.’ Jesus names that he has come to provide hope and good news to all who are in need.
Hearing Jesus speak, the people are angry. They turn into a mob against him, and seek to thrown him off a cliff. Why were they angry? Just because he refused to share with them the powers he had shared with others?
I think there is a bigger issue for the people of Nazareth. It’s not just that Jesus, a local boy, one of their own, is refusing to offer them God’s favor. They have taken issue with the knowledge that Jesus has taken God’s favor to others out and beyond Nazareth. Perhaps in particular disappointment that he has taken favor to Capernaum, a town, that while only 40 miles away, had quite a large non-Jewish population.
Underlying their frustration with Jesus’ refusal to share with them the power and favor of God, and their frustration that he has already shared such power and favor with non-Jewish people, is that Jesus is using their own historical and religious text as the rationale for his actions.
Dr. Fred Craddock says the conflict in this story isn’t between Jesus and the Jewish community, it is between the Jewish community and their own scriptures.[i]
It can be hard to hear someone proclaim that God calls us to a life and witness that not only refuses to affirm the lives of those with whom we think we agree, but that God calls us to share the love we receive in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ with those who may never believe as we believe.
The call from Christ to affirm and fulfill the scripture of Isaiah 61 is not for him to simply affirm the lives of those who have been faithful to God – in fact, more times than not we find Christ saying that those who have tried to be faithful to God – the scribes, Pharisees, and other leaders of the Jewish community – have failed to be faithful. His claim in this passage of Luke is that he – Christ – is the true representation of what God calls for in all of his faithful followers. And that is that there is a necessity to not just love our own community – but to find those in any community who need the love of God shared with them – and then to share it with them.
This means that our call as faithful disciples today is to ensure that anytime someone is being shut out, we find a way to welcome them in. This means that anytime someone is being outcast, we find a way to befriend them. This means that anytime someone is finding it hard to live, we take the steps necessary to ensure they have life, and life abundant. This means that no matter the color of the skin, or the god they profess, or the nation from which they originated, or the family situation out of which they were raised, or the preferences they have for drugs and drink, or the desires they have for love – if they are a created being of the God of all creation, then they are worth our time and effort to share the love and power of God. And just to ensure I’m not being vague, there is no person – no created being – that was created from any other than from the God of all creation.
David Lose, president of Luther Seminary in Philadelphia, offers this in regards to this text in Luke, “When you live into your identity as one of God’s beloved children, … there’s no more need for walls to keep the enemies out because THERE ARE NO MORE ENEMIES. Walls – and with them all of the ways we define, describe, and bracket out the “other” – are antithetical to God’s kingdom purposes.”[ii]
I get that this message is hard to live. Quite frankly, it’s hard to preach. We live in a day and age when shutting out the other has become the ‘go-to’ method of ensuring our ideas, our dreams, and our ways are never challenged. It’s also hard because Jesus is challenging the historically understood and practiced tradition of the Biblical text. He is calling out the faith community for failing to see God’s Word in what it defines as truth – that God’s love is intended to be shared with all. And that the responsibility to share it is one we all bear.
Here in Luke’s gospel – in just the fourth chapter – “Luke depicts the public ministry of Jesus as beginning with one of the many reversals that will appear throughout the Gospel.”[iii] Just as with the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges what has become the accepted norm, to isolate ourselves from any who would question or threaten our preferred way of living. Yet, Jesus calls us to follow him, into the diaspora, into the realm of the unknown, to ensure that the hope of God is felt by all who need hope. That the love of God is felt by all who have ever felt unloved. That through the sharing of the love of God, no person should ever feel unsafe or unwelcome; no person should ever hunger or thirst; no person should be found wanting of a community where they may belong.
May our lives be a faithful offering of the witness of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s true love. Amen.