Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Luke 4: 16-30; Isaiah 61: 1-3b)
If it happened in 2022, you know exactly how it would’ve gone down. CNN and MSNBC and FOX and all the others would interrupt their daily stream to report the breaking news. It’d be trending on Twitter with something like #NativeSonComesHome or #HesBaaaaaaak. Anticipatory videos would go viral on Tik Tok. Family and friends would hit up their contacts with all manner of group texts to get the word out..
At the synagogue, life as it once was would be no more. They’d be frantically working to accommodate the crowd expected to descend on them. Folding chairs would be set up in every space possible. Large speakers would be erected outside the sanctuary so the masses unable to get in could still hear. Part of the parking lot next door would be leased out for television trucks with satellite dishes so they could broadcast all of it live. And no doubt a handful of opportunistic entrepreneurs would be eagerly selling special t-shirts, caps, bumper stickers, and koozies designed just for this occasion.
You have to figure that’s pretty much what it’d look like if Jesus’ homecoming took place today. In a time where news travels as fast as a social media post, in a world where we seem to possess an insatiable desire to hype things to the greatest extent, no stone would be left unturned, no angle unexamined, no sub-plot unexplored as Jesus – that “Wonder-kid” visited by kings at his birth, who wowed the temple scholars as a young boy, who already had made a name for himself in just a few short months of preaching – as Jesus took time out of his new-found celebrity to come back home.
But you and I know it wasn’t like that almost 2000 years ago in the little town of Nazareth. There was no 24-hour news cycle, no internet, no television trucks. There was no Twitter, Tik Tok, texting. There was just a town of people who had heard through word of mouth – as they always heard things – about Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s boy, and what he’d been up to recently. Like all the “then and now” first day of school pictures that have flooded our Facebook and Instagram feeds this past week, they’d watched Jesus grow from a child into an astute teacher, a captivating preacher, and maybe, just maybe something more. And the greatest part was that he was one of their own. He belonged to them.
So when it first came around that Jesus was coming home – perhaps his mother knew first, and she shared it with her neighbor, and it spread like wildfire from there – when word got out that Jesus was coming home, nothing could quell the town’s excitement. They packed the synagogue that day to hear the hometown boy read scripture and comment on it – a common practice in Jewish worship. When Jesus stepped up front, I imagine you could’ve heard a pin drop as the gathering waited in excitement to hear what he’d say. He unrolled the scriptures, as they were written on scrolls back then, and proceeded to read verses from the great prophet Isaiah, words Jodi just read to us:
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 favor.
And in summary, Jesus simply added:
You’ve just heard this scripture fulfilled in your presence.
Now if mic drops were a thing back in the day – if mics were a thing back in the day – no doubt you would’ve heard that mic hit the floor with an emphatic “boom!” That hometown crowd could not have loved Jesus more in that moment. And it wasn’t just about seeing the local boy make good. It wasn’t just about pride. Jesus had just told them that he was coming to change things. And those folks in Nazareth desperately wanted things to change. Every moment of their lives was lived under the watchful eye and oppressive yoke of the Roman empire; and they suffered greatly for it. And now the native son – the one who had done marvelous things elsewhere – now Jesus had come home to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives. To them.
And all would’ve gone superbly, and everyone would’ve been perfectly happy, had Jesus simply stopped right there. Jesus’ homecoming would’ve been deemed a huge success and people would’ve talked about it for years. Maybe the mayor would’ve given him a key to the city; perhaps the city council erect a monument in his honor. Maybe there would’ve been a parade down Main Street and the day would’ve been designated “Jesus Day” and the kids would have gotten out of school for it.
But none of that was going to happen. Because Jesus knew something the hometown folk did not – that his calling, his mission, his very reason for being was not just about them. Jesus’ mission was bigger and bolder than they could ever see, or want to see.
And so Jesus ruins the perfect homecoming by recounting two stories that would’ve been familiar to those Jews; albeit ones they would rather forget. The first story, of the great prophet Elijah during a terrible famine, giving food to a widow from Sidon – a hated foreigner – even when there were plenty of Israelite widows who needed help too. The second story, of his successor Elisha, bypassing all of the lepers in Israel to heal one from Syria.
Now, just in case you’re wondering, this wasn’t exactly the most politically-correct thing for Jesus to say here. I once heard someone remark that a sure-fire way to go from a hero to a zero is to remind people of the painful realities of their own history. So what Jesus says in the temple that day is akin to reminding modern-day Germans about Hitler and the Third Reich, or calling out Google and Amazon’s past discriminatory practices, or, as we’re seeing in our current context, the pushback that occurs when American history teachers attempt to teach that actual history.
So if Jesus had those hometown folks eating out of his hand and ready to give him the keys to the city just a minute ago, now that is all but gone. They turn on him on a dime. And scripture tells us that they run him out of the temple and actually try to kill him, so angry they’d become at their native son.
Now psychologists and sociologists would observe this scene with great interest and highlight how quickly group mob dynamics can swing from one extreme to the other. And to be fair, we are left wondering how things could have gone off the rails so suddenly – I mean, seriously, wanting to throw Jesus off a cliff?? One scholar surmises that the crowd in the temple that day saw Jesus’ declaration of fulfillment as a promise of their own special favor – blessed by association, as it were. If that was indeed the case, then what Jesus said after that must’ve felt like a pretty serious slap in the face.
Perhaps that was part of their anger. But I wonder if something else might’ve been going on.
Flannery O’Connor, the well-known Southern writer, was once asked why she persisted in creating such freakish characters in her short-story fiction. And I love her response. She said: To the almost blind, you must draw very large; and to the almost deaf, you just have to shout loud. To the almost blind, you must draw very large; and to the almost deaf, you have to shout loud. In other words, the only way you’re going to get your message across, especially if it’s one the people won’t easily recognize, or don’t want to hear, is to be bold in proclamation and extend the boundaries far and wide.
I think of the people down through history who’ve made a point of drawing large and shouting loud. Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, just to name a few. And those are the ones we know – those whose bold acts made a name for themselves and the movements they helped to start. But for each of them there are literally hundreds of others we don’t know, others that history won’t remember, who still in some meaningful way made a point of drawing large and shouting loud.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? It is. But here’s the thing: people don’t always like it when you draw large and shout loud. They don’t always like it when they are told the truth about things.. They might shoot you, as they did King. Or they might throw you in prison, like Nelson Mandela. Or the people might run you out of the synagogue and try to throw you off a cliff. Which is exactly what this crowd at Jesus’ homecoming tried to do when they began to understand just how large and how loud the change he was working for really was.
If this story about Jesus’ homecoming is about anything, it’s about that uncomfortable “rub” we experience when we realize that the gospel of Jesus calls us to live differently than how we might otherwise. It challenges our understanding of who is “in” and who is “out,” who is deserving of God’s grace and love and mercy (spoiler alert: it’s everybody!) About the essence of not only our relationship with God, but how that relationship impacts our relationships with others and even the world in which we live. And when you start having to think about things like that, honestly, that can tick some people off.
The Gospel has a way of doing that, doesn’t it? Oh, we can try to fashion it into something that’s a little more digestible. We can water it down to nothing more than the Golden Rule and “loving your neighbor” – the “neighbor,” of course, being someone who’s easy to love. We can do away with, or at least minimize, the elements of our faith that are hard to deal with – inconvenient truths like creation care, or the commandment to look out for for the immigrants and refugees in our midst, or confronting systems of power that elevate some and oppress others, or something as simple and seemingly non-controversial as forgiving debts – which we literally pray for every single Sunday. So yes, we can draw small and whisper quietly if we want to. Of course if we do, the gospel isn’t really the gospel anymore, is it? It’s not even good news – it’s no-news.
Jesus spent a lifetime in three years telling us and showing us how much God loves us. But he never said that love was designed to make us comfortable. And somewhere along the line, for some crazy reason, we got the idea that it does. It feels great, God’s love. It renews and restores. But friends, that is not always a comfortable thing. If we aren’t shaken by God’s radical love, if we aren’t taken aback by how large Jesus draws and how loud Jesus shouts, then maybe we’re in the wrong crowd. Maybe we’re part of that synagogue crowd, the hometown folk, expecting special favors and preferential treatment.
No, the crowd you and I should be part of is the crowd that never places expectations or limits on Jesus’ love. The crowd you and I should be part of is the crowd that understands that the essence of the gospel is not the property of any one denomination, any church, or any group of people. It belongs to and is for everyone. It is not ours to mold or shape to our conveniences, to our whims and preferences. The crowd you and I should be part of is the crowd that recognizes and receives God’s wonderful grace not only for ourselves and those like us, but especially for those not at all like us. And the question the gospel forces us to confront, the question Jesus asks us with his very life, is quite simple: which crowd are you part of?
You know, part of me feels bad for Jesus that his homecoming ended the way it did. If only he hadn’t gone and shared those two little stories! And yet, another part of me is eternally grateful that Jesus did – that then and throughout his life, stuck to his mission and persisted in living out the radical ramifications of God’s everlasting love; drawing large and shouting loud, even with a human race that just cannot seem to wrap it’s mind and heart around this whole grace thing. For that grace, as the old hymn says, is what “leads us home.” And maybe – just maybe – that’s when the real homecoming takes place.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.