The most interesting thing about our gospel lesson is not Jesus’ inspiring words, but what happens next. After Jesus rolls up the Isaiah scroll and proclaims “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Luke says “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” In other words, their hometown boy had done them proud.
Nazareth was a small village outside of the Roman capital of Sepphoris, which was 4 miles down the road. Sepphoris was a huge metropolitan city with 40,000 inhabitants and an amphitheater that seated 4,500 people! It was a cultural and educational center. One of the crowning jewels of the Roman empire. It is possibly one of the places where Jesus received his formal education.
Nazareth, in contrast, was a poor farming village that consisted of 12 to 15 extended families. It’s the kind of place people are from, but not the kind of place people willingly move to. Needless to say, they were excited to have Jesus pay a visit to his hometown. they had heard about his powerful teaching that was happening in synagogues all around Galilee. There was also talk about miracles and they wanted to see if all these rumors about their hometown boy were actually true.
Jesus knew what they were thinking so he told them “You will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” People started squirming in their seats. But what he said next really got them all riled up.
“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.” In other words, there were many Jews who were hungry and were looking for a miracle but God granted a miracle to a Gentile widow instead.
If that wasn’t bad enough, he continued. “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” In other words, God elected to heal a foreigner instead of a Jew.
When his hometown folk heard this Luke tells us “all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
Oh my! How did we get from being amazed at Jesus’ gracious words to wanting to hurl him off a cliff? How did this change of attitude happen so quickly in the span of a single sermon? This is what interests me as we look at our gospel lesson.
At first glance, these appear to be wonderfully inspiriting words. Jesus is quoting from the prophet Isaiah who told the Israelites while they were captives in Babylon: “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.”
The people who first heard these words understood the good news Isaiah was telling them. He had predicted that their time of exile was coming to an end. The Israelites, who had been oppressed and held captive by Babylon, were going home. God was preparing a royal highway for them through the desert that stood between Babylon and Israel.
“Prepare the way of the LORD,” Isaiah proclaimed, “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”
When the villagers from Nazareth heard Jesus proclaim, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” They though he was talking about THEM. “This is good news! God is going to show mercy upon us! This poor village will be shown God’s mercy. We will be set free from our oppression and God’s favor will shine upon us.”
Then, Jesus, threw them a curve ball. He told them “the year of the Lord’s favor” would be offered to both Gentiles and Jews alike. This is where all the trouble started. “The Gentiles? Those dogs! Cruel Roman oppressors. Samaritan half-breeds who corrupted our religion. Foreigners who worship other gods on our beloved soil. God is going to show mercy to THEM?”
Is it any wonder they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff? He was stretching the boundaries of what God’s kingdom looks like, and they were not happy with it. NOT ONE SINGLE BIT.
Let’s fast forward this story and place it in a modern context. When we hear Jesus’ words that he has come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free, we assume he’s referring to US. We are no different than those first century Nazareth villagers.
“Thank you, Jesus!” we say. “You will bless our finances. You will free us from whatever binds our hearts, minds and spirits. If our eyes are blinded by hatred and prejudice you will help us to see more clearly.”
Then Jesus drops the “truth bomb” on us. “Oh, I wasn’t only talking about YOU. I wasn’t only talking about Jesus’ little sunbeams. Let’s extend the “year of the Lord’s favor” a little bit wider. Let’s include the LGBT community. Let’s reach out to our Muslim neighbors whose mosque you graffitied the other day. Let’s show a little mercy to the folks down the road who you always refer to as “white trash.” Let’s invite refugees seeking asylum into our town and give them shelter from a lifetime of violence. Let’s feed the homeless hanging out at Pritchard Park and not look suspiciously at that young man simply because he is African-American. Are you with me? LET’S DO THIS?” Is it any wonder the villagers of Nazareth wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff? Truth be told, we would probably do the same thing!
Friends in Christ, let me drop a little “truth bomb” on all of us. I don’t know what’s happened to Christianity, but the Jesus I hear about these days looks nothing like the Jesus I read about in the Bible. Every day I read about politicians and well-intentioned Christians who spew hate, prejudice and intolerance in the name of Jesus. They transform Jesus into a white suburban upper class capitalist and it makes me sick.
Now, you know me. I try not to bring politics into the pulpit and I’m not going to do it today. I’m simply saying that if we cannot extend “The year of the Lord’s favor” to people who are quite different from us, then our theology is garbage. It has nothing to do with the Jesus who pushed beyond all the social and religious boundaries of his day in order to bring good news to ALL people. If we aren’t willing to follow the Jesus that made his own people want to throw him off a cliff, then we are following an imposter. If we aren’t willing to love and show mercy to people who push our buttons and make us feel a little bit uncomfortable, then our faith is in vain.
Make no mistake about it our gospel lesson is dangerous, counter-cultural stuff. It is the holy revolution Jesus began and he calls us to follow in his footsteps. Will we choose to accept his invitation? Or will we hurl the real Jesus off a cliff and replace him with a Jesus that is made in our image? That is the question we all need to ponder not only today, but every day God gives us life and breath. AMEN.
Copyright ©2019 by David Eck