And It Was Going So Well, Too!

Luke 4:21-30

We need to back up a little bit to fully appreciate this story. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is born, gets presented as a baby in the temple, and then we hear about him getting lost from his family when he is 12 years old. They find him in Jerusalem after several days, sitting in the temple with the elders, listening to them, asking questions, and giving some of his own answers. We are told then that: “everyone was amazed by his understanding and his answers.” This is at 12 years old! Suddenly Luke fast-forwards about twenty years, and John is “preparing the way” for Jesus, encouraging people to be baptized, but letting them know that someone more powerful than he was coming. Jesus was among those whom John baptized, and that is when the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven said: “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

Right after the baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil. When he returned to Galilee, Luke tells us that he was full of the Spirit, and word about him spread throughout the countryside. He was teaching in the synagogues, and people were really impressed.

So now, he has returned to Nazareth, his hometown. He goes to the synagogue as he had done in other towns, and reads from the scroll which he was given. The passage happened to be this one, from the book of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

After reading it, he sat down, which is what people did when they were ready to teach. Everyone was looking at him, when he said: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” How would you feel if a child who had grown up in this place – someone who you had watched grow up – came back to be the guest preacher and said that? Is our faith deep enough, and wide enough, to include that kind of possibility? Or would we laugh at the thought that anyone we knew could be so important?

Well, things were going really well that day, and the people with Jesus didn’t laugh, according to Luke. In fact, Luke says that “All spoke well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” For a lot of us there would be a temptation to stop right there, to just bask in the glow of being the hometown child who has grown up and made good. And then the people asked what might have been a rhetorical question. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” That could be a question filled with amazement, much like, “Can you believe that this is the kid we watched grow up in the carpenter’s shop? Wow!” Or it could be where things start to go wrong. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” might also be a question of doubt. “How could that kid that we saw growing up in the carpenter’s shop possibly have anything to do with fulfilling scripture? We know him. He is no answer to the problems of the world!”

Suddenly, Jesus’ mood seems to turn. We aren’t told why. But he goes from saying that God has anointed him to almost attacking the people of his hometown. He starts out by saying that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Maybe that is because there is doubt in their asking if this is Joseph’s son. But maybe he is warning them that he is about to cause trouble, and he already knows they aren’t going to accept him, because then he says something truly shocking. He tells them “the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and 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.” This is not what they want to hear. These are people who believe they are the chosen ones of God, and Jesus is saying that when there was a severe famine, one of their most famous prophets was sent not to their people, but to a widow who was not one of them. She was a gentile, and she was willing to give her last bites of food to the prophet. God is willing to cross boundaries and to work with and love the people outside of this group of people. And that can be scary. If God loves the people we want to ignore, where does that leave us with God?

It gets worse. He reminds them of another story, which is even more threatening. “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Naaman was the leader of an army who took hostages from the Israelites. Why would anyone want to help him? And yet God did, through the prophet Elisha. If God loves the people we hate, where does that leave us with God?

This implications could be seen as harsh – “Don’t go thinking that you are all that special.” But the message is also so consistent with Jesus, and is actually a message of hope for the world if we are secure enough to hear it. He has been sent to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

One thing Jesus most definitely was not is a people pleaser. It would be so easy to bask in the joy of the crowd feeling pleased that the hometown boy has made good. But that isn’t what he has come to do. He isn’t there to make the insiders feel good about themselves. He is there to widen the circle and let in the people on the outside. To bring everyone in to the circle of God’s love and grace. And when the people heard this they were so angry that they drove him to a cliff and were going to throw him over, but somehow he managed to “pass through the midst of them and went on his way.”

Why were they so angry? Well, what Jesus said to them no doubt felt like a rebuke from him, and in a way it was. Their prophets didn’t always help their people. Sometimes they helped outsiders. God’s love was bigger and wider than they might have cared to think. And we have to be careful not to fall into that way of thinking ourselves. When we listen to political candidates, when we read the news, so often we are confronted with people wanting to define “us” and “them.” Human beings tend to want what is good for “us” and especially when threatened, to lack care for what happens to “them” in the process.

Jesus quite clearly declares that he is there for the ones who need him. He is there for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. If you don’t see yourselves in that category, you might hear his message as a dismissal. I am not here for you. But Jesus mission invites us to consider in what ways we are poor or blind or imprisoned or oppressed. And all of us are in some ways. We can be blind to the needs of others, when we are surrounded by people who are like us and the others are far away from us. We can be imprisoned by our need to have more, to do more, to achieve more. We can be poor in Spirit. And we can be oppressed by a way of life that tells us that unless we have certain things, unless we align with the right people and stay away from the wrong ones, we will never measure up.

And so Jesus invites us to ask ourselves some questions. How are we blind or poor or imprisoned or oppressed and how can Jesus and his message of God’s love heal us and free us? “Who are “those people” in our lives today? Who are the ones who are overlooked, kept out, cast aside? And how can we overlook our need to be safe and comfortable, and minister to them? And how do we do that when we have the very human inclination to keep ourselves safe?

What God asked of Jesus was not easy. Jesus was asked not to succumb to the temptation to seek the good will of others, but rather to tell the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes it requires a lot from us. Sometimes it requires us to go beyond our own self-interest and into uncharted territory. Uncharted territory can be scary. But we worship a God who promises to walk with us no matter where we go. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Following Jesus has rewards that can’t be measured by earthly standards of wealth or fame, but are rather measured by a sense of deep connection with others, a sense that we are all in this together, a sense that by giving ourselves away we are finding our way home.

And It Was Going So Well, Too!


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