Hometown Truths

HOMETOWN TRUTHS: Luke 4: 23-30

(image2) Some of you will remember this picture from last week. It was the backdrop to Joyce’s children’s story about Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth. People were excited because they had heard about Jesus’ ministry in the surrounding countryside and villages. There had been miraculous healings and reports of the extraordinary power of his preaching and its mysterious authority over hearts and minds. Now they were going to have an opportunity to see and hear for themselves this man whom they had known as Joseph’s son, the carpenter.

Imagine one of their own suddenly becoming so famous! There were some who said that they had known all along that he had extraordinary gifts. Others who professed to be surprized. Either way, they were all there on the Sabbath when he returned to the synagogue that he had grown up in. He was handed the scroll and asked to address to the hometown crowd. All eyes were fixed on him and the air was electric with excitement and anticipation.

He started off well with a wonderful text from Isaiah about God’s miraculous healing in the age to come, the Messianic Age.  “God’s spirit is with me. God has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor, to tell everyone that the prisoners are free, to give sight to the blind, to free people from their suffering, and to tell people about a new time. This is the year God has chosen.”

And then Jesus added, “Today these words have come true.” That’s when things start to go south.

(image 3) Within a few minutes the crowd so keyed up with excitement and anticipation become so enraged that they want to throw Jesus over a cliff at the edge of town! How did things go so badly so quickly? How did Jesus go from being the exceptional and famous local Jewish rabbi, to being someone that they wanted disposed of permanently? What had he done or said to provoke such a fierce reaction? The short answer is that Jesus would do what people wanted him to do – namely perform some miracles in his hometown and then explained why. He rejected people’s expectation of him and they very angrily rejected him.

(Image 4)  So let’s back up and run the tape forward more slowly. When Jesus had finished reading the text from Isaiah, with every eye transfixed on him, he quietly announced, “This passage of Scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.” I imagine that some of them in congregation went light headed. Giddy. Could it be true? Was Jesus really God’s promised Messiah? Had Israel’s time of deliverance, for which they had been waiting for generations, now come?  But in an instant, you could hear their minds ticking as reality once more took a grip on their minds… No, He couldn’t be. After all, wasn’t he Joseph’s son? The boy who worked with his father as a carpenter?

But then again, what if it were true? Imagine, what if God’s future for Israel had arrived and it was beginning right here in Nazareth with one of their own! What if  – for once – Nazareth wasn’t on the fringe of things but at the centre? Sophisticated Jerusalem Jews had always dismissed our village as an out of the way backwater, the world’s armpit.

But what if the Messianic Age really was happening right here and now and Nazareth was at the centre of the action for once? That didn’t sound so bad. Tell us more Jesus. But they wanted proof and felt entitled to it. After all, if he could do miracles for people in Capernaum and the surrounding villages, surely they were entitled to some miracles in his hometown. They were practically family. Jesus had grown up here. They knew his parents and his younger brothers and sisters. Charity begins at home, you know. You don’t need to go all the way to Africa to discover human need, Jesus. It is here right under your nose in your own neighbourhood.  So lets see some miracles. It is only right. The list of requests is starting to grow; the line up for miraculous cures is already starting form in people’s minds. Ingrown toenails, lumbago, failing eyesight, paralysis and poverty.. So what are you going to do about it, Jesus? What are you going to do for me? Prove yourself to us, if you are the One who is to restore the Kingdom of our ancestor David and establish God’s rule of justice and peace and prosperity.

Jesus can see the gears turning in their heads. He knows what people are thinking. So what are you going to for US – your own people, your neighbours in your hometown? You owe us. So begins by addressing the question that’s on everybody’s mind.

He says ‘I am sure that you will quote this proverb to me, “Doctor, heal yourself”. People in the crowd nod. You got it. Then Jesus pours cold water on them. He rejects their claim on him and their demand for proof. They have no rights to miraculous healing. Healings are entirely a matter of divine grace and to be received not as a response to any imagined right but in humble gratitude. Your attitude is all wrong.  In one of the other gospels it says that Jesus could perform no miraculous deeds in his hometown because of their unbelief.

Miracles can increase faith, where faith already exists. But in and of themselves miracles do not create faith. They create a circus. The ancient world –  was full of such miracle-merchants and magicians.  But for Jesus the miracles were not an end in themselves to prove that he was a wonder worker. That was the temptation in the wilderness with Satan that he had just rejected. Jesus turn these stones into bread; Jesus throw your self down off the top of the temple so that God can miraculously save you said the devil.

But for Jesus that get everything backwards. The healings were not end an in themselves. he was not just a wonder worker or a performer. Miracles pointed to the way in which God’s future was breaking into history for those which eyes to see and ears to hear. Without faith, not even the miracle of life from the dead would transform hearts and minds. The response Jesus sought to the good news of the Kingdom was faith and repentance, not consumer satisfaction after an assertion of rights or entitlement. The appropriate response to the miracles of God’s grace is humble faith and repentance. Lord depart from me for I am sinful man, says Peter. The faith that sees and responds to God/s miraculous power is the opposite of a consumer mindset in relation to God.

So where did the sense of entitlement come from in these people in Nazareth? Well they were Jews, God’s chosen people. If Jesus was really the Messiah then surely they were on the inside track, right? Who did God favour more then them? Did the covenant not bestow on them a special status? Who deserved miracles more than them? Who had stronger claims on Jesus or on God’s grace and favour than they did? Surely a few miracles is that least Jesus could do. They were owed at least that. If he could do it in Capernaum why not for his own folks? His neighbours?

That’s when Jesus really lets loose in his sermon. He says, “A prophet is never welcomed in his home town.” Then he reminds them of the history of God’s involvement with Israel just to challenge their sense of privilege and to disabuse them of any notion of special status or any sense of right or claim before God. To show them that God’s blessings cannot be owned or possessed by anyone, Jesus reminded his townsfolk of two incidents – one during the life of the prophet Elijah, and one during the life of his successor, Elisha.

In the time of the prophet Elijah, drought and famine covered the whole land but Elijah wasn’t sent to help the people of Israel. Instead, he was sent to Zarephath in Sidon – present day Lebanon. Who was it that Elijah healed? The child of a widow who lived in gentile territory.  Jews are by-passed by God. No Israelite was cured by Elijah, but only the son of a Gentile widow woman.

Or consider, says Jesus, Elisha. Once again, there were many Israelites suffering from a dreaded skin disease in his day. But who received God’s favour at his hand? It was Naaman, the Syrian! Another outsider! Once again, God had chosen to heal a non-Jew. God is not owned or controlled by anyone or any people. God is the Sovereign Lord and chooses whom He will. No group of people can claim Him as an exclusive right. God is not controlled by human beings. No one has special rights or privileges by virtue of some imagined insider status. Ghrace is grace. The utterly free gift of God to whomever he wills.

(image 5) That was a hard message for the hometown crowd in Nazareth to hear. It felt like a slap the face.  It is still a hard message for Jews to hear, or for anyone who thinks that they have some claim on God. Some sense that they ought to be at the front of the line because of …..well what exactly? Because of work done or time served or family connections? How dare Jesus question their claims, their sense of right or special status? They are furious. Off with his head. Throw him over the cliff. Crucify him. How dare he question our identity as God’s people in some special and exclusive sense. Of course we are entitled to special care and favour by God. If you can heal them surely you are more or less obliged to heal us.

Such attitudes are not confined to the Judaism of Jesus’ day. They are still very much with us and not just in Jewish circles but in and around the church. People don’t get this grace thing. They think in terms of rights, perks, entitlements. And they are angry when Jesus brushes such claims away with the back of his hand.

Should Jesus have been more diplomatic? Expressed himself more cautiously so as not to give offence. Or was the offence unavoidable? That is, I think, Likes message for us. There is a fundamental conflict here that can’t be papered over. Jesus will get away from the crowd this time, but the conflict will re-emerge. This story is heading for the cross. Evil will have its way before it is ultimately defeated at Calvary and Jesus is vindicated by the Father at Easter.

Strange notions of Jewish entitlement which are on display merge with similar notions of fights and entitlement in and around the church. Jesus rejects all of that and it makes people mad.

My family has been around this church for 30 years. Doesn’t that count for anything? Doesn’t that entitle me to some service around here?  Special consideration for me and mine? We’ve paid our dues and now its pay day.

Have you ever seen people get angry like that? Instead of people wanting, yearning humbly to be part of what God is up to in the world, now that the Messianic age has begun, they demand to be served. We want recognition. We want a miracle. It is our due.

Jesus refuses that demand. You are owed nothing. God confers his gifts as sheer grace. The result is explosive anger. People take the refusal as a personal affront. Jesus only narrowly escapes being lynched or thrown off a cliff. God protects him of this occasion. But the fundamental issue will re-emerge and eventually lead to his crucifixion.

The conflict between the Messianic Kingdom that Jesus proclaims and has begun clashed too strongly with popular expectation. The conflict cannot be evaded or finessed or made to go away with a bit of diplomacy. It is too fundamental.  The only way that Jesus could have avoided the conflict was by sacrificing the integrity of his call and ministry.  To be Israel’s Messiah and to walk the path marked out for the suffering servant led inevitably to anger, conflict and eventually crucifixion. His death was not an unfortunate accident. It was is the inescapable conclusion to his mission, his message and his identity.

We are not in a position to demand anything of God. God is not our own personal possession. We have no claim or entitlement to miracles or status or perks and privileges  or anything else. God turns all such human expectation upside down. The reward of discipleship is obedient participation in God’s rule. Period.

In God’s presence we are all beggars. When his power and grace are manifested in midst as they are when we celebrate the sacraments of baptism and communion, the only appropriate response is humble faith and grateful thanksgiving. Thanks be to God for His boundless grace to undeserving sinners.

As it says in the invitation to the communion service . “Come not because you are strong, but because you are weak. Come not because any goodness of your own or any human qualification gives you a right or entitlement to come, but because you need mercy and help. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit, the gifts of baptism and communion are meant for you of you will receive them in humble faith.”

That is the hometown truth that which got people so upset when Jesus spoke it in Nazareth – and one that still gets people upset.