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"Shock & Awe & Anger"

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          February 15 , 2004

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

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Scripture Reading: Luke 4:14-30

     14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.   15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

     16   When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,   17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

     18      "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,

     19      to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  

     20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.   21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."   22 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?"   23 He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'"   24 And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.   25 But 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;   26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.   27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian."   28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.   29 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.   30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Hometown Debut

     Throughout my youth I was actively involved in the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. In that fellowship I grew as a disciple of Jesus Christ, learning the God's truth, growing in relationship with him, and beginning my life of service in his kingdom. As a junior higher I helped teach elementary Sunday School. As a high schooler I led a Bible study for junior highers. And as a collegian I volunteered in the youth ministry during my summer vacations.

     My parents were also very active at Hollywood Pres, teaching Sunday School, serving as deacons and elders, and developing close friendships through a couples' class known as the Mariners. The Mariners were the folks in the church who watched me grow up, encouraging me in my faith, chewing me out when I misbehaved, and praying for me especially as I went away to godless Harvard for college.

     You can imagine how honored I was - and nervous - when, one summer during my college years, the Mariners asked me to teach one of their home fellowships. I was to prepare a forty-five-minute Bible lesson on any topic I chose, and to deliver it to a group of about thirty people. As I prepared that lesson on the parable of the Prodigal Son, I sweated and strained to get everything just right. You see, not only did I want the Mariners to learn something about the meaning of this parable, but I also desperately wanted their approval. I wanted these people who had watched me grow up and who had been so faithful in praying for me to feel proud of who I'd become as a Christian. As I began speaking on that fateful night, my nerves were jangling.

Jesus' Reception in Nazareth

     It's probably a good thing I hadn't read Luke 4 recently when I spoke to those Mariners. If I had, I'd probably have been twice as nervous as I was already. Of course Jesus' hometown debut starts out happily enough. The people who had watched him grow up at first "were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth" (4:22). Like people all over the region of Galilee, they were astounded at the clarity and incisiveness of Jesus' teaching. Unlike the other Jewish teachers of that day, Jesus taught with bold authority (Mark 1:22).

     But then things quickly began to sour. The people started to ask themselves, "Is not this Joseph's son?" (4:22). This question could have a variety of connotations. It could mean, "Isn't this Joseph's son? My what a great teacher he's become!" Or it could mean, "Isn't this Joseph's son? Who does he think he is, talking like this? We've known him his whole life, and we know he shouldn't be saying things like this." Jesus' response in Luke 4 suggests that the second, negative connotation is the right one. And this is confirmed by Mark 6:1-6, where we learn that Jesus' neighbors took offense at him and that he was "amazed at their unbelief" (6:6).

     But, you might wonder, what did Jesus say that was so offensive? What in his short little sermon in the Nazareth synagogue got people so riled up that they tried to throw him off a local cliff? (By the way, Nazareth lay in a hilly region of Galilee, but not in a place where cliffs were treacherously steep. The desire of the people to throw Jesus off a cliff may not have been an attempt to kill him so much as to run him out of town emphatically, with a few painful bumps and bruises to help underline the point. Nevertheless, it's not the kind of reception that the hometown boy hopes for in response to his first sermon!)

Jesus' Scandalous Sermon

     Before delivering his little homily, Jesus first read from the scroll of Isaiah. He turned to a passage that was pregnant with meaning for Jews in the first-century A.D. This passage spoke of God's Spirit falling upon one who is "anointed" by God to "bring good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18). One who is anointed by God is called, in Hebrew, ha mashiach, or as we would say in English, the messiah, or in Greek, ho christos, or as we would say in English, the Christ. This messianic figure would restore God's people, delivering them from foreign oppression and ushering in the blessings of God's future kingdom.

     Although Jews in the time of Jesus had a variety of visions of how God's salvation would play out, the folk in the Nazareth synagogue clearly understood what Jesus meant when he said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (4:21). This wasn't just some nice little rabbinic truism, a tidbit of moral instruction to carry one through the week. Rather, Jesus was claiming to be the one who fulfilled Isaiah's vision of the Spirit-inspired, divinely-anointed, messianic prophet who would bring salvation to God's people. And, though Jesus' hometown congregation at first marveled at his teaching, the more they understood it, the less they liked it, and the more enraged they became. Shock and awe in response to Jesus the hometown boy quickly became anger over his audaciousness.

What Explains This Response?

     So what explains this movement from amazement to antagonism? Wouldn't the people in Nazareth be thrilled to know that the Messiah had come, and that he turned out to be from their own town? What explains their strongly negative response to Jesus?

     First, it seems that Jesus simply didn't fulfill their expectations for him. He had been a good kid, great in Hebrew school, and not a bad carpenter either. But if we take Luke 4 seriously, along with parallel passages in Matthew 13 and Mark 6, it seems clear that Jesus' life in Nazareth prior to his beginning of his ministry not so exceptional that everybody just knew he was going to end up being the Messiah. Jesus' neighbors had him in a neat little box, and when he broke out, they were none to happy.

     Second, Jesus didn't meet their needs in the way they wanted him to. In Luke 4:23-27 he refers to two stories about the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha, in which these Jewish prophets helped foreigners while seeming to disregard their own people. With these illustrations Jesus makes it clear that he won't do for his own neighbors the miracles he had been doing elsewhere. According to Mark 6, the unbelief of the people made it impossible for Jesus to do many miracles in Nazareth, but surely the people didn't understand this. They saw Jesus caring for others but not for them, and you can imagine their indignation: "Hey, we're the ones who taught him the Torah, who paid for his carpentry services, and who helped take care of his many siblings after his father died. Why won't he heal us like he did for the people in Capernaum?" If you put yourself in their position, you can understand why they'd be peeved with Jesus. Yet this disappointment doesn't seem to explain why they wanted to throw him off a cliff (even if this wasn't meant to be terminal).

     This brings us to the third and perhaps most important reason why Jesus' hometown acquaintances were so upset by his sermon that they tried to run him out of town if not get rid of him altogether. His little synagogue sermon threatened their way of life, indeed, even their very lives. How could this be, you wonder? What part of "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" is life-threatening?

     To answer this question we need a bit of historical context. In Jesus' day Galilee was filled with political unrest. The people were tired of Roman rule, Roman taxes, and the threatening presence of Roman soldiers. They longed for God to set them free once and for all from foreign oppression. Some even resorted to what we'd call terrorist acts against Rome. But others resisted this radical and dangerous step. They had experienced all too often the terrible consequences of being led by false "messiahs" to challenge Roman sovereignty.

     Consider what had happened in the Galilean city of Sepphoris, only a short walk from Nazareth. About thirty years before Jesus debuted in his hometown synagogue, a man named Judas gathered up a few angry Jews who led a successful assault on the palace in Sepphoris. But their victory was short lived. The vastly superior Roman army marched on the city. Not only did they vanquish Judas and his bunch of rebels, but they took all of the residents of Sepphoris into slavery and completely burned the whole city to the ground. Talk about deterrence! Things like this have a way of squelching would-be messianic movements. At about this same time in another area of Palestine, the Romans crucified 2,000 men who had dared to challenge Roman rule.

     So when Jesus announced to his neighbors in so many words, "Hey, I'm the messiah. I'm the one who's going to deliver Israel," these folks no doubt reviewed Jesus' credentials. Was he a military leader? No. Had he ever led a successful revolt against anything? No. Was he a man of stature and power whom they could imagine as a military/political messiah? Absolutely not. But if Jesus was going around, announcing the kingdom of God and getting folks all excited, his neighbors knew all too well where this story would end up: with the destruction of Nazareth and the enslavement of themselves and their children. Jesus was threatening their way of life, if not their very lives. Better to chuck him off a local cliff than risk complete destruction.

How Will We Respond to Jesus?

     So the folk who knew Jesus best were eager to get him out of the way. Why? To summarize,

Because he didn't fulfill their expectations.

Because he didn't meet their needs in the way they wanted him to.

And, third, because he threatened their way of life, if not their very lives.

     Well, some of us might be thinking, "How foolish of those people? Couldn't they see that Jesus was for real? Didn't they realize that he was offering them real salvation, that he really was who he claimed to be?" But before we get too high and mighty here, let me say something that just might make a few of you want to throw me off the local cliff. (I'm glad we don't have any around here!)

     As we seek a fresh, true encounter with the real Jesus, I believe that we'll often find ourselves in a place not unlike his hometown crowd - even and especially those of us who think we know Jesus best. You see, as we meet the real Jesus, we will also find that:

He doesn't always fulfill our expectations.

He doesn't always meet our needs in the way we want him to.

And he threatens our way of life, if not our very lives as we know them..

After all, wasn't it Jesus himself who once said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.   For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it" (Mark 8:34-35).

     Now I don't want to scare you off from seeking an encounter with Jesus. But in all fairness I must warn you that nobody who meets the real Jesus gets to have him on their own terms. Although he offers the most profound peace in all creation, Jesus' job isn't to make you more comfortable with your status quo. And although he offers blessings beyond your wildest dreams, Jesus isn't in the business of simply making you smarter, richer, and happier. He's in the business of changing you inside and out, while leading you to live in a radically different mode. If you encounter the real Jesus, you'll never be the same.

Death on a Hill

     Jesus' neighbors tried to drag him up a hill to throw him off, either to kick him out of town, or maybe even to kill him. But somehow Jesus managed to escape.

     Not too long afterwards, however, Jesus didn't escape. He willingly went to the top of hill in order to die -- not a nameless hill outside of Nazareth, but an aptly-named hill outside of Jerusalem, a hill called Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. There Jesus freely gave his life on a Roman cross, dying, or so it seemed, as another victim of Roman tyranny. What a sad end to the story, or so it seemed.

     But this wasn't the end of the story, because God was telling another story, a surprising story, an unexpected story, a wonderful story, a true story. It was

a story about one whom God anointed to bring good news to the poor by becoming poor,

a story about one who proclaimed release to the captives by becoming captive,

a story about one who set free the oppressed by taking on their oppression himself,

a story about one who brought eternal life by dying, and then by breaking the power of death through his resurrection.

     In the next several weeks we'll explore this story together. And in the process you'll encounter Jesus, not some made-up Jesus who leaves you just as you are, but the real Jesus who will change you forever.

     I invite you to come and meet this Jesus, whether you've known him in part for a long time, or whether you're just now figuring out who he is. Join me as we encounter the real Jesus together. There's nothing more important in all the world.

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