by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts October 29, 2006
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2006 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.
As most of you know, I grew up at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. From age 7 until I was 34 when I came to Irvine Presbyterian Church as your pastor, Hollywood Pres was my home church.
Even as a boy, I loved the sanctuary there. It was cavernous and awe-inspiring, with seats for 1500 people and a ceiling over 60 feet high. The front of the sanctuary was built of stone and finely-tooled dark wood. On the raised chancel were large wooden "thrones" upon which the pastors sat during the worship services. When it was time for the sermon, the preacher would climb the narrow staircase that led from the chancel to the pulpit, a lofty perch adorned with intricate carvings.
Throughout my years growing up at the Hollywood church, I would gaze up at the preacher with awe. The fact that we had fantastic preachers surely contributed to my wonderment. But that Hollywood pulpit, looming over fifteen feet above the sanctuary floor, seemed to turn even a mediocre guest preacher into a Spirit-inspired orator.
In 1988, 25 years after I started attending Hollywood Pres, I was ordained in that sanctuary as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. Several months later I received my first invitation to preach in a Sunday morning service there. I felt honored, but also a little nervous. How would I be received in my homiletic homecoming? What would be the response of those who had been my Sunday School teachers when I was a boy?
I still remember the feeling of climbing up into the Hollywood pulpit for the first time. I felt excited, anxious, and awed. As I reached the raised platform, I immediately noticed something unexpected. There was a set of three lights in the pulpit near where I set my Bible. One of the three, a green light, was brightly lit. Nobody had told me about those lights before, but "green" seemed like an encouraging color, so I began to read my text for the day.
When I was just over half way through my sermon, all of a sudden the green light turned off and a yellow started to glow. This unnerved me a bit, especially since I didn't know the meaning of the yellow color. Was there a problem with something I had said? Did this light come on when some elder in the congregation with a secret switch didn't like what I was saying? Or did the yellow light mean I was running out of time and should "hit the accelerator" to finish up the sermon?
I tried to ignore the yellow light as I kept on preaching. Several minutes later the yellow light turned off and a red light came on. Once again, I was unsure what this meant. Had I finally gone too far into heresy? Was I supposed to stop at that very moment? What would happen if I kept on preaching? Would somebody turn off the microphone? Or would someone throw a hidden switch so I'd be ejected from the pulpit like a fighter pilot from a crashing plane? I didn't know, but I didn't want to press my luck. So I hastily wrapped up the sermon and returned to my throne on the chancel.
Following the service I greeted folks at the door and was gratified to hear that they approved of my homecoming sermon. Many said the usual, "Nice sermon, pastor." Nobody said accusingly, "You kept on preaching after the red light was turned on," thank goodness! (I later found out that the yellow light meant "You've been going for 15 minutes" and the red light meant "You've been going for 20 minutes." That's all. Nobody was implying that my content was bad or that I had to stop right away.)
As I stood by the sanctuary door that morning after my homiletic homecoming, more than one person said something like, "I taught you in Sunday School, young man. And you did a fine job today." Those were the comments I treasured most of all. There's nothing quite like being accepted by your hometown congregation.
The Homecoming Sermon of Jesus
Jesus, I'm sad to say, didn't have such a happy homecoming as a preacher. By the time he returned to Nazareth after beginning His ministry of preaching the kingdom of God, Jesus had been well-received all over Galilee (Luke 4:14-15). So when He showed up in His hometown synagogue in Nazareth one Sabbath day, the local leaders were glad to give Him the floor.
In the common mode of his day, Jesus stood to read the Scriptures. We don't know if He chose the text from Isaiah 61, or if it just "happened" to be the passage for the morning. We do know that Jesus read Isaiah 61:1-2:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Became 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 (Luke 4:18-19)
This passage from Isaiah was one that helped shape the messianic expectations of the Jews in the time of Jesus. The phrase "has anointed me" utilizes in the original Hebrew the verb mashach, closely related to the noun mashiach, or messiah. God's Spirit has anointed the speaker, making him messiah. And what is his messianic mission? To proclaim release, to bring healing to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. In Jesus's context, these actions would have been understood as elements of the coming of God's kingdom. God would set the Jews free from their bondage to Rome. He would heal their "blindness" by mending their broken nation and re-establishing His rule over them.
The "year of the Lord's favor" is an allusion to the Old Testament notion of the Year of Jubilee. Every fifty years, according to the Old Testament law (see Leviticus 25), there was to be a special year in which debts were forgiven and slaves were set free. Whether this actually happened within Israel's history is debated. But in the time of Jesus, the imagery of the Year of Jubilee had been combined with the messianic prophecies of Isaiah to paint a compelling picture of the coming of God's kingdom. The messiah would usher in "the year of God's favor," a time of restoration, freedom, and celebration. (See especially the Melchizedek Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls [11Q13].)
When Jesus finished reading His text, no doubt the people were wistfully hopeful. How they yearned for the day when God would anoint someone to restore the kingdom to Israel! Then Jesus sat down to teach, but didn't have much to say. His only line was a stunner, however, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (4:21). Today, Jesus was saying, in this place and this time, Isaiah's prophecy is coming true. I am the one God has anointed to usher in the kingdom of God. I am the messiah of Israel.
The people's response, according to Luke, was at first positive. They were amazed at His "gracious words" (4:22). But then they began to think more carefully about what they had just heard, asking "Is not this Joseph's son?" (4:22). The sense of their question suggests that they were beginning to look less favorably on Jesus and His homecoming sermon. (The Gospel of Mark makes this even more obvious. See Mark 6:1-6.)
Then Jesus Himself turned up the heat by saying several things that distressed the synagogue congregation. He would not be doing in His hometown the sort of wonders He had done in other places. This, no doubt, upset those with whom Jesus had grown up. Surely they deserved at least as many miracles as the neighboring villages.
To make matters worse, Jesus cited two Old Testament stories in which Jewish prophets did miracles for Gentiles, while failing to bless their fellow Jews. In the second story, the prophet Elisha healed a man who was not only a Gentile leper, but also a commander of the Syrian army while it was oppressing Israel. This pushed Jesus's listeners over the edge. More accurately, it enraged them to the point that they tried to push Jesus over the edge of a local cliff. But somehow he managed to escape. Talk about a sorry homecoming! It doesn't get much sadder than this!
Why Did They Want to Get Rid of Jesus?
For years as I read this story, the conclusion never quite made sense to me. I couldn't understand why the people acted so negatively. I could imagine that they might have kicked Jesus out of the synagogue, saying, "Well, if you're not going to perform miracles here, if you're not going to heal us, then you're not welcome here anymore." But why try to throw Him off a cliff?
A satisfactory answer to this question emerged as I came to learn two crucial things. The first I've already explained, that by reading Isaiah 61:1-2 and saying "Today this is fulfilled in your hearing," Jesus was making a not-so-subtle claim to be the Messiah. Yet, from the perspective of the residents of Nazareth, He wasn't on track to fulfill their messianic hopes. For one thing, Jesus wasn't bringing God's miraculous power to their town. Moreover, His choice of Old Testament stories suggested that His mission was not just for the Jews, but for Gentiles as well. Rather than raising up an army to defeat the Romans, as the Messiah was supposed to do, Jesus likened Himself to a prophet who brought healing to the commander of the Gentile army. Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, yet not doing what the Messiah should have been doing.
The second factor that has helped me understand the extreme response of Jesus's townsfolk comes from Jewish history. During the years of Roman domination of Judea, many aspiring "messiahs" attempted to fulfill hopes like these by leading rebellions against Rome and its local minions. At the death of Herod in 4 B.C., for example, anti-Roman revolts erupted throughout the nation, with leaders promoting themselves as God's anointed leaders. In the town of Sepphoris in Galilee, only a couple hours' walk from Nazareth, a man named Judas led a makeshift militia in a successful assault against the royal armory. Of course Rome didn't wink at Judas and his gang. Before long the Roman army re-captured Sepphoris, taking all of its residents as slaves and burning the city to the ground (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 17.10.5-10). That's a lesson one doesn't soon forget, especially if you lived only a few miles away in Nazareth.
So now put yourself in the place of those who heard Jesus's homecoming sermon. They heard Jesus claim to be the Messiah, even though He wasn't doing appropriately messianic things. Worse still, Jesus's messianic efforts would very likely lead, not only to His own sorry demise, but quite possibly to the destruction of Nazareth and the enslavement of its people. Surely the townsfolk saw Jesus as a huge danger, with very little upside. He was one who threatened not only their hopes and expectations, but also their way of life, even their very existence. He was dangerous and needed to be stopped. Better for one man to die than for the whole town to be destroyed.
Would I Throw Jesus Off the Cliff?
As I've reflected on this story, I've been wondering how I am like those in the Nazareth synagogue on that fateful day. I've been asking myself, "When do I try to throw Jesus off the cliff?" Of course I'm not talking about a real cliff here. To put it more prosaically, I'm wondering about whether, and how, and when I might want to chuck Jesus out of my life.
Now let me hasten to add that I love Jesus dearly. He is my Lord and Savior, and I can't imagine a situation in which I would renounce my faith in Him. I expect this is true for most of in this room today. But are there times when I behave rather like the residents of Nazareth in our story? Are there times when you're inclined to jettison Jesus? I think there just may be.
I'm picturing situations when Jesus fails to meet our expectations, and when He makes matters even worse - or so it seems - by threatening our way of life. I'm thinking of times when, just when it appears that we have Jesus neatly figured out, He breaks out of our tidy categories and confronts us with His costly call to discipleship.
I grew up believing that Jesus's sole purpose on earth was to save people from their sins so they could go to heaven when they died. I still believe Jesus accomplished this, thanks be to God! But as I've studied Jesus's own words and deeds, I've come to believe He had a much broader purpose, one centered in the kingdom of God. Jesus came, not only to save individual souls, but also to transform this world, ultimately healing not just hurting people, but also the hurting cosmos. There's no reason to get rid of Jesus for this, except when He begins to spell out some of the implications of living under God's kingdom. Then it gets a whole lot dicier. And we may become tempted to throw Jesus off the cliff, so to speak. Let me give three examples of what I'm talking about.
Loving Our Enemies?
Jesus is pretty clear about how we're to treat our enemies. He says we're to love them. When they hurt us, we're to turn the other cheek. Now I don't know about you, but I don't like this very much. Oh, it sounds just fine on paper, but what about when people mistreat me, speak poorly of me, or hurt me. What about when people blow up buildings in my country and would be happy to do so in my own city? I don't want to love these people; I want revenge. I don't want to turn the other cheek, I want to slap theirs. So when Jesus comes along and says, "No, I want you to love your enemies and pray for them," I'm tempted to hurl Him off the cliff, at least for a while.
I was talking to a friend last week who unsettled me with something he said. This man regularly prays for the conversion of Osama bin Laden. Now he also prays that bin Laden will be found and brought to justice. But my friend feels compelled as a Christian to pray for bin Laden's soul. Hearing this, I found myself torn between what I feel like I want to do and what I believe Jesus wants me to do. Is this a time for me to hurl Jesus off a cliff?
Confronting Directly the One Who Has Hurt Us?
Consider another example. Jesus said, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of your are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one" (Matt 18:15). This may be one of the most frequently disobeyed of all the commands of Jesus. What do we do when somebody sins against us? Just about anything other than going directly and only to that person in order to reconcile! We gossip about it. We complain about it. We harbor anger and bitterness. We break relationship with the one who wronged us. We do almost anything besides what Jesus tells us to do. So it's "Of the cliff with You, Jesus! I'd rather do it my way!"
Serving God and Mammon?
Here's another case where we might be tempted to jettison Jesus. In Luke 16 He says:
"No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." (Luke 6:13)
How many of us, if we're really going to be honest, want to respond to Jesus with something other than full acceptance and obedience here? When Jesus says, "You cannot serve God and wealth," isn't there a part of you that wants to say, "Oh, yeah? Well you just watch me, Jesus! I'm gonna prove you wrong, or die trying."
Perhaps you're thinking that you don't serve wealth, and perhaps you don't. I know people in this church who have incredible freedom to live far beneath their means, to give generously, and to share their possessions with others to a amazing extent. There are some of us who might be able to say with all honesty and truthfulness, "I serve God, but not money."
Yet I believe that the vast majority of us struggle with this very thing . . . a lot! By nature and by culture we are strongly inclined to serve wealth. We often feel trapped, captives to a society that serves wealth so utterly and pervasively that we don't know how we'll ever be set free. I feel the oppression of this captivity in my own life, and I expect you do too.
So when Jesus says "You can't serve God and wealth," or when He calls us to sacrificial generosity, there's a part of us that wants to chuck Him off a cliff . . . not permanently, but just for a while. If only Jesus would just shut up about that money stuff, at least for now, we could get back to trying to live in our crazy, expensive, acquisitive, consumerist world. Maybe someday, when our kids are through college and our lives have settled down a bit, we can take more seriously what Jesus says about possessions.
The Good News of Jesus
My friends, I know that the commands of Jesus - whether to love our enemies, or to reconcile with someone who has wronged us, or to serve God and not wealth - are not easy. I struggle with these things all the time. And I am tempted at times to toss Him off a cliff. To be more honest, I suppose there are times when I do throw him off, at least until I need His help with something.
But if we really listen to what Jesus is saying to us in Luke 4, He's not just calling for obedience. More than this, He's offering incredible freedom. Jesus isn't just telling us to love our enemies, He's also inviting us to be set free from the prison of hatred. Jesus isn't just telling us that we have to reconcile with those who have wronged us. He's also giving us an antidote to the poison of bitterness and unforgiveness. Jesus isn't just telling us that we can't serve God and wealth. He's also setting us free from our bondage to materialism, so that we might enjoy the blessings of this world without be enslaved to them, and so that we might experience the joy of sharing in the generosity of God's kingdom.
So, sisters and brothers, when you're tempted to "throw Jesus off a cliff," know that you're not alone. But know also that what Jesus offers may seem like an extra burden, when it fact it is freedom, true freedom, the freedom of the kingdom of God. Jesus has come to set us free from all that binds us, to open our blind eyes to the wonders of the world, and to release us to live life to the fullest for God's glory. That's His messianic mission.