In today’s gospel reading we find Jesus attending worship at his home congregation in Nazareth for the first time since he left. One can almost imagine the scene as the familiar – and yet now somehow unfamiliar – Jesus takes his old place in the synagogue. The sweet elders of the congregation surround him, excited to hear how the boy they saw grow up has faired in the world. The men Jesus grew up with fish for stories of life outside of little Nazareth; tales of danger and adventure. For others, it is as if time hasn’t passed; Jesus is – frustratingly – still treated as the carpenter’s boy. As anyone who has left home for a time and then returned can attest, the scene Jesus finds himself in is already setup to be a charged situation. Jesus, however, has done a lot more than study a semester at Judah State or take a month abroad in Rome.
In chapter three we learn that Jesus started his ministry at around the age of thirty when he ventured to be baptized by John near the River Jordan. No doubt Jesus was subject to many rolled eyes and sarcastic expressions when he announced he was leaving Nazareth to seek out a desert mystic. At thirty he was well past being a late bloomer. Hopes in Nazareth, I’m sure, were not high, but Jesus found John and was baptized. As the Holy Spirit descended upon him as a dove, the Father declared Jesus' eternally begotten sonship, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.“2 Flowing into chapter four the newly baptized Jesus is lead by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for forty days. There Jesus defeats the devil, successfully overcoming his temptations and moves into ministry in Galilee teaching and healing as he travels through the region. In a few month’s time, thirty-something Jesus has not only bloomed outside of Nazareth, he has been revealed as Israel’s Messiah and – by the Father’s own voice – as the Son of God. I picture a beaming Mary on the streets of Nazareth as the first sabbath of Jesus' return approaches.
Rumors have a unique property of somehow defying the normal laws of nature. Even in today’s age of near instant communication rumors spread more quickly than truth can be established. No doubt in comparison to Jesus' slow journey on foot, rumors in his day travelled even more quickly. I expect that Nazareth First Synagogue had an unusually high attendance that first sabbath of Jesus' return. The entire village was present to see what Jesus would say. As Jesus arose from his old seat amongst the men of his village I imagine a hushed quietness overtaking the assembly. Standing in the sabbath morning light, dust particles danced in front of Jesus as he unrolled the Isaiah scroll to read. The room was dead quiet and electric as all waited to hear what Jesus had to say. Would the rumors be proven true? Was the Jesus they all presumed to know so well really a healer, a prophet, a Messiah? Would he dare declare himself the Son of God?
With a voice of meek confidence Jesus spoke the prophecy of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.“3 With only these words and with the gaze of the entire congregation fixed upon him, Jesus closed the scroll and quietly returned to his seat. An uncomfortable silence filled the room. In the silent contemplation, some began to understand the meaning of what he had said. Tension built. More time passed and others came to understanding. The tension in the room continued to build. All wanted to talk, to discuss, to question the meaning of what Jesus had just said. Who would be the first to break the silence?
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.“4 At these words of Jesus the entire room broke into a cavalcade of conversation and debate. “Did he just declare himself the Messiah?” “He’s just a poor carpenter’s boy. He hasn’t proven he’s a healer.” “God has raised a healer from Joseph the carpenter’s son!” “I knew him when he was cleaning up his father’s shop. He’s no prophet!” “Nazareth will be famous! The home of the great healer Jesus!” “Just wait Capernaum, Jesus will do even greater things for his own people in Nazareth!”
Jesus stood in the synagogue in Nazareth with a history. He was Joseph’s son and was known well by everyone in the village. Jesus also came to Nazareth with a reputation and his village had certain preconceived expectations. With the rumors flying in from Galilee, the Nazarenes knew that Jesus was much more than the kind carpenter with an amazing knowledge of Hebrew scripture who left their village several months ago. His new reputation as a healer and prophet had preceded him. The Nazarenes expected Jesus to both prove that he was a healer – more than just “Joseph’s son” – and – given his healing abilities were true – to cure his village of all its physical ailments. They expected him to have favor upon his village folk, that they would become the focus of his healing “prophethood.” Through Jesus, Nazareth would become well-known as the home of a healing prophet. In the pilgrims who would come to Jesus, Nazareth would find wealth. With Jesus as their kinsman, all of Nazareth would be healed. The prophecy of Isaiah was about them and Jesus was going to fulfill it in their midst!
The people of Nazareth had a misunderstanding about the character of the God of Israel. You see, the “year of the Lord” Jesus proclaims, the “good news” he shares, the “release” and healing he brings is not reserved for his friends and family. It is not just reserved for our “tribe.” Jesus responded to his home village’s preconceived notions by reminding them that the prophets Elijah and Elisha performed their most miraculous healing outside of Israel. If the great prophets of old shared God’s healing love to those outside, why would Jesus keep it isolated to Nazareth? God freed and saved Israel time and time again, not for Israel’s sake, but that the world might see his strength and mercy and come to know him as God. God – though he works through his chosen people Israel – is for the world. He loves and seeks all.
Though it is easy to look back at the foolishness of the people of Nazareth, if we are honest we will see a reflection of ourselves in their actions. How often do we make everything about ourselves? How often do we completely miss the point because we are only listening to see how it impacts us? How quickly do we retreat to our village, our little group of friends, our family when faced with suffering and pain?
As a child and teenager I was not one of the cool kids. I loved school and learning. I spent untold hours on the computer when that still meant computer games, programming, and chatting with other nerds. It was actually not possible to do anything remotely close to “cool” on a computer. For thirteen years I sat on the outside of the mainstream of my classmates with a handful of other nerds observing and generally being excluded. To say I was invisible, would be an understatement. – My friends and I once skipped class in high school in an attempt to get in-house suspension only to find out that no one noticed we were gone. – In a lot of ways my childhood was hidden away in far off Nazareth.
When I went to university and then entered the workforce I suddenly found myself in a situation where I was in the majority and powerful. In my IT field, nerds ruled. My life, isolated to my little nerd “tribe,” became the window I saw the world through. We could make the world better for ourselves and finally show the cool kids how much better we were. Everyone was labeled. You were either part of my nerd group or you were “stupid” and not worth dealing with. Just as I had been excluded as a child, those outside my new world were pushed aside as unvaluable. My worldview had become “us” versus “them.”
As I became a Christian and allowed my community to expand my labels had to come falling down. I began to realize that the kids who excluded me as a child were just hurting, too. As it turns out, some of the “cool kids” were actually popular because they’re pretty nice when you give them a chance. Jocks, when looked at objectively, are really just a different kind of nerd. – Can anyone really explain the difference between knowing the names and occupation of the entire crew of the USS Enterprise and the names and stats of the 1988 Lakers? – Whether I liked it or not everyone now had the label “of God” and “in Christ”. I had to deal with that. Even when confronted with some pretty awful people, I had to remember that they were still worthy of God’s love. No one is outside of God’s love.
With Jesus it isn’t about who you know, it’s about faith and relationship with God without respect to what you might get out of it. As Jesus read the Nazarenes' hearts it was clear profit, fame, and all types of personal gain were primarily on their minds. If our continued relationship with God in Jesus is based off his continual outpouring of healing to our present condition, then it’s no relationship at all. Jesus meets us in the suffering and promises a liberation of healing when he returns to make all things new. Jesus invites all the world into the in-breaking life of the Triune God. Not just his family, not just Nazarenes, not just Israel, but all of humankind.
In today’s passage Jesus confronts our self-centered, artificial divisions. He asks us why we always look to ourselves when he talks about healing and not to others? He asks us why we seek the fulfillment of his Kingdom only in America when he is doing a marvelous thing all around the globe? He calls us to step outside of our comfortable “tribes,” to stretch beyond our limited expectations of his grace. He invites us to humble submission to his will and love, regardless of where that takes us.
God’s call is uncomfortable. To be Christian is to be in solidarity with the whole of suffering humanity along side and before God. It will put us in contact with things we do not want to see and people we do not want to be around. It will cause us to suffer mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically. Jesus demonstrated this life to us in the gospels. In his life we see that outside of the comfort of home we will be broken, but as Christians we are broken together with the same Christ who will create us anew.
In Nazareth, Jesus' message of radical love and continued suffering for the sake of others was not taken very well. Unable to stretch beyond their expectations of God, the Nazarenes moved to anger and drove Jesus from the village. Daily we are presented with the same choice. Do we accept God in Jesus and bend our will to his? Do we love, heal, and suffer alongside humankind as God calls us? Do we continue to look inward, or do we follow the lead of our Savior?
Before he was crucified, our Savior instituted a communal meal where we were to both remember his sacrifice for us – “my body broken for you, my blood shed for you” – and to receive a sufficient measure of his grace, through his body, to unify us with other Christians as his living body on earth. Let us not forget that “we who are many are one bread” through the once offered gift of love and grace of Jesus Christ. At the table we are one in solidarity with the entire body of Christ on heaven and earth. Let us not let that unity stop at the alter rail. God freely offers himself to all of humankind and we are not to judge or resist where God’s love is want to go. Lord, in your mercy fill us with your grace that we may live into your enteral love. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1# Psalm 19:14 (ESV)
2# Luke 3:22 (RSV) – Modernized by the author.
3# Luke 4:18-19 (RSV)
4# Luke 4:21 (RSV)