What Happened in Nazareth?
A Sermon on Luke 4:14-30
What happened in Nazareth? Why did the faithful worshipers of Nazareth turn on one of their own children and attempt to throw him down from a hill to smash him on the rocks? Everything had started out so positively. With careful attention they listened as Jesus read the words from Isaiah promising good news for the poor and the downtrodden, freedom from oppression, liberation from illness, the fulfillment of God’s promise to set things right. Every eye in the synagogue was on Jesus, and every heart waited expectantly as he began to speak.
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The congregation was amazed and puzzled. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they said, wonderingly. They were enthralled. “He’s one of ours! He’s one of us! This is our boy!” With gracious speech like that, Jesus would put Nazareth on the map, in the same way that we all know about Hope, Arkansas because of Bill Clinton, its most famous son. Jesus would draw favorable attention to this town, hemmed in on all sides with non-believers: Phoenicians and Greeks, and Romans, of course.
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Does Jesus mean this is it? This is the year we’re finally going to get rid of the Romans? This is the year we’re finally going to get rid of all these people who are causing so much pain and trouble? The thought was electrifying! The congregation murmured with approval.
What preacher wouldn’t be delighted with a response like that? Preachers enjoy murmurs of approval. We’re human. But Jesus wasn’t at all pleased. His response sounds like sass, like he’s deliberately picking a fight with the congregation. He took three sharp jabs. The first was this: “No doubt, he said, you’re going to quote to me the proverb ‘Physician, heal yourself.’” This was a proverb much like the thief’s jeering shout to Jesus on the cross, “Save yourself and us while you’re at it.”
“And,” Jesus went on, no doubt you’re going to say, “Do the great things here in your hometown that we heard you did in Capernaum.” Note this: Capernaum was not a well-thought-of town. It was crawling with non-Israelites. Outsiders. Jesus did great things there. Surely they would expect him to do much greater things here in Nazareth among his own people!
And then Jesus added, “I’m telling you the truth: no prophet is acceptable to his own people.” None. That’s how it is for prophets. It’s their job to tell people the truths they don’t want to hear. Prophets got death threats, like Elijah. They got thrown down wells, like Jeremiah. They got thrown to the lions, like Daniel.
Why couldn’t Jesus just accept the accolades and go on? Maybe this was part of it: the people enjoyed the message, but they didn’t take it seriously enough. They didn’t see what serious implications and challenges it held for them. It didn’t occur to them that good news to the poor is perceived as bad news for the rich. The well-to-do will have to change their ways!
Indeed, that is the way of the word of God: it calls all hearers to change. It is sharper than any two-edged sword; it cuts to the marrow. If we haven’t heard its demands on us, then we haven’t heard it.
And good news to sinners is perceived as bad news for the righteous, those who have good records to stand on. What’s the use of being good if God’s going to welcome sinners anyway?
Maybe Jesus saw the people’s wheels turning with the absolutely delicious thought of the Romans and every other evil entity getting what they had coming. “We’re the select faithful few, and God’s going to destroy the rest, thank heavens!”
Maybe Jesus saw the people thinking, “Look what Jesus did in Capernaum. Just think of the wonderful things he’ll do for us, his own people, who deserve it so much more! Maybe we’ll have special places in his government”
I can’t read people’s minds and hearts, but Jesus certainly could. And he was not pleased with what he saw there. Whatever it was needed to be rebuked. They needed the prophet’s stinging word to correct them and shape the thoughts and desires of their hearts according to the will of God.
But Jesus didn’t stop there! He went on to tell two Bible stories, stories the congregation would already be familiar with, about God’s generous blessings to non-Israelites, to the unclean, through the prophets Elijah and Elisha. “There were lots of poor widows in Israel in Elijah’s day, but Elijah wasn’t sent to them. He was sent to a Gentile widow in Zarephath. And in Elisha’s time there were many lepers in Israel, but they didn’t get cured, only Naaman the Syrian.”
Now of course God blessed Israel through these prophets as well, but that wasn’t what Jesus was emphasizing. He stressed the theme, running all the way through the Old Testament, of God’s reaching out to save people who were outside the bounds of Israel. At the very beginning of Israel God told Abraham, the father of Israel, flat out, “It is my intention to bless all nations through you.” And God proved it in the two stories Jesus told, and many more.
Here’s another famous one. Remember Jonah? God told him to go and call the people of Nineveh to repent. Now the Ninevites were the most unclean of the unclean. The people of Israel thought that the entire population of Nineveh was of the criminal element. It was a pretty sick society. Yet God cared about all these people and even about all their cattle. That’s what he says in Jonah 4. Jonah didn’t want to preach good news to them. He didn’t want them to repent and be saved. He didn’t want the Ninevites in heaven with him. But God did. Jonah ran in the opposite direction, but God said, “Not so fast!” and turned Jonah around.
Now the people of Nazareth could have pooh-poohed what Jesus said. They could have said, “Oh, that’s just Joseph’s son. He’s just being a hothead today. But he’ll come to his senses.”
But these people recognized that Jesus was dead serious, and his message was going to stand. This wasn’t just a whim. Jesus was going to keep on preaching the scandalous mercy of God.
Indeed Jesus rubbed it in all the way through his ministry. He said God’s kingdom is set up like a vineyard, and the owner of the vineyard pays the ones who get hired at the last minute the same wage as those who have toiled faithfully in the heat all day!
Jesus said that God is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 faithful sheep while he goes out searching high and low for the wayward one. He told a story about a son who had really messed up his life bad, who came slinking back home to seek mercy. And even while he’s a long way off, the father goes running after him to embrace him, lavishes luxury on him, gets a party going before the faithful, dutiful older son can even get home from the fields. And thus God runs to embrace the undeserving.
Jesus rubbed it in by preaching woe not to the people who couldn’t hide their messed up lives, but to the good people who thought they had their lives all together, who presumed they understood God and the will of God, and had the righteous lives to prove it.
Jesus wouldn’t allow people such as them to execute judgment on a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. Jesus talked about sheep and goats, and the goats were the ones who couldn’t remember when they had ever failed to care for Christ in the needy, who presumed they were generous. On the cross Jesus welcomed a very latecomer, one of the crucified thieves who cried, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said, “I will. Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus told his people that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Those who would be first must be slave of all. They must accept the cross.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord God. My ways are not your ways.” Thoughts of insiders and outsiders, higher-ups and lower-downs are irrelevant to God, because God is longing in love for all of his children. He wants to lavish his grace on all, and he will do it whether people like Jonah and the prodigal’s older brother like it or not.
The people of Nazareth didn’t like it at all. How dare Jesus speak to us that way! Enraged, they started shoving him, out the door and through town and up the hill. Don’t lay that on us, Jesus. Lay it on the real sinners: crooks, cheaters, tax collectors, lazy good-for-nothings, liars, people that do all manner of disgusting things.
Don’t lay it on us. Our record with God is clean. We’re in the right. We’re on God’s side, and God is going to reward us.
If this is getting us all tense and riled up, then we know exactly what happened at Nazareth that day, when the people shoved Jesus to the top of a hill.
And friends, we know what happened on another day, when another crowd shoved Jesus to the top of a hill, where he was crushed to death not with rocks, but with the rage and rejection of all humanity. We know what happened at Calvary. And we know we were there.
So what are we going to do now? Sulk, like Jonah, about God’s throwing his grace around too freely? Commiserate with the prodigal’s older brother? Organize a protest with the other long-time workers in the vineyard? Decide that we might as well not try any more, for what’s the use of being good and faithful if it won’t get us ahead?
Or will we accept it? Take our place in the back of the line, and let God have God’s way even when we don’t understand it, and even when we don’t like it? Will we accept that there’s a whole lot more to God than we know, and can know? We can’t fully get a handle on God. We can’t box God up with our minds. God is free.
I didn’t learn the hymn “There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy” until I was a teenager. And I remember when I first saw it, I thought it said, “There’s a wildness in God’s mercy.” I misread it. But you know, there is a wildness to God’s mercy. God is utterly free. We can’t tame God to our wishes. God is free to love whom and when and how God wishes, in Zarephath and Sidon and everywhere, and he is free to correct God’s children, even those who don’t think we need to be corrected.
For “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts,” says the Lord. In any event, and in every situation, God is going to be God! Yes. God is going to be God!
Thanks be to God!