Luke 4: 16-30; Isaiah 61: 1-3b
January 29, 2012
If it happened in 2012, you know how it would’ve gone down. CNN and FOX and all the others would’ve broken into their daily stream to report the breaking news. Newspapers would drape huge headlines across the top of the front page, the kind reserved for special occasions. All the local networks would be scrambling to schedule an exclusive interview in their studio. Family and friends would send out mass emails and text messages to get the word out.
At the synagogue, life as they once knew it would be no more. They’d be struggling to accommodate the crowd expected to descend upon them. Folding chairs would be set up in every space possible. Large speakers would be erected outside the sanctuary so the masses unable to get inside could still hear him speak. Part of the parking lot next door would be leased out for television trucks with satellite dishes so they could broadcast all of it live. And no doubt a handful of ingenious entrepreneurs would position themselves in the mix, eagerly selling specially-designed t-shirts, caps, bumper stickers, and key chains.
You have to figure that’s pretty much how it’d all happen if Jesus’ homecoming took place today. In a time where news travels as fast as the stream in our television cable or the speed of our internet connection, in a world where we seem to possess an insatiable desire to hype things to the greatest extent, no stone would be left unturned, no angle left unexamined, no sub-plot unexplored as Jesus – that “Wonder-kid” visited by kings at his birth, who wowed the temple scholars as a young boy, who already had made a name for himself in just a few short months of preaching – when Jesus took time out of his new-found celebrity to come back home.
But you and I know it wasn’t like that almost 2000 years ago in the little town of Nazareth. There was no 24-hour news cycle, no internet, no newspapers, no television studios. There was simply a town of people who had heard through word of mouth – as they always heard things – about Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s boy, and what he’d been up to recently. They’d watched him grow from a child into an astute teacher, a captivating preacher, and maybe, just maybe even more than that. And the greatest part was that he was one of their own. He was one of them.
So when it first came around that Jesus was coming home – perhaps his mother knew first, as mothers usually do, and she shared it with her neighbor, and it spread like wildfire from there – when word got around that Jesus was coming home, nothing could quell their excitement. They packed the sanctuary that day to hear the hometown boy read scripture and comment on it – a tradition for Hebrew males. When Jesus stepped up front, I imagine you could’ve heard a pin drop as the gathering waited in excitement to hear what he’d say. He unrolled the scriptures, as they were written on scrolls back then – and proceeded to read verses from the great prophet Isaiah, words read earlier this morning:
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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And to this, Jesus simply added:
You’ve just heard this scripture come true in your presence.
It was a home run! Jesus couldn’t have said anything better to those hometown folks. And the thing was, it wasn’t just about seeing the local boy make good. It wasn’t just about pride. Jesus had just told them that he was coming to change things. And those folks from Nazareth desperately wanted things to change. Those people were an oppressed people, a poor people, a suffering people. Life had been unbearable. And now the native son – the one who had done marvelous things elsewhere – now Jesus was coming home to do the same.
And all would’ve gone superbly, and everyone would’ve been perfectly happy had it simply stopped there. Jesus’ homecoming would’ve been a huge success, and people would’ve talked about it for years. Maybe the mayor would’ve given him a key to the city, and the city council erect a monument in his honor. Maybe there would’ve been a parade down Main Street and designate it as “Jesus Day,” and the kids would have gotten out of school for it.
But none of that was going to happen. Because Jesus knew something the hometown folk did not – that his calling, his mission, his very reason for being was not just about them. Jesus’ mission was bigger and bolder than they could possibly imagine, or even want. And so Jesus recounts two stories that would’ve been familiar to those Jews; albeit ones they would rather forget. The great prophet Elijah, during a terrible famine, once gave food to a widow from Sidon – a hated foreigner – even when there were plenty of Israelite widows who needed help too. His successor Elisha bypassed all of the lepers in Israel to heal one from Syria.
Now, just in case you're wondering, this wasn't exactly the most politically-correct thing Jesus could've said here. I once heard someone remark that a sure-fire way to go from a hero to a zero is to remind people of the painful realities of their own history. So what Jesus said in the temple that day was akin to someone going to modern-day Germany and bringing up Hitler and the Third Reich, or going to Apple headquarters out in California and talking about the recently-discovered human rights violations at their plants in China. In other words, it's the last thing the crowd wants to hear you mention.
So if Jesus had those hometown folk eating out of his hand and ready to give him the keys to the city earlier, now he couldn’t have said anything that would’ve drawn more of their wrath and rage. They turned on him on a dime. And scripture tells us that they ran him out of that temple and actually tried to kill him, so angered they’d become at their native son.
Now psychologists and sociologists would observe this scene with great interest. They would certainly highlight the dynamics of the group mob and how quickly it can go from one extreme to the other. And it does leave us wondering how in the world things could have changed so suddenly – I mean, seriously, wanting to throw Jesus off a cliff?? One scholar surmised that the crowd in the temple that day saw Jesus” declaration of fulfillment as a promise of special favor for his own people and his ‘hometown.’” If that was the case, then Jesus’ response must’ve felt like they were being disowned and he was turning his back on the community who raised and nurtured him. Perhaps that was part of their anger. But there had to be something else, too. I wonder what it could’ve been?
Flannery O’Connor, the well-known Southern writer, was once asked why she persisted in creating such freakish characters in her short-story fiction. And I love her response. She said: To the almost blind, you must draw very large; and to the almost deaf, you just have to shout loud. In other words, the only way you’re going to get your message across, especially if it’s one the people won’t easily recognize or don’t want to hear, is to be bold in proclamation and extend the boundaries far and wide.
Think of the people down through history who’ve made a point of drawing large and shouting loud. A few weeks ago we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, honoring a man who went to great lengths to bring to light the civil injustices that persist in our society. Others on that list: Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, Gandhi, just to name a few. At a time when our world needed things to change, these individuals and many others did what needed to be done to make that change happen.
The problem, of course, is that people don’t always like it when you draw large and shout loud. They don’t always respond well to that sort of thing. They might shoot you, as they did to King. Or they might throw you in prison, like Nelson Mandela. Or the people might run you out of the synagogue and try to throw you off a cliff. Which is exactly what this crowd at Jesus’ homecoming tried to do when they began to understand just how large and how loud his mission on earth really was.
If this story about Jesus' homecoming is about anything, it's about that uncomfortable “rub” we feel when we realize that the gospel message Jesus came to convey is not about a special few, but about everyone – challenging our understanding of who is “in” and who is “out” and who is deserving of God’s grace and love and mercy. About the essence of not only our relationship with God, but our relationship with each other and with the world around us. And honestly, that sort of stuff can really tick people off!
The Gospel has a way of doing that, doesn’t it? Oh, we can try to fashion it into a form that’s more digestible. We can water things down to nothing more than the Golden Rule and “loving your neighbor” – the “neighbor,” of course, being someone who’s easy to love. We can do away with, or at least minimize, the elements of our faith that are hard to deal with – like Jesus asking us to deny father and mother, or God’s judgment on his own people, or the “Pauls” in our midst who never stop nagging us about church imperfections. We can draw small and whisper quietly if we want to. But if we do, the gospel isn’t the gospel anymore. It’s not good news – it’s no-news.
Jesus spent a lifetime in three years telling us and showing us how much God loves us. But he never said that this love was designed to make us feel comfortable. There is nothing comfortable about the gospel, my friends. If we aren’t shaken by God’s radical love, if we aren’t a little irked with how large Jesus draws and how loud Jesus shouts, then maybe we’re in the wrong crowd. Maybe we’re part of that synagogue crowd, the hometown folk, expecting special favors and preferential treatment.
No, the crowd you and I should be part of is the crowd that never places expectations or limits on Jesus’ love. The crowd you and I should be part of is the crowd that understands the gospel does not belong to any one denomination, church, or group of people. It belongs to and is for everyone. It is not ours to mold or shape to our conveniences, to our whims, to our preferences. The crowd you and I should be part of is the crowd that recognizes and receives God’s wonderful grace not only for ourselves and those like us, but for those not at all like us. And the question the gospel forces us to confront, the question Jesus asks us with his very life, is quite simple: which crowd are you part of?
You know, part of me feels a little bad for Jesus that his homecoming ended the way it did. I kind of wish things would’ve turned out differently. And yet, another part of me is eternally grateful that Jesus – then and throughout his life – stuck to his mission and persisted in living out the radical ramifications of God’s everlasting love; drawing large and shouting loud, even with a human race that just can’t seem to wrap their minds and hearts around this whole grace thing. For that grace, as the old hymn says, is what “leads us home.” And maybe – just maybe – that’s where the real homecoming takes place. Thanks be to God. AMEN.
(Flannery O'Connor quote from “Heroes and Zeroes,” Homiletics 16 no. 4, January-February 2004: 34.)