For more than forty years my dad was a wholesale grocer salesman. He worked for the same company all that time, driving the main highways and back roads of northeast Arkansas. It was the pre- Wal-Mart days, when mom-and-pop grocery stores were still thriving. From Paragould to Amagon, from Hoxie to Lake City, Black Oak and Jonesboro, he took orders from the store owners who serviced the good people in that part of the world where I was born and raised.
The summer between my junior and senior years in high school I worked on one of the delivery trucks as a driver’s assistant. Dad would take the orders one day, process them that night at the Hurt Grocer Company warehouse, and we would deliver to the stores the next day. I don’t remember the name of the truck driver, but I do recall the conversation. We were lumbering down the highway one day when he asked me what I was going to do for a living. “What were my goals and dreams?” he wanted to know. I told him I felt the calling to be a preacher, and I will never forget his reaction. He was pleased… really pleased. He didn’t mean it as a put-down to these other professions but he commented that it seemed to him that most young people he talked to wanted to be lawyers and doctors, not preachers. “The world needs more preachers,” he told me, and then he continued to encourage me in my calling.
After almost forty years, it’s interesting that I don’t remember his name, but the conversation is as vivid to me as if it happened yesterday. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge and through the baptistry since then, but the memory of that day in the grocery truck remains.
Jesus has returned to his hometown of Nazareth, and as was his custom he attends sabbath worship. He is asked to read and interpret a passage from the prophet Isaiah, and in response the people say to one another, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” That question can be taken at least two different ways. It could express their collective contempt. “Who does he think he is, talking like this? Why,he’s merely the son of the carpenter.”
The other choice seems more likely. They are pleased – at least at the outset – with what they hear. Their response is more like that of the truck driver. “The world needs more preachers,” they say to one another. “Jesus should make a good one, don’t you think?” Not only does he read well, but there is a certain confidence in him that perhaps they had not noticed before. Of course, word has filtered down to them of the success he has had in the other areas of Galilee, most notably Capernaum, and this obviously adds to the pleasure they have of this hometown boy made good. That’s how I interpret their comment toward Jesus.
It’s a feather in their cap for someone notable like Jesus to be associated with Nazareth. It’s for certain it hasn’t happened before. You remember the conversation between Philip and Nathanael. Philip says to his friend that they had found the Messiah, and he was Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth. Nathanael responds scornfully, “Huh, does anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Not much, let me tell you. Just a scrawny little town in a scrawny little part of the world. Jerusalem! Now that’s a town for you! If anything good isgoing to happen, it’s going to happen in Jerusalem, the City of David, the Holy City. But finally, finally it seems, someone has risen up in the ranks and made a name for himself, has taken on a lot of Messiah-like qualities. And lo and behold, he is a product of Nazareth of all places. Now, he has come back home and the folk in town want Jesus to do for them what he’s been doing in other places… like Capernaum. When you consider all this, it should not be surprising that they ask him to read scripture and interpret it that sabbath morning in the synagogue.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “I really appreciate all the work you do in gathering resources. What a blessing!! Thanks again.”
Resources to inspire you — and your congregation!
GET YOUR FOUR FREE SAMPLES!
Click here for more information
The prophecy of Isaiah is familiar to the people in the synagogue, for it forms the framework of the hope of all Israel…
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.
Jesus follows Isaiah’s words with those of his own. Luke makes it a point to let us know that everyone in the synagogue has their eyes fixed on Jesus. In an atmosphere of great excitement and expectation he doesn’t disappoint. He says to the people in worship,
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And the people of Nazareth are pleased. Watch their buttons popping as they wonder if it might possibly be true. Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter, the long-awaited Messiah… Could it really be true? If so, maybe he will do some of the same things in his hometown that he is reported to have done in Capernaum. Why would he not do the same for them? After all, he’s one of them!
They certainly seem willing to accept him as the Messiah, or at least give him the benefit of the doubt. But it doesn’t take long to realize that if they do so, it’s going to be on their terms that they receive him so warmly. And that just may be the key to this story. They are willing to accept Jesus as Messiah, but only on their terms.
But Jesus doesn’t cater to their terms. Not in Nazareth, not anywhere. He never told people what they wanted to hear. He told them the truth. In fact, instead of leaving well enough alone, he quits preaching and goes to meddling. He hardly gets to the conclusion of his sermon before the people are ready to stone him to death. What is it that gets the folks in Nazareth so angry and agitated? Why, just a couple of little ol’ sermon illustrations, that’s all. Taken right out of their very own Bible. Just goes to show that sometimes it isn’t the stories that upset people, it’s the way they are told. It’s the context in which they are conveyed.
What were these stories that got things in Nazareth so stirred up on that sabbath morning? What caused the people to turn on Jesus… and to do it so quickly and so hard?
Jesus invokes the names of Elijah and Elisha and tells of two accounts from their life and ministry. Look at Elijah first. Israel went through a three-and-a-half year drought which produced a tremendous famine. Widows were being made all over the place, but when it came time for the prophet to give his attention to just one of them, it happened to be a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. Simply read this from Luke’s gospel and it won’t mean anything to you. Do a little homework, however, and you will discover that the widow in Zarephath was a Gentile. That gets the good folk in Nazareth a bit warm under the collar.
Now consider Elisha, disciple of and spiritual successor to Elijah. He lived in a day, Jesus says, in which lepers roamed in large numbers. Not one of them – not one – was cleansed, except for Naaman the Syrian. You may be a bit more familiar with this story. If so, you will be aware that Naaman was a Gentile.
Are you starting to see a thread developing? The synagogue folks did! You don’t have to beat them over the head with a hammer before they start listening! As we said, these stories are right there in their very own scriptures – their holy scriptures – but that doesn’t mean they have to like it. Nor does it mean they appreciate Jesus’ pointing this out to them.
The fact that these stories are so well-known to them just may be why their hostile reaction is so intense. “Anger and violence are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth embedded in their own tradition. “1
We recently commemorated – well, some of us did – the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I thought of him when I read something by Fred Craddock. By the way, he’s the one who gave me the quote just a second ago about anger and violence being the last defense of those made to face the truth embedded in their own tradition. Right after that, he says,
“Such truths will not go away
even after the one who pointed to them has been removed.”
I think I’ll repeat that one…
“Such truths will not go away
even after the one who pointed to them has been removed.”
Did the civil rights movement die with the assassin’s bullet in Memphis that fateful April day in 1968? I don’t think so. Did the emancipation of the slaves go away when the bullet rang out in Ford’s Theater in Washington in 1865? I don’t think so. Did the message of the incoming kingdom of God die with the Galilean revolutionary named Jesus when he was strung up on a Roman cross two-thousand years ago? I don’t think so. Truth cannot be stifled, even if the truth-teller is removed from the scene.
The immediate reaction of the people in the Nazareth synagogue to Jesus’ explosive words is to get rid of him. But the issue will not go away, even if they are successful in their violence. They don’t want to hear the truth, but the truth is the truth anyway. And the truth of Jesus’ message is that God’s overwhelming grace is meant to be given freely to everybody, regardless of race or culture. God’s umbrella of inclusion is much, much bigger than they will ever come to know.
The people of Nazareth want Jesus to bring his wonder-working power to them and to them alone. “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did in Capernaum.” But he can’t, and he knows it. Their tradition of exclusion prevents him from sharing the kingdom, not because he doesn’t want to do it but because they are blind and deaf to this new word of grace he brings, not only to them but to all who will accept it.
I tried to avoid it, but there is no way for me to do it. It serves as the perfect illustration of what this passage of scripture is all about. I tell you this knowing there is some risk involved. But again, I bring it up because in my mind it is so clearly illustrative of what Jesus is going through in Nazareth on that sabbath morning. And the truth, while sometimes painful, is still the truth.
Just before Christmas a study committee of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee prepared a statement saying they would recommend to the annual meeting in June that the SBC withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance. You may not know much about the BWA, but I will remind you that Denton Lotz, the BWA General Secretary, spoke in our church a couple of years ago. Denton is also the brother-in-law of the daughter of Billy Graham. In other words, his Baptist roots run really, really deep.
After ninety-nine years of active participation in the BWA, and after having been one of the founding Baptist bodies of this organization, why is the SBC leaving? They didn’t give the real reason. Instead, they branded the BWA as too liberal, and made other charges that are patently untrue. But everyone involved knows the real reason why they are pulling out. It is because the BWA, after a three-year study of the issue, voted this past summer to accept the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as a member body. It’s that simple. Forgive all the acronyms, but if the CBF is going to be included in the membership, the SBC leadership no longer wants to have anything to do with the BWA.
In my mind, it is not the spirit of Christ. Jesus makes it clear that his message is to be taken to all people everywhere, and not just to the chosen few. This is not a new word Jesus is bringing to the folk in Nazareth. By citing the two stories from the Old Testament, he is telling them that this has always been God’s method of operation. It has always been God’s desire that all people, regardless of language or culture, come into his kingdom. As one commentator puts it, God is not… “a local deity enshrined in some grotto down the street. God’s saving power is bigger than one town can hold, God’s mercy is wider than any one village can imagine.”2 God’s grace extends far beyond the reaches of any one convention of people, and those who would exclude others from sharing in God’s eternal riches just may find themselves to be out when they think they are in.
Ash Wednesday is February 25. Just happens to be my dad’s 84th birthday. It is also the day that Mel Gibson’s movie premieres. You’ve heard about it, haven’t you? (An interesting aside is that while I was working on this very paragraph of my sermon, a church member sent me via e-mail a website for the movie.) “The Passion of the Christ” is an explicit portrayal of Jesus’ life and death. It is so explicit, from what I hear, that you won’t want to take your small children to see it. And, it has many in the Jewish community alarmed. They think it will give rise to anti-semitism. The defenders of the movie, of course, respond by saying that it merely tells it the way the New Testament gospels portray it to have occurred.
The truth, as I see it, not only in regard to this movie but to Jesus’ life and ministry as well, is that Jesus never had it in mind to restrict his message solely to those of his own faith. This story from Luke makes it clear. The Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day felt they had God solely in their corner, and Jesus came to break the back of such thinking. An important distinction for us to understand is that Jesus did not take his message outside the Jewish faith because he was rejected by the Jewish leadership of his day; he was rejected because he took his message outside the faith.3
In the movie Open Range, two cowboys are burying one of their friends and their dog that have been killed by a ruthless gang of murderers who object to what was known as “free grazing.” As they say words over the graves, they openly express their anger toward God for allowing this to happen.
When tragedy strikes we all tend to ask the same question. It is as old as human history itself. Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? But more often than not, God’s seeming absence in the face of such things is not what makes us the angriest. It’s God’s mercy that really stirs us up, especially when we see it doled out to those we think are undeserving of it. God’s grace is too big, too wide. It encompasses people we don’t like or understand, who do not share our faith or religious understandings or culture or language. The easiest solution for us is to reject them and turn them away, like the folk in Nazareth did to Jesus that day.
The most insightful line in this riveting account from Luke is the last. Luke tells us that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” It was not yet time for the screaming, blood-thirsty mob to have its say, so Jesus slipped through their hands. He does the same with you and me when we think we can have him all to ourselves.
Rejection is not God’s solution. God wraps his arms around those who do not even acknowledge him, and offers them the same grace he extends to you and me. If we are to be active participants in his kingdom, we need to realize that God calls us to be partners with him in such a divine endeavor. He would have us include everyone in our invitation to the kingdom. What will be our response?
Lord, help us to capture just a small part of your accepting Spirit. For if we will do that, you will show us greater things. Find us willing to share you with others, even those not like ourselves. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
1Fred B. Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1994), p. 92.
2Thomas G. Long, “God’s Saving Power” (www.joinhands.com), February 1, 2004.
3Craddock, ibid., pp. 92-93 (note: the wording has been changed by this author, but reflects Craddock’s meaning).
— Copyright 2004, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.