Text: Luke 4:16-30
Ken Chafin was my preaching professor in seminary – just a wonderful guy. Ken had us read textbooks on preaching, he lectured about preaching, and we had to write a sermon outline every week. But the best – and the scariest part - was preaching labs.
We all had to preach several sermons in front of our peers. The class not only formed the congregation; for each sermon, several other students filled out evaluation forms. Some in the class were pastors of churches while some had never preached a sermon in their life. And for the record, the inexperienced preachers by and large were better - they hadn’t picked up bad habits and were more open to learning. My memory is that we were all pretty generous in our evaluations, knowing we would be evaluated too.
I know some of you have taken a preaching class, but one way or another, we all have some experience having our speech evaluated. Our scripture for today is Jesus’ inaugural sermon recorded in Luke. He has just started his ministry – Luke devotes just a couple of sentences to it, says that Jesus was getting rave reviews from everyone, but basically this is the beginning. He is at his hometown congregation, and they are evaluating his sermon. Let’s join them, with our evaluation sheets in hand.
Synagogue worship was fairly informal compared to worship in the temple. There would prayers, reading scripture, comments on the scripture, and almsgiving. On this day, Jesus was invited to read the scripture. He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
Now it takes a while to find a given scripture in a scroll. It’s not like turning to a page in a book. He unrolls the scroll, and he reads from Isaiah 61: “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.”
Then he rolled up the scroll – again, this tool awhile - and gave it back to the attendant. This functioned as a big, dramatic pause. There was great anticipation. And when he spoke, this is what he said: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Wow. This was powerful. People commented on how well he spoke, how proud they were. They marveled at him. “Isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s boy?” they asked. Then Jesus continued. But rather than wow the crowd with a moving, inspirational sermon, Jesus says, “No doubt you are going to quote to me the proverb, “Doctor, heal yourself.” Take care of your own people, your own town. And then he said, “You are going to want me to do here in my hometown the things I did in Capernaum. Well, I know that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
What? Jesus seems to be going out of his way to antagonize the people of Nazareth. The great preacher Fred Craddock said that the opening of a sermon is like driving a bus. As you start off, you’re just trying to get everybody on board so that they will take the trip with you, and so you want to connect with the hearers. Unfortunately, Jesus had not read Fred Craddock’s book.
Jesus goes on to remind the crowd of instances in which God’s favor is shown not to good Israelites, but to Gentiles. Remember when there was a severe famine, and Elijah went not to one of the Hebrew widows, but the widow at Zarephath and she was the hero of the story? Or remember when there were many lepers in Israel, but the leper who was healed was Naaman the Syrian?”
What is Jesus thinking? It is one thing to be provocative; it’s another to be stupid. What’s the use of having a hometown Messiah if it’s not going to benefit the hometown? Where did Jesus get off?
Why did Jesus seem to go out of his way to offend his hometown congregation?
Well, there are a couple of possibilities. There is this quote from the poet Maya Angelou. She said, “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.” Jesus could not be the prophet he needed to be – he could not be the savior he was called to be – if he just told the home folk what they needed to hear. And so to truly be free, to truly be Jesus, he could not be tied to his hometown.
There is maybe another reason. The scripture Jesus read was basically his purpose statement. And it pointed to the idea of Jubilee and the Jubilee year – every 50 years, debts were to be forgiven, indentured servants were to go free, land was to be returned to the original family. Jesus was about healing and release and recovery and reconciliation. This was Good News for the poor, the troubled, the oppressed.
Maybe the people in Nazareth were relatively privileged. Maybe they were not in need of his ministry in the way the people in Capernaum were. He was not going to make a big production just for the sake of impressing the home folks.
For whatever reason, Jesus lays out in no uncertain terms that he is not just a Hometown Prophet – that his ministry will have a far greater scope. The people had heard that he put on a good show in Capernaum, but he was not about show.
So of course, the crowd became enraged. They did a 180 and mob mentality set in. The punishment on the books for false prophecy was death. They chased him to the edge of town and intended to throw him off the cliff there. Luke does not tell us how exactly, but Jesus was able to walk away.
So: Check your evaluation sheets. What kind of grade does Jesus get? From the crowd, he gets a big fat “F.”
There were good reasons the people in Jesus’ hometown reacted so strongly. First, there was the problem of familiarity. They knew Jesus—or they thought they did. This was the kid they had watched grow up, the boy who had worked with his father in the carpenter’s shop. Who was he to think he could just come in and tell them the way it was?
Jesus’ words were harsh, but if it were someone else, they may have been a little easier to digest. But having known Jesus for years, they could not recognize him as a prophet. Certainly not as a messiah.
I wonder if we sometimes have that same problem. Jesus can be too familiar. Too much of a pal, too much “our” guy. Have you ever noticed all the paintings of Jesus that have him as a blond, blue-haired white guy? Have you noticed that we tend to attribute to Jesus good middle-class American values? Making him somebody who could probably serve on the board of the Chamber of Commerce? (No offense to those of you who may be on the chamber.) Familiarity can blind us. Jesus is a friend, yes, a friend who is always with us. But Jesus is not our lackey.
Maybe the bigger issue was resentment that Jesus had taken God’s favor to others – others whom they didn’t care for. Capernaum, where Jesus had already had success, had a strong non-Jewish population. That was one thing. But then his stories about the widow of Zarapeth and Naaman the Syrian were completely uncalled for.
It galled them that Jesus had used their own scriptures against them, turned their own tradition against them. They wanted a manageable Messiah. They did not want someone barging in to remind them of a part of their own tradition that they would just as soon forget: that God’s favor extended beyond the confines of Israel.
At the root of it all, they were offended by God’s grace, grace toward those of whom they did not approve.
And here again, we can be like the folks in Jesus’ hometown. We can feel under siege, like the good people of Nazareth. The world feels out of control, and we want God to be on our side. Like the people of Nazareth, we can be offended by God’s grace, which actually embraces those who are different from us.
We want a predictable messiah. What we don’t want is a savior who will challenge us and maybe even change us.
In his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” preached just a few weeks before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. closed by speaking of how he would want to be remembered. King says not to mention his awards and honors, which in the end are shallow and not really important. But he says,
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
He was referring to Jesus’ words from scripture. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, proclaiming good news to the poor. What this all adds up to is offering God’s grace to folks who are on the outside, grace to those on the margins. Then, as now, that can anger people.
As it was for Jesus, as it was for Martin Luther King, Jr., faithfulness can be costly. King was assassinated in 1968, but there was another tragedy in the King family in 1974. Martin Luther King, Sr. – Daddy King – was preaching at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The church was in the midst of worship when gunshots rang out. A gunman missed King. But the church organist was struck and killed. The organist was Mrs. King.
Colleagues from around the nation came to support the King family, including Gardner Taylor, known as the Dean of African American preachers. Taylor recalled the way the Ebenezer Church members pulled together with its singing hymns of faith, led by the choir who had experienced this great loss, yet gave testimony to its abiding faith.
Taylor visited with King Sr. that week. He recalled:
Midst the tall Georgia pines, in the King family home, touched with the strange stillness of death, I sat with Martin Luther King, Sr., on Tuesday evening. He bit his lips and said, “They killed Martin, [my other son] A.D. is dead, and now they’ve killed Bunch [his wife’s nickname]. “ He stopped awhile. Then he said, clutching my hand, “A.D.’s third son came to me the other day, and he said is going to preach [he was called to ministry].” Then he looked at me and said, “They won’t be able to kill us off.”Jesus’ inaugural sermon did not earn high marks from his hometown congregation – but I have a feeling that Jesus wasn’t in it for the grade. Amen.