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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

February 3, 2013

 Jesus’ Hometown Blues

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30

             The great young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was finally hung by the Nazis just as the war was coming to an end, said preaching “allows the risen Christ to walk among His people.”  That is the aim of preaching.  The preacher’s task is to let Jesus loose in a worshiping community, to allow Jesus to speak.  And as today’s Gospel lesson reminds us, whenever Jesus walks or talks among the people, that is often when things can get rocky and out of control!  Jesus returned to His hometown synagogue in Nazareth, and He is barely three minutes into His sermon when the congregation gets so angry, so “filled with wrath,” that they rise up to put Him out of the city, lead Him to “the brow of a hill” just outside their city, and threaten to throw Him headlong down the cliff.  And all Jesus did was to share with them stories from their own Bible!  What on earth happened?!

            Jesus returned to His own hometown, you may recall, “in the power of the Spirit.”  When He went to the synagogue, “as was His custom,” He stood up to read from the Isaiah scroll, Isaiah 61:1, 2, “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.”  As Jesus closed the scroll, and gave it back to the attendant, every eye was fixed upon Him.  And Jesus began, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  “And all spoke well of Him, and wondered at His gracious words….”  Things start so well for Jesus in His hometown!  What on earth ever happened?!  Why did Jesus feel led to share with them the commonly known proverb, “Truly, I tell you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country”?

            Then Jesus shares with them two Bible stories from their own Scriptures.  One is from the life of the great prophet Elijah, who was sent to a widow in Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to find food and drink.  Remember that the little food and drink she had she shared with Elijah, and “the jar of meal was not spent, nor did the cruse of oil fail.”  Then Jesus tells them of the Syrian general, Namaan, who comes to Elisha suffering from leprosy, and Elisha bids this foreigner to wash seven times in the muddy waters of the Jordan River, where he was cleansed.

            Jesus just shares two Bible stories with them, and they are ready to kill Him!  Why?  Just moments earlier Jesus had read from the Isaiah scroll that they were “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”  Then Jesus will use the same word when He says “no prophet is acceptable in his own country.”  What happened?

            Well, first off, Jesus simply spoke the truth, and sometimes we are offended by the truth.  Did you hear Jesus’ words?  “But the truth is….”  Jesus prefaces His two simple Bible stories with those words.  Then Jesus tells them the truth that God does not just love or choose to heal Jews, but God reaches outside of Israel, even to Sidon or to the hated Syrians to spread His grace and to offer His blessings.  Three months ago our group drove right up to within a couple hundred yards of the Syrian border in Israel.  There are barbed wire topped fences that mark these heavily armed borders even today.  It was chilling to see, and no one in our group will ever forget that border.  But Jesus here reminds His own people in His own hometown that God once healed a Syrian general.  When you would rather hate your enemy than see your enemy as a recipient of God’s favor and grace, such a story becomes an inconvenient truth to hear.  For the folks in Jesus’ own synagogue that day, it was an unbearable truth.

            When he was running for President in 1948, and running what many assumed was a losing campaign to Thomas Dewey, Harry S. Truman would sometimes lose his temper and give in to his anger.  Truman had a temper he wrestled with all his life.  The press would say, “Give ’em hell, Harry!”  Truman once responded, “I don’t give ’em hell.  I tell the truth, and it sounds like hell.” Sometimes the truth, especially the truth about ourselves, isn’t so pretty.  And we do not always want to hear the truth.

            Jesus wanted folks in His own hometown to confront the truth about God.  This truth is that God is free to be gracious to whomever God pleases.  God is free to bless whomever God wills.  We love God’s grace when we consider it as something we have received.  But we don’t always like it so much when God’s grace is offered freely even to those we despise.

            I have just finished reading The President’s Club, a book by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, which tells of the relationships that have existed between the men who have served as United States Presidents.  The best thing about the book is that many men who were bitter rivals and sworn enemies managed over time to become dear and trusted friends.  Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in an election that was bitter and biting.  Many will always believe that Ford lost because he pardoned Richard Nixon, who could not even help Ford politically by simply admitting publically that he had made serious mistakes and broken laws.  Then when Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, President Reagan sent all three men, Ford, Carter and Nixon, on a plane together to attend Sadat’s funeral.  Amidst all the tension, Ford finally said, “This is only going to work if we are Jerry, Jimmy and Dick.”  On the way home Ford and Carter forged a close friendship such that when Gerald Ford died, Jimmy Carter was invited by the family to offer his eulogy.

            I love this story because it could not have happened without the movement of the Holy Spirit.  It provides a wonderful illustration of how the Spirit of God works to break down barriers and to heal hurts.  Jesus was open to that Spirit, and that Spirit, which is always the animating power of God in Luke and Acts, would lead the Church to embrace its mission to both Jew and Gentile.  This Spirit led the Church to be open to any and all.

            But let me add one more observation about the power of the Spirit that was so present in Jesus’ encounter in Nazareth.  Martin Luther said it: “Wherever the Gospel is faithfully preached, demons are set loose.”  The Devil is always at work in the world.  And wherever good is powerfully proclaimed, Evil stands ready to undo it, to confound it, or to confuse it.

            Jesus proclaimed a simple truth.  God loves not only Israel, but also a widow in Sidon and a general in Syria.  You cannot control God’s love.  And people were ready to kill Jesus for it! 

            Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a simple dream that he had, a profoundly Biblical dream, which is why it had so much power, that one day black children and white children “would hold hands” and sing together, “Free at last, free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”  A nation’s conscience was pricked, and a nation’s life was forever changed.  But demons were also set loose, and King was brutally gunned down by hatred.

            So the question this Sunday for us all is, “Are you willing to listen to Jesus, no matter what He says to you?”  “And will you follow Jesus, wherever He leads?”

            I am haunted by how this story ends.  Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on His way.”  Somehow Jesus escaped these blind, bigoted people, and went on His way.  Jesus does not need our approval.  Jesus wants us to follow Him, to heed His call.  And if we fail to heed Jesus’ call, Jesus will not stay and argue with us about it forever.  He will simply “pass right through,” and be “on His way.”  I don’t want to be “left behind” by Jesus.  How about you?

                                                                                    Amen.

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