Sunday’s sermon: Great Expectations?

Text used – Luke 4:14-30

  • I want to set the scene for you this morning, so imagine this with me, if you will.
    • Setting: 1st synagogue → large open room, simple table for scrolls in the center, multi-level platforms for seating built into the edges of the room, dirt floor under your feet, wood beam and thatched reed roof over your head, colorful frescos adorn the walls all around you[1]
    • Your family and your neighbors have all gathered for worship → men, women, and children sit intermingled on the benches
      • Talking amongst themselves and laughing before the service begins
        • Sharing news of the village
        • Sharing news of their families
        • Sharing news of the latest escapades of the Roman occupiers
    • Before the service starts, the chief priest chooses members from the congregation to participate in today’s worship → participants are notified by one of the synagogues attendants[2]
      • Some reading → prayers, passages from the law (7), passage from the prophets
      • One translator (if need be) from the biblical Hebrew to a language the congregation could understand
      • One to preach
      • So while you sit there with your family waiting for the service to begin, you watch the attendant out of the corner of your eye as he moves throughout the room, notifying those who have been chosen by the chief priest to read for today. (He glances in your direction, and you quickly look away, silently praying that today is not your day. Your little ones were up at all hours last night, and you don’t feel like you got nearly enough sleep to be able to read the sacred text without stumbling this morning.)
    • Service begins, opening with those ancient words of prayer that have long brought a balm to the soul of you and your ancestors before you → feel yourself relax and become swept up in the cadence of the familiar responses → with your family, friends, and neighbors all around you, you lift your voice to declare the greatness of God
    • Readings begin
      • One by one, men and women rise to read the 7 passages of the law, interpreted now and again into Aramaic by yet another of your neighbors
      • Then, you see a young man stand up. He’s toward the front of the congregation, so you can’t immediately see his face as he stands and walks toward the attendant and reaches out his hand to take the scroll of the prophets, but when he turns around, you recognize this man. He’s the carpenter’s son – Joseph’s boy. And you find yourself excited. This is that Jesus that everyone’s been whispering about. You’ve heard about the things that this young man has been doing throughout the region – teaching, healing, and so on. As he begins to read, you recognize the words of the prophet Isaiah, though you realize something about them sounds just a bit different today. The words aren’t quite the same, and something about the way Joseph’s son reads them grabs your attention like nothing ever has before. There is conviction in his voice. There is a power in his voice. There is a tone of understanding and comprehension that lends itself to confidence. Somehow, he makes you believe that he knows what he’s reading in a way no one ever has before. And when he’s done reading, he rolls the scroll back up, hands it back to the attendant, and goes back and sits down … but you and the rest of those in the synagogue with you can tell that he is not finished.
    • Jesus begins to speak: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”[3] → And you feel excitement rush through you because you know what this means. Isaiah prophesied the coming of the Messiah – the warrior king from the line of David who would marshal the nation of Israel behind him, storm the Roman oppressors, and finally bring a new freedom to his people … your people. Your heart soars at the thought of finally being free! But Jesus is not done: “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’ But I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown.”[4]
      • Jesus continues his speech about how the great prophets Elijah and Elisha both performed incredible miracles for Others … for Outsiders … not for the people of Israel but for foreigners and strangers → And something in your spirit breaks a little out of sheer and utter disappointment. Clearly, this mere local can’t be the Messiah. He hasn’t come to deliver you all from bondage to freedom. He won’t even help his own neighbors and family out with a little healing and a few well-placed miracles!
    • And you start to hear the muttering and grumbling among those around you rise in volume and fervor. They’re disappointed just like you are. They’re frustrated just like you are. They’re angry just like you are. And as the temper within the crowd continues to rise, everyone begins to rise and to crowd Jesus out of the synagogue. If he doesn’t want to help those who nurtured him and taught him and watched him grow into a man, fine! Nazareth doesn’t need radicals like him. Nazareth doesn’t want radicals like him around causing trouble and making claims he can’t back up!
      • You follow the crowd – which is getting angrier by the minute – as they herd Jesus out of town → realize they’re leading him to the top of one of many rocky outcropping around the city → realize that some in the crowd are so worked up by Jesus’ words that they’re getting ready to throw him off the cliff, something that definitely makes you uncomfortable → But before you can think what to do, you realize that Jesus has somehow passed through the angry mob unscathed and is walking away. You were standing right here. He must have walked right past you. And yet you have no idea what happened. And as you watch him walk slowly and deliberately down the hill and away from Nazareth, you can’t help but wonder: Who is this Jesus, really? What is he doing? What is he about?
  • To understand this passage best, we need to understand the context a bit more, so let’s do a little digging
    • First, let’s talk about the timeline of things a little bit.
      • Luke’s gospel (what we just read): story appears directly after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness → Jesus gets up out of the waters of the River Jordan after being baptized by John and goes immediately out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights of fasting, praying, and temptation by Satan.[5]
        • From that, we go straight into today’s passage: Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read.[6] → So according to Luke, Jesus did some traveling and teaching around Galilee (presumably by himself because Luke hasn’t introduced any of the disciples yet), then heads back to Nazareth for a bit and has this encounter in the synagogue.
      • Matthew’s and Mark’s versions of this story = a bit different
        • Story comes later in both gospels (Mt: 13; Mk: 6) so Jesus has had more time to build up quite a reputation before he returns home to Nazareth
          • Healings
          • Casting out demons
          • Teachings (parables, etc.)
          • Even squared off against the Pharisees once or twice
          • Already stopped the storm by this time in Mk[7]
          • Already preached the Sermon on the Mount in Mt[8]
      • Even the passage from Luke that we read today gives a nod to at least some of Jesus’ miraculous actions in other places. Jesus himself says to the crowd in the synagogue, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’”[9] So clearly Jesus already has a reputation.
    • Yet despite that reputation, he doesn’t perform in Nazareth as they’ve heard he has everywhere else. And the hometown crowd is sorely disappointed (to say the least!). → all gospel accounts of this story are harsh … but not in the same way
      • Lk’s account that we read today = harsh in that they try to kill Jesus – text: They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff.[10] → undoubtedly an angry, violent mob
      • Mt’s and Mk’s accounts don’t include this homicidal detail or even an account of Jesus in the synagogue
        • Like Lk: both mention his quote about prophets being rejected in their hometowns
        • UNlike Lk: both include a judgment on the people of Nazareth
          • Mt’s last line for this passage: [Jesus] was unable to do many miracles there because of their disbelief.[11]
          • Mk’s last line: [Jesus] was appalled by their disbelief.[12]
          • Gr. “disbelief” in both passages is the same word = unfaithfulness or lack of faith → implies more than just an intellectual disbelief or even a simple ignorance but implies an intentional involvement of the heart, a deliberate turning away
            • Gr. word = root of the word “apostate”: someone who renounces their faith
  • This is all important because it helps us understand the distress of the crowds in this passage. They knew what Jesus had been doing (at least to some extent), and with that knowing came some pretty high and ambitious expectations, some long-held and deep-seated expectations, some expectations wrapped up in cultural and religious beliefs. The crowd was waiting for and hoping for and anticipating the Messiah … but not the kind of Messiah that Jesus came to be.
    • Israelite notion of Messiah = proud, strong warrior who would lead them to victory in battle against those who oppressed them (Romans) → return of a king like David
      • Sword in his hand
      • Tactical plans on his mind
      • Battle cry in his throat
    • But Jesus came to save, not just the nation of Israel from the tyranny of the Romans but to save all people from the tyranny of death and a lifetime in broken relationship with God. Jesus came to embody not the power and strength of a mighty warrior but the power and strength of God’s unconditional love and unsurpassable grace. Jesus came not to whip up and exploit the people’s hatred of the Other – the other nation, the other culture, the other’s scattered along the margins of society – but to reach bridge that hatred and reach out to the Other, making sure they all knew that there was a place for them, too, in God’s Kingdom. → that’s where Jesus’ examples come in in his speech in the synagogue
      • Elijah’s miracle saved the widow of Zarephath and her son from starvation[13] → saved an outsider, not a widow of Israel
      • Elisha’s miracle healed Naaman’s skin disease, an army commander from Syria[14] → healed an outsider, not a man of Israel
    • You see, the problem in this story comes not from Jesus or his actions but from the expectations of the crowd – expectations that were both inflated and too narrow at the same time: inflated in their worldliness, too narrow in their holiness. And yet this misguided expectation is exactly the good news that we proclaim: that Jesus came to live among us, God Incarnate, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, extended God’s amazing love and grace to all people, freeing them from all bondage and laying out a path of compassion, inclusion, and hope instead of a path of hatred, retaliation, and fear. So friends, what are your expectations today? What are your expectations for yourself? For your community? For God? And where is God trying to broaden and deepen those expectations? Where is God trying to nudge you to recognize a more encompassing, more grace-filled expectation? Amen.

[1] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reconstructed_First-century_Synagogue_(5806655244).jpg.

[2] Ernest DeWitt Burton. “The Ancient Synagogue Service” in The Biblical World, Aug. 1896, vol. 8, no. 2 (Aug., 1896). 144, 146. Found at https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3140264.pdf.

[3] Lk 4:21.

[4] Lk 4:23-24.

[5] Lk 4:1-13.

[6] Lk 4:14-16.

[7] Mk 4:35-41.

[8] Mk 5-7.

[9] Lk 4:23.

[10] Lk 4:29.

[11] Mt 13:58.

[12] Mk 6:6.

[13] 1 Kgs 17:7-16.

[14] 2 Kgs 5:1-19a.

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