January 31, 2010
Text: Luke 4:21-30
There’s a story of an evangelist at the turn of the century who was visiting a town as the guest preacher. In the course of delivering his message, the preacher talked about graft and corruption in the town council. After the service, some of the church elders sent the preacher a note saying, “Please just focus on spiritual matters. Don’t delve into our earthly affairs. You have rubbed the fur the wrong way.” After getting the note, the preacher returned a note that said, “If I have rubbed the fur the wrong way, tell the cat to turn around.”
I get the distinct impression that Jesus Christ rubbed people the wrong way from time to time. Take for example today’s reading which tells of the time when He preached His inaugural sermon in Nazareth. Some of His hearers were so upset by His message that they tried to throw Him off a cliff. That’s what you call a hostile audience. I’ve heard of people throwing tomatoes at speakers, but I have never heard of a crowd trying to murder the preacher.
Why were they offended? What was so irritating about Jesus’ message that day?
A bit earlier in chapter 4, Jesus declares that the time had come for the blind to see, the oppressed to be given freedom and the captives to be released.
What’s wrong with that? In general, that stuff sounds OK. What made it sticky is when Jesus pointed to Himself and identified Himself as the fulfillment of the old promises. He said, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
When the gospel was vague generalities, it was inoffensive, innocuous, unproblematic. It required nothing of us. It made no change and had no impact in our lives. It’s the same way today. The world is content to hear about peace and love and joy and goodness, as long as it can be left vague, left vague enough to be open to wide interpretation. It’s not until we get to specifics that we risk stepping on toes.
It’s like the way the secular elements in American society view Christmas. They approve of Christmas when it’s just a seasonal holiday, full of cheer and general feelings of fraternal good will. But when the Church reminds the world that Jesus is the reason for the season, that He is the source of all that cheer and good will, then we get the cold shoulder.
Let’s talk about giving sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. No one can really stand in opposition to that. But Jesus goes further. The Kingdom of God was no longer to be seen as some hypothetical cloudy possibility that might arrive someday, maybe.
The Jews knew full well that this piece of scripture in Isaiah was referring to the reign of the Messiah. And it’s a lovely passage. We can all agree. But when Jesus made the preposterous claim that He Himself is the fulfillment of the promises, that He Himself is the Messiah among them in the flesh, that was a problem. That’s what made this occasion so radical.
The text says that they were amazed that Jesus would be so cheeky. “Isn’t this boy who grew up around here, whose family we know,” they said. As the old saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
To top it off, Jesus knows what they’re thinking, and He cites two Old Testament examples of God’s grace being extended to foreigners. The Jews understood themselves to be God’s chosen people. To them were given the law, the Temple, the covenant. Jesus is saying that the He comes today with salvation and if pious citizens of Nazareth weren’t going to accept Him, then He’ll bring salvation to those who would. To say that the people in Luke 4 took God for granted would be an understatement. When we take God for granted, He will remove His Spirit from us and go to another place.
It’s very interesting when you look through history at the advancement of the Christian Church. In the early years, Christianity was strong in Israel, the Middle East, Turkey and North Africa. Nowadays, the churches there are few and weak. Next the Church grew and become influential in Europe. But in most of Europe, the Church now is little more than a museum. Then the center of gravity of Christianity appeared to move from there to North America. But nowadays, we can observe a decline in the Church’s vitality in our land. Where is the Spirit of God most active today? Some observers would say that South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia are the places where Christianity is thriving the most. Our Lord despises lukewarm-ness. When people fail to recognize God’s work, He tends to go to people who will appreciate Him.
The people of Nazareth had grown complacent. They’d begun to take pride in their rich heritage and their culture while losing track of what it all meant.
Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. And lost. How does something like that happen? It happens because people get an image in their mind of what Charlie Chaplin is supposed to look like and then they don’t recognize the real man when he stands in front of them.
I think something similar happens with Jesus. People develop a mental picture of the Messiah or they have a very particular idea of what God should be like and then they are frustrated when He turns out to be something else.
The Scriptures reveal Jesus as a suffering servant. And if you want to get a crystal clear picture of who God is, you don’t look within, you don’t look to the heavens, you look to the cross, particularly a crucifix. For it is Jesus hanging, bleeding, suffering, dying on the cross that shows us the true heart of God. He is One who lays down His life for sinners.
This passage reveals Jesus to be rather revolutionary. He is coming to upset the establishment and declare solidarity with people who have been kept to the margins. But He is not a revolutionary in the sense of Che Guevara or the Bolsheviks who talked about social upheaval, and creating a worldly Utopia. Jesus is revolutionary but He did not come to re-arrange our economic and political systems. He came to liberate us from the tyranny of death.
Woody Allen once commented, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Well, guess what Woody, we can’t avoid the subject so easily. Sometimes, as a coping mechanism, people make jokes about what scares them. Jesus Christ rose from the dead. He is alive and He is the ruler of the cosmos. You who eat His body and drink His blood, know this. Christ is in you and you are in Him. His life is within you and you will live forever.
There is no question that Jesus can be an irritant. The Word of God is, at times, intrusive. It is disruptive. It interferes. It can be inconvenient, unwelcome, even unwanted. But the next time God’s Word rubs you the wrong way, consider if perhaps you are the one who needs to turn around. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
January 31, 2010