Probably most of you know my pastoral ministry history and background, particularly since I reference experiences from it quite a bit. Beyond that, it is not a long list of places. After growing up in northwest New Jersey, I went to college in Philadelphia and seminary in Dallas. So merely a decade after graduating from high school, I was back in my small NJ hometown as a pastor for a period of 11 years before moving here to Maryland in 1994. One of my favorite wisecracks about those 11 years is to say that “I had more success in my hometown than Jesus did in his.” No, the situations aren’t exactly apples to apples, I realize that.
To understand today’s passage we have to get back into the sandals of people living in Galilee at this time under Roman domination. For about 2,000 years there have been hopes and promises of a coming Messiah who will achieve wondrous blessing for the nation. The years came; the years went. Many claimed to be the guy; even more hoped that characters like John the Baptist could be the guy.
There is a saying about government right now that is much in vogue – the “swamp.” Wherever you are on the political spectrum, the general pattern has been to have high hopes after elections, only to see nothing really change that much for the better, often because of the intrenched in the swamp. And so it was with the Jewish people of the time. All they could remember were squashed hopes of freedom and disappointments when nothing ever really transpired, in spite of the grand words of promise.
After his baptism, Jesus begins to teach in synagogues in Galilee. In a synagogue service there were readings from both the Law and the Prophets. After these, a speaker would teach to give the meaning of the passages. Jesus was doing this from place to place, and now he was in his hometown of Nazareth, appearing for the first time with a bit of a growing resume.
Luke 4:14 – Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.
Sometimes in the synagogue there were prescribed readings, as the Scriptures were broken down into sections so that they would all be covered in a given period of time. Or, on other occasions, the person to speak might also choose his own passage. It sounds like the latter happened here, though perhaps the prescribed reading for that day, by God’s sovereign plan, happened to be in Isaiah 61 (as we know the reference) …
Luke 4:16 – He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[Isaiah 61:1,2]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Whoa! Wow! That’s it? How’s that for a sermon that gets right to the point! This passage anticipating the Messiah to come was at this moment being fulfilled in their presence and in their hearing by seeing and listening to the words of Jesus.
We need to understand that the meanings of some of these words and contexts have a double anticipation. Yes, Jesus would preach of serving the poor and would give sight to the physically blind (proving his divine authority), but beyond that were the spiritual fulfillments of those who were impoverished now being rich in grace and salvation, with those spiritually blind now able to see the truth of God’s grand work.
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
There is a very mixed reaction. Without doubt, his preaching and authoritative proclamation was impressive. But nagging at the local crowd with equal or greater attention was the fact that he was the kid who grew up as the carpenter’s son in a very average setting. Jesus knew it was one thing to enjoy a great speaker, but quite another to make life changes of repentance and discipleship to follow him as the Christ …
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
Jesus knew they would largely reject the message and reject him. This would ultimately be true throughout Israel, but doubly true in his hometown. He reminds them of a time in the nation’s history that was the lowest of lows … in the era of Elijah and Elisha. The disbelief was so pervasive that miracles were only done in Gentile regions. For Jesus to apply this to the generation hearing his words was too much for them to hear – ridiculous ideas of them being condemned and Gentiles being privileged. Such a heretical teacher should be tossed off a cliff, even if he was a hometown boy. But Jesus was not yet to be sacrificed, and he by some miraculous manner walks right through them (I would love to go back in a time machine and see how that happened!).
The truth of the gospel message is the truth, then and now. The call to follow Jesus with all of one’s life reverberates to our day. Like the Nazarenes, we might enjoy the occasional great sermon, yet blow off the implications that call us to serious life change and discipleship. The window of time to respond is just that – a window, open now, but to be closed at some point, maybe soon.
2 Corinthians 6:1-2 – As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” [from Isaiah 49:8] I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.