In Luke 4 we read that, after his temptation, Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and he taught in a number of Galilean synagogues. And the people who heard him “glorified” him, and talked him up to all their friends and neighbors. That word glorified is an interesting one. It means that people put Jesus on a pedestal and said he was special. At this juncture in the ministry of Jesus, this mean that people were already calling Jesus a prophet, like Elijah, or Elisha, or one of the other Spirit empowered prophets of old.
Now it was not long before Jesus came to the village of Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day.
I think it is interesting that Jesus had “the custom” or “the habit” of going to the synagogue on the Sabbath. This is important for two reasons:
First, it means that Jesus was a student before he was a teacher. We read in Luke 2:18 that the boy Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and humankind. I think it is safe to say that Jesus never stopped growing intellectually. He was a life-long learner. Jesus was a student before he was a teacher. Second, it means that Jesus did not have to waste time with small decisions. At some point, he made a decision that he would go to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He did not have to get up on the Sabbath and debate whether he was going, he just went, and his habit put Jesus in touch with what God was doing in that particular synagogue on that particular Sabbath. Some people think that having a habit is a bad thing; they want originality every-time. That is wrong. In his book, “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg points out that a researcher at Duke University has found that about 40 percent of everything that we do everyday single day—from breathing to brushing our teeth, is based upon habit. This habitual behavior frees us up for making the important decisions of life. Duhigg adds that, according to William James, our cravings drive our habits. Jesus went to the synagogue every Sabbath because he had a craving for God and what God was doing in the world. In John 4:34 he said, “My very food is to will of God and to accomplish his work.” What better place to find God that in God’s house, among God’s people, listening for God’s Word.
On this long ago Sabbath, in Nazareth, when it came time hear the Scriptures, Jesus stood up to read. And he was given the book of the prophet Isaiah. And opened the book, and found the place where it was written:
18 “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 heal the broken hearted*, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
In selecting this text, Jesus announced the dawn of the kingdom of God, come down from heaven to the earth. After he finished reading, Jesus closed the book of the prophet, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him when he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And immediately, the people in attendance began to speak about Jesus in excited tones. They all spoke well of him, and they wondered at the gracious words which he had spoken, and they said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Meaning, perhaps, “Where did the son of a carpenter get such hutzpah!”, or, perhaps, “Wouldn’t his daddy be proud?”
Of course, Jesus was not done. When the text says that Jesus “sat down,” this does not mean that he sat down and shut-up. In those days, a rabbi “sat down” to teach. Jesus was just getting started. He looked around at the people who had been praising him and he said to them:
“I have no doubt that you will quote me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Help your own cause! We heard you did some pretty marvelous things over in Caper-na-um, and we would like to see you do the same things here.’”
“Well, the truth is, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. Remember, in the days of Elijah the prophet, there were many widows in Israel, and it did not rain for three and one half years, and there was a great famine all over the land; and Elijah was sent to none of those Jewish widows, but only to, Zarephath, a Gentile woman, in the land of Sidon, who was a widow, too. And in the time of Elisha the prophet, there were many lepers in Israel, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
In other words, Jesus stood up in his own synagogue, which was located in his own home town, and told the very people who had gathered to praise him that they did not have a monopoly on God. He told them that God was just as likely to help someone else, even a gentile, as God was likely to help them.
And when the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with wrath. And they rose up out of their seats, and they put Jesus out of synagogue, and out of the city, they and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, and they intended to throw him down the hill, headlong. That means they intended for him to land on his head, and perhaps even be killed; but, Jesus, passing through the midst of them he went away.
This last, remarkable sentence, makes Jesus sound a little bit like one of the late Stan Lee’s superheroes. I think it likely that Dr. Luke wants us to see something miraculous in Jesus’s narrow escape.
But what does this text mean for us today? There are several things I see as parallel.
1. First, I cannot help but note that this text is the assigned lesson for my second Sunday back at Fries. I almost have to draw a parallel. I did’t grow up here, but there still a few people here who rightly think that this congregation helped me to grow up into ministry. I will not deny that. Fries Memorial trained and shaped me for nine years before sending me out to New Philadelphia for the next thirty year. Now, like a bad penny, I just keep turning up! I really enjoyed last Sunday. After the service, a number of people told me how glad they were that I was back, even for a short while. And several people told me I had a good sermon—though some said it was more than a little long. One person even told me that I reminded them of my daddy. “You’re Norwood’s boy, alright.” they said. You even had a reception for me! All in all, you treated me a lot better than the synagogue at Nazareth treated Jesus.
2. Second, it is pretty obvious from the text that Jesus was not afraid to say things that upset his congregation, things they needed to hear. He told them that the kingdom of God was bigger than the nation of Israel.
I am going to be here from three to six months, it is my sincere desire that it might be a pleasant time for all of us, that we might mutually encourage one another. I hope that can leave you on the same happy note I returned to you. But just suppose I did have to say something unpleasant: How would you respond? Let me give you just a taste.
I spent last week thinking about what a difference 30 years can make. The year before I came here for the first time way-back in 1979, the congregation was averaged117 people in worship. We were a pretty good team, and good things happened. The year before I left in 1988, the congregation was averaged 172 people in worship. In nine years we grew our attendance by a little over one-third. Now last year your average attendance was around 45. Suppose you have several dedicated part-time pastors over the next nine years, which is your plan. If you grow by only 1/3 your average attendance will be just over 60. In nine years? Is that what you want?
Now that is pretty discouraging, so let me say something I believe to be encouraging. Jesus said that wherever two or three are gathered to gather in his name, he would be present with them. This means that even two or three people can support one another, and encourage one another in Jesus name. And it may be that they can reach another with the grace, love, joy and hope that is ours in Christ. And that other may turn out to be a tremendous force for the kingdom of God. After all, it is easier to count the number of apples on a single apple tree than it is to count the number of apple trees in a single apple seed.
Numbers are not everything; but, that said, when it comes to sustaining a congregation, numbers are important. All of which means if we try to do things they way we did things 30 years ago, we will never achieve what I believe you want to achieve here at Fries Memorial.
If we are going to what I believe you want to achieve here at Fries, we have got to be open to trying new things, and that means we have got to be open to change. Change is always scary. Let me tell you something that is scarier still. One of the reasons I came back here as an interim pastor was because I thought enough of you would remember me and trust me, that I might be the person to start you down that road to change. I am risking a lot, including the good opinion you once held of me. What did Machiavelli say:
“… there is nothing more doubtful of success, more dangerous to manage, or more difficult to carry out, than to take the lead in initiating a new order of things…”
3. I have a third point Don’t give up hope. Remember, Jesus said, “With men (some things) are impossible; but all things are possible with God.” Jesus showed the people of God in his day a new way forward. In those days Jews were the people of God; and, at that time, they held some remarkably hurtful attitudes. Three times a day, a good Jew prayed, “O, Lord, I thank thee that I am not a woman, a leper, or a Gentile.” Then Jesus turned the world upside down. Not only did Jesus lift the status of women to the point that the St. John tells us that first apostle, the apostle to the apostles was a woman, Mary Magdalene. And not only did Jesus cleanse lepers, restoring them to their family and friends and humanity in general, where they could offer their gifts to the body of Christ and to the kingdom of God. But, according to Dr. Luke, Jesus swung the doors of God’s family and God’s kingdom wide open to the Gentiles. The culture wars were just beginning. The people of God did not embrace the Gentiles all at once. We know from Acts 15 that it was more than 20 years later when the first Apostolic Council ruled that a Gentile did not have to first become a Jew before becoming a Christian. Of course, eventually, Gentiles were accepted along side believing Jews as citizens of the kingdom of God. It is a good thing we were. Today there are at most 15 million Jews in the world, and there are more than than 2.4 billion Christians in the world.
I have no idea what we will have to do here at Fries to achieve the kind of success I believe that you want for this church, but I know it begins by swinging wide the doors of this church, and the doors of our hearts, to admit, love and affirm, anyone who dares to come among us, seeking the kingdom of God, and the King who reigns over it, Jesus Christ.
Worth Green, Th.M., D. Min.
*The King James Version includes the phrase “to heal the broken hearted.” The RSV and NRSV, based on older manuscripts do not. I have re-instated it mostly because I like it. However, there is another reason. The phrase is original to Isaiah 61, and if Jesus read the text of Isaiah 61, it is likely he included it. Especially since there seems to be no pressing point that he is making by leaving it out. Perhaps we will someday find an even older manuscript than those used by the RSV and NRSV that includes it. Admittedly, this is a fanciful exercise, but, as I said, like the phrase “to heal the broken hearted” to be included. Jesus certainly healed a lot of broken hearts in the days of his flesh. He still does. WNG