Jesus is at his hometown preaching in the local synagogue. These are the people who remember him when he was just a kid, running around the neighborhood and playing soccer on the local pitch. But now he’s back as an up and coming rabbi. Word had also gotten around about the healings he had done in neighboring villages. You can feel their anticipation as Jesus took the scroll from the Prophet Isaiah and began reading from it. We didn’t hear that part today—it was last week’s gospel lesson—so I want to remind you of what he read.
A sermon based on Luke 4.
Luke writes, “Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” That’s when they start gushing. “All spoke well of him,” according to Luke. They’re excited about the prospects. And that’s when the hometown buzz ramps up.
And who wouldn’t? When a local kid makes it big, we get excited by association. We hope that they’ll bring attention to our town, and maybe give something back. Perhaps they’ll visit often, and talk about how good the bread is at the local bakery, or the amazing cup of joe at the local coffee shop. We hope they’ll pose for pictures so we can hang them up for all to see. “Is that you with that famous person?” future patrons will ask when they take a look at it. “Yeah, I knew her before she hit it big.” Those ones filling the pews there in the Nazareth hope Jesus will recognize their insider status and take care of them.
Which is what all of us expect, right? We all know that Jesus likes the Red Sox more than those dreaded Yankees. We suspect God can’t stand the people who get on our nerves. The boss with the grating voice; the colleague who always talks about themselves; the ones who don’t understand faith the way we do; the neighbors with the gaudy landscaping. While God might not show it, we know that the Divine shares our thinking about these things and more. We’re clearly the favorites here, and those other people, meh.
And it’s Jesus himself that points out this sort of thinking to the ones assembled on that Saturday morning. He says to them, “Doubtless you will say …. ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And I think some in attendance might have been rubbing their hands together in anticipation, because they had heard about what he had been doing in other places and hoping they’d get those miracles in Nazareth. Except Jesus goes in a completely different direction.
He brings to their attention an instance in the Hebrew scriptures when it wasn’t the hometown favorites—the Israelites—who experienced the miracles. He reminds them of the story of Elijah miraculously helping a widow have enough food for herself and her son in the middle of a severe famine. She was a foreigner, a Gentile, living in modern day Lebanon. She did not follow the Jewish faith. And yet she received God’s abundant blessings, receiving enough food to sustain her throughout the entirety of the three year drought.
Then in order to drive home the point, Jesus also reminds the congregation about the prophet Elisha, how he healed a man with leprosy. Except that that man wasn’t an Israelite either, but a Syrian. And not only that, he was a commanding officer in the Syrian army. He was as far as one could get from being a faithful Jew. Yet God used Elisha to heal Naaman, even though there were countless lepers living in Israel. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Well, no kidding, Jesus. Especially when you take the time to remind them that their special status means absolutely nothing.
With these words the crowd gets so enraged that they descend upon Jesus in order to throw him off the side of a hill. According to people who’ve been there, it’s not really a cliff as Luke describes, but more of a steep, sloped area. Here’s how Pastor Katie Hines-Shah describes what happens next: “Jesus escapes—if not certain death, then at least certain bruising—but how? Luke includes a tantalizing detail: Jesus goes through ‘the middle.’ He refuses to be caught in the binary trap. He is not pro-Jew and anti-Samaritan. He’s not pro-Capernaum and anti-Nazareth. He won’t be pinned down as supporter of any political party or football team. Jesus will not … be contained.”
But friends how we like to contain Jesus. We like to make God in our own image. To have God vote like us, and dress like us, and look like us, and live like us, and respond like us. Because it’s easier to believe in a God like that who doesn’t challenge our thinking or our allegiances or the ways we live or spend our money. It’s easier to follow the God who is a hometown hero rather than the one who loves indiscriminately.
Which is what this is really all about, of course. We don’t really think God should be quite so freewheeling with all that love. Because if you show love to someone who’s got it all wrong when it comes to their voting record or is from the wrong part of the world or worships differently than us, well then they might think that God actually cares about them too. That they are loved. But we know that can’t be the case, right?
Jesus just goes on refusing to be contained in our small boxes. He continues to surprise us. He keeps on showing love to anyone and everyone. Love that is patient and kind. Love that doesn’t boast or get envious or arrogant. Love that isn’t irritable, or resentful, or demand its own way. Instead this kind of love rejoices rejoices when truth and justice are uncovered; love that lifts people up rather than pushing them down. And love like that, St. Paul tells us, is what we should be aiming for. We, as the followers of Jesus, are called to love in that way, just like him.
We know there’s too much division in our world. Too much hate and separation, and rooting for hometown teams or our preferred political parties, and not enough love. Jesus refuses to get caught up in that mindset. He walks through the middle when we try to come and throw him over the cliff when we realize he’s not exclusively on our side.
And he simply reminds us that God’s love is bigger than that. God’s love is larger than we imagine. The love of the Holy One goes beyond borders and allegiances and religious persuasions and, yes, even baseball teams. Jesus ushered in a new reality where the blind and the poor and the captives and the oppressed and all who are cast down would recognize—would know deep in their souls—that they too are beloved children of God. That is what the era of the Lord’s favor looks like. That is the kingdom Jesus established. May we come to know that love more deeply, and to trust that Jesus always loves more than we can ever imagine.