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Jesus shows up in his hometown, in Nazareth, and the first thing he does is to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day to preach. I imagine the people there are fairly excited, like the people in a seminarian’s home congregation on their first visit back from school. This is a kid that they have known since he was a child. Jesus is 30 years old now, and he’s beginning to get a little notoriety. The people of his hometown are glad to welcome him back, the hometown boy done good. Maybe he should preach the sermon they told us at seminary that we should preach our first time home.
They said that at seminary you are going to learn a whole bunch of fancy terms, Greek translations, Hebrew words, names of Church Fathers and theologians and philosophers from Aristotle to Augustine, from Anslem to Abelard. (Why do they all start with A?) You will learn all of it, and then you will want to use it when you preach. And what they said at seminary was, use it. Once.
Use it the first sermon you preach when you go home to your home congregation. Prove to them that you have received the great education that they sent you to get, prove to them that their investment in you was worth it. And then never drop another name again.
Do not, under any circumstances, try to preach any other sermon in your life, on the topic of the metaphysical juxtaposition of ontology and anthropology in the writings of Athanasius (another A).
But this first time, this first trip home, the people of Nazareth won’t mind if he sprinkles some fancy words and drops a few names in his sermon. Heck, it’ll reflect well on them that they’ve got such a big-shot affiliated with their town.
And if he keeps on growing in wisdom and in years, in divine and human favor, the way that Luke says, then, hey, the people of Nazareth stand to benefit! So they’re pretty pleased with him. Check it out, he doesn’t even need to read from the scroll, he doesn’t even need really to speak.
As far as they’re concerned, the super short sermon he has just preached is the proof that this guy gets them! Home in time for the Super Bowl! That’s our boy! All he has to do is show up, demonstrate that Nazareth is still his hometown, demonstrate that these are his people, and they’ll be happy.
Because if it turns out that this guy is the Messiah, Nazareth is bound to get the best of the Messiah’s reign. Maybe he’ll set up court here, bring in money, jobs, new sources of wealth, not to mention the favor of God! No wonder the people are thrilled when he picks up the scroll of Isaiah, and reads this very passage, from Isaiah 61.
As we heard last week, Jesus reads this passage from Isaiah, “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 stops there. And the people are riveted.
This is exactly what they had been waiting to hear! The year of the Lord’s favor! That’s what Nazareth has been longing for, waiting for, yearning for, ever since the Romans came, ever since the Babylonians came, ever since the Assyrians came, hundreds if not thousands of years of longing for a year of favor!
Because let’s face it, it is a hard-knocked life in Nazareth. The town sits above the Sea of Galilee, on the top of a very steep cliff, where it’s easier to defend. Below Nazareth stretches the Jordan valley, which turns from lush green to scrub desert within a matter of miles, dropping quickly down to the harsh salt flats of the Dead Sea. In a good year, there is plenty, but it does not take much to upset the delicate balance, and shift the desert northward, to put the tang of salt in your nostrils and the taste of dust on your tongue. Add to that invasion after invasion, out here at the edge of civilization.
From the top of that cliff today, you can see the Golan Heights. In Jesus’ day you would have seen the hills of Nineveh, the mountains of Babylon, the lands of the Philistines, of Zarepheth of Sidon. In other words, then as now, you could see the invaders coming from all sides, and you knew before even the people of Jerusalem that war was upon you, and that no one was coming to your aid. Nazareth was, is, a hard place to live.
So when Jesus proclaims the words of Isaiah, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” and then sits there and tells their eager, excited faces, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” these people are thinking, “finally! Some justice for us! some relief for us! some favor. For us!” And they forget the rest of the story, the stories of Elijah and the widow of Zarapheth, and of Elisha and the leper Naaman.
So Jesus reminds them. The bad news of the good news. Good news: this is the year of our Lord’s favor. Bad news: it’s not just for you. God’s grace is not yours alone.
Jesus is bringing the change that Isaiah spoke of, turning the world upside down, as Hannah and Zechariah and Mary sang. But that change doesn’t just affect those who know Jesus intimately, it doesn’t just affect those who raised him, those who changed his nappies, those who sent him off to seminary. The change that Jesus brings, it’s not just for those who have accepted him as their personal savior. It’s not just for those who show up in church every Sunday. It’s not just for those of us who think we have this God-business figured out.
It is change for the whole world. And for the people of Nazareth, maybe for us, that feels like bad news.
This is why my pastor in Seattle so often said that he believed it might not be possible both to preach the gospel and to grow the church at the same time. Because if the good news comes to our enemies, too, is it really good news? If I have to share God’s favor with everyone, if I don’t get to choose whom God rewards, and whom God punishes do I want God’s favor? The people of Nazareth answer honestly, if nothing else. They don’t want it.
Jesus has reminded them of what they already know, really. God is not only the God of Nazareth. God is not only the God of Galilee. God is not even only the God of Israel. God is the God of all nations, and this good news is not going to be contained. This good news is not going to be used to lift one up over the other. This good news is not going to draw lines, to reinforce boundaries, to separate people from one another because of class or race or gender or age or disability or sexuality or denomination or religion or any other thing that we care to come up with. This good news is going to tear down all those walls and cross all those lines and break all those boundaries, and it is going to freak us right out.
That’s what it did to the people of Nazareth, it scared them and it made them angry, so angry that they were blinded by fear, blinded by rage, ready to throw their own kin right off the top of that cliff. So blinded by their fear and their rage that they could not even see Jesus moving through the midst of them, as he walked away.
Change is scary. There’s no question. The world has changed. The Church has changed. The culture has changed. Our community has changed. Our families have changed. You’ve changed. I’ve changed.
Change happens. And we can lament and mourn about that change. We can be scared and angry, that’s fine. But the last thing we should do is to get so scared, so blind with rage, that we forget the most important thing. That Jesus is right here in our midst. And that has not changed. And that today, today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing.
Yes, things are changing, and you may not like the way they look afterwards. You may find yourself sitting next to a widow from Zarapheth, or an Assyrian leper; You may discover that God’s table includes those you would never expect, maybe even those you never wanted to find there. Catholics, Baptists, or even Buddhists. You may find that God’s table is far bigger than you had ever imagined, and that you are not entirely comfortable with the other people you find there, and you would rather pick and choose who gets to sit at this table.
But that is exactly the point. God’s table is huge, and that has never changed. God’s table includes all, and that has never changed. God’s table is rooted in the love of God for you. And that has never changed. What has changed is our perception of that table. What has changed is our ability to see that table.
Change is scary. But the most important thing that Jesus told the people of Nazareth, though they were too afraid to hear it, too angry to see it; the most important thing that he tells us, if we have ears to hear; the most important thing is that God is here. God is here, among you, working in and through this change.
God has chosen to become one of you, to walk among you, to be in your midst, to walk through this changing world, and to walk with you as you change, too. When you look past your fear and your rage, you will see that God is here. And when you can see that, the change is not so scary.
It might even be a blessing.
It might even be the year of the Lord’s favor.