January 30, 2022
I got a little ahead of myself last week when Meg read the first part of this story from Luke. But it does seem strange that the lectionary would split the story in two like this. So just to remind you what has happened… Jesus has returned to his home synagogue in Nazareth… a place where he was raised and is well-known… the scroll from Isaiah is given to him… he stands and reads… “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.” Great words. In context, these are words from later Isaiah… our chapter 61… harking back to the Servant Songs that are in Isaiah… these visions of the coming Messiah.
Now let me point out some details from the reading and fix them in your mind… because this is a well-known scene… we’ve imagined it many times… but it’s funny how certain assumptions build up. I know it may sound weird, but I think sometimes we believe this is the first time Jesus speaks these words aloud. That’s the drama. He reads these words and suddenly the aha lightbulb goes off… the “me” he is talking about… the “me” is he. He’s talking about himself… and by extension… only himself. Prophecy… that forward future seeing understanding of prophecy is being fulfilled! And we are filled with awe and amazement. Now maybe… maybe that’s only how my imagination works… but I have my doubts. I want to pop that amazed and gob smacked balloon by pointing out that… instead of what we might have imagined… instead of what we might have assumed… Jesus does not stand up and walk over to the different scrolls… choose this specific one… finds those particular sentences and starts reading... no… instead he stands to read… probably like he has stood to read many many times before in this very synagogue with these same gathered people over the years… he is handed this scroll of the prophet of Isaiah… which was also read from many many times before… maybe by Jesus… definitely by others… these exact words. How many times has this group gathered and read… and then after the reading sat and discussed the meaning of these words? How many times have they possibly even talked about how these words go beyond a single individual and may be talking about something else?
But I’m getting ahead of myself… because something different happens this time… and that’s where today’s reading begins with verse 21 of chapter 4.
Again… we need to be careful with our imaginations and assumptions of how this all plays out. Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And this congregation… maybe very much like our congregation when we read scripture… especially scripture that inspires us… likes what he has to say. His words are gracious. Then… in the way Luke is telling this story… we get words that reflect favorably upon Joseph. “Is this not Joseph’s son?” In this context, that’s not a question of offense. That’s a question of approval. This Jesus is a chip off the old block. His father would be proud. Perhaps… perhaps Joseph read that passage many times. Perhaps he would sit and lead the discussions… also speaking gracious words… giving insight… talking about the challenge of not just what the coming Messiah would bring… but the spiritual challenge this passage put before the people… all the people. Good news to the poor is not bound by words. Proclaiming release is nothing without actual release following. The blind must see and the oppressed have to throw off the shackles and embrace freedom. Words transform the heart and the mind… and the sign of spiritual transformation are in the actions that follow. Joseph taught well. His son listened well and learned.
Everything is good. And then… and then… Jesus preaches to them what I might describe as the anti-prosperity gospel. You know the message of the prosperity gospel, right? It’s all blessings and good things will come to you. Problems will go away and the greater your faith the better your life will be. You will have release from all that you fear… from any problem that might come your way. The prosperity gospel… very popular today… easily marketed and packaged… unfortunately creates this false Christian-like surface lifestyle that translates well to Facebook posts of perfect families and marriages… and markets well with many products you can surround yourself with from a trip to Hobby Lobby. The tassels on your prayer shawl are magnificent to behold. Your whitewashed tombs are beautiful. It’s a glorious veneer that is crushing many who are desperately trying to maintain its illusion. There isn’t much space between something promised to the feeling of something owed. Sin thrives in that space. Sin twists good news of the Lord’s favor into what we are entitled to receive from the Lord. Entitlement feeds grievances… and grievances feeds entitlement. Unfed entitlement brings anger.
Jesus goes off the expected script there in his home synagogue. Clearly those in the synagogue were expecting to be the receivers of this good news. They were expecting something more to happen in Nazareth that day than what had happened in Capernaum. They had heard the news of what Jesus had done there. Capernaum is not that far away. It was the unspoken expectation that filled this visit. And Jesus… instead of being the hero that comes and makes everything better… being the one who gives and gives and gives… Jesus reads this sits down and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the expectation isn’t on him… the expectation is still on them… as it has been all along. They are the fulfillment as much as he is the fulfillment. The difference is they haven’t realized it yet. Those aha light bulbs going off haven’t clued them in that these messages from Isaiah weren’t meant for just one… but were descriptions of what God’s people would become… what their transformation in the Spirit of the Lord would be. But the people in the synagogue have become captive to their expectations of entitlement and what they are about to receive. And sin stirs their anger.
I’ve always wondered why Jesus brings up the proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” That never made much sense to me until I realized that before… before when they had read this passage… before when Jesus was there… maybe even with his father Joseph… maybe this was something he had said as they discussed this passage from Isaiah before… in different times… agreeing that the call was not that they were helpless waiting to be freed, but by being God’s people the call was on them to go and bring the good news of God… to be the good news of God. The anointing of the Lord’s Spirit was enough. It was all they needed to have a faith that gave as the Lord gave, not as the world gave. They knew the truth of it. They talked about it again and again. Jesus… perhaps… Jesus is telling them that they’ve talked enough.
But their minds have become clouded… their hearts hardened with expectations of what Jesus will not do there in Nazareth and instead of being the community who is ready to rise and follow and take the good news out… they have become the community with open hand waiting for the greater reward because this Jesus is one of their own. Surely there he will give better here than what he gave in Capernaum. The proverb of “Doctor, cure yourself!” is quickly replaced by a sense of entitlement to receive. The gracious words they had spoken before and taught themselves before… words that may have echoed Paul’s from last week… “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” These words were forgotten when put to the test… and a people rich in the Spirit quickly became poor… and captive… and wanting… and unable to love.
Because when it finally occurs to them that nothing is forthcoming… they are filled with rage. Violent rage. And Jesus… Jesus slips away from their midst. And Saints, isn’t that the truth. Amen.