Believe and Obey

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A Most Challenging Sermon

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Hometown Prophet

The Gospel text this week is Luke 4: 21-30, which is a continuation of last week’s text. In fact, verse 21 overlaps from last week to this week; “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. This is part of the controversial nature of this text. Jesus is claiming that he is the one who has fulfilled the prophecy and is the Messiah. Also of note is that the scripture has been “fulfilled in your hearing”, that is we simply hear God’s good and gracious word and are healed.

The other controversy will be made known soon. It is notable that Jesus is the one preaching and claiming this prophetic status as he is “merely” the son of a carpenter from, of all places, Nazareth. Initially the crowd was “amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (verse 22). Jesus anticipates that the crowd will want him to do deeds of prophetic power in his hometown that he has done elsewhere. They want Jesus to act like the Hometown Hero. Jesus offers a foreshadowing when He says in verse 24 “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

A Dark Turn

Jesus then goes on to tell of deeds of power done in God’s name. He points out that during a severe famine throughout the country the prophet Elijah was sent out specifically to a widow in Sidon. Then Jesus tells the story of Elisha who cleansed, not the lepers in Israel but the Syrian Naaman.

This immediately angers the crowd, as Jesus is pointing out that it is the outsider, the other, that God sends his prophets to heal. Earlier interpretations had a somewhat antisemitic take on this, as in the Jews just did not like anyone else. This is historically false, as the Jews got on well with many outside groups. This is also false in terms of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus is clearly pointing to an Old Testament Jewish tradition in welcoming and helping outsiders.

This, of course, fits in perfectly well with the “Law and the Prophets”. This is all about loving God and loving your neighbor. Who is your neighbor? In the Old Testament, and the New, our neighbor is everyone, even, perhaps mainly, outsiders. Remember what the Jewish people were chosen for; to proclaim the love of God for all the world. Jesus is clearly aligning himself and embracing his role in this tradition of outreach to the marginalized. It only produces a dark turn if you forget that tradition and what God has been saying to us all along.

Off the Cliff with Him

The crowd is so enraged that they drive Jesus out of the town and seek to throw him off the cliff. Jesus is of course too shrewd for this and passes amongst them and escapes. His time for sacrifice has not yet arrived.

So, what drove the crowd to such extremes? I think one of the main reasons is that Jesus challenges so many of our smug assumptions. We just assume that God is here to do for us and our “tribe”. We forget the simple message of John 3:16 “for God so loved the world”. We don’t want to admit that God’s love is radical and completely inclusive. God offers himself to everyone. There is an innate tendency amongst humans to recoil from this all-inclusive, all-inviting love. We want to wall ourselves off into our respective tribes and teams and take an “us vs. them” stance.

The truly scary thing about accepting God as an all loving, all inviting Master is that we know that we would need to respond to this kind of love in a similar manner. We would need to change, in many ways, radically to react appropriately to this. We know deep in our hearts that if we have been the recipients of such radical love that we need to pay it forward and love one another the way God loves us, as Jesus taught in John 13:34.

It would seem to be much safer to stay withing your own tribe and smugly assume that God is some sort of cosmic errand boy, here to satisfy our needs and not concern ourselves with anyone else. Jesus explodes that myth and reminds the crowd that deep within their own Jewish tradition was the desire of God to serve even the most marginalized of people. No wonder the crowd went apoplectic.

The Good and Gracious Word

God’s good and gracious word to us is that if we simply believe in him, we are saved, and we can be confident in our salvation. This text is, however, an excellent reminder that even though God takes us as we are, he does not keep us as we are. The faith that saves does and should change us.

This sermon is also an excellent example of a “first stage applied gospel”, which means that we all should respond in this way to God’s gift of grace upon grace. We will do so imperfectly as fallen creatures always do. Nonetheless, we mustthink in terms of how we can reach out to the marginalized in our lives and in our communities.

We must never fall for the smug assumptions that drove the crowd to such anger. It should be a source of great comfort that God loves each of us the way he loves the outsiders in this world, especially as at some point or other we have all been on the excluded end of life. How good to know that God calls everyone to reach out to us as well in time of distress. We instinctively know in our hearts what that means in terms of interacting with others, even if we do so imperfectly. Ours is simply to believe…then obey.

Praise Be to God

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