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When Good News Starts to Sound Bad

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
February 3, 2013

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Luke 4:21-30

He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.  Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’  Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”  All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way (NIV).

Several years ago I got a call from Faith Baptist Church in Georgetown, Kentucky.  They were looking for a new pastor, and they were wondering if I might be interested in the job.  I was flattered by the call, because Faith is a wonderful church.  It played an important role in my own life and ministry.  In fact, Faith was where I served as a youth minister for two years, and that was part of the problem.  I was afraid that if I applied for the position of pastor someone would remember the infamous “banana relay” incident.

It happened like this:

In one of my youth ministry books I found an activity called the “banana relay” in which you get a big bunch of bananas, divide your youth group up into two teams, and then have each contestant sprint about thirty yards, peel and eat a banana, and then sprint back to tag the next runner.  And that’s what I did.  I got a big bunch of bananas, divided the group up into two teams, and got some adult chaperones to help out.  I put myself on one of the teams to even things out and when it was my turn to run my team was behind, and in order to help them win I sprinted the thirty yards as fast as I could, but when one of those adult chaperones handed me a banana—instead of wasting the several seconds it would take to peel it before eating it—I just ate it, peel and all, and then sprinted back to tag the next runner. 

I was young in those days, and had a sturdy constitution.  The banana didn’t bother me.  But for weeks afterward that’s what they talked and laughed about at Faith Baptist Church—the youth minister who ate an entire banana without peeling it.  And I was afraid that if I came to that church to preach a trial sermon someone would still remember that incident, and that when I finished preaching they would say, “Wait a minute…isn’t that Jim Somerville, who used to be our youth minister?  And didn’t he once eat an entire banana without peeling it first?  His preaching isn’t bad, but I’m not sure I can say the same for his judgment!” 

It reminds me of the time Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue.  He was already beginning to get a reputation as a preacher, and when the leader of the synagogue saw him come in that Sabbath morning he invited him to preach.  They gave him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he found the place where it is written:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
         because he has anointed me
         to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
         and recovery of sight for the blind,
To set the oppressed free,
And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And then Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down to preach (because that’s the way they did it in those days).  Every eye in the synagogue was fixed upon him.  You could have heard a prayer shawl drop.  And then Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Everyone spoke well of him and marveled at his gracious words.  “My, my!  What a sermon!  Did you hear that?  We’ve been waiting for the day when that prophecy would come true.  We’ve been hoping for it, and praying for it, and now he tells us that today is the day!”  But some people began to say, “Wait a minute…isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  It’s right after that that the tide turns, that Jesus begins to confront those people, and at the end of the confrontation they take him out to the edge of town and try to throw him over a cliff.  You have to wonder: what happened?  In one moment they’re saying, “What a sermon!” and in the next they’re saying, “Over the cliff!”  The key to interpretation in this passage seems to be that verse where the people say, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”  And this is where I wish the Bible had a tone-of-voice indicator to tell us how that verse ought to be read.  Was it, “Wow!  What a wonderful sermon!  Can you believe this is Joseph’s son?!”  Or was it, “Wait a minute…who does this guy think he is, anyway?  Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  I guess I’ve always assumed it was that second way, because of how Jesus responds.

Instead of accepting their compliments he confronts them by saying, “Surely you will quote to me this proverb: ‘Physician, heal yourself,’ and you will say to me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we heard you did in Capernaum.’ Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”  And that’s when they took him out to the edge of town and tried to throw him over a cliff. 

You can almost understand how that might happen if you assume they started it by saying, “Who does this guy think he is, anyway?  Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  You can almost understand how Jesus would be offended by that, and answer them in a confrontational way.  But what I can’t understand is why they get so angry, why—at the end of this sermon—they are ready to kill the preacher.  All he does is tell them a couple of stories about Elijah and Elisha.  How could that possibly move them from marveling at the gracious words that came from his lips to saying, “Let’s get this guy, and throw him over a cliff!”?  Let’s go back to that key verse again—verse 22—and consider the other option.  Let’s change the tone-of-voice indicator.  Maybe they didn’t say, “Who does this guy think he is, anyway?  Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Maybe they said, “Wow!  What a wonderful sermon!  Can you believe this is Joseph’s son?”  Because listen to what Jesus says next:

He says, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”  This is the kind of response you might expect if people thought that Jesus was one of their own.  If they thought he belonged to them in some way, and that they could expect special favors from him simply because he grew up in Nazareth.  “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask, meaning, “Isn’t he one of ours?”  But if you have read the earlier chapters of Luke’s Gospel you know that this is not Joseph’s son.  The angel Gabriel tells Mary, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:31-32).  And when she asked how this could be, since she had never been with a man, Gabriel told her, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (vs. 35). 

And maybe this is what sets Jesus off. 

The people of Nazareth think he’s the son of Joseph, a hometown boy, one of their own, and maybe they think that because he is then all of that good stuff he’s been talking about—good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation of the oppressed, the year of the Lord’s favor—all of that is about to come to them.  Maybe that’s why they speak well of him and marvel at the gracious words that come from his lips.  Maybe they think things are about to get really good in Nazareth.  But Jesus is not the son of Joseph; he’s the son of God.  And God’s goodness is not limited to the people of Jesus’ hometown; it’s for everybody.  As if to prove it, Jesus starts telling a story.  “There were plenty of widows in Israel in the time of Elijah,” he says, “when the famine was going on and no one had anything to eat.  And yet Elijah wasn’t sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath, in Sidon—a foreigner!  And there were plenty of lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha, and yet he didn’t cleanse any of them.  He cleansed Naaman, the Syrian!” 

And this, apparently, is what sets the people off.

Jesus told them that he was getting ready to do some wonderful things, but not for them, that is—not for them alone.  Because he wasn’t the son of Joseph; he was the son of God.  And God doesn’t love only the people of Nazareth; he loves all people everywhere.  But the people of Nazareth respond as if Jesus had just spit on his own mother.  They jump up, drag him out of the synagogue and take him to the edge of town to throw him over a cliff.  “How dare he talk about us that way!”  But somehow, miraculously, Jesus walks through the crowd and goes on his way, to a place where people don’t think they own him, and where they might be able to receive all the goodness he had to give. 

Sometimes I wonder…if I had gone to Faith Baptist Church all those years ago, and preached a trial sermon, if the people had marveled at my gracious words and called me as their pastor…would there be some sense in which they would always think of me as “theirs,” as the youth minister they allowed to become their pastor?  And when I tried to preach a prophetic word would they nod and smile and say to each other, “Do you remember that time he ate a banana without peeling it?”  “No prophet is without honor except in his own hometown, among his own people,” Jesus said.  “They think they raised you.  They think they own you.  Sometimes you have to go miles and miles just to get a hearing, just to get to a place where people will say ‘Thanks be to God,’ when you say, ‘This is the word of the Lord.’  And maybe this is always our tendency: to want to own the word of the Lord, to want to control it and domesticate it and teach it a few new tricks.  And maybe we think that owning the preacher is one way to do that. 

But Jesus says no.  He says, “You don’t own me and you don’t own my mission.  It’s God’s mission.  It’s bigger than Nazareth.  It’s as big as the world.”  I’ve been thinking about that in relation to our own mission, and especially in relation to this year-long, every-member mission trip where we are working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.  I can imagine how someone might say to me, “How come you’re spending so much time out there in the city of Richmond instead of in here in the church?  We’re the ones who pay your salary.  We’re the ones who ought to benefit from your ministry.  Bring the Kingdom of Heaven to First Baptist Church first, and then you can bring it to Richmond.”  But here’s the good news: God’s heart is bigger than First Baptist Church.  It’s as big as the city, the nation, the world!  And he doesn’t only want to bring heaven to us; he wants to bring it to everybody; and he’s asking us to help.  First Baptist is not the goal of his mission, it’s the tool—it’s just one of the ways he hopes to get his work done in the world.

In Luke, chapter 7, John the Baptist sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one to come, or if they should look for another.  John seems a little disappointed, just like those disciples on the road to Emmaus who tell the risen Christ, “We had hoped that this fellow Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel.”  Do you hear what they’re saying?  They had hoped that God’s goodness and mercy would be for them, and only for them; for the nation of Israel and nobody else.  But God’s mission is bigger than that.  God’s mercy is wider than that.  And so Jesus says to the disciples of John the Baptist, “Go tell John what you see and hear: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”  In other words, all those things I said I was going to do back in chapter 4?  I’m doing them.  “And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”  

That sounds like good news to me.  God’s mission is big!  It’s bigger than First Baptist Church!  It’s a kingdom-sized mission in which every one of us can have a part.  That sounds like good news to me but it may not to you, so on Friday I asked a clergy friend what he thought and he mentioned a poem he had read recently.  I didn’t know the poem at all, but I do remember the title.  It’s by Mary Oliver, and it’s called, “I don’t want to live a small life.”  Isn’t that true for all of us?  And here’s another truth: God doesn’t want us to live a small life.  Do you remember what he said to Abraham, back in the beginning?  “I will bless you and make your name great, so that … in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3).  In Isaiah 49 he says to his people:

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
    to restore the tribes of Jacob
    and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
    that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Isa. 49:6, NIV).

Maybe he would say it to us like this:

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
   To enhance the glory of First Baptist,
   And make it the biggest and best church in Richmond.
I will also make you a light to the city, to the nation, to the world,
   That my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

So may it be, and so may we pray:

Gracious God, there’s a wideness in your mercy like the wideness of the sea, and sometimes—we must confess—it bothers us.  We want your mercy for ourselves.  We want you to love us exclusively.  But you are God of all your children, and not only us.  And until all your children are loved and fed and cared for you will not rest.  So use us, Lord, to fulfill your mission.  May your kingdom come and may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and at least partly through our efforts.  We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

—Jim Somerville 2013

 
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