Luke 4:14-30: Home is Out There

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He 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.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three year and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and lead him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Home is Out There

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

So quoteth my father, often, citing Robert Frost. With a nudge, and a wink, invoking a code beyond his control, my father recalls his own duty to welcome me home, “they have to take you in.”

The scene wouldn’t have been much different for Jesus. Jesus, a child of the congregation, would have been expected, as he passed through Nazareth, firstly, I assume, to lunch with his mother and secondly, I know, to observe Sabbath worship at the local synagogue. And that there wasn’t an all-out riot when Jesus got up to read from the Scroll suggests that the folks gathered recognized some authority in him. For indeed, one cannot simply read from the scroll—as with my own church, the Presbyterian church, there are protocols that dictate participation in certain worship rites! That he can understand and translate the scroll, written in Hebrew, suggests that Jesus had some training in Jewish schools. That he rises to speak suggests that he is in good repute with the congregation, that he has been recommended by a Temple leader. And that he has authority to interpret, that is, to proclaim in the ancient words a word applicable to his Nazarene family, suggests implicit trust. Luke tells us that he had been teaching in synagogues around Galilee, that he had been well received in other synagogues, among other gathered communities. Jesus, standing before the community, is acting like a good Jewish boy. He is living and working and speaking according to custom and tradition, according to expectations.

Now, if you were here last week you’ll remember that Jesus has, in his baptism and temptation, been confirmed as one in whom the Spirit dwells. The Spirit appears at Jesus’ baptism, proclaiming God’s pleasure at his submission to sin and then drives Jesus into the wilderness where his righteousness is tested and, ultimately, proved. Likewise, in his time in Galilee (a time of itinerancy about which we know nothing), Jesus has been “filled with the power of the Spirit”. There’s a grassroots energy about him, folks all around Galilee are jazzed about Jesus.

So you better believe that the good folks in Nazareth were proud. They heard the buzz about their boy. And they were ready to join their voices to the chorus, to proclaim loudly: this is Joseph’s boy, our boy, and in him we are well pleased!

Now I have preached many times before my home congregation. And I will tell you that I could stand in that pulpit and tune my banjo and, as long as a string didn’t pop and I remembered to read the Scripture lesson, my people would be proud. Just the very act of standing, of assuming some authority over that pulpit, would light up my mother’s face. And my old Sunday School teachers, astounded that I somehow graduated college, would delight in my being able to form a sentence. People want to take pride in their own. Y’all know this better than anyone—this is New Jersey, after all, home of The Boss. How wonderful it is when a community gathers to celebrate the success of one of its own children.

So the good folks at Nazareth, they are ready to hear Jesus. Luke plays on this expectation by dramatically slowing the narrative. Jesus goes up to the synagogue, as was his custom. He stands up, walks to the front of the assembly, and takes from one of his play mates the sacred, delicate scroll of Isaiah. He unrolls it, slowly, taking care not to crease or smear the blocks of script. With his left hand he scans the roll….searching….searching…there is a passage he’s looking for. A word he has been given by the Spirit to proclaim to his mother and father and brothers and sisters and teachers and comrades in arms. And finally, un-rushed, he finds it. It’s (mostly) from chapter 61, with a bit of 58 for added emphasis:

“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.”

The reading now complete, Jesus reverses the process. He rolls up the scroll, working a bit more quickly now, and hands it back to the boy he recognizes from around the block. And then he assumes the posture of a teacher—he sits. He takes his time, cracks his neck, considers carefully his next words.

Everyone, every single one of them, is fixed on him.

He’s done everything so well up till now! Mary’s friend, the one she goes to lunch with every other Tuesday, looks at her and smiles. One of Joseph’s customers smacks him on the back, grunting, good kid. Jesus isn’t rushed or pressured, he isn’t fidgety or unsettled. He’s calm. He’s read the Scriptures, now all that is left is the interpretation. And he’s a man full of the Spirit! This should be easy.

Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. 

That’s it! And everyone is proud, because synagogue is going to get out on time! And Jesus did so well. And they weren’t surprised at his bizarre proclamation, today, today, because they had experienced being transfixed by the man. They must’ve felt it was true, after all, they, better than anyone else in Galilee, knew that Jesus was special.

He did so well! Jesus took this Scripture and, succinctly, proclaimed that the time of Jubilee and Justice was fulfilled in his person, that it was made manifest, this very day, before this very congregation. He proclaimed that everything the Nazarenes had been waiting for was now on the horizon, was imminent and physical and real. And they were astounded, for this was Joseph’s boy! One of their own! Amazing, they must’ve confirmed in one another

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus, because Jesus, our boy, has been anointed by God, our God. A prophet like Isaiah, like Moses. Perhaps even our Messiah?! He will bring good news to the poor—yes, yes, there are many poor among us, right here in Nazareth. And he will proclaim release of our captives—yes, yes, there are many among us imprisoned, and the memory of the long Babylonian captivity looms heavy in our minds! Yes, he will heal the blind! All the infirm! My aching knees, my uncontrollable tremors, this man has come for me and for us! And he will free the oppressed—we who labor under a Roman tyrant, all we faithful who controlled by pagans and gentiles! From their yoke he will release us! And he will proclaim Jubilee for us! That long-ago promised year of forgiveness when our debts will be pardoned by the bankers, our planters returned to their crops and all our iniquities forgiven! For us he has come! Certainly this is what Jesus will do for us!

Hometown Jesus has done good by his people. They are astounded.

For all of the slow, intentional plotting of the first verses, the next come as a quick, disjointed assault. For Jesus has not yet spoken his benediction. And he seems to anticipate in the crowd a longing for proof—for a hint of his power.

Now remember, this is the Jesus who has rejected the crown of power offered by the Tempter. This is the Jesus who has proved himself as one who acts according to the will of God. This is the one in whom God is well pleased, this is the one who rejects the crown of self-sustaining power and embraces instead the mantle of sin, the cloak of a foreign man.

In the electricity of the moment Jesus anticipates a request for him to act as he has in Capernaum: for him to work wonders and miracles: Cure yourself, doctor! We’ve heard you did it elsewhere. Show us a little something, Jesus. Make it so! Our faith will be ignited and we will follow you!

But the man who has just read (with such care, such earnestness and delicacy) from the holy prophets now recalls (from memory) long-forgotten stories from Kings. From Elijah he recalls the hungry Gentile widow, who was fed by the great Jewish prophet, despite her being a gentile and a woman and, more profoundly, despite there being a number hungry folks from among his own. So too with Elisha who, in a town full of lepers, offers cleansing to a Syrian! 

This is Jesus’ benediction: The word is fulfilled in your hearing, but it’s not just for you.

And these folks, doting, adoring, folks, they get angry. Jesus, everybody’s favorite hometown boy, the man who is doing everything right, is now proclaiming a new, shocking thing. In the sacred space of the Synagogue, using the sacred texts of the community, Jesus is forcing the gaze of the Nazarenes outward. A quick reversal of expectation and now a reversal of mood: excitment becomes wrath. Perhaps the Devil’s third temptation will today be realized, because that man who worked with Joseph, that woman who lunched with Mary, every single one of Jesus’ classmates: they’re fixin’ to throw him right off of that cliff.

I have to admit some sympathy with the Nazarenes. What in the world is wrong with taking care of your own?! What’s wrong with the hometown boy fulfilling the expectations which he has set for himself?! Save yourself and save us! Then maybe, time permitting, after dinner, then let’s go to Capernaum.

It’s not the request itself that provokes Jesus, and it’s not out of cruelty that Jesus will not work wonders among his own. It’s that all these folks are reducing Jesus the prophet Messiah only to that which he can do and, worse yet, that which he can do for them. Their amazement is not faith. Their eyes, open to their needs alone, cannot see the righteousness which he claims for us all and its ethical component, its demand for universal justice. They cannot see past the potential for the exercise of raw power to the Word that lay at its heart: in Jesus’ coming the World will be transformed for God!

Jesus is reversing hometown expectations. He has not come for them alone, but also, perhaps even primarily, for the other—his is the work of the poor (he means it literally, by the way: poor, economically depressed folks), his is the work of the oppressed, his is the work of the forgotten folks on society’s fringe. Jesus has come also for Capernaum, the other town. And remember—2000 years later it’s we who occupy the seats in the Nazareth synagogue. We are the in crowd. We are the ones who, in claiming Jesus as our own, place expectations on him and, all too often, who use him as a weapon for self-indulgent promotion. 

And to us in this church, and to the Nazarenes, Jesus proclaims: I am not truly accepted here! Unless, perhaps…Look to Capernaum! Look to Trenton! Look to Newark and Elizabeth! Look to Harlem, because that’s where I’m going. That is where the Spirit leads! And you can stand up to follow me, or you can stand up and follow the wrath begot of unmet expectations.

Home, home. Home is indeed the place where, when you go there they have to take you in. But Home, when Jesus is our prophet, when Jesus our messiah, is the Kingdom. And the Kingdom’s Out There. The Kingdom is expanding boundaries and reversing expectations and existing for everyone in our world who is considered lowly, unclean and reviled. The Kingdom is for the riffraff and the rabble rousers and the hoi polloi, those with whom Jesus waited for baptism. Those for whom Jesus takes on the mantle of sin and the crown of righteousness! Make no mistake: home is here too, it’s in your houses, it’s where your family is, it’s between whatever walls bring you the most joy, the most comfort, the most peace. Jesus will meet you there! But he will not be confined within our walls. He will expand the Kingdom whether we like it or not!

In reversing Nazareth’s expectations, Jesus does not reject the Nazarenes, and neither will he ever reject us! He simply reorients—them and us. And they don’t like it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not reality. Look to Capernaum! That’s where the Kingdom’s going! That’s the shape of our world! And when we proclaim with the confession that Jesus came for us and for our salvation, we better be looking out the door to the folks in the street, because that’s where Jesus is going. Fix your eyes on Jesus and he’ll pass through all our wrath and lead us there. And there, together, we’ll work to make the Kingdom real. We’ll work to set the captives free and cure the blind and heal the lepers. Amen! Let it be so!

Home is Out There, by A. A. Stuckey / Luke 4:14-30 / 20 January 2013 / for Pilgrim Covenant Church, South Plainsfield, New Jersey

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