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The Life of Jesus: Return to Nazareth

February 9, 2014
Sermon:  The Life of Jesus:  Return to Nazareth
Text:  Luke 4:14-30

 

Today in our sermon series The Life of Jesus, we consider the return to the area Jesus called his hometown, Nazareth.  Returning to one’s hometown to minister among people you know and love is not necessarily easy.  You can be sure that Jesus had compassion for these people he had known since he was a boy:  teachers, neighbors, classmates, and those who came into Joseph’s carpenter shop, among others.  Jesus knew the people from Nazareth well, and his heart was turned to them.

Let’s consider our text for this morning, Luke 4:14-30.

 

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “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,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 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.

23 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.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 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. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 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.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 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. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

William Barkley says that at this time in history, of the 204 or so towns that existed in Galilee, probably all had a synagogue.  It is not surprising that Jesus – when he left the wilderness – returned to the area where he had lived and began teaching in the synagogues.  Jesus wanted the people he knew best, the people he loved the most, to hear this message.  He wanted them to have the opportunity to understand, first of all, what had been clarified for him in the wilderness.  He had been purified with his baptism by John the Baptist, anointed by God, and then tested by Satan in the wilderness.

You will notice that the Scripture says the townspeople in Nazareth greeted him and spoke well of him.  This is the first of several reports in the Gospels about how popular Jesus was.  He had a wonderful reputation.  I imagine that when he went back to preach, this town, above all other towns, was special to him.

Listen to these comments:

Our town is a place of promise. “Close to everything…Far from ordinary” is more than a community slogan; it is a new attitude.  Our attitude is best described in our Community Covenant where we promise to take care of each other and preserve nature’s blessings entrusted to us.  It is a place where thousands call home.  We experience a unique blend of history, culture and progress.

These comments could apply to almost every small town where citizens are proud of their heritage.  This letter, which I found on the Internet, actually came from Elaine Harris, the mayor of Pacolet.  She wrote these words in 2012, describing that town, which is special to her.

Judge Bruce Littlejohn told me that three famous people came from Pacolet.  He never acknowledged that he one of the three, but he was one of those others called famous.  The second person is General William Westmoreland, and the third was the cat burglar.  Littlejohn said, “I have sentenced the cat burglar three times myself, so I know he is famous.”

Saying Jesus of Nazareth is a little bit like saying Jesus of Pacolet.  Nazareth, larger than Pacolet but not quite as large as Spartanburg, was a small town known for having skilled tradesmen.  The Greek word used to describe the occupation of Joseph, tekton, can have several meanings.  We usually translate tekton to mean carpenter, but it can also mean stonemason.  Many people in Nazareth knew how to work with their hands.  They were industrious people who were proud of their town.

I suppose we could say that Jesus, who was enjoying a good reputation, was this town’s favorite son.  As he came into the town, you can almost sense the rising anticipation among those of the community.  We read throughout the Old Testament that the people of Israel had been living with a sense of anticipation for 2000 years.  Many passages had pointed to a promised Messiah.

Have you ever waited for something for a long time?  Those of you who can remember dating perhaps remember waiting for the time you would become engaged.  Once engaged, you waited for the time you would be married.  Once married, perhaps you waited for the time when you might have children.  We live with a sense of expectancy.  We anticipate a graduation, a promotion, or the purchase of a house.

Here on this day, probably in the spring, we are told that Jesus, having just come from the wilderness, was filled with the Holy Spirit.  When he returned to his hometown, he went to the synagogue as was his custom.  It was the very place where he had grown up as a child, the very place where he had worshipped many times.

We are reminded again of the Jewishness of Jesus by considering the piety of his parents.  They had taken him to the synagogue on Friday nights, Saturdays, and perhaps Sunday mornings as well when he was younger.  He went there on the Sabbath, as was his custom.  We are also reminded again of just how important the Scriptures were to him; he centered his life on the Word of God.  He was, after all, the Son of God.  Jesus never attempted to separate himself from Judaism.  In spite of all the tension and conflict, he remained a Jew.

Jesus was selected to be one of the readers during the service at the synagogue.  Handed the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, he read in the Hebrew language, which was the custom of synagogue readers.  Jesus could have chosen any Scripture, but he chose one of the Servant poems in the book of Isaiah.  Then he sat down, a position of authority for a rabbi when teaching.  That tradition has carried over into our own culture.  Colleges and universities have distinguished chairs:  a distinguished chair of history or a distinguished chair of English.  The pope is said to speak infallibly – ex cathedra or from the chair – when he is seated.

Following his reading, Jesus gave a one-sentence sermon in the Aramaic language:  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  He had come to say, “My identity is that of the suffering servant.”   If you look carefully, you will see that the Scripture Jesus read was a kind of snapshot, an outline now of his entire ministry.

How did the people react to this message?  Were they ready for the revelation that Jesus provided following his Scripture reading?  Apparently they were not, favored son or no.  They remembered Jesus as the carpenter’s son, and it was almost more than they could fathom when he declared, “Look, the Messiah is here.  The Messiah is among you, sitting in this chair in your presence.”  For Jesus to make that claim must have taken a good bit of courage.

Those who heard his declaration were not pleased.  I can imagine such questions as, “What did you say?”  “Are you saying that the event we have waited for now for 2000 years has happened right here, right now?”  “Are you saying that you are the promised one, that you are the Messiah?”  Yes, Jesus was saying exactly that.

I took a group of college students to visit Temple B’nai Israel and to meet with Rabbi Liebowitz.  As we were looking around the synagogue, one of the students asked, “Where do you sacrifice the animals?”  That question sounds strange to anyone who lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and to anyone who has ever been to the synagogue.  Rabbi Liebowitz explained that Jewish people have not sacrificed animals since the year 70 A.D. when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.  We must learn about our neighbors and their worship if we want to understand them.

The development of the synagogue was a very important step in the history of the people of Israel.  It is difficult to trace the earliest roots of synagogue Judaism, but those roots were already forming when the temple was destroyed.  We know that by the time the people were in captivity in Babylon, they were worshipping wherever they were, though not in the temple.  They worshipped with a facsimile of the temple, a temple prototype, a small meeting area.  Synagogue Judaism was brought to fulfillment during the Babylonian Captivity.

Consider these elements of worship.  Worship required ten adult males.  The reading of the Shema, the passage that is so familiar from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 – “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” – was followed by prayers, including specific prayers.  They sometimes read the Eighteen Benedictions.  They read Scripture, beginning with a portion of the Torah – the first five books of the Law – and then moving to the Prophets.  That is the point at which Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth on this particular day.  Often the reader of the Scripture linked the texts together.  Then the service closed with a benediction.

The style of worship right here in our Baptist church – in fact, in any free-church tradition – follows very closely the style of worship in synagogue Judaism.

By reading from the Prophet Isaiah, Jesus made several points about himself.  First he stated, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”  Jesus was never without the Spirit of God, following his baptism.  God spoke to him, and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove.  From that point on, the Holy Spirit was with him.  The Spirit directed his ministering and preaching.  We already know about the anointing at the time of his baptism, but people in Nazareth were unaware.  Those of us who read the Scriptures have an advantage over those who were hearing it for the first time.  These first-time hearers had to take in all of this information at once.

In the synagogue speech, Jesus said he had been sent “to proclaim good news to the poor.”  From the very first passages in Luke’s Gospel, known as the Magnificat, Mary declared that her son would have a ministry to the poor.  Some people try to read into his words some sort of political theme, wondering if maybe Jesus was trying to create a riot of some sort, an insurrection among the poor.  That is not what he was doing.

The use of the term “poor” is not so much a socio-economic reference here.  It is not a political manifesto either.  The word “poor” was referring to people who are poor in spirit, people who are deprived.  Jesus knew that those individuals would be more receptive to the gospel message because they had more to gain.  These people were more open to respond to God’s love as revealed in Jesus because they were looking for hope.  It was, indeed, very good news to them.

Jesus claimed that he had been sent “to proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind and to set the oppressed free.”  Jesus was telling his listeners, “I am not just the Messiah; I am also the Savior.  I have come to deliver you, to save you from the oppression of sin and death.  I have come to open blind eyes.  I have come to make known the goodness of God, to reveal God Himself.”  This deliverance means forgiveness; it also means a relationship with God.  Jesus is not just the Messiah; he is also the Savior.  Jesus promised a release that would result in providing what no other person had provided.  Every religion in the world is looking for salvation, but only one offers a Savior.  The Christian faith offers a personal Savior in Jesus Christ.

In addition, Jesus stated that he had come “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Perhaps he was talking about the jubilee year, a time when debts were forgiven, a time when slaves were set free.

In this sermon, summarized so succinctly, Jesus claimed that he was anointed with the Spirit.  He claimed that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Old Testament; he was the Messiah.  He also maintained that he was the Savior, the one who had come to set people free.  Jesus made all of these claims with the sentence, “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

The listeners there in Nazareth that day must have considered that news as mind-boggling.  Jesus knew their thoughts and responded to that confusion by citing a proverb that basically answered their request of “Show us.  You have done miracles in other places.  Show us that you really are the Messiah.”  Jesus never performed miracles on demand, not even for the people in his hometown.  He was not interested in being spectacular.  He was neither a sideshow nor a medicine peddler.

Jesus, Messiah and Savior, said to them, “No doubt you are going to say, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’”  He quoted a second proverb:  “Maybe you will say, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own country.’”  Then Jesus recalled the history of a very dark time among the people of Israel, a time when people had turned away from God.  Jesus reminded them of the many widows but that the prophet Elijah ministered to only one widow in Zarephath.  He also called to mind the many lepers in Israel but that Elisha the prophet ministered to just one, a Syrian named Naaman.

In this exchange Jesus summarized, “You have a choice.  You can accept who I say I am or not.  You can accept the fact that I am the Messiah, that I am the Savior.”  His purpose had been instilled in him out in the Judean wilderness.

This crowd in his hometown questioned him, “Aren’t you the carpenter’s son?  How can you make such claims for yourself?”

Rather than seizing the opportunity to believe Jesus, the people in his hometown became angry.  They actually wanted to be the only special ones, the only favored ones.  They did not want to hear about God’s grace for people outside of Israel.  They did not want to hear about God’s grace for the outcasts, the prisoners, and the blind.  His suggestion that Gentiles might be blessed right along with Israelis absolutely made them furious our text says.  It is as if they were saying, “This is our prerogative.  You are our favorite son.  This is what you need to do for us, not for the whole world.”  That is not why Jesus came.

If you look at a parallel passage in Mark 6, you see that Jesus was able to heal only a few people in his hometown.  He was unable to do much else because of their unbelief.  He was limited by their lack of vision, limited by their prejudice.

What did they do?  They could have killed him on charges of blasphemy.  Anyone who claimed to be the Messiah, anyone who claimed to be the Savior, anyone who claimed to be the Son of God could be charged with blasphemy.  They thought to stone him, put him to death by stoning.  I know that you think about Stephen, who was put to death by stoning.  Maybe the woman caught in adultery comes to mind.  In one method of stoning, the accused person is placed against a wall.  Accusers line up in a semi-circle and throw rocks until the accused is dead.

Consider another way of being put to death by stoning.  Perhaps you remember seeing pictures from the old West where American Indians hunted a buffalo, not on horseback with bows and arrows or spears but by a buffalo fall.  Hunters would run a buffalo off a cliff, causing it to crash and die on the rocks below.  The Native Americans would then gather the meat and hide of the dead animal.

Nazareth was the perfect place for stoning a person to death in this manner because of the presence of a high cliff with rocks below.  These hometown people whom Jesus loved most wanted to kill him.  They took Jesus to the brow of that hill and thought to push him over the edge.  Scripture says that he walked through them.

Can you imagine how much his own folks turning against him broke his heart?  They considered him a disappointment because he said the gospel was for everyone:  rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, male and female, all people for all time.  They did not want to hear the notion of inclusiveness.  Those who exclude others from the grace of God unwittingly exclude themselves.  I feel certain that Jesus’ heart is always broken when the people he loves reject him.

It behooves us to ask the question, How do we limit the power of Christ?  If we do not believe that Jesus can do what he says he will do, if we do not believe that he can set people free from the vicious circle of sin and death, then we limit his power.  The gospel always brings a choice.  Our choice always has consequences.  It certainly had consequences in Nazareth that day.

At a time when I was thinking about Bruce Cash this week, I thought of the Christmas song entitled “Some Children See Him.”  I heard Bruce sing this song one time.  Listen to the words.

Some children see him lily white,
The baby Jesus born that night.
Some children see him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.
 
Some children see him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heaven to earth come down.
Some children see him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.
 
Some children see him almond-eyed,
The Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see him almond-eyed,
With skin of yellow hue.
 
Some children see him dark as they,
Sweet Mary’s son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
And ah, they love him too.
 
The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs but bright with heavenly grace
And filled with holy light.

The song points to a problem that all of us have:  we tend to create Jesus in our image.  We want Jesus to be just like us.  I am sure the people of Nazareth thought, “He is one of us.  Why doesn’t he act like one of us?  Why does he want to have this inclusive attitude toward all people?  Why can’t he just be like us?”

What if Jesus showed up here today, unannounced?  How would we receive him if he just walked into this church?  How would we receive his message?  Jesus said, “When two or three of you come together in my name, I am there.”  He is right here in this room with us now.  The question is, “How do we receive him?”  We have a choice.  What we decide makes all the difference.

A church looking for a new pastor sent out a pulpit committee and found the person they thought was right.  They announced to the congregation that this man would come and preach a trial sermon.  The congregation would then vote on whether they wanted to call this man as their pastor.  Everyone was excited, and the church was packed on the Sunday he was to come.

Lo and behold!  A homeless man showed up at church that very day.  He was a scruffy-looking guy who had a scraggly beard and unkempt hair.  He was wearing blue jeans with holes in them and a tattered shirt.  People were offended.  They did not want a homeless man around when their possible new pastor was coming to preach.  Some of the deacons tried to shuffle this guy off the property, and others tried to give him some money to encourage him to leave.

This persistent fellow insisted on staying, saying that he wanted to attend worship.  One deacon offered, “You can come and sit with me.”

The worship service began, and finally the chair of the search committee announced, “I would like to introduce to you the person we think is just right to be our new pastor.  Would the Reverend Doctor So-and-so come to the platform?”

The homeless man stood and walked to the pulpit.  This man whom the congregation did not accept was actually the pastor the committee had asked to preach a trial sermon.  He had found a very effective way to make his point:  the way a church receives the poor, the hungry, and the homeless has everything to do with the way it receives Jesus.

What about Morningside Baptist Church?  How do we receive Jesus?  Do we welcome him?  Do we say, “Yes, Lord, you are the Christ, the Son of the living God, my Savior, and my Lord”?

Have you made the decision to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior?  If not, could I invite you to do so today?

Kirk H. Neely
© February 2014
 
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