As we have made the journey through Lent toward the cross this year we have looked at a series of questions which help provide clues for why the story led to Calvary. First the disciples of the ragged, austere prophet, John the Baptist, came to Jesus at a party at the tax collector Matthew’s house and asked: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often and you are out here feasting and drinking with sinners?” Why don’t you look like you are out of the same religious tradition we are out of? There was an enormous gulf between the Pharisees and John the Baptist’s disciples, but they both agreed on this disbelief that a Messiah would act the way Jesus did and associate with the people Jesus associated with. The answer Jesus gave was, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Next, while John the Baptist was in prison and hearing reports about what Jesus was doing, no doubt including the party at Matthew’s house, John decided to send disciples to ask a more point blank question of Jesus. “Are you the one we are expecting, or should we keep looking for another?” Are you the Messiah or not? Implicit in that question is this sentiment: If you are, then start acting like it. And what would that look like? Well, for starters it might mean getting a posse together and coming to bust John out of prison so they could work together. It might mean preaching a whole lot more fire and brimstone and less grace and forgiveness. It might mean starting a movement, whether political or military or both, and setting things in motion to restore Israel to power so God’s chosen people could be and do what they were supposed to be and do. Jesus sent this message back to John: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Words straight out of Isaiah. The meaning? Maybe your expectations about what the Messiah would do were wrong.
The third question we looked at was asked by Jesus of his disciples. It came at a low point in his ministry. After feeding the 5000, people wanted to crown him king. He wasn’t interested in that, so he slipped away. They wanted a further miracle like the daily manna provided on the exodus journey, but Jesus told them that his flesh would be the bread of life for them. If he wasn’t going to be a kingly messiah and wasn’t going to be a miracle worker who built on his momentum to wow the crowds, there were a lot of people, even a lot of his disciples, who weren’t sticking around. Many went home. Then Jesus looked around at the twelve and asked, “Do you also want to go away?” Peter spoke from the group, saying, “To whom could we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
All of these questions and encounters have to do with unmet expectations. Jesus was not a holier than thou person who was above the common riffraff; he wasn’t the embodiment of perfect Judaism in the way he performed the rituals and obeyed the letter of every law; he wasn’t primarily a fire and brimstone preacher, nor was he attempting to raise an army that would drive the Romans out and restore home rule for Israel. He was not acknowledged at the Temple by the authorities and his ministry was being conducted in Galilee, and he was from Nazareth of all places.
Which brings us to today’s story. After beginning his ministry preaching and healing through the Galilee region, Jesus returns home to Nazareth. Luke says he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath “as was his custom.” This was not a group of strangers. This is the town Jesus had grown up in, and he was now about 30 years of age. I can’t imagine this was his first time standing to read from the Torah scroll in this synagogue. He reads a messianic passage from Isaiah about being anointed by the Spirit to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. He sits down. People have heard of the things he has said and done in the other towns in the region. They are proud of him and sitting on the edge of their seats to see and hear what he will do and say in this, his home town and synagogue. They didn’t expect this, though. Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
As much as we think we would like to hear words such as these, I don’t think anyone is ever really prepared or expecting to hear them. All Jews were raised on the litany, “When Messiah comes,” followed by a number of ideal things that would happen. No more suffering, no more loss, no more sadness, no more hunger, etc. We all have our own litanies of what we hope for: a better job, a happier family, an easier time of it at school, more money, better health… Yet when we pray and a job is offered we are likely to say, “Well, that is not really the one I wanted;” and when a person offers to help with school work we might say, “Well, I didn’t really want to have to work at it more, I just wanted it to be easier.” And when Jesus announced that Jewish hopes had been fulfilled in him, what his friends and neighbors had to say was, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” I can just imagine the rest of the rumblings. “Why, I used to change his diaper when he was little.” “I remember when he ran through my flower garden.” “Has he been to school for this?” And on and on, “yadayadayada.” And besides he hasn’t done a single one of those miracles we heard he was doing in other towns. Sounds like a scam to me. A fancy phrase to talk about this problem is “the scandal of particularity.” Thomas Oden writes:
One cannot be human without being a particular human being. … [Jesus] is more like us by living in a particular time and place. He would have been less like us if he had spent his earthly ministry in all times and places. This is in part what is meant by the phrase “scandal of particularity” – that God comes to us in a special time (when the hour had come) and a special place (the Holy Land) to a specific woman birthing a particular child, yet in a way that bestows significance upon all other times and places. (Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology)
In other words, how are we supposed to imagine that this person we watched grow up could actually be the Messiah? As though it would somehow be easier to believe that a person who just showed up who we knew nothing about would be the Messiah.
Nevertheless, Jesus is clearly quite disappointed by this reaction. He quotes an old proverb that a prophet is never accepted in the prophet’s home town, which many have indeed learned. Then he reminds them about two Old Testament stories which in a way makes the experience in Nazareth sound analogous to the whole experience of the Messiah coming to Israel. “He came to his own people, and his own people received him not.” The scandal of particularity was too great. And so there is the foreshadowing that God always can and sometimes does reach beyond the chosen people for the fulfillment of God’s promises.
So Jesus reminds his neighbors that in the time of Elijah there were a lot of widows in Israel who needed help, but the one God sent him to help lived in Sidon, in what is now Lebanon. And in Elisha’s time there were plenty of lepers in Israel, but the one God chose to heal was Naaman, a general in the hated army of Syria. The point is the fallacy in believing that God owes you the good stuff because of who you are and where you live. The people of Nazareth were so enraged by this that they left the synagogue and drove Jesus out of town and led him up the mountain outside of town and intended to throw him off the cliff. It wasn’t time for that yet, though, and Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Unmet expectations. The Messiah is not going to grow up in our town. The Messiah is not going to have parents we know, brothers and sisters we know. The Messiah is not going to talk about God showing favor to other nations. The Messiah is going to be focused on his own people and his own nation and he is going to lead them to greatness.
The time wasn’t right that day in Nazareth, but the time is coming. The doubtful questions, the unmet expectations, the unfulfilled dreams about a different type of Messiah, are going to lead to another hill, upon which a cross will be erected and the Son of God will be crucified. We are almost to that time in our calendar, and next week we will look at a couple of last questions from the religious authorities which sealed the deal.
Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Well… yes and no. The warning for us is that we still have to make a decision about Jesus, and when our eyes and ears are open we find that he is still frequently not the kind of Messiah we are looking for or that we think he was. Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear are invited to see and hear the truth about Jesus the Christ, Son of God and Savior of the World.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey Central Presbyterian Church
March 13, 2016 Anderson, SC