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 not this 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 years 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 led 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.
Off the Cliff
It’s amazing how popular the Olympics are. I would imagine that if the entire U.S. Olympic team were to march into this sanctuary, I might be able to name three of them successfully. If they were going to hold an international curling competition downtown, how many people would honestly show up? If Bob Costas was going to dreamily describe sporting events any other month of the year, I wouldn’t watch. But something about the Olympics simply captivates. Maybe it’s the heartwarming stories or the international cooperation. Maybe it’s the strange sports, the different ways someone can throw themselves off a mountain that intrigues us. Or maybe we just like to see who wins.
Isn’t that a huge part of the Olympics? We can talk about the spirit of the games all we want, but there will always be some who focus solely on the winners and losers. Anymore NBC doesn’t waste much time showing those who middle somewhere in anonymity—they’ll show the best, and they’ll show the Americans, and that’s about it. They have made the assumption, and in turn the decision for us, that we want to watch the winners.
They Olympics does a great job of separating the winners from losers. They have a podium and only play the anthem of the winner. You get a medal that clearly delineates who has won, and those who did not are noticed by their lack of medals. For all the talk of the spirit of the games, the numbers you see most often are the medal counts.
It’s a part of our identity as Americans. We want to be winners. It’s why we declare the champions of our sports leagues world champions even though they’ve likely not even played a team from a different country. We like to separate those who win from those who lose.
We’re not so different from those seated in the temple on the morning Jesus spoke in the temple in Nazareth. They had expected to hear another confirmation of their status as religious winners. What they got made them so angry they were ready to push the Son of God off a cliff.
Remember that just before this passage Jesus has experienced the temptation in the wilderness. Having successfully resisted that, he begins his public ministry. He travels all around the countryside, teaching in the synagogues and being praised by everyone. Imagine the anticipation when he returns to Nazareth—if he has done wondrous things for all of those other people, surely what he is about to do here in Nazareth will be even more astounding!
So Jesus is given the scroll in the synagogue and finds this passage from Isaiah. He reads the text while he is standing, and then moves to sit, as would have been customary. Perhaps I need to explore this ‘preaching while sitting’ idea. If it worked for Jesus…
Every eye is fixed upon him as they await his words. They remain upon him while he speaks, yet I can begin to imagine their narrowing with anger as they listen to his words.
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 years 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.
What is so significant about this?
What Jesus is saying, what he is indicating, is that God is on the move. God’s arms are extending, reaching out to those who have not heard the Good News, who have not been included in previous covenants, and people should get ready to proclaim this great news to everyone!
What the people heard was that their gold medal was now being given to everyone. What they felt was shock that they would no longer be exclusive in the story of redemption. What they heard was that everyone might get a medal. And this made them furious.
For so long, thousands of years, the covenant community had celebrated its status as God’s chosen people. They told the stories of God’s freeing them from the Israelites time and time again, each time ending with an emphasis that God has chosen them for redemption from among all the tribes in all the world. Their inclusion had become a source of pride, and they were unwilling to open their hearts, to open their lives, and let others share in the incredible grace and love of God.
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
Can you picture their fury? It seems so…over the top. So excessive. What Jesus has told them is that God is working to include all in the covenant, to widen the circle of redemption, to reach out in love to each beloved soul. Instead of reacting with joy at the thought of God’s expanding grace, they were shell-shocked and angry at the idea that God might be so inclusive as to save those considered ‘outsiders’.
It’s easy to pound away at the Nazarenes for their exclusive attitudes. What’s harder to do is examine our own hearts and think about whether we are guilty of the same sin.
Have you ever heard the term ‘salvation outside the church’? It’s been a term of quite some debate within the Catholic Church. We often talk about the catholic church, with a little c, in our Apostle’s Creed, meaning the church universal, the church that exists beyond time and space, with Jesus Christ at its head. Then there is Roman Catholic church, who has been struggling to define whether one can be saved outside of the particular Roman Catholic Church. They have not been alone in their struggle—we each try to define just what it takes to be saved by God. We can all agree that one can be saved through Christ alone, but beyond that, we have to accept a certain amount of uncertainty—we are all relying on the grace of God to save us, and we have to accept that we cannot define or control that grace.
Think about your own life. When you go to work in the morning, do you consider yourself as going to a place where God is alive and working, and that you are a representative of the church there? When you wake up in the morning and go to eat your breakfast, do you consider your breakfast table to the Lord’s Table, where you sit and partake in God’s abundant blessings? Or is it secular simply because it’s not within these four walls?
God is on the move. This passage we read today is all about God’s expanding grace and our reaction to it. Our first instinct is to be defensive, to be outraged that God might reach out and save everyone. But we have to move beyond that and to recognize that this is indeed an event to celebrate. God will save sinners! God’s grace is big enough o include the poor and the oppressed, the blind and the captive! God’s love is expanding to include those whom we have forgotten!
Our reaction should be: How can we be a part of this? How can we join in with the amazing things God is doing? How can we lend our efforts, our voices and our love, to be a part of God’s expanding kingdom? We shouldn’t be outraged at the fact that God might work outside of a particular church building or a particular group of people—we should be overjoyed that God cannot be controlled or defined by humanity!
So how can we be a part of this?
By going forth and telling the story, by going forth and living the story. Just as the Gospels provide us snapshots of what God’s grace and mercy is like, the world around us is filled with illustrations of God’s abundant grace! We are to go forth and point out these situations to the world! We are to be the storytellers of God’s amazing tale, the story of a God in love with his beloved people! We are to tell our friends and neighbors of the amazing things God is doing around us, in the church and outside of the church, of the ways God is on the move and we are to invite others to recognize God as the one who is moving in their lives. We are to be the church, in this place and in our homes, in the workplace and in the schools, in the gutters and in the mansions of the world. We are to be the church, pointing to God’s grace and proclaiming with a loud voice, “God is at work here!”
God’s grace is expanding.
Will you lend your voice, your life, to the effort?
Let us pray