Scripture: Luke 4:14-30
In the early 90’s, I loved playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? I really liked the deduction based game play mixed with real investigating. The game came with a world atlas and looking up information in the book was required for success. Over a couple of years I caught a lot of agents of V.I.L.E. At the same time I would watch the game show, and have the theme song performed by the Rockapellas stuck in my head for most of the week. Eventually, the show was canceled and I moved on to other games. However, Carmen Sandiego was very much in the “nostalgic favorites” category me.
For this reason I was excited when I learned that the character was getting a Netflix reboot. I watched the first episode with my kid’s and I hated it. In my knee jerk reaction I thought Carmen Sandiego is supposed to be the bad guy. She is meant to be the arch-villain that the noble investigators seek to foil. Yet, in this show she is the main character and protagonist of the story. Not only is she the main character, but they switched the character from being a villain to being a Robin Hood style good guy. This ran completely counter to my expectations, and I wanted nothing to do with it. My kids however, loved the show. My kids really liked the espionage/spy vibe the show has, and my daughter especially loved the portrayal of the Carmen Sandiego character.
They watched the whole series, and they told me all about it. However, I am somewhat ashamed to say that I missed out on watching it with them because I was being stubborn. The show changed what I expected, and instead of being willing to give this new take a fair chance I sat it out completely. It was while reflecting on why that was not the best reaction that I read this morning’s scripture and realized that I potentially could have fit in quite well with the crowd in Nazareth. We tend to approach situations with our own expectations and generalizations, and when those expectations are subverted or not met we can react negatively. The uncomfortable truth is that likely most of us could have fit in with the crowd in Nazareth on that day. This morning’s scripture shows us that whenever God does something big, there will be opposition, and this morning’s scripture challenges us with the fact that we might be the one’s doing the opposing.
At first glance this scripture seems to escalate quickly. Jesus reads from Isaiah, someone heckles him, Jesus claps back, and then they are running him out of town and trying to throw him off a cliff! A little bit of a deeper read gives us a fuller picture of the story. It was common for traveling rabbis or Pharisees to be invited to the synagogue to read scripture and share their understanding of it. It seems that Jesus was afforded this honor when he visited his hometown. This is near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He had established himself in Capernaum and had apparently begun doing some miracles. Nazareth and Capernaum are around 28 miles apart, and the journey could be made in one day if necessary. So it is likely that the people of Jesus’ hometown had heard a lot of stories. Perhaps they wanted to see just what all of the rumors they were hearing were really about.
As we consider the response that the people of Nazareth had to Jesus we have to consider why they reacted so viscerally. First, we have to consider what Jesus read. He read from Isaiah 58, and this scripture was understood to be referring to the work of the Messiah. When the people in Nazareth heard this scripture read they would have understood it to be a description of the work that the coming Messiah would do on behalf of the people of Israel. It is fair to say that they did not expect Jesus read this, calmly sit down, and then drop the mic by declaring “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
There is no mistaking it, Jesus was claiming to be the messiah. In response to that they ask “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Ancient Nazareth at most had just over a thousand people, and it could have been populated by just a few hundred. It was not a big city. We do not know how long Jesus was away from his hometown before he came back, but it has to be emphasized that these people knew him. They watched him grow up. They brought in their own ideas of who Jesus should be based on his family, their memories of a kid running in the streets, and what they thought someone from Nazareth should be like. When they ask “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” we need to hear the subtext. They are saying, “just who does he think is”, “someone’s a little full of themselves, or “I think Jesus is getting a little too big for his britches.” They asked the rhetorical question because they were attempting to knock Jesus down a peg or two and put him in his place.
What really sets them off though is what Jesus states next. Not only does he claim to be the Messiah, but he claims the messianic promises of bringing good news, freedom, sight, and the year of the Lord’s favor is not just for the chosen people of Israel. When talking about his messianic work, Jesus refers to two stories the people would have known well from the Old Testament. In both of these stories, God chooses to use the non-Jewish gentiles for God’s greater glory. Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, a phrase with deep biblical roots, that means God is renewing and restoring. Yet, Jesus had the audacity to proclaim this good news was for all people.
Even more so than stating he was the messiah, this is what made the people of Nazareth furious. This is what made them want to throw Jesus off a cliff. They viewed themselves as special and unique as God’s chosen people and being told that God’s grace and mercy would extend to everyone was a step too far for them. Jesus challenged the people of Nazareth with a new take that challenged their preconceived idea of how things are supposed to be, and they reacted badly. They rejected Jesus and his message completely. Much like I was guilty of rejecting a new version of Carmen Sandiego completely. Much like many of us have been guilty of not giving a new idea a fair chance because it was not what we were expecting or it did not fit with how we thought things ought to work. I think if we are being honest with ourselves, this morning’s scripture should humble us and it should bring us to confession. We could probably all confess that we have had the same attitudes of the crowd at Nazareth.
As Christians though it should be our desire to follow Jesus and not the crowd. Following Jesus means that we should consistently grow as a disciple, it means we should seek to make and nurture new disciples, and it means we should work to transform the world into a more loving a caring place. Essentially this means in our own lives, in our relationships with others, and in our work in the world around us we are meant to be agents of positive, godly change. The simple fact is that transformation on any level requires change. If we are serious about following God and the example of Jesus we are going to find ourselves in new situations, trying new things, to bring about a new transformation. We can be faithful to God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, follow in Christ’s example to share God’s love in a new way, and be guaranteed that someone is going to hate it. Whenever we do something truly significant that can make a real difference, then there is going to be opposition to it. Jesus experienced that in this morning’s scripture, and Christians faithfully following God have had that same experience throughout history.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement experienced it. During his day churches were not doing so hot at evangelism, so Wesley declared the world is my parish and began preaching in fields and in places outside of sanctuaries where workers gathered. In response the Anglican priests would actually pay people to throw rotten vegetables or manure at Wesley in an attempt to silence him.
Another example is Frances Willard a powerhouse of a woman in the 19th century. Concerned by the negative effects that alcohol had on families she began the temperance movement, and the latter part of the 19th century the temperance league was the largest women’s organization in the country. She sought to systemically deal with this issue and campaigned not just for temperance but also for women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and the eight hour work day. Willard was a dedicated Methodist, and she stated that women as well as men could be called by God to preach. Throughout her life in all of these holy task that she advocated for, Willard met stiff resistance, jeering, and outrage-often from other Christians.
The consistent reality is that for those who seek to live out the church’s mission to make disciples and transform the world, it will be a hard knock life, because there will be constant opposition, resistance, and roadblocks thrown up. This was historically true and it is true unfortunately true today. God’s love is transformative and transformation always means change. The sad truth is that churches tend to be famously resistant to change. Take any grouping of clergy across theological and denominational lines. Take them from any size church and from any age bracket. If you got the most diverse gathering of pastors and preachers you could find and ask them how many have heard some sort of variation of “we’ve not done it that way before” in response to a new idea, I am confident 100% of the hand would go up.
In hindsight we can look back and see that John Wesley was making a real difference for the kingdom, and that the changes that Frances Willard advocated for were the just and right ones. Yet, even people who sought to follow Jesus opposed them the same way Jesus was opposed in this morning’s scripture. If God is behind something, why would the people of God be against it? In their leadership book Leadership on the Line, I think the authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy get to the heart of why this might be. The wrote: “People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss. You appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear.”
This is where the scripture really should convict us. If God is moving and we are resisting, if we are responding to God’s grace with fury, then that means we are the one’s standing in the way of God. We are the one’s attempting to block the good news, and we are the ones opposing the positive transformation of the world. God’s love is transformative, and transformation means change. Change means that we will experience loss. The ultimate question we have to ask ourselves is what is important to us: to holding on to what we are comfortable with and resisting change or trusting God to do something new?
I realize that change is not always the right move and that change for change sake is not always helpful. However, I affirm that we are imperfect people in a fallen world and for God to renew us and transform this world will require change. When we are confronted with something new or a possible change that goes against our pre-conceived notions, our knee jerk reaction will be to resist it. With God’s help, may we suppress that urge and instead may we be open to God’s leading. Instead of having our response shaped by a fear of loss may we seek God’s wisdom and humbly follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.
In this morning’s scripture, Jesus declared the good news of God’s transformative love and it made the people furious. This persisted throughout Jesus’ life to the point it eventually got people made enough they plotted and successfully had him killed. Despite that, Jesus still proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. If we are going to faithfully follow Jesus, then it might be a hard knock life. If we are going to seek to make disciples and transform the world, then we can expect to also meet opposition. May we do it anyway because Jesus is inviting us to still join in his work of transforming the world by proclaiming the good news.