|Mount Precipice in Nazareth|
"Disturbingly Good News"
Today’s Gospel lesson picks up where we left off last week. Jesus has gone back to Nazareth, his hometown. The hometown boy who’s done well has come home to preach, and the synagogue is probably packed. Luke says Jesus’ fame has spread throughout the countryside. People love a winner, and they love a spectacle. This crowd knows Jesus, and he knows them.
Jesus is asked to read the scripture at the Sabbath service at the synagogue. He stands up to read and is handed the scroll containing the Book of Isaiah. He reads,
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…”
When Jesus is done reading, he rolls up the scroll and sits down to preach, as was the custom. With the eyes of the crowd fixed on him, he says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Today, the hopes in this passage are being realized in your hearing. Today Jesus has come to release and restore, to reach and redeem. Jesus takes this promise from the prophet Isaiah and brings it into what Cleo LaRue calls now-ness.
As Cleo points out, “Sometimes it is dangerous to do things now. If Jesus said someday, tomorrow, after a while, by and by, or in the not-too-distant future, he could have pacified the people in their disappointment about where and to whom he has been sent to minister. But when he says today—this is my mission and my ministry—he draws a line in the sand and provokes a response.”
Martin Luther King Jr. knew the dangers inherent in doing things today. Dr. King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” after southern white moderate clergy criticized his nonviolent protests as “unwise and untimely.”
“Change,” they told Dr. King, “must come slowly.” They urged him to stop the sit-ins and marches for a while and give things time to settle down. They saw negotiation with the white power structure as the more reasonable path and advised King to be more patient in his pursuit of civil rights for all Americans.
Dr. King explained to his critics that he had never engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well-timed.” He refused to abide by a more cautious approach, saying that waiting is too much of a burden for oppressed people to continue to bear. “Justice delayed is justice denied.” But there has always been something unsettling about those who choose to act today.
Everything had started out so well at the synagogue. The people had been amazed and impressed at the gracious, prophetic words that came from Jesus’ mouth and spoke well of him. But then things had turned ugly and murderous.
The problem, David Jacobsen suggests, is when the prophetic grace, that divine favor Jesus preaches about, meets up with privilege. Jesus sees into people’s hearts, and seems to recognize in his hometown hearers how they will react even before they realize. They go from amazement to consternation quickly. When Jesus uses a proverb from about physicians and pairs it with another about the fate of prophets in their own hometowns, he knows his words of prophetic grace will meet with rejection. They want to throw Jesus off a cliff!
I think another thing that was unsettling to the people in the synagogue was that when Jesus makes his declaration about the nature of the gospel, the good news doesn’t protect privilege and power for the hometown people, the people like “us.” Jesus was proclaiming that “the Lord’s favor” was extended toward everyone.
For people who have a certain amount of power or privilege, for those who are afraid that if there won’t be enough for them if those other people get what they need— this is unsettling.
Luke begins telling about Jesus’ ministry with the story of the sermon in Nazareth because--if we are going to hear the good news Jesus brings-- the way we hear good news has to change. We can’t hear what Jesus has to say with ears attuned to “us” and “them.” Luke wants us to understand that the gospel is good news for anyone who will receive it as good news of God’s mercy.
The good news is for everybody, Luke insists. Luke begins his gospel with this conflict about “us” and “them,” but before his story is over at the end of the Acts of the Apostles, every kind of person he can think of will be brought into the embrace of the good news: rich and poor…women and men…aristocrats and beggars…Romans and Jews, and people of every nationality under heaven. Ethiopian eunuchs, for heaven’s sake!!
There is no “them” in the gospel of Luke, only “us”—the family of God in Christ. Luke underlines the point by telling us how Jesus said the most scandalous things, like “God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” Even “those people.” Those other people.
I think it was Fred Craddock who said we have trouble reading the gospel of Luke because “We are ‘either/or’ people in the hands of a ‘both/and’ God.” That makes a lot of people uncomfortable. The way Luke tells it, some people get mad enough to murder Jesus.
The movie “Ruby Bridges” is based on the true story of what happened to a six-year-old African-American child when the federal government ordered the New Orleans public schools to integrate in the 1960’s. Ruby Bridges was one of several little girls who were picked to be the first African-Americans to attend the all-white public schools.
The scenes in which we see Ruby enter the school, protected by federal marshals, surrounded by a screaming crowd of protesters, are a powerful reminder of how violent and ugly people can be when their idea of how things are supposed to be is threatened.
Probably most of the people in that crowd went to church on Sundays. They were parents who loved their children and thought they were doing what was best for them when they told them they shouldn’t play with African-American children.
In one scene, set in the teacher’s lounge, a teacher said a quick grace as she prepared to eat lunch, before spewing racist comments to justify her opinion that persons of color didn’t belong in their school.
It’s hard to deal with a Christ who confronts our settled ideas about things. Jesus the Christ is surely the one who comforts and helps us. But the Christ is also the one who challenges and upsets us and breaks down our dividing walls.
We live in a broken world where we lock our doors and set our security systems, in a time when some will exaggerate and exploit our fears to turn us against other children of God. And yet those of us who are gathered here know that this is not God’s hope for us. We are invited and challenged to consider a different way to think of ourselves and our neighbors.
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” This “today” signals that the age of God’s reign is here…that the time of God’s redeeming purposes has arrived, the “today” that Tom Long describes as “God’s good future hurtling toward us, bringing the finished work of God to an unfinished world.”
We are here because God has invited us here, out of God’s amazing, gracious love. We are invited to live into God’s beloved community, in which we are loved and forgiven and healed and commissioned and sent out to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Favor for all the broken-hearted: us and them and everyone, until all the dividing walls of us and them are broken down and we are all beloved children of God together.
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
February 3, 2019
 Cleophus J. LaRue, in “Living By the Word,” in The Christian Century.
 David Schnasa Jacobsen, Commentary on Luke 4 at Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3955
 Luke 6:35
 Thomas Long, quoted by Cleophus J. LaRue, in “Living by the Word.”