The weekend scene was festive in Nazareth! The hometown hero was in town for a visit. His neighbors had heard of his famous exploits. They knew his Mom and Dad, and, old rumors aside, Joseph’s family was good enough folk. Normal people. Solid woodworking.
So when the Sabbath came and he was still in town teaching, the worship center was packed! “This is going to put Nazareth on the map!” they thought. The community had always been pretty upstanding, even if it was poor. The accusations about Nazareth being a backwater town just weren’t fair, they thought. This is “God’s Country,” with fresh air and good produce and not too many uppity religious types. They even had a few foreigners, mostly Romans, who watched their synagogue services: they were not allowed in the buildings but peered through the grates at the windows.
Luke the journalist interviewed people who had been there and wrote about what happened next (Luke 4:14-30):
And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and 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 proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The crowd wasn’t expecting that ending! What about the “Lord’s vengeance” promised in that same quotation from the prophet? Perhaps somebody mumbled, “That doesn’t sound quite right…we’d like to hear about some judgment coming down on our enemies — those pig farmers in Syria or maybe those wild people in Sidon! It would be a lot better if he’d at least do some tricks like those we’ve heard about!”
Luke continues describing what happened:
And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
The crowd looked around at each other. Perhaps someone said, “Did he really just bring up those weird old stories? Aren’t we the ones who have a synagogue — not the Syrians? Not those other nations?” Luke goes on to explain how violent the scene became:
When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.
Why did they get so angry at Jesus? They felt they had it together and were glad to be God’s chosen people. They wanted MORE prophecy. More healing. More of God’s miracles. “Didn’t God make their nation blessed? Weren’t there so many signs God was for them and opposed to these other people?”
In the stories Jesus told, he pointed to two people who weren’t so sure God loved them. Naaman was desperate to avoid death from his deadly disease, and in intense need and weakness, he traveled to God’s prophet for his last hope. His desperation brought him to God. This story is like hearing about a commander of a Terrorist organization who was given preferential treatment and skipped to the head of the line at Baptist Hospital.
And the widow of Zarephath in Sidon was another sad and strange tale of Israel’s prophets. She was living in a wild and rebellious region, as far away culturally as the Vegas strip is from downtown Wake Forest. She lived in a place with no interest in God, but in her desperation, she followed the prophet’s instructions and was healed.
Perhaps these stories recounted by Jesus stirred up indignation against God’s kindness. It was hard enough to think that God’s prophet had healed the widow in a rebellious land, but to be told that many other widows had been left to die was too much to bear.
Jesus’s fellow citizens were initially excited God was working, but they needed to be stirred to join God’s mission of welcoming the world. Jesus came first to reach Israel and then through Israel to reach the whole world.
His rejection in Nazareth was a key step in his welcoming the world. The Apostle Paul taught the Gentile Roman believers that the nation of Israel was beloved, but their temporary rejection had opened the door for all families of the world to be saved. I’m one of the beneficiaries of this amazing grace.
Jesus’s stupendous and surprising way of welcoming the “others” of the world should make us wonder how comfortable we each feel in church. Is there someone we see on the news we would be uncomfortable welcoming into our row on Sunday? Is there a face we’ve seen that would make us pause before inviting them to our “grow group” Bible study?
Pastor R. Kent Hughes relayed this story:
A large prestigious British church had three mission churches under its care. On the first Sunday of each new year all the members of the mission churches would come to the parent church for a combined Communion service. In those mission churches, located in the slums of a major city, were some outstanding cases of conversions – thieves, burglars, and others. But all knelt as brothers and sisters side by side at the Communion rail.
On one such occasion the pastor saw a former burglar kneeling beside a judge of the Supreme Court of England – the very judge who had sent him to jail where he had served seven years. After his release this burglar had been converted and became a Christian worker.
After the service, the judge was walking out with the pastor and said to him, “Did you notice who was kneeling beside me at the Communion rail this morning?” The two walked along in silence for a few more moments, and then the judge said, “What a miracle of grace.” The pastor nodded in agreement. “A marvelous miracle of grace indeed.” The judge then inquired, “But to whom do you refer?” “The former convict,” the pastor answered. The judge said, “I was not referring to him. I was thinking of myself.” The minister, surprised, replied, “You were thinking of yourself? I don’t understand.”
“You see,” the judge went on, “it is not surprising that the burglar received God’s grace when he left jail. He had nothing but a history of crime behind him, and when he understood Jesus could be his Savior, he knew there was salvation and hope and joy for him. And he knew how much he needed that help. But look at me – I was taught from earliest infancy to live as a gentleman, that my word was to be my bond, that I was to say my prayers, go to church, take Communion and so on. I went through Oxford, obtained my degrees, was called to the bar, and eventually became a judge. I was sure I was all I needed to be, though in fact I too was a sinner. Pastor, it was God’s grace that drew me. It was God’s grace that opened my heart to receive Christ. I’m the greater miracle.”