A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on February 3, 2013.
Today’s sermon is a continuation of last Sunday’s sermon. Let me give a recap. Jesus was in his hometown of Nazareth, and he was invited to the local synagogue to preach. He was given a scroll from Isaiah, and he read this passage from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This passage was a prophetic pronouncement of deliverance written during Judah’s captivity in the Babylonian empire. Now, Jesus read this passage to people who were themselves captive subjects of the Roman empire. For many scholars, this sermon represents Jesus’ “inaugural address” that launched his ministry by pronouncing the in-breaking Kingdom of God. When Jesus finished the reading, he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, sat down, and began his sermon by saying: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
This morning, we continue with part two of this inaugural address. Let’s begin by considering that unforgettable opening line: “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Those words would rank up there with other memorable lines spoken by past presidents in their inaugural addresses, like Thomas Jefferson’s assertion: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” or John F. Kennedy’s challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” or Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” . . . The opening line by Jesus was unforgettable because it seemed to promise everything that his audience wanted to hear. Good news to the poor! Freedom for the prisoners! Sight for the blind! End of oppression! Who wouldn’t want to hear such good news and be the recipients of the Lord’s favor? No wonder Luke wrote: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Didn’t we watch him grow up? How did one of our own become such a good preacher?
But alas, Jesus was not finished preaching. It was a shame that Jesus didn’t take a preaching class that taught him when to stop. But then, we all know plenty of preachers who don’t know how to quit when they’re ahead. I might be one of them! It would have been so much easier for Jesus to stop the sermon right there, and just bask in the people’s admiration and adulation. But, no, instead of stopping at his first point, Jesus went on to the second point of his address. Jesus continued: “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’” In Capernaum, Jesus had taught with authority and performed miraculous healings. In other words, the people of Nazareth were ready for a spectacle; they were ready to see for themselves what this buzz surrounding Jesus was all about. And wouldn’t it be easier for Jesus if he just gave what the people wanted? Wouldn’t it be better to just do a miraculous healing and give an entertaining sermon, and then leave town a hero after making everyone feel good about themselves? That’s the way to make a name for oneself. That’s the way to draw in the crowds. That’s the way to be popular and win praise from the public.
But alas, Jesus was not that kind of preacher. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” Now, I’m not sure why Jesus said that. Perhaps he was just reporting what was true in the history of the prophets. Perhaps he was saying that familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps he was predicting how the crowds were going to react. But one thing is for sure, Jesus was not looking to be liked in his hometown. Jesus was not angling for acceptance from the crowds. Jesus was not peddling for praise from the masses.
So Jesus went full-steam ahead with his address. He reminded his listeners of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Jesus recalled two well-known stories from the history of Israel that today we might not recall as well as Jesus’ initial audience did. In these stories, Jesus reminded his listeners that during a long-ago drought, there were many poor widows in Israel, yet God did not send Elijah to help any of them. Instead, God sent Elijah to one poor widow in a foreign land of Zarephath. Then Jesus pointed out that during the time of Elisha, there were many in Israel who suffered from leprosy, yet God did not use Elisha to heal any of them. Elisha helped only Naaman, a hated Syrian commander who only heard about Elisha from a Jewish girl whom he had captured and enslaved! Now we know why when the people in the synagogue heard this, they became furious and outraged.
It’s no wonder. It is one thing not to go with the masses, but it is another to purposefully goad the crowd and shatter their cherished assumptions. The crowd believed that they were God’s chosen people and because of that, they should be receiving God’s preferential treatment in the year of the Lord’s favor. They were the blind who would receive sight, the prisoners who would be freed.But Jesus went out of his way to say that in God’s coming Kingdom, God’s favor will be shown to foreigners, outsiders, and even worse, their very own enemies. And before we shake our heads and say to ourselves, “Oh those Jews, don’t they know that God is also for the Gentiles?”, let’s imagine what Jesus might say to us if He were to proclaim this inaugural address today. Jesus might say: “I’m here to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and for the conservatives among us, God wants to bless socialists, the ACLU, and Hilary Rodham Clinton. For the liberals among us, God wants to bless fundamentalists, the NRA, and Rush Limbaugh. But frankly, none of these labels really provoke the kind of anger that would spur a crowd to throw Jesus off a cliff. What would it take to make us that angry today? Would Jesus need to tell us that God wants to bless terrorists? That he wants to bless child molesters? That he wants to bless serial murderers? Wouldn’t you feel angry and outraged if Jesus said those things? I’m feeling angry just saying these ideas. I’m also scared stiff that, after worship, some of you will push me off the steps of the church into on-coming traffic on West Main Street!
When Jesus challenged his listeners that day, the admiring crowd quickly became a lynch mob ready to throw him off the cliff. But according to Luke, Jesus walked right through the crowd and went on his way. How did Jesus get away? No one knows. It seems as if Jesus walked right through the angry, murderous mob like a ghost and no one was able to put a hand on him. The crowds wanted to put Jesus in their little box of what they believed to be the acceptable limits of God’s love. They wanted to press him into a corner of their political correctness, and if they failed to do that, then they wanted to push him off the cliff of their theological certainties. But Jesus could not be contained, he could not be boxed in, pressed into a corner or pushed off a cliff. His earthly mission had just started and he had other places to go to spread the good news of God’s radical love. And so, he walked right through the crowds as if they were not there, and went on his way.
How many times has the Church tried to pin Jesus down to our own beliefs and practices only to find out that Jesus Christ cannot be contained? We all do it—fundamentalists, conservatives, moderates, liberals, radicals—we try to box God up in ways that fit our biases and agendas. Then we try to hold Jesus down long enough for him to say, “I’m Jesus Christ, and I approve this message.” We want to be certain that we are the “in-crowd,” that we are right and righteous, that we deserve God’s blessings and favor. But somehow, Jesus always gets away from us, refusing to be pinned down. Jesus reminds us that we are ALL sinners and none of us deserve God’s love and favor. Yet, God’s grace knows no bounds and Jesus proclaims that God’s love is for ALL the world. If we are not careful, God’s unlimited grace can scandalize us to the point that we are unable or unwilling to receive it. Those of you who have recently watched the movie Les Miserables can see how Javert, a law-abiding prosecutor, would rather die than believe that a criminal can receive and even extend grace. When we are tempted to think of others as beyond God’s grace, we should remember the saying, “If God loves the people we love and hates the people we hate; then our god is too small.”
It has been said that the Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members. The crowds in Nazareth wanted to see signs and healings—“Do what you did in Capernaum,” they said, but Jesus could do neither because what he found were people who were more interested in being blessed than in being a blessing. But the church of Jesus Christ is one that welcomes the stranger into its fellowship, that pours its resources out on the community and beyond, that shows forgiveness and grace. In such a church, God is actively at work fulfilling the good news of the Kingdom.
God’s love and blessing is not limited to folks on the inside. God’s love and favor is extended to all, especially the outsiders. As we come to the service of communion today, let us be reminded that while we were still God’s enemies, Christ came and died not only for those of us in this building, but also those outside it. At this communion table, we are invited to sit with Jesus and remember his sacrifice for us. At this table, let us take and eat, so that we can be forgiven by grace and fortified for greater service. At this table, let all followers of Jesus be challenged to explore what it means to proclaim God’s love to all people in all the world.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and the Lord has anointed me to bring good news.” With these gracious and challenging words, Jesus inaugurates a new world based on God’s rule. Let us receive this Good News not just for ourselves, but for all people. Amen.
Leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Good Faith Media governing board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.