Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. on January 31, 2010.
Kyle Childress wrote of the story of what happened when one of his town’s football heroes was drafted and went off to serve his country in Southeast Asia. Kyle remembered him as one of his boyhood idols and he felt particularly close to him because that young man had been in his father’s Sunday School class before going to war. The young man had lost a leg in battle and was discharged and came home a hero. But the young man also came home with a message. “God told him,” he claimed, “that the war was wrong and that his church and town should change their hearts and minds about racial segregation.”
Being the town’s local hero, he had ample opportunities to spread his message and the results were predictable. Some said the war messed up his head. Others said this or that. Not surprisingly, not many believed in him because of his message. But one Sunday, Kyle’s father said he didn’t know whether the young man had mental problems or not but that didn’t mean he was wrong. It wasn’t long before Mr. Childress, a member of the school board, pushed for integration.
Had the story in Luke 4 stopped with Jesus’ reading the scroll from the prophet Isaiah and had Jesus been content to simply make his one-line pronouncement that this scripture was being played out before their eyes, I think it would have been an ideal launch pad for the rest of the story. But as we read, you can’t put a big bow on his trip home because the story was spoiled when Jesus poked a hole in their ideas of religious nationalism. In other words, he took a risk and meddled with their Jewish understanding of their exclusive covenant with God. And for that they threatened to kill him by throwing him off the precipice in order to silence him.
As ones called to preach, we must face the music eventually although to do so is to invite trouble. Most preachers weaken and tremble with the thought they must say a word on a delicate topic thus caving in to our ministerial Achilles heel of wanting to be liked by everyone. Our temptation (our weakness) is to plow down the middle and not say a word driven by conviction. But if we’re to preach the heart of the radical nature of the gospel, we must come to terms with the notion that the good news of Jesus is not meant to sanitize our provincial view of the world.
Jesus came to turn things around and seldom missed an opportunity to stir the bottom of the pot. He adopted an agenda that came from the Hebrew prophets to care for the poor, to set free those held captive, to heal and to fight oppression. Ultimately, he came to inaugurate the year of Jubilee (a holy season only God would ever dream up) dedicated to righting all that had gotten tangled in our relations with one another.
In Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet, he writes that the task of the preacher is be “a voice that shatters settled reality and evokes new possibilities.” Brueggemann claims most sermons instead support the settled reality by not questioning, “the way things are.” Pastors tend to color compliantly inside the lines and seldom risk saying anything that unsettles that safe ground. One wise old social activist said if you preach and live out the prophetic call of God, “you had better look good on wood because that is where you’ll end up.” What do we do with those who speak against the grain? Ultimately we get rid of them. We malign them by calling them misfits or that hated word, “liberal,” meant to neutralize them and scare people away.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a 20th century prophet who delivered a message of racial reconciliation by challenging segregationist attitudes as racism. He was a passionate prophet who preached boldly and eloquently about the Beloved Community, a community not meant for blacks only but wide enough to include the world. God bless Dr. King, he held nothing back. He said it all and he continued to hold a mirror of love up to our faces and made us look deeply within at our abuse of others based solely on race. King’s struggle with the church was its consistency in being on the sidelines for some of our most perplexing issues such as the struggle for racial equality, poverty, and against the war in Southeast Asia. The dominant culture controlled by the white community held him up as a dangerous agitator and most would consider his assassination the result of white anger and distrust. Maybe things haven’t changed all that much in two thousand years for how the settled reality considers those who speak against it.
In his opportunity to read from the scriptures Jesus chose this passage from Isaiah 61 and with it he made a statement to his home congregation that clearly declared to all of them just what kind of person he had become in recent days. He wanted them to know that his life was headed in a new direction. Then he silently rolled the scroll back up and handed it to the attendant who solemnly made sure the scroll was put back into its container. All eyes were fixed on Jesus who sat quietly until the attendant sat back down. Then, in a measured way of speaking, Jesus straightforwardly announced, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
By reading Isaiah 61:1-2, Jesus announced what his messianic role was to be: The fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. The phrase from this ancient servant song, “He has anointed me,” meant, “He has made me the Christ or Messiah.” When understood literally (as Jesus meant them to understand it) the passage said that the Christ was God’s servant who would bring to reality the longing and the hope of the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned. It meant that Christ would usher in amnesty, liberation, and the restoration associated with the proclamation of the year of Jubilee.
But Jesus’ first sermon among his own kin received an evocative response: Some were filled with open admiration … some wondering … some doubting. Some scholars wonder if what followed was Luke’s confusion over two visits, one received happily and the other received angrily. However it happened, Jesus provoked an angry response by quoting two well-known proverbs:
“Physician, heal thyself”
“No prophet is acceptable in his own country”
The proverbs help us understand that Jesus realized the people would be expecting a demonstration of the ministry he had been doing over in Capernaum. Maybe the people expected more because he was the “hometown boy.” Maybe they assumed privileges would be theirs for having known Jesus all his life. Perhaps there was a secret resentment of Jesus because he had already taken those favors and miracles to others beyond Nazareth (Capernaum was said to have had a heavy non-Jewish population.).
Jesus defended himself by offering two Old Testament stories: Both Elijah and Elisha, prophets in Israel, took God’s favor to non-Jews. That these stories were in their Scriptures and quite familiar perhaps accounts in part for part of the intensity of their hostility. When faced with the truth of these stories, anger and resentment were sure defenses. In truth, they were victims of their own scriptures.
For Luke, the tension that erupted here was not between Jesus and Judaism; it was between Judaism and its own Scriptures. Consequently, their very own Jewish Scriptures caught Jesus’ family and friends on the horns of a dilemma. This passage points out a fatal flaw among them: They read the scriptures as the exclusive word of God to them only … as an exclusive covenant with them. Jesus as a prophetic voice of provocation couldn’t let that idea go unchallenged and so the subtext to the reading of his inauguration text from Isaiah 61, he drew the line in the sand that he would not be associated with that kind of exclusive form of love. He understood his mission clearly and did not flinch from the political fallout that came from his first encounter of substance. And because of that we get a foreshadowing of his fate when the people of God hung the Son of God upon a wooden cross. Jesus was too dangerous to ignore and considered a political and theological threat to the settled realities of his time. In their great anger, they carried him up to the brow of the nearest hill and were ready to destroy him.
A gangly seventh-grader in the youth group of her small Baptist church ran track in her junior high school and when a track meet was cancelled one Saturday and re-scheduled for the following Saturday it ran into conflict with the commitment she had made to join with her youth group on a one-day mission adventure. So she went to her track coach and described her dilemma. She was told her fellow track mates were depending on her to compete and the coach expected her to be there. She went home in tears. The next day she broached the subject once more and the coach said it more bluntly: Either show up or turn in your track uniform. The next day, she went to her coach a third time with her uniform and walked away.
It generated the typical range of responses from the parents who knew about this situation. Some of the church parents were surprised she caved in to the coach’s demands and seemed supportive that she should have cancelled on her wish to serve on the mission project with her youth group. So they were surprised when the girl said back to them, “This is about God.”
The God-called prophets always see things the rest of us don’t see. Standing up to the Jr. High track coach is not the same as the standing for more important issues such as race relations or the death rate of children in war or the dire needs in a country like Haiti, but it’s a beginning.
When Jesus read the text and sat down, he was saying in the plainest of terms: “This is what I’m about … this is who I am. All of this is coming true right before your eyes.” In doing so, he was bearing witness to what God was calling him to say and do on behalf of the kingdom of God. What is it we will do with this one we’ve pledged to follow? Will we follow him and his agenda of challenging the settled reality?
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).