Before my brother in-law got married we took him to a palm reader for a bachelor party rite of passage. I’m not advocating for this, but we needed to know the fate of his marriage. The groom was less than enthused, but he also realized that there were far worse places we could take him, so he obliged. We pushed him inside the house and left with the car so he had no option but to open up his palm and receive his fate. She predicted a happy marriage, twins—two girls. She nailed the marriage and the girls. So far, no twins. Would we call this a prophecy? Modern sensibility tells us that a prophet is a fortune teller—the woman sitting at a table in downtown Asheville with a crystal ball.
Many folks are shocked to learn that the Hebrew prophets weren’t fortune tellers. They don’t make many predictions about the future other than large, sweeping generalities. Sure, there are Scriptures that predict a Messiah. Isaiah tells us that child will walk among us and he will be prince of peace, mighty counselor. He later says that there will be a suffering servant. But most of these references are pulled out of context. No Jewish theologian would have sketched a portrait of a Messiah who shows up as a homeless Jew, born in a stable in Bethlehem, and grew up in backward Nazareth (nothing good comes from Nazareth).
Hebrew prophets were concerned about ‘the now.’ A prophet doesn’t tell the future; they tell the present. If the future is disclosed, it is shared to shed light on today. More specifically, prophets speak truth to power. They are concerned for people—they condemn the rich or powerful and they cry out on behalf of the poor and immigrant. If the land is being abused, then they are the voice for the dirt. Rabbi Abraham Heschel says, “Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice plundered to the poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.” The prophet takes the invisible heart of God and becomes the beat and rhythm; he takes God’s voice and makes it audible.
This brings us to today—if Jesus is a prophet in the tradition of the Israelites, then he’s speaking on behalf of God. In Luke 4, he goes before his home crowd and preaches his first sermon. What would Jesus choose to preach about? Turns out that the sermon’s not a crowd pleaser. Afterward, they take him to the edge of a cliff. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” Here’s what made them so angry:
Last week, I was asked to go back to Georgia to preach at my home church to celebrate their 75th anniversary. It was a homecoming of sorts, which I politely declined. There is just too much going on and I couldn’t make the trip. Generally, homecomings are great for the returning pastor. You go home, or back to a former church, everyone remembers the good times and they’ve long forgotten about the bad. In the case, it would have been the times I tried to sneak out of the church during lock-ins or sneak girls into the room on mission trips. Not really. Mostly, they’re just proud of me and I’m proud to call them family. It’s also great to preach homecomings, because you get to say whatever you want and then pass it back off to the pastor for damage control. Finally, there is always a meal. Aunt Bessie, or whoever, brings her banana pudding—the same banana pudding she’s been making for fifty years. It just tastes like home. For the longest time, I thought homecoming was something we made up so that we can have a potluck, but it’s actually in Scripture.
Open up Luke 4 and Jesus has gone home to Nazareth to a homecoming of sorts. Nazareth was a normal city, barely mentioned in first century documents, outside of Scripture. And the little we have about Nazareth is pretty unremarkable—just another agricultural village. It was a small community of anywhere between 500 and 2000 people located just off of the major East—West trade route. Picture it as one a small community that is just off of I-40. It’s almost like Candler, North Carolina. The one distinguishing factor was their accent—I don’t know, maybe they said “yuns” or “y’all.”
In the first chapter of John, Phillip says to Nathaniel, “we’ve found him, we’ve found the one, the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, the Savior. It’s Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.” And Nathaniel looks at Phillip and says quite bluntly, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Here’s the thing: the town of Nazareth had produced its own Rabbi. It’s like Nick Fitzgerald, the quarterback at Mississippi State, is from my hometown Richmond Hill, Georgia. Ever heard of Richmond Hill? No. No one has. We tell everyone we’re from Savannah. Nothing good comes from Richmond Hill. Nazareth is like that and Jesus made it to the big leagues.
When Luke picks up the story, he tells us that the Spirit had just driven him into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Now, the Spirit has driven him back to mom and dad’s house and we’re not sure which is worse: 40 days without bread or a high school reunion. There are whispers throughout the sanctuary—“Joseph’s boy is home from Galilee.” Jesus opens up the scroll and begins a reading from Isaiah. Ever wondered what Jesus would preach if he had reign? Here it is: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He read the scripture and then Jesus sat down and says, “Today, now, this Scripture has been fulfilled.” He drops the mic. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him and then everyone was like, “Wait. What just happened?”
In the original context, Isaiah was talking about release and restoration from exile. God’s people would be freed from their unjust imprisonment; the poor would receive restitution; the prisoners receive eyes to see beyond the grave. He tells of the year of the Lord’s favor, or the cancellation of all debts. So far, so good. The scholarship money they gave to the University of Galilee is starting to pay off. This is what we want. We’re all captive to something, right? Fear, grief, evil, death. We’re captive to consumerism, credit card agencies, jobs. And Jesus is here, proclaiming that he’s got the right key for your prison door.
The problem is that Jesus puts on his prophet hat, and homecoming turns into a terrible family reunion. Jesus says, “Doubtless you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Physician, cure thyself,” Jesus says. It’s an interesting proverb. What does this mean? It means that the good, polite Jewish folks in Nazareth want Jesus to do for them, what he did for the people in Capernaum. They’ve heard the stories about how he’s healed their sick and opened their prison doors. What about his family? Surely, he wont’ forget his roots. I mean these are his own aunts, uncles, and cousins—these are the ones who raised him, taught him in Sabbath School, apprenticed him in the carpentry studio, or whatever. The people in Capernaum are Gentiles, the people outside of the promise made by God, but this is his family.
This is all natural. We gravitate toward a “me first” mentality. My life is so strained, I haven’t the time to carry someone else’s load. The church bills are tight enough, without supporting every non-profit and panhandler that shows up at the door. The need is so great in Buncombe County, we can’t worry about folks overseas. Why are we sending so much money to Puerto Rico, when they’re just a territory? I’ve yet to see a national foreign policy that doesn’t operate on a ‘me first’ basis. We’ve got to worry about our own tribes. It’s even harder to think about the outsider when the outsider is actually your enemy. Or, if the outside is a Gentile.
Turns out that Jesus has a different philosophy: It’s not the insider who needs special attention, but the outsider. Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. He came not to call the righteous, but the outcast. He’s standing on the heels of people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel. The prophets are just as worried about the pagans, as they are the nation of Israel or Judah. Prophets rarely gets mad at outsiders, it’s their own children who get the brunt of the anger—the ones who know better—that they ought to take their shoes off before they come into the houseAnd he goes on in this little sermonette to give them a history lesson. Remember when God sent Elijah to feed a non-Jewish widow, a Gentile, in a time of famine. Why? Perhaps, she was generous enough to share her bread with him. God sent Elisha to heal a non-Jewish leper, Naaman the Syrian, who was an officer in the enemy’s military. Well, this made everyone full of rage. A theologian, NT Wright, says that this is like preaching in World War II about God’s restoration of Hitler.
It’s a hard word, but it’s not new material. These stories are there, in their Scriptures, though they might have ripped the pages out or taken a black sharpie to the uncomfortable parts. Jesus’ message is all grace. Jesus has not come to punish, but to bring God’s love and mercy to everyone. Is there such a thing as too much grace? The problem is that the grace is for all the wrong people. It’s just not what people want to hear.
Remember how this plays out: the little sermonette almost gets him killed. They march him right up to the side of the cliff and offer to give him a gentle nudge. By the way, that’s like the first thing we learn in seminary: don’t preach cliffside. This is a foreshadow of Jesus’ entire ministry—the life of a prophet. Jesus saw the world through God’s eyes, hears the cries of the silenced voices, and feels God’s pain so deeply that he can’t help but to open his mouth, even if it costs him his life. “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Because the prophet is the one who comes to open up blind eyes. He is a truth-teller; she questions the status quo; they condemn the habits, assumptions, complacency, or waywardness. But the word is too difficult to hear.
There’s people, probably for all of us, that we’d rather not have at our table. I don’t know folks who don’t look like us or smell like us. There’s people we wish would go back to where they came from. I’m not even from Buncombe County and I’m so bothered by the influx of these Florida tags that have come to look at our leaves.—like it’s time to go home. Our country is becoming so diverse and it’s frightening that Jesus might ask us to take a seat in the waiting room while he tends to those people who shouldn’t even be in the restaurant, much less at our table. The point is that Jesus’ first sermon was not about those who came to homecoming; he was more concerned with those who had not yet found a home.
If Jesus is a prophet, then he’s concerned, not about the future, but about the way we’re living our lives today. Who is it that doesn’t have a home? Who is the poor who desperately needs good news? Immigrants looking for a better life. Folks who can only afford to eat at McDonalds. The Puerto Ricans who are desperately trying to rebuild, but keep losing power. Who are the captives who need release? The addicts who are imprisoned by the needle, bottle, or cell phone. The child who works in a sweatshop so that we can have cheap clothes. Or, maybe it’s just the person who is sitting in the pew, looking for release from some lingering resentment or grief that just won’t be shaken. The ones who need to find their identity in something greater than a number on a bank statement. Who are the blind? Maybe that’s us.
Jesus’ sermon sounds a lot like bad news to my ears, mostly because it’s really difficult work. But here’s the thing: it’s all grace. He even omits Isaiah’s words about the vengeance of God. Our salvation is at stake in that sermon. We are the Gentiles. Jesus told his family and friends that he was coming for us. We were once the outsiders, the nobodies, and now we are part of the family. That’s the only reason we are here. This is God’s call to return the favor for someone else who doesn’t have a home. God’s kingdom is bigger than the constraints placed by our imagination. There is no inside or outside. In fact, the boundary has become so transparent that the outside has become inside. We don’t get to make the guest list, or prioritize the waiting list, we just make room for whoever needs a home. It’s called being Christ’s body. God gives himself to us in Jesus and makes us a new people, a motley crew, called church.
This morning I invite you to reach out to someone different, because Jesus reached out to you and he said, “Welcome home. Welcome to the family.” Now, who ought to be welcomed to yours?