You Can’t Go Home, Luke 4:21–30

Our Gospel Reading this morning is a story in Luke 4. Jesus’ public ministry has just begun. He goes back home and gets the opportunity to teach in his hometown synagogue. You may remember how it goes. He reads from the Isaiah scroll, from the section we call Chapter 61 (vv. 1–2) which speaks of an approaching “year of the Lord’s favor,” when a new king will come on the scene, wreck the world as it exists, and reorder things the way God intends. In the synagogue Jesus reads that sermon text (Luke 4:18–19):

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

When he’s done he rolls up the scroll, hands it the the attendant to put back in its safe place, and everyone is looking at him to see where their native son will go with this.

Not where they thought!

Luke 4:21–30, NIV:

21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

I rarely pass up a chance to speak on this passage. If you’re a preacher, it is sort of sobering to think that your vocation is one that could get you killed…and by your own people. It makes me feel fortunate that you haven’t killed me yet, although I have delivered some really regrettable sermons through the years that should have gotten me killed. Unlike the congregation in Nazareth, you have been very patient.

On the other hand, it’s a story that makes me worry a little bit that, if in fact plotting for my assassination, I might not be preaching boldly enough. It makes me think, Maybe next week I’ll go after them and see if I can’t get a hymnal or two thrown at me.

Well, the story…

Can we just say that the trip home did not go well? I think so. After his sermon, Jesus didn’t just get an email or two, or hear secondhand that Doris talked to the elders after church and went home in a huff. No, they “drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

Verse 30 is a bit vague on his escape: “…he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Lewis Smith is intrigued by this escape. We’ve talked about it before. Did he disappear or Ninja his way through the crowd?

We’re tempted to take this story as an example of the old adage,“You Can’t Go Home.” Some of you have experienced something like that, right? You went off to college, returned home during fall break, only to discover that a sibling had overtaken your room or your mother turned it into her sewing space. “Don’t worry,” mom says, “there’s a very comfortable air mattress you can blow up and put on the floor.”

I suspect this is why millennials are reluctant to step out. They’ve seen what can happen if you don’t keep one foot in the door.

I remember going back home after my first semester in college and feeling like things had completely changed. And it wasn’t just that my space had been re-appropriated, it was more that I felt like I had moved along and done some changing but the hometown kept me where I had always been with them. “So you’re in college now, huh? Studying what?”

“Philosophy and Bible.”

“Well, isn’t that cute? I remember back when I used to change your diaper…and listen to you now, Johnny Mark, talking about philosophy. That’s precious!”

Sometimes it feels like the hometown crowd won’t let you grow up. I can imagine Bill Gates going to a family reunion and getting business advice from an uncle: “Now here’s what you outta do….”

And something like that is maybe hinted at a little bit in our text. Jesus preaches what has turned out to be one of the most important sermons in history, and his hometown can’t quite hear the revelation that he brings because they have him boxed in a particular social role — “This is Joseph’s boy, isn’t it?”

They were somewhat impressed, Luke indicates. “We did alright with him. He talks pretty good.”

He’s Joseph’s son…not God’s.

But if we leave it at this level, though, we’ve missed most of the point. Because one of the reasons Jesus couldn’t go home — and I’ll say it like this — is because in the course of this (what seems to be) very short visit he obliterates the notion of home. I want you to think about that.

What is home? Home is your safe place. Home is your walls, secured windows, locking doors, perhaps the fence around the place. Home is family, your people. They’re on the inside, and the walls, doors, and fences keep what’s not family — what’s not home — on the outside.

Your home town is an association of connected citizens distinguished from everybody else that is out there. It is us.

Your synagogue is your home, too, the place where the religious family meets, brother and sister Jews, those who are on the same theological team. The synagogue houses the insiders from the rest of the world. And Jews, of course, are separated out from everybody else not just by the walls and doors of the meeting place but by practices that demonstrate clearly who is in and who is out — observance of the Sabbath, a proper diet, observation of the feasts, by circumcision. All those things very specifically distinguish the home team from the visitors. Us-them. Rather clear. And we’ve got the walls to prove it.

And Jesus is about to undermine that.

Now I want to back up a moment and ask, Why do you think crowd goes from being basically encouraging to wanting to kill him?

We tend to say — and I have said this (probably in one of my bad sermons that I should have been killed for) — that it goes south when Jesus reads this Isaiah prophecy about a coming king and at the end of it says, “Today this is being fulfilled in your presence.” So it must a problem of Jesus implying that he is the messiah.

I don’t think that’s quite it. Here’s why? When we think messiah, we tend to think — because we know the full story of Jesus — Second Person of the Trinity. So we read this and hear Jesus saying that he is God. But that’s not necessary how first century people thought of messiah. Messiah, for most Jews, was the military king who would come and deliver Israel from her enemies (primarily Rome). Several Jewish revolutionaries in a hundred or so year span of time claimed that messianic role and were even thought of as messiahs by their bands of followers, until they were killed and didn’t rescue their people. Then not so much. Your tenure as messiah ended when you got ended.

So the only issue for someone claiming to be that king was not one of blasphemy but of reality. “King? You? Prove it.” And that concern would seem to be present in verse 23, where the people say, “Oh yeah, well show us miracles like we’ve heard you been doing in other villages. Maybe then we’ll believe that you’re the earthly king that has God’s backing.”

So for Jesus to claim he was fulfilling Isaiah wouldn’t have come across so much as blasphemy as ridiculous. Certainly not worth throwing him off a cliff. You don’t kill such people, you lock them away for their own protection.

Why, then, does Nazareth want to kill Jesus? I think it’s in the next verses. In front of this hometown crowd that seems to know that he has started his ministry by performing wonders in the mixed-race hinterlands of Capernaum — a hometown crowd that also seems to be looking for some hometown privilege — Jesus pulls the rug out from under them. He references a couple of Old Testament stories that throw love to the outsiders!

The first is a story from the life Elijah, who, like Jesus, was rejected at home. And it was a time of famine. So God sends Elijah to this Gentile widow from Zarephath and miraculously keeps the two of them alive by miraculously keeping her flour jar and oil jug filled for the duration (1 Kings 17). It’s a story that has God’s favor on both the insider, Elijah, and the outsider, the widow. And, interestingly, for Elijah it’s more at home in the world than at home.

The other story is of Elisha who was instructed by God to cure the leprosy of a foreign soldier, Naaman, a commander of King Aram’s army (2 Kings 5). The Jewish healer cleanses a Gentile. Can’t you hear the critics? “Elisha, don’t we have our own lepers in Israel? Let’s take care of our own first!” Jesus tells that story.

In order get to both of these stories, Jesus has had to look past the hundreds of Old Testament stories that emphasize separation, stories that show a preference for the home team, stories that protect against outsiders. It is a very selective use of scripture, one that does not favor the home team.

But this will be the direction of Jesus’ ministry.

Now…that might make people want to kill you! The crime of loving the world too much. That crime of implying that we might need to turn our eyes outward and open our arms to people we don’t quite think of as family.

At the elders meeting this past week we talked some about the Residents Encountering Christ program that is going on in the local jails, a program that quite a few New Hope people are involved in. We had people there last week for the men’s retreat. We have people there today for the woman’s side of it. And everybody who has participated has a good story to tell. It seems like this is one of the areas of challenge that God is laying on the heart of this congregation.

We spent quite a bit of time at the last elders’ meeting talking about this ministry, about how prisoners get released and don’t feel like they have a place in polite society, feel especially like they are welcomed into the church with their messy story, often tattoos and piercings. We talked about how maybe God is right now calling us to help; maybe we should more active in reaching out. We’ve actually had some success as a congregation helping people get new lives when we give attention to it.

The elders rarely offer sermon advice to me, but it was suggested that maybe I could do some sermons about how to be a welcoming church. I thought, That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll maybe start that on the 10th.

And then for this Sunday I go to the Lectionary’s recommended Gospel reading for today. And it’s this one. Jesus reading from Isaiah. Jesus undermining the security of home. Jesus pointing to the Year of the Lord’s Favor, part of the good news of that time being the “proclamation of freedom for prisoners.” Good news for prisoners. Good news for those who are why we have fences and locks. Good news that they don’t have to break in because they are being welcomed in. Their home is with us.


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