Alan P. Sherouse
Scripture: Luke 4.14-30
T.S. Eliot has famously written, “In our beginning we find our end.”
It’s certainly true of the story of Jesus. We’ve been looking at his beginnings lately – his Baptism by John and the echo of beloved from a torn open heaven, his first miracle at Cana with abundance flowing at a wedding feast like water into wine, and now his first words and his first visit home. It’s a beginning that points to an end.
Taken as a whole, our passage this morning is a mission statement for Jesus’ life in Luke, encompassing who Jesus is, what his ministry is about, who his ministry touches, and how people will respond to him. The scene is the story of his life in miniature form.
And it’s also the story of our lives – how we receive the one who still comes to us looking new and different, even though we so often want things to be fixed, stable, foundational and unchanging.
Many of you now that my father – Dr. Craig Sherouse – is a pastor. Now in Richmond, VA, he previously served First Baptist Church in Griffin, GA near Atlanta. My dad went to Griffin following a long-tenured, widely loved pastor. You know the type: he preached without any notes, he made 5am hospital visits, he used to have people pouring out of the balcony. Every time my dad walked by his portrait in the hall he lost an inch of height.
The predecessor, who really was a wonderful man, had occupied the pulpit of this church for decades. And the pulpit is where the story begins. The pulpit was a large, imposing structure. Deep and wide and tall. The pulpit was a symbol of the centrality of the proclaimed word in that church and, as anyone could tell you, years and years ago it had been bolted to the very foundation of the sanctuary building.
It was this stirring and symbolic tale, except for the fact that it just wasn’t true, as my father discovered within his first few weeks. When he leaned on the pulpit, it shifted. If he heaved, it would slide. It was a moveable structure after all. So, he began to wonder, “Why not move the pulpit on occasions like children’s choir programs, piano recitals, or weddings?” Well, my dad asked the church, “Can we make our pulpit moveable?” – which somehow, to some people, was translated to mean, “Our new pastor wants to re-move our pulpit.”
And I think you can imagine the reactions. They just knew that’s how it starts. First it’s the pulpit, but they began to picture flatscreen tvs all over the sanctuary and a for-sale sign mounted on the grand piano. They feared soon it would be melting down the organ pipes and replacing them with a wall made of re-purposed wood pallets. Dad tried to explain in his newsletter column that week and in the phone calls he received. “Folks, I said moveable, not re-moveable. I’m just talking about piano recitals and children’s programs.” But for some, the impression had already been made.
So some years later, on the occasion of the farewell reception after what was ultimately a productive season of ministry, a gentleman came through the greeting line to shake my father’s hand. “You know, pastor,” he said, “I always liked you…but some folks just never got over the face you wanted to sell the pulpit.”
Needless to say, the pulpit was stable in Nazareth, as Jesus arrived home for his first sermon. The message they expected was familiar and rehearsed, fixed and foundational. And their expectations of the messenger were just as solid.
You can almost see the folks pat Jesus on the head as he enters the synagogue. It’s the boy they had known. “Look…there’s Joseph the carpenter’s son,” they say. We ought to recognize it as a statement of approval, not a skeptical jab. This is the son of Joseph and Mary. They recognize him, even if he’s gotten a little taller and his hair a little shaggier. Nazareth is proud of this son of their synagogue. They’ve known him since he was “this big” and running through the hallways never wanting to hold his mother’s hand. This is the one they had taught in their synagogue. The one they had sent off into the world.
But he’s been gone for a while now. V. 16 uses a phrase – “Nazareth, where he had been brought up” – a pluperfect verb form that suggests an extended absence. And if they are sitting close enough to him, they can see he looks different. There’s something a little different about his eyes. They can see that his skin is weathered from 40 days and nights in the wilderness.
Still they want to believe he is the one they recognize and remember – that he is as stable and settled as they want their own lives to be. So they lean in. “All eyes were fixed on him,” Luke describes. We can sense the importance of the moment in the way that every action is described with a meticulous pace: Jesus “went” in and “stood up to read.” The scroll “was given.” He “unrolled” it. He “found” the place. The careful string of verbs creates suspense and draws attention to verses 18-19
That’s where we find what New Testament scholars call the paradigm text for the gospel of Luke. It’s Jesus’ thesis statement, his opening argument, his first words in Luke. This is a critical moment in the story where Jesus declares what will guide his ministry. And of all the things he could have claimed on this day, the first words on his lips are: “Good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind. Freedom for the oppressed.” And then these words: “Today, even as you listen to my voice, these things are being fulfilled.”
These are imposing words. They were so when Isaiah penned them. But somehow they demand even more now as Jesus preaches them. And soon, you know what happens, the hometown crowd – so content and pleased with themselves and with him just moments earlier – is rushing Jesus out of town.
It’s a baffling reaction at first. Because he’s not saying anything new. The synagogue knows these words. He reads from their scroll, from their prophet Isaiah, the words they had taught him. These are old promises that the Jewish community in Nazareth had nurtured and preserved for long centuries through all the years of change and loss as they had looked forward to a day when God would make all things whole again.
Their conflict is not with something new. It’s a conflict with something they had read all these years and never fully known.
It might be the greatest conflict we can have. It’s a conflict with the full implications of God’s word. The conflict that arises when we realize that the things we have fixed to our foundations might not be as stable as we thought they were. They might just take on new life in new times in the presence of Jesus Christ. They might call us to do new things we’re not prepared to do.
The people of Nazareth had been so content just to listen to these words and imagine their fulfillment, but notice what happens when that time comes right into their synagogue, right into their presence and place in the person of Jesus. Their reflex is to push it out and off into the distance once more. They seem to want the message to remain hypothetical or fantastic, where it doesn’t disturb them. And they want Jesus to remain the carpenter’s son, who is easier on the ears, lighter on the conscience, and always so polite. But this newly-baptized, wilderness-tested, Spirit-led man begins to frustrate and interrogate the synagogue.
All the while, somewhere Thomas Wolfe is laughing, as he says “You can’t go home again…” You can’t go back to the settled and stable and proclaim a message like this.
Which is why so often we don’t. We as the church of Jesus Christ so often proclaim the things fixed and easily embraced. We prefer a stable and unchanging message, proclaimed by familiar and palatable messengers. And when someone doesn’t do that, well just be careful what you say if the pulpit is near a cliff.
Amidst our recent national celebrations of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, many of us participated in parades, or services, or other traditional observances of the holidays. In addition to these conventional celebrations, many more of us participated in a relatively recent King Day commemoration: posting a favorite Dr. King quote on Facebook or social media. That usually means finding something that confirms what we already know, or believe about ourselves – something reassuring or palatable – rather than the prophetic messages that take our collective breath away, like one particular passage from Dr. King I recently encountered that reads:
“The contemporary church is so often the arch supporter of the status quo… one that consoles the community with a silent and vocal sanction that things should just remain as they are” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963).
It reminds me that Dr. King’s greatest frustration and antagonism came not from those overtly racist and draped in white sheets. It came where resistance always comes for the prophets: from me. From so many of us. From those of us who, as King said, prefer a peace that is merely the absence of conflict rather than the presence of justice. Those of us who say “Let’s be patient and bide our time.” Not here. Not now. Somewhere else. Sometime else.
But for Jesus, it’s an urgent time. “Today” he says. Not yesterday, as though the work is complete in everything they’ve known and done. Not in a vague, far-off someday in things out beyond their capacity to imagine and do. But today is a time when the truth must be told. And the truth he seems to tell to the hometown crowd is that you have taken this dynamic and urgent message – this good news that has the capacity for life and release and justice – and you have bolted it in place. You have begun to admire it, it has become the stuff of legend, you rehearse it without understanding that it can yet be embodied and fulfilled.
They were expecting the message they knew from the messenger they had known when Jesus left home. Non-threatening. Easily defined. Familiar and reassuring. The one some of us have known since we were “this big.”
But that’s not the man who returns to their synagogue. And the nagging news for Nazareth, is that Jesus grows up and takes seriously the words they had taught him. And maybe that’s challenging news for us, too. No matter how theologically sound or ethically powerful or politically potent our categories for him turn out to be, Jesus has a way of outgrowing them.
So if he looks familiar to us today, if he’s always recognizable and reassuring, or if he’s only quotable and admirable, we can be sure it’s not the man who shows up in Nazareth that day.
That’s the one who asks us if we are free and mobile enough in our lives individually, and in our life as a church, to follow him from Nazareth in this message he proclaims.
If we leave Nazareth just a few verses later and follow Jesus around in the gospel of Luke, we can see he meant what he said when he talked about good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed. When he’s not welcome in his hometown, he makes his new home with these to whom he’s called. At every turn, he seems to find his way to them.
In days to come, Jesus will announce God’s blessing on the poor and factor the poor into his teaching more so in Luke than in any other gospel.
Jesus will proclaim release for the captives from the various forms of bondage that oppress them.
Jesus will restore sight to the blind, not only at a physical level, but also figuratively reviving the prophetic vision to imagine the year of the Lord’s favor.
And later in the gospel, when messengers from John wonder aloud the key question, the greatest question – “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” – Jesus will reiterate the first words once again: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight…the poor have good news brought to them.”
We can follow in that way. Or we can keep living in Nazareth.
These crowds in Nazareth are a mirror for us. New Testament scholars see them as a representation of the early church to whom Luke writes, as they are of all of us who have come since. For all these years later, we are not merely the heirs of the prophets, but also of who would silence them – those who have found parts of the message of Jesus they would rather drive far away. Even off a hill.
Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a hill outside Nazareth, not literally and physically. But Luke’s topographical invention reveals something larger. It anticipates a hill not so far away from there, where the bold words and actions of Jesus would prove so disruptive they would finally incite the rage not only of a town, but of an entire empire.
And right at the foundation of it all, at the very first, we hear “Good news to the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed.”
Will we follow in this way of Jesus? Or will we stay back with the crowd in Nazareth? The text says when he saw their response, Jesus passed right through them and went on his way. It can happen to us, you know. Jesus can pass through our midst without being fully recognized or truly heard. It happens when we expect only the words we’ve always heard in the ways we’ve always heard them. Or when we expect only the familiar and reassuring instead of the demanding and imposing.
Or when we expect only the son of the carpenter, instead of the son of God.