A sermon on Luke 4:14-30 by Richard Keith on Sunday 20 August 2023
Our message today is called, Jesus in Nazareth. And you wouldn’t expect that a message with that name would tell us anything new. After all, Jesus grew up in Nazareth. Though he was born in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary had only gone there because of the census. Bethlehem wasn’t where Joseph had his carpenter shop. It wasn’t where Mary had grown up. That was Nazareth.
In fact, Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth. The people of Nazareth knew Jesus’ family. They knew his brothers. They knew his sisters. They thought they knew Jesus.
For Jesus to visit Nazareth during the time of his public ministry doesn’t sound that unusual. Though Jesus had returned from his baptism by John the Baptist to go on tour in Galilee and had made his base in the fishing town of Capernaum, for Jesus to visit Nazareth doesn’t seem very surprising. And yet it became the scene of three extraordinary events.
Our passage today, however, starts with two ordinary events. Firstly, Jesus went home. In January 2020 I went on 3 weeks holiday. When I got back I didn’t just feel like I had come back to work. I felt like I had come home. Corowa wasn’t just where I lived. It was where I felt I belonged. Jesus went home to Nazareth, to the people he knew and to the people who knew him. Some of them had watched him grow up. The others had grown up with him.
The second ordinary event was that on the Sabbath day Jesus went into the synagogue as was his custom. It was part of his weekly routine to worship his Father God with the people of God. Worshiping together reminds us that we need each other. Yes you can watch a church service on the television. Yes you can join some churches online. But we have here something that the TV and computer don’t have. We have each other.
It reminds us that God’s purpose is not just to make Christians, but to make a new community in which his values will be the guiding principle. We share life with each other and an important part of that is worshiping God together. It was what Jesus did. If it was good enough for him it is good enough for us.
What happened next was unusual but not yet one of the extraordinary events to come. Jesus was asked to read the Bible. The practice of reading the Bible and explaining it lie at the heart of worship in both the synagogue and the church. We do it because we believe that through his written Word explained in everyday language God can speak to us today. He can reveal his will. He can give us hope through his promises. He can give us direction through his warnings.
But Jesus wouldn’t have been on the roster to read the Bible that Sabbath. I think he was asked to do it especially. Probably because the town people had heard of his new career as a preacher in other towns and wanted to hear what he had to say for themselves. I think that by asking him to read the Bible they were also inviting him to say a few words about the passage after the reading. Which is what he did.
Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61, verses 1 and 2.
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 favour.
Again, this is probably not unusual. It could have been the set reading for the day. But if the invitation to do the reading included giving the message afterwards, then it’s also possible that Jesus was allowed to choose it. And that he chose it on purpose.
Isaiah chapter 61 is a beautiful passage in which the prophet looks forward to the end of his people’s exile.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins – meaning Jerusalem – and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
It wasn’t just about restoring ruins. It was about the return of Israel to the promised land. It was about the lost sheep of Israel coming back into the heart of God’s purposes for the world.
And this return from exile would be the special work of someone who would be given the Spirit of the Lord. Isaiah 61 verse 1 calls that person “anointed”. It refers to the practice in Old Testament times of pouring olive oil on the head of someone especially chosen for a job. Like England crowns their king. Or like the Governor General swears in a new Prime Minister. The practice of anointing not only marks the person chosen for a special job, to serve as king or priest, but also symbolises the hope that God would give the person his Spirit who would make the person able to do the job.
With all my heart I believe that if God wants us to do something, he makes us able to do it.
The Hebrew word for anointed is Messiah. Messiah means anointed one. Through the voice of the prophet Isaiah it is the Messiah, God’s promised king, who speaks in Isaiah chapter 61.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me.
The Lord has especially chosen him and equipped him to do a certain task. And what is this task and what is the job description?
To preach good news to the poor. To bind up the brokenhearted. To proclaim freedom for the captives. And release from darkness for the prisoners. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God. To comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
These words at the end of each line are referring to the survivors of Israel’s exile. They are the poor. They are the brokenheared. They are the prisoners. It’s not about opening the prison doors so that murderers and thieves can go free. It’s about bringing an end to the distress of Israel’s survivors living under foreign oppression. Restoring their freedom. Giving them back their hope and joy. Bringing them home. So they can swap their clothes from what you’d wear to a funeral to what you’d wear to a wedding. So they can turn their frown upside down. A crown of beauty instead of ashes.
So far we’ve had an unremarkable trip home to Nazareth for Jesus, and an unusual request for him to read the Bible and explain it. Now comes the first of three extraordinary events.
Jesus preached the shortest sermon ever. He rolled up the scroll of Isaiah. He gave it back to the attendant and he sat down in front of them. And while every single eye in the synagogues was looking at him, Jesus said,
Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
With these eight short words Jesus meant that what Isaiah said in chapter 61 came true while he was reading it. That he was the Messiah, the one anointed by God with his Spirit. That his reading of Isaiah chapter 61was preaching good news and proclaiming freedom. And that his hearers, the people who he grew up with in Nazareth, sitting in that synagogue that day, were the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed who needed to hear that message. That they were sick with despair and only he could give them hope. That they were lost and far from God and only he could bring them home.
This is the message of good news that we have to share with others. It is a message of hope. It is a message of joy. It is a message promising freedom. Yes, it confronts the lies that we believe. Yes, it casts judgment on our attempts to be God and to treat people like things. But it’s not meant to sound like the scolding of a cranky teacher. It’s the kind of good news that if you really understood what it meant, you couldn’t keep to yourself.
Jesus’ short message landed like a live grenade thrown into a crowded room. Boom. The initial reaction was one of surprise. They were amazed that someone they thought they knew could speak with such confidence and authority like he had a special gift of God.
But as his words sank in, one by one they began to take offense at him. Who was this man to make such bold claims? Who was this man to speak to them like that? And one bright spark asked the question they were all thinking:
Isn’t this Joseph’s son?
Isn’t this the boy they all knew? Isn’t this the carpenter’s apprentice. Isn’t this the one who had done odd jobs around the village? They thought they knew him, and so what he was saying couldn’t be true, least of all that he was the only one who could save them.
People today think they know Jesus. For some he is the champion of good morals and high standards. They forget that he ate and drank with sinners. For some he is the first communist, telling people to sell their things and give their money to the poor. They forget that his kingdom was not of this earth. For some he is a preacher of tolerance and acceptance and they forget that he called us to repent and to believe the good news. For some he is a performer of wonders and the promise of miracles today, and they forget that he suffered and died, not because he lacked faith, but because he was full of faith. It’s a warning not just to believe in the Jesus we think we know, but in the Jesus who overturns all our preconceptions and calls us to follow him.
The second extraordinary event was how Jesus doubled down on his claim and challenged their unbelief. Jesus said,
I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.
The reason that prophets are rejected in their hometown is because they find it hard to take him seriously, to treat him like a man of God with a message that must be heard and obeyed. For a very similar reason a minister will always be treated like a boy in his first parish. The power brokers find it hard to believe that a recent graduate has anything to teach them.
Jesus’ point about the widow of Zarapheth and Naaman the Syrian is that they were foreigners, Gentiles, non-Israelites, who were blessed by God at a time when most of the people of Israel had abandoned the Lord and turned to foreign gods. When Israel refuses to believe the Lord, the Lord looks outside of Israel for those who will believe.
Jesus is warning the people of his hometown that they are in danger of doing the same thing. Rejecting God’s Messiah because of their stubborn unbelief.
Jesus makes the same point in Matthew chapter 8.
I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The good news is that we are included in the kingdom. God’s plan to bless the world through the people of Israel has come true for us, who accept Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, as Lord and Saviour. We have been gathered from the east and west and have accepted the invitation that many of God’s own people have refused. God made the old covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai. God makes the new covenant with believers of all nations.
The bad news is that this blessing has come to us at a terrible cost to Jesus. Who was rejected by his hometown. Persecuted by the religious authorities. His own brothers did not believe him. His own disciples abandoned him. Truly, as Isaiah said, Jesus was a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.
If you have been rejected and despised by others, Jesus knows how you feel.
The third extraordinary event is the attempted murder of Jesus. The people of Nazareth got the message. Jesus was saying that they were in danger of missing out on the kingdom and that it would be given to foreigners. In their eyes, Jesus was worse than mad. He was a false prophet. Caught up in a sudden frenzy, they drove Jesus out of town took him to the top of the hill and meant to throw him from the cliff. But they were thwarted by a miracle from God. Jesus walked right through them and went on his way. God’s Messiah was under God’s protection until his time was fulfilled.
Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the covenants of the Bible. We’ve seen that God promised to crush the head of Satan through a descendant of Eve. God promised to bless the world through Abraham. God promised that his people of Israel would be a kingdom of priests for the world. God promised that a descendant of David would be king forever. God promised that in his new covenant his blessing would not depend on his people’s obedience, but on his own forgiveness. What we call the gospel is already in the Old Testament.
And now that we are looking at the New Testament we are seeing those promises fulfilled in Jesus. He is Israel’s Messiah. Though Israel rejected him, God has made him Lord of all. Jesus is the son of Eve who has crushed Satan. Jesus is the son of Abraham who is God’s channel of blessing to the world. Jesus is the son of David who will rule forever.
And we have been included in that victory and blessing and kingdom, even though not one drop of Abraham or David’s blood flows in our veins.
Today, Jesus comes to us. He is alive to us through his Spirit and through the reading of his Word. He comes to us in our poverty and distress, while we are enslaved to our fear and our sense of hopelessness. Though we are often prisoners of our past and of our dread of the future, Jesus comes to set us free to give us hope. Jesus comes to bring us home to the glory of his Father’s kingdom.
Let us avoid the example of the people of Nazareth and receive him as Lord. Believe this good news, so that today the message of Isaiah chapter 61 may be fulfilled in your hearing. May you find in Jesus a crown of beauty instead of ashes.