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First Impressions: Luke 4:21-30

January 26, 2010

I have read a lot of Facebook comments this week that are critical of Americans’ generosity toward the people of Haiti in their time of need.  People have written things such as “we have our own poor to take care of, so why should we help theirs?” and “did the Haitians help us after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans?”  I certainly don’t disagree with the sentiment that we should help our own people.  We should, and we do a poor job of caring for some segments of our population.  The Christian in me (at my better moments), however, knows that God makes no distinction between American and Haitian, and that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.  This is, of course, a possible point of contact with this week’s lesson from Luke.  Jesus inspired anger in Nazareth because he elevated the outsiders above his own people.  He seemed to be giving others priority in his ministry.

4:21 The first verse of our reading this week is the final verse from last week’s scripture.  Since it provided the centerpiece for my preaching last week, I will only mention it (as well as verses 14-20) in order to provide background for those who weren’t in worship last week or—like me—simply forgot what we were talking about.

4:22 The people had no complaints about Jesus’ reading, or even his message that the scripture was fulfilled “today.”  Everything is set for a nice story about Jesus and a successful homecoming.

4:23-27 Here is where Jesus seemed to get out of line.  There is nothing in the text to this point that would prompt such harsh words, yet he goaded his former neighbors into anger.  What did they do to deserve such treatment?  John Stendahl, in a Christian Century piece (“Living by the Word: The offense,” January 21, 1998, 53.), suggests that perhaps Jesus was upset because the people missed the point.  They focused on how wonderfully this nice boy had turned out and what a credit he was to his father Joseph.  But what about the content of his message?  They couldn’t see past Jesus to glimpse the power and promise of God’s gracious action that was already beginning.  They were too close to him, and so they couldn’t truly hear his words.  Outsiders, on the other hand, didn’t know Joseph.  They hadn’t watched Jesus grow from an awkward boy into a man.  The outsiders heard and understood the message.

4:28-29 This is an extreme form of rage, to want to hurl the offender off a cliff.  Did they think he was speaking blasphemously?  Or had hometown fervor overwhelmed their reason?  In any case, the crowd was murderously angry.  I have been in more than one church meeting in which people have become unglued, though not upset enough to commit homicide (I hope!).  Is there a message for us in the Nazareth congregation’s reaction?  You could preach this as a negative response to the message of Jesus.  There are times we do not agree with Jesus’ bold extremism.  Perhaps we can train ourselves to move past the immediate emotional response to hear what Jesus is really saying to us.  Maybe we can learn to stop running ahead of Jesus, already certain we know what he will preach.  That is a particular danger for some of the more familiar texts.

4:30 I am not sure what to do with this verse, but if you are feeling daring, you could prepare something imaginative based on Jesus, almost magically, moving through the crowd.  They were so angry, yet he just “passed through the midst of them.”  What was happening there?  Was it Jesus’ demeanor?  Had the anger melted away?  Was this the power of the Spirit?

Three years ago, I preached this text while focusing on the outsider, and our distrust and fear of those who are other.  I think I will do so again.  We may have been fixed with a biological imperative to take care of our own, but Gospel imperative causes us to focus on the outsider.

What is your take on this text?  What will be the theme of your preaching this week?

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