Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 3, 2013

2013.02.03 “The Shocking Truth” – Luke 4: 14 – 30

Central United Methodist Church

The Shocking Truth

Pastor David L. Haley

Luke 4: 14 – 30

February 3rd, 2013

 

        All who were there, watching and listening, were surprised at how well he spoke. But they also said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son, the one we’ve known since he was a youngster?”

        He answered, “I suppose you’re going to quote the proverb, “Doctor, go heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we heard you did in Capernaum.’  Well, let me tell you something: No prophet is ever welcomed in his hometown.  Isn’t it a fact that there were many widows in Israel at the time of Elijah during that three and a half years of drought when famine devastated the land, but the only widow to whom Elijah was sent was in Sarepta in Sidon?  And there were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha but the only one cleansed was Naaman the Syrian.”

        That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger. They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom, but he gave them the slip and was on his way.” – Luke 4: 21 – 30, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Who remembers the TV show Candid Camera? In each episode, host Alan Funt placed unsuspecting people in confusing, embarrassing, and hilarious positions, while their reactions were recorded on a hidden camera.

One in particular I remember was this: a person, a family, or group of friends was asked to sit on a bench and pose for a portrait. What they didn’t know was that the bench had been wired for electricity, so about 15 seconds after they sat down, an electrical shock flowed through the bench. You can imagine what that looked like; people trying to get off that bench in the fastest and funniest possible way. Today, that would probably be considered cruel and unusual punishment, but it sure was funny! (By the way, in preparation for this sermon, your pews have been wired, and in about 10 seconds . . .)

The effect might not have been that different the day Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth. They had heard surprising things about Jesus, and now he’d finally “come home,” so it was with great anticipation that they looked forward to his appearance in the synagogue, and what wonderful things he was going to do. I expect Jesus’ mother Mary was there, along with other family and friends, people who Jesus had known and who had known him since he was a child.

It began well. Jesus took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, unrolled it to the place he was looking for, and read that famous passage about the servant of the Lord, from Isaiah 61:

God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the

Message of good news to the poor,

Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners

and recovery of sight to the blind,

To set the burdened and battered free,

to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

But then things took a surprising turn. Jesus’ remarks were brief; he only had one point to make: “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.” In other words, Jesus was claiming for himself the identity and the work of the Spirit Anointed Servant of God in Isaiah 61. He was saying, to these people who had known him since he was a child, that he was the one they, and their grandparents and the generations before them, had been waiting for: the Messiah, the Anointed One of God.

Perhaps, if Jesus had stopped there, they would all have lived happily ever after. Because, based on what’d they seen so far, “All who were there, watching and listening, were surprised at how well he spoke.” It reminds me of the remark someone was supposed to have made back when women broke the stained glass ceiling in the church, and became preachers and pastors. Someone made the sexist remark that hearing women preach were kind of like watching a dog stand on their hind legs: you were not only surprised they could do it, but that they could do it well. Perhaps that’s the way they felt about Jesus, this kid they’d watched grow up. But others said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son, the one we’ve known since he was a youngster?”

Perhaps, anticipating their response, like so many preachers, Jesus didn’t know when to sit down and shut up.  He went on to say:

“I suppose you’re going to quote the proverb, “Doctor, go heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we heard you did in Capernaum.’ Well, let me tell you something: No prophet is ever welcomed in his hometown. Isn’t it a fact that there were many widows in Israel at the time of Elijah during that three and a half years of drought when famine devastated the land, but the only widow to whom Elijah was sent was in Sarepta in Sidon?  And there were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha but the only one cleansed was Naaman the Syrian.”

Basically what Jesus said was, “Whatever I’ve got, YOU PEOPLE here are not going to get it.” And then he reminded them that even in Biblical history, in the days of Elijah and Elisha, the benefits of God went not to Israelites but foreigners: the widow of Sidon and Naaman the Syrian.

What had they done to deserve this? Was Jesus in a bad mood, or did he see something we can’t see, as he sat there facing people he knew well, maybe too well.

That’s the dangerous assumption, isn’t it: when we think we know people well, even the people we think we know, including members of our own family, and our best friends. Say the wrong thing or even the right thing in the wrong way, and we see a side of them we’d just as soon not see. All of us can likely recall ugly episodes in our own families, on holidays, at reunions, at weddings, even when someone is dying, when a remark made in the wrong way brings out the worst in everybody.

I once attended a Human Relations Commission meeting, where the issue was Park District soccer fields, which were  being beaten to death by overuse, primarily by Mexican soccer teams. Because of this, usage restrictions had been applied. But the larger question, and the reason it was before the Human Relations Commission, was whether these restrictions were racially discriminatory.  I will never forget sitting there listening to the local Catholic priest, accuse the Park District board members, sitting there before him – some of whom were his parishioners – of racism. I’ve seen rooms explode in flame; I thought that room was going to explode in anger.  And it might have, if some had not been restrained by friends.

That’s what happened that day in Nazareth. Remember that electric shock I talked about; it was as if an electric shock ran through the seats of that synagogue, as they realized what Jesus was saying to them, his own people:  that they might not God’s favorites, but someone else – foreigners at that – might get God’s attention before them.

Actually, it was not a new idea.  As far back as Abraham, God declared intent to bless ALL people. The prophet Jonah stands as the dramatic embodiment of that capacity in all of us, Jew and Christian alike, to be offended by God’s grace to those we do not approve. “The reason I did not want to preach to Ninevites,” Jonah said to God, was “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” (Jonah 4:2)  It’s a theme Luke will sound over and again, that God loves not only Jews, but Gentiles and outsiders of all kinds.

But at that moment on that day, it was too much for the people of Nazareth. Whether it was who he was, the way he said it, or the fact that though they knew it, they didn’t want to hear it, especially from him, all hell broke loose. They rushed Jesus, swept him out of synagogue, and out of the city to the edge of a cliff, ready to kill him for what they considered heretical words. You could stone a person by throwing rocks at them; you could also stone them by throwing him on the rocks, which is what they intended to do. But somehow, he escaped, to preach another day.  As we know, the day would come, when he would not get away, and another mob with faces contorted in anger, would watch him nailed to the hard wood of the cross.

What is this story about? Sadly, like the rest of the Gospel, it is really about us. “You want the truth?” said Marine Col. Nathan Jessup in one of my favorite movies, A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth.”  And that is the truth.

There are times when people say things to us, that are not true, and we know it. But there are also times, when people speak to us the truth, and we are either too blind to see it, or do not want to hear it. And so we deny it, or respond in anger, lashing out at the messenger. Rarely in our anger do we stop to ask, “Is this true?”

While all of us can recall things said about us or to us that were not true, chances are we can also recall when a parent or spouse or friend spoke the truth to us in love, and it led to genuine insight or to change for the better in our lives. I didn’t say it was easy; I said it was the truth.

Our resistance to the truth plays out not only on a personal level, but at every level of life, and has throughout history: in science, in the struggle for human equality, in religion. What Joseph’s brothers said of him in the book of Genesis has echoed again and again in the path of human progress: “Here comes this dreamer; let us put him to death, then we shall see what comes of his dreams.”

In science, I could talk about Galileo Galilei, forced by the Church to recant of his observation that the earth moves around the sun (and not vice versa, as the Church decreed).  But do you know the story of Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 –1865), an early 19th century Hungarian physician who pioneered antiseptic techniques? Semmelweis discovered that the mortality rate from puerperal fever in pregnant women, which was 10% to 30%, could be reduced to 1%, simply by hand washing between patients with an antiseptic solution (now standard medical practice.) Yet doctors refused to do it. Why? Because Semmelweis’s theories conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time.  His ideas were rejected, and in 1865, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum, where he died at age 47 after being beaten by the guards. His ideas earned acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on Pasteur’s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success.

What about the struggle for human rights?  On August 5, 1966, Martin Luther King came to Marquette Park in Chicago, to march on behalf of fair housing laws. Dr. King led a group of non-violent open housing advocates through a gauntlet of thousands of screaming white residents, who hurled obscenities, firecrackers, sticks, rocks and debris. A rock the size of a fist struck King in the face, knocking him to the ground in a daze.  A knife, hurled by another demonstrator, missed him, but lodged in the neck of a white marcher.  Afterwards, King told the media, “I have been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago.  I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”

It has been this way in the struggle for women’s rights, for civil rights, and now gay rights. All of us – myself included – confess that it is very difficult to change in regard to things we have long believed to be true, but sometimes, as shocking and as difficult as it is, the ideas we resist, are indeed true. That it is difficult to change, and that we are resistant to it, is attested to by the fact that the path of human progress is stained with the blood of the martyrs, the prophets, the dreamers who led the way.

This is especially true for religion. Just like those people sitting in those pews in Nazareth, we want to believe God will bless us, in this order: Me, my family, my people, my tribe, my country, my race, and if there’s anything left over, those who are left.  When the fact is – and deep down we know it, just as surely as the people in Nazareth knew it – that from the beginning to the end, God desires to bless everybody, all the families and people of the earth. The real challenge in our spiritual growth, is to move from the particular to the universal, from exclusion to inclusion, from just me and those like me, to everybody.

In truth, there is a little bit of Nazareth in all of us. About ten years ago, I got a call from my Dad, God rest his soul. On the previous Sunday in their little United Methodist church, a biker in bandana and leather jacket had come forward to join the church. “He looked sick,” he said, “and the preacher embraced him at the altar as they cried.”  “But since then,” said my dad, “we’ve found out that this biker is living with his girlfriend, and she’s already come around asking for money.” “Can you tell me,” my Dad asked, “isn’t there something in the Discipline about receiving somebody like that into the church?”

“Look,” I said, “you got two choices. You can come down hard on him, and never see him again, not only ending any opportunity for you to have any ministry with him, but possibly also denying him the opportunity to find God and any final peace in his life; or you can take him at his word, embrace him, and see what God’s going to do. You might be surprised.”

That is the shocking truth. Once you get it, there’s no stopping: not by an angry mob in your own hometown; not even death on a cross on Good Friday.

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