Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 7, 2016

2016.01.31 “The Good News We Don’t Want to Hear” – Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10; Luke 4: 14 – 30

Central United Methodist Church
The Good News We Don’t Want to Hear
Pastor David L. Haley
Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10; Luke 4: 14 – 30
January 31st, 2016

Man looks out over valley from Mount of Precipice

A man looks out over the Jazreel Valley from the Mount of Precipice at the start of the Gospel Trail in Nazareth. The 37-mile-long path follows the route that Jesus is believed to have taken to Capernaum. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill) With CNS Supplement Kit 109, article 1.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He 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.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But 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; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. – Luke 4: 14 – 30, the New Revised Standard Version.


Years ago, when I was young and zealous about religion, especially my religion, someone shared with me a wise caution: “Remember, you can go into any bar and get into a fight about religion or politics.” Not that I tried, but I found this to be even more true when I moved to Chicago.

Most of us know this to be true regarding religion. We have heard of the Crusades in the middle ages and the Spanish Inquisition, we’ve heard of the Puritan Revolution in England and the Troubles – Protestants vs Catholics – in Northern Ireland. We know some of our ancestors left Europe to flee here, seeking religious freedom, which meant freedom for them, if not always for their neighbors, like the Quakers. Those of us who grew up here in Chicago know that there are still cultural and religious “discomfort” among those who are Catholic and Protestant here in Chicago. Once in a Chicago firehouse, when they found out I was a Methodist pastor, someone yelled, “We’ve got an Orangeman among us.” (At that time, I barely knew what that meant.)

As those old divisions have softened, new fault lines have appeared: now the discomforts are not so much within Christianity, but between religions: Christians, Jews, and Muslims, not to mention Hindis and Sikh’s who are ignorantly mistaken for Muslims. Another controversial fault line is within each religion, between those who are conservative and those who are moderate or liberal, whether Christians, Jews, or Muslims. As the current leader of the Niles Clergy Forum here in Skokie, I have Christian, Jewish, and Muslim colleagues; the conservatives in all these faiths don’t want anything to do with any of us. One of my favorite sayings about this religious spectrum came from my former teacher, Martin E. Marty: “Sometimes it seems the committed are not civil; and the civil are not committed.”

Turning to politics, never are we as aware of how polarizing politics is, as in an election year. Sometimes, not only do fights break out, but even family members and former Facebook friends stop speaking to and “defriend” each other on Facebook, over conflicting political views. Mix religion in also, and it is a particularly volatile mixture.

Several years ago, when Sunday fell on a Fourth of July, I preached a sermon which was the equivalent of Rodney’s King’s statement while being beaten by the LAPD: “Why can’t we all get along?” In my sermon I lamented the tone and ugliness of political debate, which – in the years since, seems to have gotten worse. I longed for the days when my grandfather, a Democrat, and his best friend, a Republican, would go fishing in a small boat. When they would catch a fish too small to keep, my grandfather would call it a Republican; his friend would call it a Democrat. The amazing thing is that they managed to do this while remaining friends and without throwing each other out of the boat. Whatever happened to that?

Science has confirmed what we long suspected; many of our deeply held views about things such as religion and politics are not just “what we think”; they are “who we are.” One study I read (which I can’t document) did brain imaging of volunteers discussing deeply held beliefs, like religion or politics, and what they discovered was that the parts of their brain which lit up were not the cognitive parts we use when we are thinking, but the areas of the brain having to do with the sub-conscious parts, suggesting that our deeply held beliefs are not just opinions or ideas, but part of our personality and character. This tells us two things: first, no wonder we get so upset and angry when our beliefs are challenged. And secondly, it’s not likely to do any good to argue with or try to convince those whose beliefs are opposed to ours; we’re not likely to convince them, nor they us.

Truth is, if you have ever been in such a situation (and who hasn’t), you may have been surprised at your own passion and even anger, and of the passion and anger of those with whom you argued. If so, you will not be surprised to hear what happened to Jesus, in response to his sermon in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth.

Last Sunday, we hear what Jesus said after reading the prophet Isaiah’ great text about preaching good news to the poor and release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free, and then saying, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Surely, they thought he was talking about them, only to find out that maybe he was talking about those who really were poor and the debtors and imprisoned and oppressed. When we heard the text, and thought maybe he was talking about us, we may have – like them – felt a disappointed, uncomfortable, even miffed. Today we find out that it all went downhill from there.

After Jesus said what he said, he could have stopped there, on that dramatic note. But he didn’t. As United Methodist Bishop William Willimon put it, “he then threw the book at them, hitting them right between the eyes with Isaiah, and following up with a jab from First Kings:

“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.”

Literally, all hell broke loose. Jesus might as well have quoted the Koran at the V.F.W. I can imagine people stomping out. I can imagine someone standing up to say, “You’re telling me you’re not coming for us, but the people we’ve HATED all our life, our enemies?” I can imagine another saying, “What’s gotten into you, boy; have you forgotten who you are and where you come from?” Another saying, “I’ve been a member of this synagogue all my life; I gave the lectern from which you read; I never expected to be talked to like this.”

What happened? What did Jesus do, that in a moment transformed them from unanimous approval to unrestrained fury?

First of all, like us, they wanted a message about how God was blessing them and blasting their enemies, not vice versa. So when Jesus held up non-Jews, naming from their own Scriptures such people as the widow of Sidon and Naaman the Syrian, that set them off. Is there anything worse than being confronted with the truth from our own tradition?

One of the themes Luke wants to convey in his Gospel is the truth that God loves everybody, including the least and the last and the lost, even our enemies. As David Lose reminds us:

“If there is one line that sums up the Jesus we discover in Luke’s account, it’s this: God came to redeem everyone. When we focus on “redeem,” it’s good news. When we focus on “everyone,” and call to mind those we believe have done us wrong…or who frighten us…or who are different…or who seem unnatural… that same line is terrifying.” (David Lose, “Epiphany 4C: Moving Beyond Mending Our Walls,” In the Meantime, January 25, 2016)

Just like those people sitting in those pews in Nazareth, this is hard for us to get through our heads and hearts, to this day. 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 all the people of the earth. The challenge to us, is to move from the particular to the universal, from exclusion to inclusion, from just me and those like me, to everybody.

This is not only unsettling, it is mind-boggling. The God who set the universe in motion, the God who brought solar systems and beautiful planet earth in existence, the God who through millions of years brought about the human race, loves as much as God loves us, every one who ever lived, every one who lives now. Yes, rich white Americans, but Syrian refugees, who drown in the Mediterranean seeking freedom. Muslims bowing to Mecca, and Africans who struggle with malaria and AIDS and Ebola. Hindus bathing in the River Ganges, and peasants suffering in South America. Buddhists chanting in Lhasa, and Native Americans praying to the Great Spirit. Our tiny lives are like a bubble on the ocean compared to the love of God for all humanity. And so Jesus came with his life and his words, to deliver this message.

Not liking such a message, they took it out on the messenger. Not only did they “escort” him out, they “escorted” him perilously close to the face of a nearby cliff, known as Mt. Precipice, where the story of Jesus almost ended prematurely, instead of the way it ended on a cross in Jerusalem. At the last moment, he gave them the slip and got away, going off to the more pleasant setting and more receptive audience of Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  As the late Fred Craddock once noted, “It is important to note that Jesus does not go elsewhere because he is rejected; he is rejected because he goes elsewhere.” (Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, 1990, p. 64)

Please note that this is the tradition we are a part of; the Christian tradition, with its founder thrown out of the synagogue after his first sermon, and eventually crucified. St. Paul, carrying the message to the Gentiles, often beaten, run out of town, executed in Rome; John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, banned from preaching Anglican parishes, having to resort to “field preaching.” What are we doing wrong? I haven’t been thrown out of anything. There are however, some Sundays and some sermons I have wished for a hole to hide in. I’m just glad there’s no cliff near here.

What we learn from this story, is that we are not totally unsympathetic with the people of Nazareth; in truth, there is a little bit of them in all of us. Years ago, I got a call from my Dad, good man that he was. 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.”

This is the good news we don’t want to hear. Once we comprehend it, we will never look at another person – any person – in the same way.





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