Can’t Go Home Again - thrive UMC Official Blog

Can’t Go Home Again

Today we’re beginning our third week of the series called ‘The Saving Wild,’ which is about the unexpected blessings that can only be found in the wilderness.  In the first week, we looked at the proclamation and ministry of John the Baptist, who demanded that the crowds produce good fruit with their lives.  And last week, we followed Jesus deep into the wilderness as he was thoroughly examined before beginning his public ministry –his professor being none other than the devil himself.  And the lesson he learned there, out in the wilderness, proves to be absolutely vital as he embarks on his ministry journey.  For the wilderness teaches Jesus how to do, without. 

             We’ll even start to see just how vital this blessing proves to be for Jesus in today’s reading.  But before we jump into it, I want you all to be on the lookout for a couple of things in the text.

            First of all, always look for the weirdness.  You should do this whenever you read the bible, because the strange turns in the story, and the little details that just don’t seem to fit or make sense are often the very keys for unlocking the revelation.  And if you look for the weirdness, the scriptures will never disappoint you.

            Second, I want you to notice the momentum of the story.  This story is going somewhere.  It’s moving.  It has a direction and a thrust and a rhythm.  The Bible is always inviting us to be transformed.  So if you ever encounter the bible and are still the same person, sitting in the same spot as when you had first started, then you are doing something terribly, terribly wrong. And John the Baptist wants to ask you: where’s the fruit of your change?   

            So look for the weirdness, and look for the momentum. Let’s get into it; we’re reading Luke, chapter 4, verse 14-30.  It says this:

14 Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. 15 He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. 17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, 
    to proclaim release to the prisoners 
    and recovery of sight to the blind, 
    to liberate the oppressed, 
19     and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[e]

20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

22 Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips. They said, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?”

23 Then Jesus said to them, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’”24 He said, “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown.25 And I can assure you that there were many widows in Israel during Elijah’s time, when it didn’t rain for three and a half years and there was a great food shortage in the land. 26 Yet Elijah was sent to none of them but only to a widow in the city of Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 There were also many persons with skin diseases in Israel during the time of the prophet Elisha, but none of them were cleansed. Instead, Naaman the Syrian was cleansed.”

28 When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. 29 They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the crowd and went on his way.

            So after 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus finally comes back home to Nazareth.  And he goes back to his home synagogue, and he does the traditional thing.  Much like I’m doing today, Jesus stands up, reads the scripture, and he gives a little homily.  His homily is a little shorter than mine will be –but I’m also hoping the final responses of our respective crowds will also go differently –but we’ll see!

            In any case, Jesus does the traditional thing, the expected thing: he reads from the scroll of the Bible, and he makes his own remarks on it, and gosh, everyone is so proud!  In the English translation of Luke that we just read, it literally says the people were “raving” about Jesus.  They hadn’t heard a sermon so exciting and inspiring and so gloriously brief in a long time –and golly, isn’t that Joseph’s boy up there doing such a wonderful job?  ‘What do you think, Abe, hasn’t our Jesus grown up to be such a fine young man? Maybe he’ll be a rabbi one day. We could use more young rabbis these days to give us a little chutzpah for our Sabbaths!’   

            You have all that going on, and then fast-forward to six verses later and that very same crowd that had just been raving about Jesus is now trying to throw him off a cliff. 

            First of all, for those of you who know the rest of that story, does that scenario sound at all familiar to anyone?  Think about the Palm Sunday story: Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and it seems like everyone in the city is shouting ‘hosannas’ about him and celebrating them as their king, and later that week they’re shouting “Crucify him!”  This is not an isolated response to Jesus’s teaching, right?

            And second: what happened?  How did everyone in the Nazareth synagogue go from happy-raving to attempted-murder-raving so quickly?  It really is astonishingly weird. I mean what does it take to reset the dial for a whole crowd of people from love to hate?  And these are good people, right?  Salt-of-the-earth small town folk.  So what would it take to turn some kind, encouraging people into an angry mob that may as well have pitchforks?

            For Jesus that day, it had something to do with a parable, a prediction, and the precedent of prophets.

            Jesus says, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself.  Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’”  Then he goes on to remind them of how of two of their most highly-revered prophets performed miracles –not for their own people- but instead for people across the borders. 

            In other words, Jesus is publically announcing himself to be a prophet –he’s affirming that he has been given the gift of God’s miraculous word.  But at the same time he’s also letting them know –a prophet, yes, but not your prophet. There will be healing, and demons cast out, and wisdom shared and new sight and hungers satiated.  But in other places.  Not here. Not for you.

            There’s a little more to it than that, even, but the people hear what Jesus is saying.  They get it, and you can tell, because they get up and move!  The whole community rises from their pew to chase after him, as fast as they can go, to the crest of the hill.

            Before we shared the reading today, I invited to try and keep track of the momentum of the story. I challenged you to notice where it went –and on a very simple level, the momentum of the story went to the edge of town.  It went to the border of Nazareth.  The story started at home, at the center of the community, the synagogue, and it went out.  And from there, Jesus went on his way –and if we were to keep reading, we’d find out that that means he next goes to a bigger town called Capernaum. 

            Meanwhile, what happens to everyone else?  What happened to the whole supportive-crowd-turned-angry-mob? By the way, if you’ll notice, they were the very first followers of Jesus in the most literal sense.  They could have been the very first disciples and apostles –they could have been the first witnesses of, and participants in, this world-changing Jesus movement. Because they had the right momentum!  But what happened?

            I dunno, I guess lunch was served.  It even says that Jesus ‘passed through the crowd and went on his way.’  What a weird line –they’re trying to toss him off a cliff, but Jesus just passes right through?  What kind of an angry mob is that –they just let him get away?

            Presumably, they all just got tired… and they went back home.  

            Can we see what’s happening here?

            Jesus goes out to the wilderness, and he sees and experiences something with John the Baptist, and it changes him!  And this new spirit he discovers, which absolutely captivates him, drives him out, deeper, into the wilderness, where he learns, first hand, all the stuff he doesn’t need.  And it sets him free –free in a way that was unimaginable before!  Then he goes back home to his own community center, where he announces that the promises God had made in the past are happening.  They’re actually coming true, right now, even as the congregation is sitting there listening.  Good news to the poor!  The captives are freed!  The blind see!  The oppressed are liberated! The year of the Lord’s favor! It’s all happening! Now!

            And for the crowd, it was a riveting sermon –in the sense that it kept them planted, right in their seats. ‘Nice job, Jesus –we hope to hear more from you next week!’

            But the words of Jesus weren’t supposed to bring them back to the same place week after week after week; the words were supposed to move them. They were supposed to take them somewhere, and to show them something.  The invitation was to be inspired and to act.  Come and see!

            Back in 2010, Kristen and I went to Nigeria with a group from the Iowa Conference, where we spent two weeks teaching and learning in rural villages. All I can say about it is that life is so different there.  In a number of ways, it was like visiting a whole other planet.  It was just an absolutely incredible experience.  Then when I got back, I was invited to give a few presentations on my time in Nigeria.  So I put on some of the clothes that friends had made me over there, and I showed them a handful of pictures I had taken, and I told them these stories about how my time there had changed me.  And I can remember talking to someone after one of those presentations, and they told me how nice of a job I did; so I told them, ‘yeah, if you ever get the chance, you should totally go!’

            And they say to me, ‘oh, after your presentation, it was almost like I got to go there too!’  Then they laughed, and I’m sure that had seemed like a very nice thing to say to them.

            But to me, I was just so annoyed by that comment. And for a long time, I didn’t even know why I was annoyed by it, until my annoyance congealed into a question: ‘wait, did that person just use what I had shared as an excuse to stay home?  Did they hear what I had said and internally go: ‘well, now I know what Africa is like!  –Check that one off the list.’?’  Because the whole message I had wanted to pass on was: ‘go, have a missional experience! It was amazing and it changed my life –I want that for you!’ 

            ‘Nah, that’s alright: hearing how your life was changed was enough for me! I’ll stay right where I am, thank you very much!’

            That is, too often, the momentum of home: it keeps you where you are, as you are.  And it wants you to come back, again and again, as the same person, unchanged. So when Jesus comes back to Nazareth, his hometown doesn’t see him or welcome him as a prophet, because they can’t get over seeing him just as Joseph’s kid. They see him as he was –how they remember him.  But they don’t recognize where he’s going. 

            And what’s more: they are unwilling to get up and follow him, unless it’s for the sake of running him out of town. Because, in the end, they like where they are.  It’s familiar.  It’s secure.  And they know how it works. And ultimately, what they want, is they want for Jesus to bring the miracles back to them. They want someone to go out into the wild places, package up the blessings from out there all nice and neat, and bring them back.  They don’t care about their foreign neighbors.  They don’t care about the problems of the world beyond their borders.  They just care about what’s good for them, so Jesus, as long as you serve us right here in the way we want to be served, we’ll be good!

            But the blessings of Jesus operate on an entirely different economy: God’s spirit is on him, and he is anointed to be sent.  You can’t stay where you are and fulfill God’s expectations.  You have to go; you have to get up and move.  Because –and here’s the biggest challenge facing the Church today- the ministry of Jesus happens on the fringes, along borders. It doesn’t happen in town, or at home where everything is safe and comfortable, but it happens in the wild places where different worlds intersect.  It happens on the border between sickness and health; it happens where the lines are crossed between Jew and Gentile, between heaven and earth –it happens in the space between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ 

            This is at the heart of what has always given the Jesus-tradition its energy and power: it is the faith that leads us out. And over.  For Jesus to fulfill his calling, he has to go to the poor, and the prisoners, and the blind, and the oppressed.  He doesn’t wait for them to come to him.  Because if you’re going to wait for prisoners to come to you, you’re going to have to wait a very, very long time.

            To me it’s so interesting to read in the gospel of Luke the contrast between Jesus’ time in the wilderness with the devil, and the time he spends in the synagogue with the people who raised him.  The devil presents Jesus with opportunities to wield power for selfish purposes, to tempt Jesus.  But do you think Jesus was also tempted by that crowd in Nazareth?  Was he tempted to blush and accept their praise, and come back again the following Sabbath?  Do you think he was tempted to remain within the boarders that raised him and be their teacher, year after year until he died?

            And what about all of us here today: are we tempted to stay in a state of ministry that’s comfortable and secure, with people who are mostly like us?  Or are we bold enough to follow Jesus as he leaves what he knows behind to venture into new territory?  Indeed, let us examine the momentum of our own ministry: does it take us out to the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed?  Or is the mantra of our ministry more like: ‘come, make a home with us, and remain unchanged’?

            Let’s pray.