Monday, June 11, 2007

So Close and Yet So Far

(A sermon based on Luke 4:16-30)

Sometimes people will just not listen to a preacher. In the cartoon strip Kudzu, one of the major characters is the preacher Rev. Will B. Dunn. His primary reclamation project is Dub Dubose, the local mechanic. One day Rev. Dunn was talking with Dub and said, “You know, Dub, there’s a lot to be said for the old system of trading services. I mean, for instance, you could fix my carburetor and in return, I would preach you a sermon.” Dub replied, “I’ll tell you what, Preacher, “I’ll fix your carburetor if you won’t preach me a sermon.” Some folks just do not want to listen to a preacher. Other folks will listen but they won’t take the preacher seriously.

There is precedent for people not listening to the word that is proclaimed to them. In fact, the Bible contains many examples of this phenomenon. People would not listen in Noah’s day. While Genesis says nothing about it, a Jewish tradition developed that Noah preached to the people of his era. That tradition is reflected in 2 Peter 2:5, where Noah is called a “herald of righteousness.” We know the end of that story, so we know that the people did not listen.

People would not listen in Stephen’s day. Stephen, one of the seven Hellenists who were chosen to serve in the ministry of the church in Acts 6, preached his only recorded sermon before the Sanhedrin. Three-fourths of his sermon contained teachings with which his Jewish audience would have been in total agreement. But toward the end of his sermon, he began criticizing his hearers for being like their forefathers who killed the prophets; indeed, they themselves had killed the Messiah. Then, the Bible says, “They cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him” (Acts 7:57). And they stoned him to death.

Those two stories are in our Bibles. But it is any different today? No, for people will not listen in our day. The film Mass Appeal is the story of the relationship between a middle-aged, veteran priest and a young seminarian who is assigned to the older priest’s parish in order to learn from him. The veteran priest advised his young associate not to rock the boat, but to preach easily digested, non-threatening sermons. So the student priest gave it his best shot, attempting to follow his mentor’s advice. But after a few minutes he could stand it no longer, so he launched into a critique of the country club nature of the church. Folks were not pleased. As one man exited the sanctuary, he complained to the older priest, “I don’t come to church to be preached to!” Lots of folks today do not want to listen, either.

We might be surprised at who these people are who sometimes won’t listen. Can you imagine people hearing Jesus himself preach but not listening and not believing? Well, it happened; people would not listen in Jesus’ day—they would not listen to Jesus’ preaching! Why not?

The basic issue is the familiarity factor. Following his baptism, Jesus ministered successfully for some period of time in Galilee (vv. 14-15). Eventually, he worked his way home to Nazareth, where he had grown up. You’ve heard it said that “home is where the heart is,” but for Jesus it was also where the heartache was. Jesus was rejected in his hometown largely because it was his hometown.

After all, the reason for the rejection could hardly have been his message on that day. The passage he read is primarily from Isaiah 61. Originally, these were auto-biographical words of the prophet as he expressed his ministry to a people still figuratively in captivity following the Babylonian Exile. But Jesus saw them as prophetic words that summarized his messianic mission. The words were good news (v. 18b) because they proclaimed the advent of what all faithful Jews had anticipated for centuries: the coming of the Messiah. The words proclaimed that God’s power was behind his mission. Jesus proclaimed that in himself the Day of the Lord had come. That was good news, the best news.

The greatness of the news is even clearer when we comprehend the background of the verses. What the writer of Isaiah 61 had in mind was a great Jubilee celebration. In the Hebrew law was a requirement that every fiftieth year was to be a Jubilee year. In that year, Hebrews who had sold themselves into slavery were to go free and those who had sold their ancestral lands were to get them back. It was, then, a year of release and of liberty. Such a year was good news for the poor, for the captives, and for the oppressed. Now, in Jesus the great Jubilee had come and through Jesus those who were oppressed by the greedy and the powerful could be liberated and those who were captive to sin could be set free.

Initially, the people recognized the good nature of the news. “All spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth…” (v. 22). The words he spoke were words of purpose and of grace. The messianic year had come and the implication was that Jesus was the Messiah. So what happened? Why did their reaction turn from positive to negative? Why did their actions change from speaking positive words to trying to murder Jesus?

First, it was their realization of who lay behind the message. The people’s attitude change can be detected in the words “Is not this Joseph’s son?” How ironic all of this is! Perhaps we can imagine Jesus’ hopes as he approached Nazareth. Maybe fond memories flooded his mind—memories of working in Joseph’s carpenter’s shop, of chatting lightly with people as they came in to leave items or to pick them up; memories of playing in the streets with other children of the town; memories of hanging around with other teenagers when he was that age; memories of neighbors and friends; memories of the combined excitement and sadness he felt when he left home. Perhaps he excitedly anticipated sharing his good news with them. And they remembered Jesus, too, only their memories provoked a reaction of disdain—“Is not this Joseph’s son?” “Why, he’s just a carpenter.” “He used to play with my son all over Nazareth.” “Who does this kid think he is, anyway?”

You see, the people’s problem was not the message but the messenger. The primary barrier to communication was the Nazareth citizenry’s over-familiarity with Jesus. They thought of him as not deserving of their respect. In this case, the old saying held true: familiarity bred contempt. Now, you may wonder, “What does all of this have to do with us here today? We are not overly familiar with Jesus. We do not treat him with contempt. We do not reject the message because of the messenger.”

But I wonder. Do we really take the life and words of Jesus seriously? Do we take seriously the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who came to deliver the oppressed from their oppression and the sinful from their sin? After all, who grows up with Jesus nowadays? We do. We who have been going to Sunday School and church and maybe even Sunday and Wednesday night services all of our lives. We have grown up with Jesus. And I fear that as we have grown familiar with and comfortable with him we have come to hold him in contempt. When we recognize the authority of someone we obey and respect that person; to fail to do so is to hold him or her in contempt. How do we treat Jesus? Do we refuse to listen to the message because we hold the messenger in the contempt of easy familiarity?

Second, it was what lay beneath the message. Jesus’ message always has implications that make the hearers shift nervously and self-consciously. Jesus perceived the growing negative reaction to what he had said and summarized the result of that reaction with two Old Testament examples. A three-year famine once came on Israel and lots of widows in Israel could have used the help of the prophet Elijah, but he went only to a widow in Sidon—a Gentile woman! And in the days of Elisha there were many lepers in Israel, but Elisha cured only one leper: Naaman the Syrian—a Gentile! That was all the people of Nazareth could stand and they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

The implication of Jesus’ words hit his audience squarely in the comfort zone—their secure sense of privilege. How dare Jesus shatter their confidence by presenting them with the facts! Well, here are the facts of what Jesus said. (1) His message of salvation and liberation is for everyone who will hear and obey. Jew and Gentile, black and white, male and female, rich and poor—the good news is presented to all but is effective only for those who hear and obey. The widow was blessed by God because she did what his spokesman Elijah said to do; Naaman the Syrian was healed because he did what Elisha told him to do. (2) God does not pander to the privileged. The people of Nazareth were in a very privileged position as the friends and neighbors of Jesus. Nevertheless, the bottom line was their lack of a faithful response to who he was. They did not hear and obey. As Baptists in the South, we are the privileged. But the bottom line is whether or not we respond in faith to him—whether or not we respect him enough to hear him and to obey him.

The end of this sad story is that Jesus just walked through them and away from them, on to a place and a people who would hear, believe, and obey. How utterly sad—the people of Nazareth were so close to Jesus and yet so far away from him. They had lived with him and they had known him—but they had no respect for him. God forbid that such should be our lot—that we should be this close to him, this privileged, and yet fail to respond with respectful obedience. Jesus can go to people who will obey; my prayer, and I hope yours, is that we will invite him to stay among us—not with our words, but with our actions of faith and of obedience.

No comments: