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"Jesus' Mission In-cludes the Ex-cluded"

A sermon based upon Luke 4:14-30

It’s been almost five years since I returned to Alpena --my home-town. It’s been five years since I was called to be the minister of this, my former "home church." I couldn’t help but think about that when I read the Bible story we heard today

Jesus has returned home to Nazareth, to preach in his home congregation. It started well, but it ended badly!

I must admit that Jesus was bolder than me! Unlike me, who was an ordained minister for 30 years before coming home to Alpena, Jesus came right away to his home church for his inaugural sermon! In other words, he’s just getting started…

Following his baptism, and his subsequent 40 days of testing by the devil in the wilderness(in Luke’s Gospel),Jesus immediately went back to his own people in his hometown of Nazareth to announce his mission. This was before Jesus called any disciples to follow him! He’s on his own in his hometown.

There in the sanctuary that he knew from his youth, Jesus reads aloud the prophet Isaiah’s revolutionary call for "justice for the poor" and "liberation for prisoners" --and announces that today--right then and right there… right now -- in their hearing, this Scripture from Isaiah was being fulfilled!

At first, they were flattered that Jesus had come home.

People left Nazareth all the time –there wasn’t a lot of job opportunities in their little town. No advanced schooling in Nazareth. People who had a plan went (either) to the regional Capitol "Sepphoris", or down to the Sea of Galilee to the new Capitol City "Tiberias". The top draw, of course, would be to go South to Judea, to Jerusalem, where the market action was!

Furthermore, the Galilean town of Nazareth had a bad reputation: "What good thing ever came from Nazareth?" was a pejorative slogan often heard in Jesus’ day. (see John 1:46)

But on this Sabbath day, one of their own, Jesus --a real Nazarene who had grown up there --had come home to share his wisdom with his home congregation. I think people were excited; curious.

Luke tells us that "all spoke well of him; and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said: ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’"

You know, when I came here five years ago, I benefitted by being known as "Dodi’s son." Those of you who did not know me, and who may have wondered about the wisdom of calling someone from Southern California (the Left Coast, you know; the land of fruits & nuts) said: "But I knew your Mom, and she’s one of my favorite people. So, if you’re at all like Dodi, you’ll do."

Jesus began his sermon by saying that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him… anointing him –Messiah-ing him, Christ-ening him –to preach Good News to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind… to let the oppressed go free!"

At first, they were dazzled and amazed. They all spoke well of him. It looks like Jesus was off to a good start there in his home town church in Nazareth.

But then the murmurs and grumbles began. Did Jesus just claim to be like a new Isaiah? How does Jesus know that the Spirit of God is upon him, anointing HIM!? This guy, this son of a carpenter(Joseph), is going to fulfill the prophet’s promise of justice? After 600 years?

Who does Jesus think he is, coming back home after his sojourns elsewhere, and telling his hometown synagogue members that right now, right here he fulfills the Scriptures!?

Jesus hasn’t even done any miracles in Nazareth yet, like he had done down in Capernaum. Jesus knew that the people wanted to see some proof--some religious spectacle--to know that God was truly with Jesus. They don’t really want to listen to him preach a sermon. But he preaches one anyway!

And as if it weren’t bad enough that Jesus named some clearly un-acceptable folks in his litany of blessings --bringing good news to the poorrelease of captives (prisoners?)… coming to the aid of blind people; people who are oppressed--to make matters worse, the two examples that Jesus drew from the Bible were precisely the opposite kinds of stories than the usual "Teachers of the Law" would talk about.

In the first example --taken from the days of the great prophet Elijah--Jesus points out that there were many widows in Israel in the days of the great drought, when there was no rain for three and a half years . . . and a great famine over-whelmed the land of Israel. But Elijah brought relief to none of them, but only to Zar’-efath, to a foreign widow in the land of Sidon (in Lebanon).

Did God not care about the suffering of Israel? Didn’t God care about Jewish

widows? Why would the God of the Jews help a foreigner?

Jesus brought up an uncomfortable subject --God’s blessing being bestowed on foreign people (on "non-Jews") --and he gave them no easy answer.

His second Bible story made things even worse! "There were many lepers in the land of Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha. But none of them was cleansed … but only Na’aman,the Syrian! "Not only was Na’aman a foreigner--an Assyrian, an Arab (not a Jew!) --but he had been a General in the opposing Army…who had just wreaked havoc on the people and territory of Israel! If there was one person that the Jews of Northern Israel would have wanted to punish, it was General Na’aman of the Syrian Army! And yet it was this man, and only him, who was cured of leprosy by God.

Jesus’ choice of these two stories from Scripture makes one think: has God no allegiance to the Jewish people? Why does the God of the Bible care anything about those violent heathen power-brokers like Assyria’s General Na’aman, while doing nothing for the suffering people of Israel? (!) Bringing up stories like that from the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible) could make people uncomfortable--make them question the kind of God they had been taught to believe in.

You can see why most Teachers of the Law and Bible scribes would simply skip over stories like that. (!) But Jesus, in his very first sermon recorded in the Gospel of Luke --in what one might think would have been the safe confines of his hometown sanctuary --brings up the more universal and in-clusive side of God… the God who cares for foreign widows and who heals enemy generals --both of whom would have been "excluded" by the religious gatekeepers in Jesus’ day. (!) Do you see why that sermon was not well received!?

Is it any wonder that the worship service brokeup in arguments and yelling!?

All the gracious words that had impressed them at the start, apparently, were forgotten. All the promises of "justice for the poor" and "bringing release to the captives" were drowned out in the cacophony of outrage to think that Israel’s God would assist foreigners and heal enemy combatants!…That God would include the very people that their civic pride & religious sentiments would have excluded rubbed them the wrong way. Since Jesus had grown up there, he should have known better!

The direct outcome of that sermon was that the people tried to kill Jesus! They wanted to throw him off a cliff.(!) And these were his home-town Nazareth neighbors!

But the good news is, that --even though the people tried to silence Jesus…to kill him, if that’s what it took, to put