“I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24).
I was in second grade, so I am told, when I delivered my first sermon.
The congregation was a captive audience of my classmates at Camden Elementary School in Camden, S.C. I can remember enough of the moment to know that it happened, but beyond that the details escape me. Family lore has it that I asked my teacher, Mrs. Rivers, if I could have a few minutes to address the class. She agreed, and at the end of the school day I held forth on the crucifixion.
There was no shaking hands at the door afterwards. I’m sure the bell rang, and my congregation bolted for the school buses.
But neither was there open hostility or rejection. After all, this was South Carolina circa 1969. Those second graders were probably very familiar with the crucifixion story. In the years since that second-grade homily, things haven’t changed too much. My preaching is less applauded than it is endured. But neither does anyone seem ready to run me out of town or throw me off a cliff.
That’s the kind of response Jesus received in his hometown of Nazareth. No one who heard him stood around afterwards, making small talk over donuts and coffee.
Hometown Kid Makes Good
This week we’re taking a brief look at Jesus’ inaugural sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth. Jesus has just emerged from the waters of baptism and the spiritual warfare of the desert, now returning home “in the power of the Spirit” (Lk. 4:14). He has been teaching in synagogues throughout Galilee.
Eventually he makes his way back to Nazareth, and on the Sabbath day he goes to the synagogue “as was his custom.” Luke places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but he does not say that this is Jesus’ first sermon. This is a crowd that knows Jesus. They’ve likely known him for most of his thirty-three years. On this day Jesus is invited to read the scripture and offer comments or reflection, as was common for faithful Jewish men to do in the synagogue gathering.
Jesus read a messianic passage from Isaiah 61 – how God’s anointed one (the ‘Christ’) will free captives, restore sight, lift up the oppressed, and bring good news to the poor. After reading the text Jesus delivered the key idea of his sermon: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21). Jesus is announcing that he is the one of whom Isaiah spoke.
At first the hometown crowd is impressed. They “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (Lk. 4:22). But their admiration soon became anger.
Jesus explained that this messianic mission was not limited to ethnic Israel – and he did it by using the scriptures. Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. Elisha and Naaman the Syrian. By the time the sermon was over the people were furious, ready to run him out of town and throw him from a cliff.
Polite Familiarity with Jesus
“No prophet is accepted in his hometown,” Jesus said. Why is that?
There may be a list of reasons. My guess is that most of them would be variations on a common theme: A long and polite familiarity with Jesus makes it hard to truly hear Jesus. The Nazareth crowd knew Jesus a little too well. They’d watched him grow up. And while they were initially impressed with his reading from Isaiah and the one-sentence sermon that followed, they already had his identity fixed in their minds. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”
Knowing him as Joseph’s son made it very hard to grasp his identity as the Christ, his identity as God’s son.
Many of you know the stories of Jesus very well. You know the things he did and the things he taught. You’ve known these things for a long time. After a while this knowledge settles into a polite respect for Jesus. A comfortable familiarity. That familiarity can become a barrier to his claims to Lordship.
As Lord, he calls us to obedience, not just polite respect.
As our savior he convicts us of our sin and need.
As much as I hate to admit it, I can see myself in that Nazareth synagogue crowd. Not so much in my fury and violent resistance to Jesus, but in my long familiarity with him that makes it hard for his words to come with fresh and compelling power.
A question for you: Is there any way that your own long familiarity with Jesus makes it hard for you to truly hear him?
Guard us, O God, from the kind of polite familiarity with Jesus that makes us feel like we know him, yet without truly walking in his steps and joining his mission. By the power of your Spirit keep disturbing us with your words, forming in us the likeness of your son, in whose name we pray. Amen.