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Stirring Up Trouble

Listen to the recording of this sermon:


Luke 4:16-30

January 31, 2010

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

When we read the Bible, we are supposed to find ourselves in the story. So when I read the story of Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth, I put myself in the place of the leader of the synagogue who asked Jesus to preach.

So when I choose someone else to preach I’m pretty particular about it. For the most part, I want someone who will say things that we agree. But it is always humbling when someone asks after the guest preacher’s sermon, “Have you ever thought about that?” when I know that I preached on the same subject a week earlier.

Pastors who give someone else a turn in the pulpit are never quite sure how to respond when the church members say, “Don’t you wish we could hear preaching like that every Sunday?”

Pastors would rather have a good visiting preacher, but if the guest preacher turns out to be dull or long-winded, that is not a complete loss either. Maybe I will sound more interesting by comparison!

If Jesus came home for the weekend, would we invite him to preach? Everyone was talking about Jesus. He was preaching in synagogues all over Galilee and making quite a name for himself.

Asking Jesus to Preach

When Jesus arrived at the synagogue, the leader thought, “What do we really know about Jesus?” He has no credentials, no degrees, no ordination, but he is clearly intelligent. His speaking gifts are remarkable. He tells compelling stories. He is a clever debater. On the downside, Jesus is a bit dramatic. He eats with non-church people. He staged a protest at the temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers. Asking Jesus to preach could lead to trouble. Jesus seemed so young and idealistic.

After thinking about this, the synagogue leader figured that if he did not ask Joseph and Mary’s boy he would have to explain why he didn’t to a lot of people. Besides, he can use a Sunday or a Saturday off. So he asked Jesus to preach and put the announcement in the temple newsletter.

It was like a homecoming. A huge crowd shows up to hear Jesus. After singing a Psalm, reading the Scriptures and saying the prayers, they hand Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and Jesus begins to read, “The Spirit of God is upon me to bring good news to the poor, to announce pardon to the prisoners and sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free.”

The people love this passage. They are the poor, and they need good news. They are the oppressed and burdened, and they need freedom. But several of them noticed that Jesus does not read the part when Isaiah talks about the day of vengeance on their enemies. They especially like the part about vengeance.

Then Jesus announces, “This is the day God wants all of this to happen.” An older man who knew Jesus as a child shouts, “Amen!” A woman whispers, “Jesus has such a nice voice.” The neighbors are so proud of Jesus who has become a good preacher. The leader of the synagogue relaxes a little.

At this point, the reasonable thing for Jesus to do is tell them what they want to hear. He should work verse-by-verse, phrase-by-phrase through this passage talking about what it meant to the people to whom Isaiah preached 500 years earlier. He should politely encourage them to care for each other. If Jesus does that, everything will be fine. At lunch, they will talk about what a fine preacher Jesus is.

But Jesus didn’t do that. He refuses to be the hometown boy offering a feel-good sermon. The people of Nazareth had hopes for their local boy come home that were different from Jesus’ hope for his visit. These were the people with whom he grew up—his Sunday school teachers, friends who were in his youth group. Surely they will hear what he was saying. But Jesus understands that they do not believe the words he read from Isaiah. He knows too well the small circle of life that his neighbors had in Nazareth. His hometown people saw themselves at the center of the world.

For those who thought they knew Jesus, Jesus says, “Let me tell you something, no prophet is ever welcome in the prophet’s hometown.” Then he says, “You really don’t get this but the Spirit of God blows in more places than you’ve imagined. When Elijah the prophet was in trouble, he didn’t go to one of your widows, but to a foreigner—someone you would never invite to dinner, someone you would cross the street to avoid.”

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The sanctuary is silent.

Jesus says, “There were a lot of people sick during Elisha’s time, some of them lived around here, but Elisha didn’t heal any of them—only an enemy, Naaman, who wouldn’t be welcome in this synagogue. The Spirit of God does not belong to you. It’s God’s Spirit. God is for the people you look down on.”

When they hear this, they were frozen in their seats. They stared straight ahead avoiding making eye contact with Jesus. When the invitation hymn was sung, people came forward not because they want to hear more, but they want to take Jesus to a cliff outside of town and throw him over. When they realized that Jesus’ good news is going to benefit people they don’t like, the leader of the synagogue is now thinking why on earth did he invite Jesus to preach?

Taking It Seriously

It’s easy for us to think that the people of Nazareth were violent and irrational people, but the truth is that they took Jesus’ sermon more seriously than we do. If Jesus preached this sermon today, we would have a crowd here and not ignore him, but we might also make fun of him at lunch. If we really hear these words we will be offended. Do we want everyone to have a place at the table? Do we want to tell Good News to people we don’t like?

“Good news to the poor” Jesus promised. Do we want all the accumulated inequities wiped out? Do we want our wealth redistributed, for everyone to have equal opportunities when we have more than our share of the money? Can we truly practice the year of Jubilee today? It’s very easy for us to get mad at how certain banking and corporate executives receive outlandish bonuses and pay increases when we in comparison with the rest of the world are not poor.

“Release to the captives” Jesus promised. Do we want to invest more resources in reforming and restoring prisoners instead of building more high-security prisons? Why is there more African Americans incarcerated than the black population in America? What is the problem here? How soon will we be able to close down Guantanomo and release the captives? How insane is the idea of building California prisons in Mexico just to reduce the state budget?

“Freedom of the oppressed” promised Jesus. There are so many hurting people that how can we liberate those who grieving, overwhelmed, confused, and lost? How can God expect us to hurt for all the burdened and battered people in Haiti? There are too many tragedies to feel bad about.

Last Sunday when I was walking up Sacramento where I parked, I turned and noticed a homeless man just getting up on the front doors of Charles Schwab. As a church, we have CDs invested with Charles Schwab. The man said, “Good morning!” I said, “Good morning!” and walked on by. I should have said, “Would you like to come to breakfast today?”

We all have prejudices. Who makes us uncomfortable? Who is not included in our circle of friends? Who does not quite fit in? There are people whom we have difficulty loving. Maybe we look down on members of certain races or maybe our prejudice is reserved for people we think are prejudiced.

Now you wish that we didn’t invite Jesus to preach today. He is always stirring up trouble!

Lookism

Have you heard of the word, lookism? It is a sociological term that defined as “the prejudice of judging people by how they look.” The word lookism is new, at least to me, but the concept is familiar. We constantly decide what we think about other people on the basis of how they look.

Maybe the people we look down on are poorly dressed—shoes beyond broken in or maybe it is the ones too perfectly manicured—shoes that are too shiny. Maybe the people we have the most trouble with are the ones who talk too much or the ones who do not talk at all, the in-law we would rather not have, the neighbors who always drive over my path lights, the church member we think does not quite belong in our Sunday school class, or the lonely person who wants more of our time than we are willing to give. We all have trouble loving somebody. That is why good news for people we do not like is hard to hear.

In fact it would be impossible to hear Jesus’ words as good news were it not for one thing. When Luke tells this story he begins by saying “Jesus was filled with the Spirit.” The first words Jesus reads are “the Spirit of God is upon me.” The key to understanding the compassion of Christ is recognizing that Jesus lived in the Spirit of God.

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The Spirit led Jesus to see that every life is sacred. The poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed matter to God, because beaten, bruised, broken lives are no less holy than any other lives. Jesus recognized that the presence of God is here for all of us. The Spirit is all around us.

Jesus was merciful because Jesus was open to the Spirit of mercy. Jesus was loving because he was open to the Spirit of love. Jesus was hopeful because Jesus was open to the Spirit of hope. Jesus experienced the closeness of the Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being.

Jesus’ openness to God’s Spirit got him into trouble by leading him to love. Jesus’ life was a response to the Spirit’s call for compassion for the hurting. It is interesting to note that at the service in which Jesus preached in Nazareth, there were no Gentiles present. As far as I know, there is not one of us here today would have been allowed in that worship service. We are the outsiders Jesus wanted to include—poor, blind captives that we are. The Spirit teaches us that the good news Jesus shares with others is the good news Jesus offers us.

We can love the unloveable only because we can live in the same Spirit Jesus knew. The Christian life moves beyond the impossible task of trying to love people we do not like to the joyous hope of living in the Spirit. Jesus’ message to us is not primarily about avoiding bad things or doing good things. Jesus’ word is that we can live in the Spirit in which Jesus lived. Trying to follow Jesus’ example is so overwhelming that it often leads to frustration, but knowing the presence of God that Jesus knew leads us to life.

Stirring Up Trouble

Most of us like to encounter Jesus and be filled with a great sense of peace. He who calmed the angry waves in the storm calmed troubled spirits of people too. While Jesus did still the stormy sea, he also stirred things up, evoked the demons, and led his disciples onto many a stormy sea.

Martin Luther said, “Whenever the gospel is faithfully preached, demons are set loose.” If that’s true, then perhaps I as a preacher should worry that I’ve never had a response to a single one of my sermons to match the response that Jesus received to his sermon at Nazareth! No one has tried to throw me off a cliff!

I’m sure this is the preacher in me and I’ve wanted to talk about this in a sermon for some time. But I could not help but feel some pity for Barack Obama during his campaign for president in 2008. Obama’s preacher had him in all sorts of hot water because his preacher said some wild, challenging, outrageous things in some sermons and Obama was being criticized for not walking out in indignation at what his preacher had said!

I heard him reply to one reporter, when asked about the furor surrounding this episode to his preacher, “Look, most Christians could tell you if we walked out of church every time with which we disagree, we wouldn’t stay until the end of many sermons!”

Obama could have also cited Luke 4 in his defense! Obama’s pastor was accused of making remarks that sounded anti-American and unpatriotic. Isn’t that probably what the folk at Nazareth thought about Jesus’ comments in Luke 4? Jesus was being anti-Israel, unpatriotic in implying that God also loved and cared for Canaanite women and Syrian army officers.

If my sermon stirred up some trouble today, maybe you won’t ask me to preach again. And if you have that uneasiness, then I have been faithful in my preaching!

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, we are gathered here, your body, your church. We are gathered with the sole purpose of being with you, listening to you, learning from you, being judged by you, and being gracefully empowered by you.

Lord Jesus, we know that in your earthly ministry, not everyone heard you gladly. Many walked away sorrowful, and angry too.

Therefore we pray that you would give us the grace to be with you, as you are, rather than as we would have you to be, to listen to whatever you have to say to us, to learn whatever you want to teach us, and to accept your verdict upon our lives, graceful for your present, sustaining, empowering love. Amen.

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