Out and In
By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
The Iowa caucuses. The New Hampshire Primary. After that the Democratic candidates move on to South Carolina. Sandwiched in amongst all this is the president’s State of the Union message. And that’s just this month. Whether you like it or not, it’s the political season. So gird up your loins. Between now and November we’re in for a wild ride.
It is not totally unlike what Jesus is experiencing at the outset of his public ministry. The difference is, of course, that Luke tells us Jesus was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Just what the politicians are filled with we will leave up to the Mary Matalins and Jim Carvilles – the spin doctors – of the world.
Jesus has effectively evaded the temptations of Satan in the wilderness and is now taking his message of the kingdom of God to the people. His campaign bus is rolling and he is picking up momentum, teaching in the synagogues, being praised for his ability to communicate to the common folk what God is like. Right now, the polls are being quite kind to the upstart politi… – uh, preacher – from Galilee, as his travels bring him back home to Nazareth where he is known best.
All analogies break down eventually, and that is certainly true of this one. Jesus’ campaign is unlike the American political season, where it’s a madcap race to the primaries and the general election with no rest for the weary. In the process, the candidates lose their voices and develop bags under their eyes. Fatigue and endurance become the name of the game. Watch the news and see how often the candidates address a crowd with their sleeves rolled up. That tells you something, doesn’t it? It is a grueling adventure, and if one stops to rest he is left in the political dust.
Not so with Jesus. He knows how to pace himself and isn’t afraid to take off time from his hectic duties to tend to the nurturing of his soul. It is the only way he can stay connected with his Heavenly Father.
Politicians feel it their duty to connect with the people, and rightly so. But people are fickle and demanding. You just never know how the ballots are going to drop, so the more babies you can kiss and hands you can shake, the better the chances those ballots will fall into the box with your name on them.
If you will excuse the grammatical glitch, that’s just not where Jesus is coming from. When Jesus stays connected, it’s with his Father. He is at God’s command, not his own, and certainly not that of the people who constantly clamor for a piece of him. Jesus has this wonderful ability to attack and withdraw, attack and withdraw. He’s out there with the people, to be sure, but then he moves in to be with his Father. Out and in, out and in.
Nazareth provides him an opportunity to pull back for awhile, eat some of mama’s good home cooking, maybe pick up some of the old carpentry tools his father Joseph had left him, and finish that pantry he had left undone. You can expect him also to be spending a great deal of time in prayer. It’s good to be back home where the routine is simple and nothing happens that’s unexpected.
And then the sabbath comes when no work is done. As was his custom (Luke is careful to point this out to us, isn’t he?) Jesus makes his way to the local synagogue. In fact, this is very important to Luke. He wants his readers to know here, and throughout his gospel, that everything Jesus says or does is in keeping with the faith of Judaism.1 Jesus affirms synagogue worship, he confirms his love for scripture (though he is also not hesitant to override it when the occasion calls for it), and he worships on the sabbath. Luke wants us to know this. Jesus didn’t come to overthrow his native faith, he came to fulfill it. And that is the whole point of this story in the synagogue at Nazareth.
In the worship service Jesus takes up the scroll to read. Synagogue worship was different from temple worship, if for no other reason than the physical setting. There was no altar, no sacrifices. The synagogue was like a civic building, used for a number of different functions, and worship was just one of them. We do things differently down in Hicks Hall, around the tables on Wednesday night, than we do here in the sanctuary. Physical surroundings, as well as circumstances, have a great deal to do with how worship is conducted.
Synagogue worship began as house worship during the exile hundreds of years before when the people of Israel did not have the temple. So by Jesus’ day, synagogue worship was an established tradition. They met in relatively small groups, read scripture, prayed together, sang, and took up alms for the poor. That was about it. No ordained clergy – no priests – were present, so worship was led entirely by lay people. It would not have been unusual at all for Jesus to participate, and even lead, in synagogue worship on his return visit to his hometown. No doubt he had done it many times before. It was the routine thing to do.
There is something good – even redemptive – in the routine. It can lead to dullness and a lack of spontaneity, that is true. It’s possible that the Lord’s Prayer, Doxology, or Gloria Patri, because we incorporate them into our worship most every week, have become a bit stale to you. But sometimes the familiar can rise up and bless us in unexpected ways.
Thursday night Janet and I attended a house concert with Kate Campbell. Kate is the daughter of Jim Henry, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Orlando, Florida. She is a singer/songwriter and comes from good southern Mississippi/Tennessee stock. She sings the kind of songs I really like to hear. And she plays guitar. That makes it doubly good. Kate introduced her last number as a 1902 gospel hymn that once had been the theme song of the Royal Ambassadors, back when I was a boy. I had not heard it in forty years, but as the words rolled from her tongue they came flooding back into my memory, and silently I sang along with her as if I had heard the song just the day before…
I am a stranger here, within a foreign land;
My home is far away, upon a golden strand;
Ambassador to be, of realms beyond the sea,
I’m here on business for my king.
This is the message that I bring,
A message angels fain would sing.
So be ye reconciled, thus saith my Lord and King,
O be ye reconciled to God.2
It was a rather emotional experience, in a way. The words were so familiar to me because every time our RA group met (small church groups did this forty years ago, even with a group of rascally boys like the RA’s) we sang our theme song. And the words have never left me. There is something good – something redemptive – in the routine.
It was Jesus’ routine to attend sabbath worship. Every week, on the sabbath morning, they heard the scriptures read and interpreted. On this given day, Jesus is handed the scroll from Isaiah, and he chooses intentionally the text he will read…
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
It is a beautiful prophetic image of the day of the Lord, when the unfettered Spirit of God will roam free and be fully accepted by all God’s human creation. The poor will find something to cheer about and the imprisoned will be liberated. Those who are blind will be given their sight and those who had been oppressed will know the joy of complete and utter freedom. “The year of the Lord’s favor” is a reference to Jubilee, when all debts are forgiven and everyone lives together on an equal basis. It was the day the Jews longed for. More than anything else in all the world, they wanted this wonderful prophecy of Isaiah to come to pass. And they wanted it to happen in their lifetimes. Yes, it will indeed be wonderful when that day occurs. It was the hope of every devout Jew.
But you know how it is. You live each day in expectant hope that this will be the day it happens… whatever it is. But you also buy groceries for tomorrow and plan out what you’re going to do next week and the week after that. You invest in a thirty-year mortgage, and buy an extended warranty for your car. You don’t take tomorrow for granted, but you do count on it to roll around. You hope for the kind of day Isaiah talks about, but you don’t wrap your life around it, just in case it doesn’t come.
And suddenly, the routine opens the door to the totally unexpected. Royal Ambassador theme songs from four decades ago lead to a new resolve to serve your King. A passage – just a word – from scripture is read. You’ve heard it countless times; may even have it memorized. But it is this time that it reaches down into your soul and brings a response from you that you’ve never experienced before. And it all happens because you are engaged in that which is routine.
That is what happened that day in the Nazarene synagogue. It is a sabbath like any sabbath, except the people have noted that Jesus, the son of Joseph, is back in town. The scroll is handed to Jesus and the people stand for the reading of scripture. Jesus reads from Isaiah, rolls the scroll back up, hands it to the worship attendant and sits down to teach. “Today,” he says to these people who have known him since his early childhood, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today.
Our modern language is constantly evolving, and occasionally a word or expression comes along that may become a permanent part of the lexicon, or it may simply last for a short while and then fade away. If it sticks around to the point of being commonly used, Webster’s will eventually put it in their dictionary. They made some publicity recently for using an expression that reflects negatively on a very popular fast-food franchise. Needless to say, McDonald’s didn’t appreciate it very much when the word “McJob” was used to connote a low-paying, go-nowhere position. Our language is, indeed, constantly evolving.
A word that has come into vogue of late is “outed.” It is used, more often than not, in the context of one’s sexual preference. It began as the expression, “coming out of the closet,” but now has been shortened simply to “outed.” But it can be applied otherwise. Whenever individuals are revealed for who they really are, they have been “outed.”
It could be said, for instance, that for the first thirty years of his life, Jesus kept a low profile. Perhaps his father Joseph died when he was young, and he felt the responsibility of being the man of the house. His younger siblings were not yet able to pick up the fraternal responsibility of maintaining a household, and he felt compelled to stay. But then, when it came time for him to begin his public ministry and he brought that ministry back to his hometown, he “outed” himself before the people who knew him best. He let them know that he was the Coming One, the Messiah. And they embraced him for it, at least at first. As we leave this portion of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is in with the people because he has been outed. Get it?
But do you know what Jesus really did? He put a human face on the kingdom of God. Prophecies are wonderful, especially when they come to pass. But when you hope for something, really long for it, and it comes embodied in human form, that is even better. With the eyes of faith, every once in awhile it happens to you and me. Someone comes along, someone who has caught the spirit of Christ, and puts a human face on the kingdom. And when that happens, Jesus’ “today” revives itself all over again and becomes our today. When that happens, it is as if this passage from Luke opens up in our hearts and minds and explodes before our very eyes. You don’t come to this scripture and interpret it. This scripture becomes the human face of the kingdom and it interprets you.
But it can also be disruptive. I have no illusions about preaching. Sometimes the sermons around here might cause you to leave worship scratching your heads. “What was that all about?” You might find on occasion that a sermon inspires or challenges. You can ignore it or you can tuck it away in your memory. Not so when you are confronted with a word from the Lord. Scripture tells us it is sharper than a two-edged sword. It “pares away our complacency like a butcher’s knife.”3 It changes things; it changes us. A good sermon might be life-adjusting. A word from the Lord is life-changing.
The people of Nazareth gathered that sabbath morning for worship because that was their routine. They did it every week. On that particular day they expected to hear a sermon from Jesus. Nothing more, nothing less. The hometown boy has come back to share with the good folk in town his experiences from the gospel trail. But they get much more than just a nice little sermon. They receive a word from the Lord. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Suddenly, this idea of the kingdom of God is no longer merely an idea. This Jesus, who’s face is so familiar to them, has put a face on the kingdom. Scripture becomes more than rhetoric, much more. It becomes a Person when Jesus is “outed” right there in front of his hometown folk… and the world will never again be the same.
When was the last time you came to worship, here or anywhere, and expected – really and truly expected – to hear a word from the Lord? Well, let me say it here and now, and certainly with no false modesty. You will not get it from me. But it may be found in something I say, or in the familiar words of a hymn, or in a prayer, or just in something you see. The Spirit of God implants something totally unexpected in your heart, and when it hits you at full speed you know without doubt it is a word from the Lord.
The only way to have this kind of experience is to place yourself at the mercy of the One who seeks to give his mercy to you. Maybe this is the day you need to be “outed” before God. If so, listen again to the words Jesus spoke and see if it is for you a word from the Lord: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Well, has it?
1Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 61.
2Words and music by E. Taylor Cassey and Flora H. Cassey (www.gospelmusic.tk).
3Thomas G. Long, “This Has Been Fulfilled” (www.joinhands.com).
Copyright 2004 Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.