Jesus’ First Sermon
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
The text today is one of my favorites. It’s the story of Jesus’ first sermon. As a preacher, it gives me some measure of comfort to think that if Jesus’ preaching could create such a stir, perhaps there’s hope for me! Not that I mean to offend you. It’s just that, from time to time, preachers tend to ruffle a few feathers. Step on a few toes. Make waves. It’s an occupational hazard.
More than that, it’s the nature of proclamation: God’s Word is a word of judgment and grace. It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. The Word of God is not simply food for thought, something to think about, mull over, consider for what it’s worth. God’s Word is confrontational. It calls us to account for the way we live out our faith. It invites us to surrender our wills to God’s Will and honor him as the sovereign Lord of our lives.
And this is the crux of the text before us today: Jesus proclaimed the Word of the Lord to the people of God; in so doing, he upset the elders to such an extent that they drove him out of the synagogue. And the question this leads me to ask is, “If you’d been there, would you have reacted any differently?” The story begins:
“Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee…He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. He entered, as was his custom, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day.” (4:14,16)
This is interesting: Where else to begin your ministry except in your home church, the place where your faith has been nurtured and developed, the setting that’s most comfortable and familiar? You’d think that if you could count on anyone for a sympathetic and supportive hearing, it’d be among your own family and friends. Yet, Jesus found, as is often the case, the people of your home church can be the most critical, the most suspicious, the hardest to convince. You’ve seen this before – a young man or young woman professes a call to ministry and we think to ourselves: “Little Johnny? Mary Jane? A preacher? Give me a break!”
This is a problem we have to this day – holding others to the past and refusing to believe in the possibilities of transformation and rebirth. It’s hard for us to see young men and women we knew as children now serving in responsible adult roles. More so, it’s even harder for us to see those who used to be wild and unrepentant turn to a life of righteousness and service to others.
We’re dubious. We think they’re pulling the wool over our eyes. We just don’t believe it’s possible. Chuck Colson, an evangelist? You’ve got to be kidding.
Before we move on, take a moment to look around you. Update your files. Things change.
People grow. Don’t let your opinions of others be shaped by the past. That’s what happened with the elders in Nazareth. So that, when Jesus went to his home synagogue, he experienced what many have found to be true, that “no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” (24)
Luke goes on to say that Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath “as was his custom.” (16) On this particular Sabbath, he stood up to read. We don’t know why. Did various men take turns reading the scripture like a liturgist or lay leader today? Did he ask to read the scripture on this particular day? Did someone else ask him to read? We’re not told. Luke simply says, “(Jesus) stood up to read.” (16)
The passage he read was from the prophet Isaiah. Again, we don’t know why. Did he ask the clerk for the scroll marked, “Isaiah,” or was this just the scroll that was handed to him?
What if he’d been handed the scroll of Habakkuk or Obadiah? Would he have read from one of these? Was all this just coincidental, providential, fortuitous? It’s not clear. Luke simply says once he was handed the scroll he unfurled it to a particular passage – Isaiah 61, to be exact – and he began to read. And it’s largely from this prophecy that we glean the character of Jesus:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release to the captives,
recovering of sight to the blind,
to deliver those who are crushed,
and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (vv. 18-19)
This is a defining moment in the life of Jesus from which we come to know him as the suffering servant of Isaiah, whose purpose is to give hope to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captive and liberation to all those who are oppressed.
Given what we know about Jesus, what does this say about the priorities of our lives today as we seek to follow in his footsteps? Who are the ones we ought to be most concerned about today – the rich and powerful or the poor and powerless? Should the bulk of our time be spent socializing with friends or reaching out to those less fortunate? Should the lion’s share of our church budget be spent on maintenance or mission? These are some of the hard questions we need to be asking.
When he finished reading he sat down to preach his sermon. This was the practice of Rabbinic teaching, the rabbi sat while the listeners stood. His message was simple: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (21) A two second sermon, or so it would seem.
The elders were impressed. Luke writes:
“All testified about him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth, and they said, ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?'” (22)
But Jesus didn’t stop here, and that’s where the trouble began. He went on to remind the elders of a time when there was great famine in Israel and God had sent the prophet Elijah to a certain widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. This was a story the elders knew all too well, how God had used this poor helpless widow and her unselfish devotion as the means by which to restore food and water and oil and wine to the people of Israel. Out of faith she spent her last drop of oil and her last handful of meal to feed the prophet, Elijah, and so, it was by her faith and obedience that God redeemed Israel.
It was not a story the wealthy and privileged of the synagogue liked to hear. It rubbed them the wrong way. The widow of Zarephath didn’t square with their value system. Why, if anyone ought to be singled out as a model of faith, it ought to be one of the prominent men of the community, not some poor widow up north. Clearly, Jesus had gone from preaching to meddling!
But he didn’t stop there. He reminded them of yet another incident in Jewish history concerning a Syrian named Naaman. This was set in the time of Elisha, Elijah’s successor.
Naaman was a leper who was cleansed by the power of God when all the other lepers – all Hebrews, mind you – were left unclean. Not only was Naaman an unlikely recipient of God’s mercy, he was a Gentile, an outsider, not one of the people of God.
Again, it was a story the elders did not care to hear. They wanted to hear about how God had favored the Jews, not some Syrian. They wanted to hear how the Jews were God’s chosen people and how salvation belonged only to them.
But Jesus was unrelenting. Not that he was trying to offend the elders, but that he was determined to proclaim the prophecy of Isaiah, that a New Creation has begun in which there is good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind and liberation for all who are oppressed. Jesus made it clear: The Good News is no longer a gift for the people of God to hoard for themselves, but a responsibility to share graciously with others.
What this means for us today is that God invites all who would call upon him to a life of faithfulness and service, his mercies are extended to saint and sinner alike, and it’s up to us to get the word out.
By the time Jesus finished speaking, the elders were furious. They dragged him from the synagogue, took him to the edge of a high cliff and were prepared to throw him to his death. For some reason, they stopped short. The confrontation ended. Jesus walked away unscathed, presumably never to come back.
At the outset, I asked you a question: “If you’d been there, would you have reacted any differently?” My point is, the way you answer the question says a lot about how you perceive yourself as a child of God, for the more you’re able to identify with the underclass – the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed – the more likely you’ll appreciate the Good News of the Gospel. To put it differently, the more you’re able to see yourself standing among the ranks of those unworthy to receive God’s love, the more likely you’ll find yourself standing in the company of Jesus. Joseph Hart said it best when he penned these words:
“Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore; Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love and power. Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream; all the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him. Come, ye weary, heavy laden, bruised and mangled by the Fall; if you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 340)
Let us pray: Gracious God, give us courage to confess our sins and so, receive the fullness of your grace and love. And, dear God, receiving your gifts of grace and love, give us the desire to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others, for we ask it in his name. Amen.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Copyright 2004, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.