Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Offensive Jesus (a sermon for Fev. 3rd 2013)


Luke 4:21-30                                                                                                      February 3rd 2013
The Offensive Jesus

When I was a little boy I used to sing a children’s hymn that went like this:
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child.
Pity my simplicity
Suffer me to come to thee.

It was a comforting sentiment, but when I got older and started reading the Bible for myself, I began to wonder where this meek and mild Jesus came from. If Jesus was so meek and mild, why did he annoy so many people? You don’t get yourself crucified by being mild-mannered and inoffensive! Yes of course, Jesus had compassion for people, reached out to the marginalized and healed the sick and so on, but he also spoke hard truths and was in fact quite talented at offending people! Today’s gospel reading is a good example of that. In last week’s passage we heard Jesus preaching a sermon in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth. In those days the elders of the synagogue were responsible for making sure there was someone there each week to read the scriptures to the people and to explain the meaning to them. Presumably the elders saw that Jesus was in the synagogue, and because they had heard of his growing reputation, they asked him to read and speak that day. The passage he was given was Isaiah chapter 61, and he probably read the whole chapter, although Luke only gives us the most important excerpts:
“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 favour” (Luke 4:18-19).
Then Luke tells us what happened next:
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (20-21).

What an astounding thing to say! Imagine if I got up here on Sunday, read a Bible passage about the coming of the Messiah, and then said to you all, “This passage is really all about me, you know!” At first the people were impressed with Jesus – “All spoke well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (v.22). But then they had second thoughts: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” In other words, “Who does he think he is? We know his Dad and his family, and they’re nothing special!” But what made them really angry was when he went on to talk about God’s love and compassion for the enemies of Israel, the Gentiles; then, Luke says, ‘they were all filled with rage’ (v.28) and tried to stone him to death.

It’s clear from this passage that there were two things that offended the people in the Nazareth synagogue. First, they were offended because Jesus was getting big ideas about himself. It’s helpful for us to flip over to Mark and notice the complimentary way he tells the same story, in Mark 6:2-3:
‘On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him’.
Mark, as you see, goes into more detail about the negative reaction of the crowd. Jesus was getting ideas above his proper station in life. He wasn’t a proper ordained rabbi – he was just a carpenter, a construction worker, and they knew his family and no doubt remembered the pranks he had gotten up to as a kid. “Who does he think he is?”

Luke adds the detail that they were offended because Jesus put himself right at the centre of the story the scriptures tell. Isaiah 61 is one of the prophet’s so-called ‘Messianic passages’ – about the servant of the Lord who will be anointed by the Holy Spirit to bring justice and peace to Israel. These passages were written hundreds of years before the time of Jesus, so Israel had been waiting for centuries for them to be fulfilled. Now, with breathtaking egoism, Jesus says, “Today in your hearing the scriptures have been fulfilled”. “I’m the one the prophet was writing about, folks; the whole story up ‘til this point has been leading up to me!”

Today the Christian faith continues to offend people at precisely this point. Judaism has expounded Isaiah 61 for two thousand years without mentioning Jesus at all: it’s seen as being about the vocation of Israel as a nation, not just about one person. But New Testament Christianity teaches that Jesus was the whole point of the story from Day One. In one of the earliest New Testament letters to be written Paul says, ‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children’ (Galatians 4:4). We get the sense here of God working quietly, guiding the course of history, until the right time came for the climax of the story, the coming of his Son Jesus Christ to save the world.

But many people today would be happier if we stuck to a no-name spirituality that doesn’t mention Jesus and leaves the idea of God vague as well. I remember my good friend Harold Percy telling me about a time when he was leading a Christian Basics course. A young woman in the group said, “I don’t like it when Harold talks about Jesus. I don’t mind him talking about ‘God’, because I can make that mean anything I want, but Jesus is too close and too specific”. Apparently, in her mind, Jesus is still getting ‘ideas above his station’. She wanted him to be content to be just another great religious teacher, not the Son of God who came not only to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God, but also to be God’s anointed King (which is what the title ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ means).

So this is the first way Jesus offended them: he claimed to be more than just a smart carpenter or even a very good rabbi; he claimed to be the one the scriptures had predicted who would come as Messiah to set God’s people free. As we have seen, Jesus continues to offend people at this point; they’re quite happy for him to be the founder of Christianity, as long as we don’t claim there’s anything unique or divine about him. But we can’t tone down the message to avoid offending people; if we do, it becomes something other than the gospel the New Testament teaches.

Secondly, they were offended because Jesus talked about a God who loved the enemies of Israel. In those days there was a lot less respect for preachers! Sermons weren’t just monologues; there was a lot of back and forth between the rabbi and the crowd, with questions being asked and objections raised and so on. We get the sense in this passage that the crowd is actually taunting Jesus: “Come on, Jesus – show us some miracles like you did in Capernaum! After all, you’re our boy and we’re your home crowd; you should give us a better show than you did over there!” But Jesus uses their objection to illustrate a central truth: God is not just concerned for our people; he wants to reach out to our neighbours, and even to our enemies, as well. Jesus reminds them of two biblical stories to back up what he’s saying.

The first one is found in 1 Kings 17. Elijah the prophet lived in the time of King Ahab, and Ahab was married to a Sidonian princess, Jezebel, who led the people away from the worship of the one true God and persuaded them to worship the Sidonian god Baal. In response to this, God sent a drought on the land that lasted for three years. During this time, God sent Elijah to live with a widow in the village of Zarephath in Sidon, and God provided food for them supernaturally while he was there. Jesus points out that God could have sent Elijah to any one of a thousand Israelite widows, but he chose to have mercy on a Sidonian enemy instead.

The second story is the well-known story of the healing of Naaman. This is even more striking, because Naaman was an Aramean general who had won great victories in battle against Israel. Sadly, Naaman was a leper, but his wife had an Israelite slave girl who told him that the prophet Elisha could heal him of his leprosy. 2 Kings 5 tells the story of how he came to Israel, was healed by God through Elisha, and as a result became a worshipper of the God of Israel. Once again, Jesus points out, God chose to reach out and bless the enemy of Israel, while apparently ignoring many Israelite lepers who also needed healing.

The people were furious when they heard Jesus talking like this. What sort of Messiah was this? They needed a king like David who would destroy their enemies and lead God’s people to victory! Loving enemies was not in the script!

And this continues to be a challenge for Christians today. Back in the Fall we did a book study here at St. Margaret’s using Brian Zahnd’s brilliant book Unconditional: the Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness. In the book, Brian made this statement:
'I have found it very interesting to ask non-Christians what Jesus taught. Nearly without exception they will mention that Jesus taught us to love our enemies. Among nonbelievers, Jesus seems to be famous for teaching that his disciples should love their enemies. Yet when I ask Christians what Jesus taught, they very rarely bring up this commandment'.

I think this is very true. People don’t want a Jesus who tells them to love their enemies; they want a Jesus who will pray for the troops and tell them that in killing their enemies they are doing God’s work. I note that soldiers on both sides in World War One were told that they were fighting ‘for God and country’, and German troops even had it engraved on their belt buckles. But the real Jesus of the gospels doesn’t fit into this picture. Remember what he said?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45).
So Jesus makes the outrageous claim that the God of Israel is an enemy-loving God. He doesn’t want to ‘take them out’ or ‘nuke them’; he wants to love and forgive them. This was outrageously offensive to Jews who were under the thumb of the Roman oppressor, and it still offends many Christians today.

The people of Nazareth were so offended by Jesus that they formed a lynch mob and tried to stone him. It seems unbelievable that a man who had just taught about the gentle love of God for his enemies could provoke such violence, but even this rings true. In the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists were the only Christians who taught that Christian discipleship involved putting Jesus before your country and refusing to kill others in the name of the king. What was the result? The Anabaptists were viciously persecuted as traitors by both Catholics and Protestants. They never made up more than 10% of the population, but they made up more than 50% of those who were killed for their religious beliefs in Reformation Europe. Then, as now, the gospel of love for enemies offended people, even Christian people.

This gospel reading is not calling us to be rude or ignorant, but it is calling us to be faithful. If the Christian message proves to be unpopular and not many people want to hear it, we shouldn’t draw the automatic conclusion that we must be doing something wrong. We need to remember that Jesus offended people, and he lost disciples sometimes because of the hard truths he spoke. We may have an easier life if we soft-pedal some of the hard truths of Jesus, but in the long run we won’t achieve anything, because the message we share will not be the New Testament gospel.

So this part of Luke’s gospel reminds us that Jesus is God’s Son, the Messiah of Israel and the Saviour of the whole world.  But that doesn’t mean he wants to wipe out his competitors – rather, he wants to reach out in love to all, so that he can draw them into a family of sisters and brothers, reconciled to God and one another through him. We are called to believe in this Jesus, to follow him, and to tell other people about him. God is not just sending us to our own people, but to all people, until our friends, our neighbours, and even our enemies hear of God’s love, believe in it, accept it, and are transformed by it. This message will not always be popular; in fact, it will often be offensive. But we must not stray from it; we must continue to believe it and live it and share it with others, because this is the way that the light of Christ continues to shine throughout the world. 

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