I described last week’s ending as a bit of a cliff hanger: Jesus preaches that he has fulfilled the Scriptures of hope and promise, of needs being met, of freedom from oppression and imprisonment. The lectionary helpfully repeats the summary of Jesus’ sermon by opening this week’s selection with the close of last week’s verses. When we focused our attention on what was revealed about Jesus in the synagogue story, this week we consider the humans. What are we to make of the fickle turn the people take towards Jesus and his message?
They are literally amazed and impressed by his words of grace, speaking highly of Jesus to one another. It’s as though their spirit and hearts couldn’t help but respond to the goodness he shared because the truth evokes a visceral emotional response in us humans—an emotional response that is actually quite telling, and is an invitation to some sort of action.
The first time the people hear the truth from Jesus in his reading of Scripture and preaching, they respond with amazement, which is an invitation to worship. But it does not take long for the true truth to lose to an inner narrative that distorts what is true. Somehow, the good news of being rescued from poverty had been tied up for those in the synagogue in a national identity, a culture of defining success and power in a specific way, and had given the people a picture in their heads of what they would do for themselves if they had such power. Captured in Jesus’ statement of being the fulfillment of prophetic promises from God, came a sense of demand and entitlement to its results and a revelation of sinful humanity’s tendency toward selfishness.
So they hear the good news preached to them, their hearts are captured by it momentarily, and then, the wait a minute comes… Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? What does he know about relieving poverty? He was born in a manger. What does he know about setting prisoners free? He doesn’t have any real power. What does he know about giving sight to the blind? There’s a market there to be capitalized and he’s still here in Nazareth talking to us for free…
In other words, if Jesus had real power, he’d have been born among the powerful. He’d have made something of himself, he’d be known for raising hell and taking names against the foreign powers that be, and he’d most definitely be rich and famous by now. Instead, he’s just the son of a carpenter, a nobody, not any more special than anyone else. He’s all talk and interested in the wrong show.
Remembering that in verse 14 Jesus is described as being full of the Holy Spirit, we see another aspect of the Spirit’s presence at work in verse 23 as Jesus is able to sense this change happening in the people’s minds. He speaks what they are thinking—albeit in different words than they themselves might have used. Jesus’ revelation of their inner narrative points the way to the picture painted above: doctors have the ability to cure themselves, but Jesus proclaims himself the fulfillment of God’s power and has nothing to show for it. Maybe all these things they have heard about Jesus are nothing more than rumours after all. What a disappointment. What a joke.
It’s an early example of the challenge Jesus faces throughout his earthly ministry. His invitation to the riches of the Kingdom and of God’s grace are in stark contrast to what the people have decided, over thousands of years, the words of God mean for them. They have let the cultural factors and fixations have too much determination about the meaning of the sacred promises. They truly are poor and blind, unable to recognize the Word made flesh and dwelling among them.
It’s as though they can’t believe in what they did not expect. They can’t trust anything different than what they demand. They can’t receive because they have become accustomed to dictating what is acceptable. They won’t listen to God (through the prophets) because they think they know best.
The last year has been an immense challenge for just about everyone, pastors and leaders not the least. Story after story of leaders holding onto the truth, of prophets saying the hard things about how the “church” has turned to distorted truths, and as historical paradigms are rightfully shaken to their core, the human heart’s fickleness to reject the good and true because it does not fit some pre-set, culturally conditioned inner narrative, feels all too recognizable.
As Jesus points out, the heart of the matter is an issue of belief. Though there was great need and the people yearned for a good word of hope, without belief, they were shut out from the blessing that God was ready and actively giving among them. In other words, some of the chains we need to be freed from were actually put there by ourselves; they will be broken through faith. God has given us what we need already, but we still decide to be mad at him for not doing what we want him to do.
The people in the synagogue heard two sets of truths that day. To the first set, they immediately responded with amazement, but then their own ideas got in the way and ruined it. To the second set—which revealed their ugly hearts—they become filled with rage. They are so angry with Jesus revealing their inner narratives for the lies that they are, his unwillingness to go along with their way, that the people become a mob determined to throw him off the side of the cliff and be done with him forever.
Blessing is there for the taking, but it is to be received. Blessing is embodied among them, but it cannot be moulded to conform to their checklist. Blessing is being given to them, freedom and favour and healing bestowed upon them if they would only believe in what God has been telling them for thousands of years. Blessing is waiting, but we turn our noses up from it.
We continue to struggle to believe that God’s ways and wisdom are best, and we continue to have to check our own cultural creep into our pictures of God’s goodness and favour. And we don’t always stop to process our strong emotional responses. Sometimes they will reveal a deep connection to a beautiful truth that will draw us to worship. Other times, though, they will actually reveal a connection to a distorted truth and will be an invitation to repentance. Sometimes, Christ has already freed us and all we have to do is actually believe it.
Did you notice that the two prophetic examples Jesus gives in verses 25-27 are of prophets who were sent to and for Israel, but who blessed Gentiles, outsiders among the people of God? Though the need was great among the people of Israel, their unbelief and rejection of the prophets cut them off from the work of God. John Nolland writes that Jesus’ listeners are creating a parallel story to Elijah and Elisha’s rejection and the loss of blessing: “The point will, then, be that unbelief has created a situation where possibilities are not realized and benefits do not flow.” (Word Biblical Commentary)
There’s this great little YouTube clip (around the 25 second mark) that captures fickle fan-dom quite well. At a soccer match, the camera cuts from the goal tender and his teammates celebrating after he blocked a necessary shot in a shootout to win the game, to fans for the losing team… except that is, for one young man who is seen quietly removing the losing team’s jersey, revealing the fact that he was wearing the winning team’s jersey underneath the entire time! The fan quietly puts the old jersey to the side and puts his hat back on, like nothing even happened. He was ready all along, to support whoever was going to be the winner.
It’s a playful way of seeing the stark human condition on display among those who listen to Jesus with amazement one moment, and in the next are trying to stone him to death. One has to ask, did the young man really have faith in either team? It seems like he just wanted to be a winner, not a believer.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 30, 2022
Luke 4:21-30 Commentary