Amy Plantinga Pauw
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
February 3, 2019
At the seminary where I teach we have a tradition called the senior sermon. It’s always a happy occasion. The senior student invites family members and church friends to her special chapel service; some classmates and teachers show up to cheer her on. After all the exams and papers and field education placements and judicatory hoops, it’s a way to celebrate how far she’s come. “Look how much she’s learned!,” we say. “Look how confident she seems in the pulpit! Doesn’t she make us proud?”
So Jesus’ senior sermon doesn’t go very well. In fact by the end of it, the good people of his hometown of Nazareth are ready to throw him off a cliff. What’s going on here?
Nazareth was a small town back in Jesus’ time. So everybody knew everybody else. By the time he comes back home, Jesus is already famous. Reports about him had spread throughout the whole region, and the hometown crowd is excited. Inviting Jesus back to preach is like naming our airport after Mohammad Ali, or putting up huge pictures of Jennifer Lawrence downtown. When hometown folks become famous, it makes us proud. We want some of their shine to rub off on us. So the people of Nazareth flock to the synagogue to hear Jesus preach.
It all starts off so well. Jesus reads texts from prophet Isaiah that talk about the big reversal God is bringing. He says that Isaiah’s words will find fulfillment in his ministry. Everyone’s watching. Everyone’s impressed. According to Luke, “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” “Can you believe it?,” they say. “This is Joseph’s kid. I remember when he just a little tyke running around his dad’s carpentry shop. Now look at him! If he did half the things they say he did in Capernaum, just imagine what he will do here in Nazareth. Feeding the poor, healing the sick, freeing the oppressed–plenty of good reversal work to do here, Jesus. Surely your hometown deserves the best you can deliver.” Jesus’ response is not encouraging. “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
Now at this point, I think Jesus could still have saved his senior sermon. Sure, the people of Nazareth were disappointed that he was doing more good works in Capernaum than in Nazareth. It would be like LeBron James coming back home to Akron, Ohio, and saying, “Just so you all know, instead of putting my foundation money into the Akron public schools, I’ve decided to invest in the great kids of Dayton.” Yeah, they’re disappointed. But Nazareth and Capernaum are just two little Jewish towns with a local rivalry going on. What really gets the people of Nazareth angry is what Jesus says next.
He goes back to the biblical theme of reversal—always a dangerous move for a preacher—and reminds them of what the great prophets Elijah and Elisha did. In the midst of a terrible famine Elijah was not sent to relieve the needs of any of the many widows in Israel, as you would expect, but rather to a Gentile woman, living in Zarephath, a Philistine city. Jesus’ second story is about Naaman, a general in the armies of Syria, Israel’s traditional enemy. There were many lepers in Israel, but Elisha healed Naaman, a Gentile. In both cases, a Gentile seems to be favored above the children of Israel. When the prophet Isaiah promised a big reversal, Jesus says, this is what he was talking about. This is the kind of reversal I’m going to bring too.
The hometown crowd is furious. How dare he? Not only is Jesus snubbing Nazareth in favor of Capernaum. He’s snubbing all of Israel in favor of those lousy rotten Gentiles. How dare Jesus come into the most sacred space of our community’s life: our synagogue, on the Sabbath, during a worship service, reading from our holy scriptures, and say THAT? We’re the faithful ones! Does our faithfulness to God count for nothing?
So, who are the Gentiles in your life? Who are the people you get mad just thinking about? Who do you consider too cruel, too greedy, too dishonest, too bigoted to deserve God’s favor? How could God possibly prioritize the needs of those kind of people? Maybe all people need God’s love, but surely those we consider “good people” get first dibs. Like the folks in Nazareth, we all have ways of carving up the moral universe into good people and bad people. There are asylum seekers and there are ICE agents. There are NRA members and there are advocates for gun control. There are Israeli settlers and there are Palestinians. There are those who work for racial justice and those who go to Unite the Right rallies. There are open-minded, non-judgmental Christians like us, and there are the other kind. You’re a prophet, Jesus. Why don’t you get that?
It turns out that Jesus is a prophet after the mold of Elijah and Elisha. As the gospel of Luke unfolds we see him doing what they did—acting in love in all the wrong places. His closest disciples were fishermen, not very educated and not very careful about following the Book of Order. But Jesus also sat down to dinner with Pharisees, the professional Presbyterians of his day. One of his disciples was a tax collector: a group known to be so disreputable, so dishonest that they were not even allowed to testify in court. What’s even worse, he helped not only his own oppressed people but also their Roman oppressors. He healed the daughter of a Roman centurion—the military representative of the enemy. Whatever our view of the world is, we usually end up drawing some lines and excluding some groups of people from the inner circle of God’s favor. Surely God must love us more than them. Surely we are first in line for God’s grace.
Jesus’ senior sermon punctures the illusion that God’s favor is a reward for good behavior. It’s so easy to let our good works become spiritual merit badges that mark our special status before God and elevate us above others. Maybe deep down we are fearful that God’s grace isn’t free after all. Maybe we suspect that there is some cosmic grace shortage and good people like us won’t get enough. No wonder we feel frustrated when God seems to pass us by and instead showers grace on people we consider undeserving. Like the people of Nazareth, our insecurities and resentments sometimes get the best of us.
The scandalous message of the Bible is that God’s grace is a free, unlimited gift. God acts in love for all people in every time and place. We all have trouble loving some people, and we don’t really want God to love them either. But God does anyway. The sheer force of God’s love just rolls over our tidy moral calculus of who deserves what.
So, as Jesus passes through your life this week, keep trying to do what is right—but not because it will make God love you more. And be on the lookout for signs of God’s love and grace in the most surprising places.