They Spoke Well of Him and Drove Him Out of Town
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|Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue by James Tissot|
The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 4:16-30, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We have in our assigned readings for today examples of one of the longest sermons in Scripture and the shortest. Ezra reads the Book of the Law of Moses “from early morning until mid-day”—a period of about six hours. Jesus reads two verses of Isaiah and preaches a one sentence sermon. When Ezra finishes, the people bow their heads and worship the Lord with their faces to the ground. When the people in the synagogue hear all Jesus has to say, they are filled with wrath, rise up, and drive Him out of town, so that they can throw Him down the cliff.
It would seem that in ancient days the longer the sermon, the better it is received by the hearers. But I somehow suspect that would not be the case today.
So, what is going on here? The Old Testament Reading takes us to a remarkable and beautiful event. All the people of God are assembled and attentive as they hear the Book of the Law of Moses read by Ezra at the Water Gate in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem. As he finished, “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”
How do we explain this spontaneous delight in Moses’ words? How could the reading of the first book of the sacred Scriptures bring immediate worship and confession of the Lord as God? Can you imagine such a reaction in our day? Such joy and reverence? Indeed, what is your response when you hear God’s Word?
Let me suggest that Scripture should be just as captivating and exciting for you as it was for Ezra’s audience. Why? Because the content of Scripture is so wonderful and so true. Here, God tells us how things really are, and through His self-disclosure all of humanity is invited into a rich relationship with Him.
Ezra’s people, hearing God’s Word that day, learned again that God had not abandoned them; He did not forget His promises. Even though Adam and Eve fell, and all of their children continued in their rebellious, idolatrous ways, God still had not left them, but invited them to repent and return to life with Him.
Ezra’s audience heard afresh about the promise of the woman’s Seed, who would reverse the curse and consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion. They heard how that promise continued to be God’s gracious plan of deliverance through Seth, through Shem, through Abraham, and through Judah.
They were reminded how God had delivered Israel from Egyptian captivity and caused His glory to dwell with them in the tabernacle. Even the sacrificial system was instituted with its attendant priesthood to provide forgiveness for the people’s sins, moreover to foreshadow the full and complete forgiveness won by Christ, the fulfillment of all Old Testament types and prophecies. Indeed, as Ezra’s people listened and worshiped, they were surrounded by gracious signs of God’s abiding presence with them: the second temple, Zion’s restoration, and the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem. God had brought His wayward children home after decades of exile! No wonder they rejoiced and humbly worshiped the Lord.
Contrast this reaction to the people of Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth. It is the Sabbath Day, and as is His custom, Jesus goes to the synagogue. Jesus reads to the congregation from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim Good News to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It’s a well-known passage—all about the Messiah who will come someday. When the Lord sends His anointed Savior, He will preach and heal and set free. For centuries and generations, devout worshipers have heard this text, praying that some day the Savior will come fulfilling this prophetic Word.
You can understand, then, why it causes quite a stir when Jesus goes on to say, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” With those words, Jesus has just proclaimed: “I am the Messiah. The time has come. The Savior that Isaiah prophesied is standing right in front of you, fulfilling Scripture as I speak.”
No wonder the room is buzzing. Could it really be? On the one hand, they’ve heard some stories about what Jesus has been doing in the villages around, and many are excitedly wondering if He is, in fact, the Savior. But on the other hand… He’s Jesus. He’s Joseph’s kid. Could He really be the Messiah?
And what does He mean by saying, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”? They’ve heard Him speak, but Isaiah talked about miracles, too. The Messiah gives sight to the blind, relieves the oppressed, and sets the prisoner free. But so far, Jesus is all talk and no action around His hometown. If He’s going to call Himself the Messiah, then He’d better back it up with some proof.
Jesus addresses their concerns: “Doubtless you will quote to Me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal Yourself!’ What we have heard You did at Capernaum, do here in Your hometown.’” Then He says, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” And He reminded them of Elijah and Elisha, two prophets who had been rejected by Israel, but who did miracles among the Gentiles. This was just too much. Filled with wrath, the synagogue full of worshipers who all spoke well of Him, now drive Him out of town.
Two sermons—two completely different reactions. Upon hearing the Word of the Lord read by Ezra, the people bow their heads and worship the Lord with their faces to the ground. After Jesus reads the Word and adds a very brief commentary, the people rise up to kill Him. Where does Jesus go so wrong? What does He say that so offends His listeners—that they go from speaking well of Him to attempting to throw Him off a cliff? Is Ezra a better preacher than Jesus? Is Jesus not able to clearly communicate His point?
No, they understand all too well; the problem is that they do not want to accept what Jesus has to say. They reject Him and His Word. I would submit to you that there are three reasons for this. First, they perceive that Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of God. But they, of course, know better. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask one another. There are rumors after all. Even back in ancient days, the folks in small towns know how to count backwards nine months. There is, at least in some people’s minds, this unsettled question of paternity; but certainly the Lord God is not at the top of the list of prospective dads.
Unfortunately, the people in Nazareth that day don’t have St. Luke’s Gospel for guidance. Already in the first four chapters, the evangelist has taken great pains to establish that Jesus is, in fact, the Incarnate Son of God.
In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel tells Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (v. 35).
When they find twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple, Mary says, “Son, why have You treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for You in great distress.” And Jesus respectfully corrects her: “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” (2:48-49).
In chapter 3, Jesus is baptized, and a voice from heaven gives His Fatherly approval: “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased” (vv 21-22). Then we have the genealogy beginning: “Jesus…being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph…” continuing with “the son of David…” through “the son of Abraham…” ending with “the son of Adam, the son of God” (23-38).
Then, in Luke 4, in addition to our Gospel for today, Satan questions Jesus’ paternity as he tempts Him to depart from God’s ways: “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread… throw Yourself down from here” (vv 3, 9). And even the cast out demons get in on the act, crying: “You are the Son of God.”
Jesus is the Son of God, the Anointed One that Isaiah prophesied. But His hometown will have none of it. Their curiosity quickly turns to outrage. And I strongly suspect it would for us, too, especially if we’d watched Him grow up. It’s hard enough to believe that Jesus is God in the flesh; it’s downright scandalous when you’ve watched the Word made Flesh grow up right before your very eyes.
“Familiarity breeds contempt,” we say. And that’s why “no prophet is acceptable in his hometown,” the second reason for offense. How could Jesus grow up in this dense community and they somehow not realize that there is something different about “Joseph’s son”? The surprising answer is this: holiness can be hidden. Jesus’ divinity can be so completely buried beneath His humanity so that there is nothing to identify Him as anything other than fully human.
And then there is this matter of miracles—or rather the lack of local miracles—the third and perhaps most damning offense in their eyes. “Talk’s cheap, prove it. Do miracles like the one you did in Cana, here, too!” This speaks to our wrongheaded and wrong-hearted notions. Miracles are not for believers, but for unbelievers! They are for those who do not have the Word. The Nazareth synagogue had the Word. They had just heard the prophetic Word spoken to them by the Incarnate Word Himself. What more could they possibly need?
What more do we need? Oh, we think we need more. Remember, the old Adam is a religion junkie of the first order. He loves those signs and wonders, which, as Jesus reminds us, can even deceive the elect. Signs and wonders are nice, but they won’t save you. Only God’s Word of love and grace can!
Jesus knows what we really need. Yes, He does miracles for the fringes, for those dwelling in darkness, for those who do not have Moses and the prophets. Jesus does miracles for His fellow Israelites—healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead. But they point to something greater. Miracles are not an end in themselves; and when they become that, they become a form of idolatry.
The greatest thing that could be said was said in the Nazareth synagogue: the Scripture has been fulfilled in the ears of people. The Word of God has hit its target. The Spirit of God is seeking to work faith through ears renewing minds and hearts. That’s something a miracle can never do.
They want proof. But Jesus offers no proof. They had the prophets; they had Moses; they had the Word of the Lord. That’s more than enough. That is the one thing needful. Jesus reminds them that there were many hungry widows in Israel at the time of Elijah, but only the widow at Zarephath had her oil and grain multiplied. There were many lepers in Israel, but only Naaman the commander of the enemy Syrian army was cleansed in the Jordan River. You would think that Israel had an inside line on miracles, but you would be wrong.
When bad things happen to believers, we ask: “Where is God, and why doesn’t He do something?” And that’s the mistake of unbelief, my friends. He has done something. Something much more significant and far reaching than any isolated miracle here and now. Jesus has died on a cross, bearing humanity’s sin, the world’s brokenness, the curse of the Law, every disease known to man, even death itself. He bore all of that one time for all time, one Man for all humanity. Miracles pale in comparison to the cross. In fact, miracles all point to the cross and find their source in Jesus’ death. Every miracle costs Jesus His life.
Miracles are for one person only, the recipient of the miracle. And if you don’t get yours, you’re disappointed, right? Mad even? The cross is for everyone without exception. Miracles are temporary, a Band-Aid applied to a wound; the cross is eternal, the cure of Death itself. Miracles treat the symptoms; the cross deals with the cause. Miracles cannot save you; the cross does save you. Miracles do not forgive sins or give eternal life; the cross is your forgiveness, life, and salvation. You can survive a drought of miracles; in fact, you can go an entire lifetime and never experience one. But you cannot survive a famine of the Word.
Thanks be to God! You have the Word! You have the Word, as surely as that day Ezra read and the priests preached. You have the Word, as surely as the people did that day Jesus preached at the synagogue in Nazareth. You have the Word in your Baptism, God’s signature seal upon you that you are His and He is yours. You have the Word in the Absolution, that forgiving Word preached into your own ears, fulfilled in your hearing. You have the Word of Christ in His Supper, speaking to you: “My Body given for you… My blood shed for you.”
You have the Word in greater richness and abundance than any generation before in the history of God’s people. And it is the singular evidence of our own sinful condition and the old Adam in us that we value it so little that we do not flock to hear and receive it; that we, like the Nazareth synagogue, would often rather throw Jesus down a cliff than deal with His Word.
Faith comes by hearing the Word. Your faith comes by your hearing the Word of Jesus. And that Word is here for you today, seeking its fulfillment in your hearing. By the Word of Jesus, you are healed. By the Word of Jesus, your faith is created and sustained. By the Word of Jesus, you have freedom from sin, from death, from the devil, and from the damning sentence of the Law. Indeed, by the Word of Jesus, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.