We were so sure. We were so sure we knew Jesus. We were so sure we knew God. We were so sure we knew our place in the world. And … we were so wrong.
But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. Let me introduce myself. I am the hazzan, the manager of the synagogue, the attendant. Throughout the world, wherever Jews live, if there are at least ten adult males, we gather on the Sabbath and on other important days in a synagog. We worship together. We read and debate the holy Scriptures together. We make community decisions together in our synagogue. Sometimes we have buildings, sometimes not. But we always have a hazzan to take care of the business of the synagogue.
I am the hazzan in Nazareth. We are not a large synagogue in a large city, but we are a proud one. We have our own scrolls and our own building, and it’s my job to care for both. We are a small village, but through sacrifice and savings, we have slowly carved an impressive little synagogue out of the rocks of Nazareth. I laid many of these stones with my own hands. I fix the roof when it leaks, and I oil and carefully preserve our scrolls so that they can be passed down to our children and grandchildren. Often, I also have the privilege of inviting guest teachers for our Sabbath worship days.
Naturally, when the carpenter’s son became a rabbi, we were all surprised. He had no mentor that we could see. True, he was good with a hammer and chisel. Many say he made the best ox yokes in the province. Still, a great rabbi with sawdust in his beard? Not likely.
But there he was, teaching in all the villages around us. Everyone talked about how amazing his sermons were, about how his voice was filled with a sense of authority and even grace. He was the buzz of the countryside. The people Nazareth began trading stories of his childhood and growing up years.
“Do you remember when Jesus had that footrace with Ishmael and Reuben and there was a snake on the path? They all came back faster than they left. I laughed so hard I cried.”
“I’m not sure my daughter has forgiven Jesus yet for breaking her heart. She has a husband and three kids, and she still stews over the day he stripped down to his waist to fix our wagon wheel.”
Of course, I had to ask Jesus to speak in our synagogue in Nazareth. His father Joseph had hewn the rafters. Jesus himself had replaced some of the worn out benches. Of course, we would invite our homegrown star rabbi to speak in the synagogue where he drew in the dirt as a child and learned the Psalms as we sang our prayers together each week.
When the day came, there was a clear air of celebration and pride. When we gathered for worship, three goats were already roasting on fires. Jesus was our hometown boy. We had raised him. He had fixed our carts and eaten from our tables. We had caravanned together to Jerusalem for Passover, and we had stood in line together to pay our taxes to the Roman infidel. He was one of us. He belonged to us. We were ready to celebrate, not only Jesus, but also Nazareth, the town that had raised a famous rabbi.
As we sang our songs and said our prayers and pledged our loyalty to the God of Israel, I couldn’t help counting heads in the crowd. No doubt about it, this was a packed house. I had never seen this many people here before. The carpenter had drawn them out of the woodwork. I also couldn’t help imagining the size of this week’s collection, for the poor of course, and for the building fund, carefully managed of course by the hazzan.
And then it was time for the reading of Scripture. I chose for Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. I confess that I chose it primarily because of its size and weight. Not every synagogue could afford a scroll of Isaiah, the longest of the prophets. A weighty scroll for a weighty occasion.
As Jesus stood to take the scroll, every eye focused intently on him. Here he was, our hometown boy made good, our local hero. We were ready for him to encourage us, to celebrate Nazareth, to admonish us to continue in faithfulness to God, maybe even to thank a few people by name for guiding him in the way of righteousness.
He took the scroll, and he turned almost to the very end of Isaiah. As the hazzan, I appreciated the particular care he took with the scroll, always being gentle and respectful with it - as one should be with the Words of Jehovah. He found his place and began to read. His voice was an immediate reminder that our boy had grown. Without struggle or strain, he read with a deep baritone that reached easily to the back rows. Every word was clear, but more importantly he seemed to breathe out the very spirit of the text. He was in the text, not just reading the words.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.
Oh, such rich words, so deep, so profound, so familiar, so well read. How often we have returned to this passage for encouragement during our hard times! How often we have prayed for the the Spirit of the Lord to anoint a Messiah to deliver us from the Romans! How often have we taken hope from this passage that, though our sons are captive now, though the Romans may gouge out our eyes, though we are oppressed and downtrodden now, some day the time of the Lord’s favor will come! This passage has helped us to carry on another day, for many many days.
Jesus could not have chosen a better text for this day of celebration. Now the mood would be just right as we settled in for homecoming day to celebrate what it means to live in Nazareth.
He carefully rolled up the scroll. He reverently returned it into my good care, and I bowed my head slightly. I turned to stow the scroll carefully in its place when I was frozen in place by his next words: “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!”
Yes, of course, when a prophet of the Most High God emerges from a backwater town like Nazareth, that is nothing short of a biblical miracle. This is the carpenter’s boy, all grown up as a big-time Bible preacher. That is good news for the poor everywhere, especially here, especially us. That will roll back our shame among the tribes of Israel. No more will we be known as a backward little goat-herding town on the edge of nowhere. From now on we’ll be known as the hometown of Jesus the Rabbi. This will put us on the map.
And, I couldn’t help thinking, this will put our synagogue on the map. We will be known as the spiritual home of the greatest spiritual teacher of our time. We might finally be able to spruce this place up a bit. The time of God’s favor has come indeed.
But Jesus couldn’t just leave well enough alone. He had to keep going. He turned on us actually.
After he got us all excited, in the very next words, he started busting our chops. “You’ll surely tell me to do my miracles here just like I did everywhere else. ‘Show us your stuff,’” he says. None of us had said anything like that. Well, not out loud. In whispers, sure. Behind our hands. In the quiet of our houses, we had asked the question, “Do you think Jesus really does all those miracles people are talking about? Do you think the carpenter’s boy could really heal the sick right here in Nazareth?” And, OK, there may have been a few mutters and sideways conversations right there in the synagogue before we were called to order, and if you must be so nosy, it’s possible that I might have even offered my own humble opinion: “Surely he saved the best for us, for his hometown. We deserve more than stinking Capernaum!”
Without provocation, he threw us under the bus. From out of nowhere, he came out and said, “Surely a prophet has no honor in his own hometown.” What on earth did he think this was all about?! We had all gathered there to celebrate him and us and what he means to us, and he poked us in the eye.
Sure, there were a few grumblers about his humble beginnings - how Joseph apparently couldn’t keep his hands out of the honey till they were married. Sure, there might have been some jealousy from the other boys his age who had grown up with him and were still fishing or farming or working stones. But by and large, we were glad he was there. He validated us. He proved that we were worth something, that we were good for making more than goat cheese. He belonged to us, and we were proud of him. He was a sign of God’s favor on us.
Then, Jesus went on to add insult to injury by bringing up the prophets in a most unorthodox way: “You all know that in Elijah’s time Israel was starving for bread and starving God’s blessing, but God sent Elijah outside his people outside Israel to a pagan widow. And you know there were no shortage of sick folks and lepers in Israel a generation later with Elisha, but who did Elisha heal? An enemy commander - one who had probably marched against our own troops.”
We had called in our kinfolk from every farm and village around to come hear our hometown hero and to celebrate him with us, to celebrate us - the village of Nazareth, birthplace of Jesus the Nazarene. We called everyone we know and threw the biggest party Nazareth money could buy to celebrate how God had settled his blessing on us, his special people.
Jesus just kicked us in the shins and said that we weren’t special after all. There we were trying to honor him, and he shamed us in front of all our friends and family. The nerve of him to say we didn’t deserve God’s blessing any more than some crazy pagans. Who on God’s green earth knows why Elijah and Elisha got mixed up with some dirty Gentiles? No one knows what prophets are doing half the time anyway. They seem a little off in the head if you ask me. What does that have to do with us?
Then, we got it. He was trying to rework our whole history. He was trying to reframe our whole identity. He was tilting our whole understanding of God on its ear. He was tilting us on our ears.
Jesus was trying to say that God didn’t have favorites. He was trying to say that us thinking we were all special and especially blessed was half the problem. We were just getting in God’s way. By claiming all the blessing, we were plugging up the flow of blessing. Jesus was trying to say that God didn’t just care about Israel, but that God cared about the whole world, that God didn’t just want to bless us Jews but that God wanted to bless every little dirty pagan everywhere - whether we liked it or not. Once the gears started rolling in our heads, we put two and two together, and we realized that Jesus was saying that God’s mission from the very beginning was to redeem all humanity - every undeserving creature under the sun - and that was bad enough, but Jesus’ clear implication was against us - folks right there in Nazareth - us good salt-of-the-earth folk who had wiped his snotty nose and picked him up when he skinned his knees. Jesus was saying we were the problem - not the place of blessing, not the growers of heroes, not the rearers of righteousness - but a stagnant pool of resisting God’s blessing.
That was it. It was on like Donkey Kong! We mobbed him. Dozens of hands grabbed him and slapped him around and pushed him to the edge of town. Not the front edge of town, where the roads go in and out, but the back edge, the part of town that backs up to a cliff. This is how we handle problems in Nazareth. More than one woman of ill-repute has been tossed off this cliff and met a rainstorm of stones on the way down.
But just when we got to the edge of the cliff to give him the final shove to his doom, he gave us the slip. One minute he was being carried along amid a barrage of shouts and spit and slaps and hair pulling. The next minute he wasn’t there. We turned in circles looking for him. Some people looked down and pulled up their robes, thinking he might be trying to crawl through our legs. Others looked into the air as if he could fly away like a bird. Nothing, nowhere. He just vanished.
Finally, someone saw him walking down the main street on his way out of town. He turned and gave us a little wave, and I know he was far away, but I’d swear he winked. Then, he literally skipped right out of town.
Jesus had done other miracles and preached other sermons before then. John’s gospel says Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine. In Matthew, Jesus first heals a leper, and in Mark, Jesus’ first miraculous sign is casting out a demon. I’ve always preferred Luke - probably because I’m in it - but nonetheless, in Luke, after Jesus’ first recorded sermon, comes his first recorded miracle: escaping a death mob. We tried to get rid of him, to shut him up, to put him back in his place, and he gave us the slip.
Jesus seemed to do a lot of that kind of stuff. Jesus was one slippery dude. King Herod tried to kill Jesus when he was a baby, but somehow, Mary and Joseph got Jesus out just before the soldiers rolled in. More than once, a crowd was ready to kill Jesus, but he either slipped away or changed the mood of the crowd at the last minute. Once, he even gave a mob the slip to escape being crowned king by force. He was one slippery dude.
But it wasn’t just physical stuff. Whenever people thought they had Jesus figured out, he would give them the slip yet again. The Pharisees and Sadducees and teachers of the law were always coming to Jesus with some tricky question they had practiced for weeks, trying to trip him up so they could discredit him, but one way or another, he always managed to turn it around and make them look like fools or ingrates or both. Jesus would talk about how much he believed in the Law of Moses, and then he would flip it so that everyone suddenly saw it meant something different than we had been taught. Eventually, people started hinting that he might be the Messiah, but he dodged every label and expectation we tried to attach to him.
Jesus was incredibly hard to nail down, until we actually did nail him down. But he escaped even that, rising from the grave three days later. Talk about slippery!
I’ve come to a few conclusions about Jesus.
We all love Jesus until we want to kill him. Jesus offers us what we all really want - real life, life that is good in a very deep way. Jesus invites us into God’s loving family right here on earth. Jesus offers us God’s peace and justice and mercy in living breathing flesh - in our living breathing flesh as we live and love together. We all want this life Jesus is holding out to us, and so we love him and we want him in our lives …
… Until we really start to read the fine print. This life of love - this kingdom of peace, this deep satisfaction - these are all planted in the scars of our suffering as we lay down our lives for one another. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” He wasn’t just being poetic or working up a motivational speech. Jesus was being very literal, and many of his first disciples literally followed him to crosses of their own. The great irony of Jesus’ way is that the true life and the deepest community and the richest love all come through living sacrifices - people coming together to lay down our lives for others, for outsiders, for insiders, for the broken, for the pagans, for the rejects, for the gay and the straight, for the 1%, for the welfare moms, for the free lunchers and for the private schoolers. Laying down our lives to be an all-inclusive community of love is what real life is all about.
So, Duneland Community Church, I have a few words of advice for you as you start on this one year journey through Jesus’ red letters.
Expect to be surprised. You probably think you know Jesus really well, especially if you grew up with him. You might have fond memories of Jesus from your childhood like many of our people did. You’ve probably heard most of his stories so many times you could tell them yourself. You probably think you’ve got Jesus all figured out, but you’re wrong.
Jesus is slippery. He’s more than you or I can understand, so take a humble stance right here at the beginning and get ready to learn something new about Jesus. No matter how long you’ve known him, no matter how many times you’ve heard the Bible stories read, prepare to be surprised by who Jesus really is.
And, get ready to be mad. Jesus is slippery and ornery. He won’t let you get away with using religion for your own comfort, no matter how much you want to. No matter how much you think you aren’t, he’ll show you how you actually are and how you need to change. And that always sucks.
So, church, this church that claims to follow Jesus, studying the red letters is going to be harder than you think, but it’s also going to be better than you think. Following Jesus involves crosses and suffering for sure, but if that was all this was about, we’d have given up long ago. This is about God’s Kingdom and deep peace coming on earth, in our hearts, and in our communities, and that is deeply satisfying - beyond your wildest dreams satisfying.
The thing is - Jesus has to give us the slip because we keep wanting to fence him in, to put our brand on him, to nail him down so that we know what to expect. But Jesus is always so much more than our expectations, so he keeps giving us the slip and bringing us further than we ever thought we could go.