“When Nice Isn’t So Nice”
By Rev. Jennifer Christenson
For Christus Lutheran Church, Greenville, Wis.
February 3, 2013
Luke 4:21-30 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%204:21-30&version=NIV
Previously on “All My Gospels” … After a successful preaching and teaching tour, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. A typical synagogue service is turned on its head when Jesus reads prophetic words from the scroll of Isaiah and then announces that the scriptures had been fulfilled in the hearing of those gathered.
And now, the conclusion…
“Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus says. “This” being the promise in Isaiah of the arrival of the Spirit-anointed Messiah who would liberate, heal, and make new…among other things.
And now we will see how the hometown crowd will respond.
At first, people actually seem kind of delighted by what Jesus has to say. A murmur of approval ripples through the crowd. “Wow, this guy is really good!” “Aw, is this really Joseph’s boy? Little Jesus? Just look at him now, all grown up.”
If we ended it right there that’d be great. Everyone could happily ride off into the sunset, no harm, no foul. But then Jesus keeps talking. He just can’t leave well enough alone. Instead of a gracious, “Aw shucks, thanks guys, you’re the best” and an autograph session at the back of the synagogue, Jesus launches into this aggressive, angry-sounding, rage-inducing diatribe.
He accuses them of not really believing or respecting him and then goes on to bring up a bunch of stories from scriptural history that reminded his hearers of the scandalously surprising ways the God of Israel worked. That is, that the God of Israel would sometimes venture outside the “chosen people” to offer a blessing or even a miracle to Gentiles, to foreigners, to those not in the “club”.
By the time his sermon ends, all of the approval and good will has turned to out and out rage and the once-adoring, but now rabid crowd runs Jesus out on a rail, with the intent of doing him in.
So, what went wrong? What do we take away from this? Is this just a story to show the fickleness of human nature? To show us that no, really, truly, you can’t go home again, even if and perhaps especially if you are the Son of God? Was it a story meant to show us that even Jesus could get crabby at times?
What on earth happened?
Let’s go back to the crowd’s initial response once more. Jesus says his “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing” and they all smile and nod and coo their surprised approval.
And maybe, just maybe that’s the problem. As noted last week, what Jesus says is absolutely astounding. It’s earth-shattering news. All of the stuff they had waited for for centuries, promises of a world renewed and more…Jesus had just said that had all been fulfilled in that moment, in that place. He’d basically said, “That Messiah you’ve been longing for, well, he’s right here, in front of you, speaking…”
He said all of that and everyone said, essentially, “Oh, that’s nice. How cute.”
Perhaps, just perhaps, that’s not quite the reaction Jesus expected. Or maybe he did expect it, but it’s not the reaction he wanted. Perhaps, from Jesus’ view, such a mild, benign, “meh” response was a bit incongruous with the incredible news he had just shared.
It would be as if someone came in here and announced they had discovered the cure for cancer AND the common cold AND had solved the mystery of all the missing socks the world over and we all said…”Good job. Now, who do you think is going to win the big game tonight?” and then went on with our lives as though nothing in the world had changed.
That response wouldn’t fit with that kind of news. I can see the person who’d accomplished those great things jumping up and down and waving his or her arms and doing whatever it took to get our attention, to help us to see that something really profound, and future-altering had happened.
Perhaps Jesus wasn’t aiming for simple approval, a “how nice”, a “good job”. Maybe he wanted a stronger reaction: like questions – “When? Now? How can this be? How can we get involved? What do we do now?” Maybe he’d even have been happy with an outright challenge of doubt – wait a minute, Jesus, son of Joseph, you’re saying YOU’RE the Messiah? Perhaps in his heart of hearts he was hoping for rejoicing, a chorus of Hallelujahs, people standing up and acting like they had just been set free and the like.
Something more than just…”Isn’t that nice.”
And I’d say that goes not just for the crowd in the synagogue, but for all of those who have heard the story of Jesus sand his love. The intent of all of this is to provoke a response in all of us.
For truly, God in Christ Jesus didn’t go through the business of entering this world as fully God, fully human, didn’t traipse around the countryside teaching, healing, and performing miracles; didn’t suffer, die and then break the bounds of death through his resurrection just for people to respond with, “That’s cool…now who’s up for some bocce ball?”
This is life-transforming stuff. This is a story that is meant to provoke a response… A response of overwhelming joy for sins forgiven. A response of excitement over the places and possibilities this new kingdom of God holds for us. A response even of rage over the scandal of it all – the generous love of God extending far and wide and even affecting people we might call our enemies, people who hold differing views than us…Jesus loves and died for them all.
This Jesus stuff, this gospel thing is not just a nice story we hear snippets of once a week, smile and nod and then go on our merry way as though nothing is new under the sun.
This is a life-transforming, change your world, knock your socks off kind of deal. There is a quote out there about worship being a place where we should have seatbelts in the pews and instead of handing out bulletins and song sheets, we should give everyone crash helmets because man, we’re going to have an encounter with the living God and things might get a little crazy.
Jesus doesn’t just want approval of his message and his story. He doesn’t want us to “like” it like we like pictures of funny kittens on Facebook. He wants it change us, to make us new, to bring us to new life, and give us meaning and purpose and above all hope.
And so, apparently when Jesus’ hometown folk just kind of murmured their approval, yet didn’t seem to take a word he said actually seriously or to heart, he decided to press the point home.
They speak well of him and Jesus says, “No, no, NO, you’re not getting it! This is not ‘nice’ – it’s a scandal! It’s crazy and unheard of and if your world is not rocked and your socks are not knocked off, well, I’ll take care of that.” And so Jesus proceeds to mildly insult, harangue, and offend the crowd to the point of them being so mad, so angry that they wanted to throw him over a cliff. Which was, by the way, an acceptable alternative to the traditional stoning of a heretic.
And it’s with the crowd whipped up into a frenzy that Jesus then just kind of slips away. After all, he has other places to go, other people to heal, other lepers to cleanse, other lives to transform, other crowds to provoke…much to do. And it’s only chapter 4 out of 24 so, just like you know the main character isn’t really going to get irreparably harmed by the bad guy on your favorite TV show, we knew this couldn’t be the end…
As Jesus rage-inducing first public sermon shows us, this good news of great joy first proclaimed by the angels to the shepherds is not a story that was ever intended to be just “nice”. Our reaction as people of God was always intended to be way more than just a benign “how sweet”. It’s meant to excite us, frustrate us, confuse us, provoke us to action – hopefully more constructive action than throwing preachers off of cliffs. This story, this gospel, this good news is meant, is designed to move us and make us new and make us want to tell others so that they too can be blown away by what Jesus has to say.
So, thanks be to God that this isn’t actually the conclusion, it’s really the beginning of the beginning. The story does go on…and the rest of the gospel story reveals to us a Lord and Savior, a Messiah, who truly will stop at nothing to get a reaction… To get a reaction of overjoyed hope, trust, and faith out of us, even if it means allowing his people to eventually run him out of town and put him to death on a cross.
And thanks be to God, too, that not even that could hold Jesus down. Amen