So…It’s only been 3 weeks since we celebrated Jesus’ birth…but in those three weeks here at church…we have rocketed with lightning speed over about 30 years of Jesus’ life. We saw Jesus in the temple, 9 days old, with his mom and dad, getting circumcised. We saw Jesus at the temple at 12, learning from the teachers there. We saw Jesus getting baptized by his cousin John…and now, Jesus’ ministry has begun. He is up in northern Israel in the region of Galilee where he grew up, and he has been traveling through the neighboring towns doing some amazing things — miracles — healing people and such. And today…he comes to his hometown. Nazareth. Where people have known him his whole life..the son of a local carpenter and his wife.
And by now word has gotten around and they have all heard the stories about what Jeus did in neighboring towns…and they are excited to see their local boy made good. They can’t wait to see what he will do for them. And so when Jesus joins them at the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and reads the lesson for the day from the prophet Isaiah — ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’….they are all watching, waiting to hear what he will say next… what he will do. And then he says “Today, these words are fulfilled…I am the anointed one…I am here to do God’s work..to bring good news to the poor…to free those who are unjustly imprisoned…to help people who are blind to the world see clearly..and to forgive the debts and give a fresh start to those who are crushed under generations of poverty.” Just for clarification, when Jesus said he was proclaiming ‘the year of the Lord’s favor’, that’s what he meant. The year of the Lord’s favor in Jewish Scripture was the jubilee year, and according to God’s law, the jubilee year was supposed to happen every 50 years, and when it did, the slates were cleared. Every debt was forgiven. And anybody…any family… who had lost land or wealth over the last 50 years…got it back. The wealth accumulated by some over 50 years was taken away and restored to those in poverty. The jubilee year declared a new start for every generation. Now…I’m guessing some of you are disgusted by that idea…taking money away from some who “earned it” and giving it to others. There’s a reason Jubilee has not been practiced much. Sinful humans being what we are…we are not the first generation to cringe at this idea. This is probably a really good time to be reminded that God’s idea of what is “right and just” rarely reflects ours.
So anyway…when Jesus says I’m the one who is going to do this…to usher all of this in…his hometown folks are impressed. Proud of their local boy. He’s one of us…and he’s going to get justice for us. Here we are, living under Roman occupation…and Jesus is going to lead the charge…fight our battles.
And then…well, then Jesus goes and thumbs his nose at them all. Seriously. He says “so, I suppose now you want me to do those miracles you’ve all been hearing about for you….well, I’m not. This good news for the poor…is not for you. It’s for other people. And he tells the story of Elijah and the widow of Sidon…you might remember it — we read it not that long ago, actually…. how when all of Israel was suffering from the drought, God sent Elijah to a foreigner to save her and her son …not to anyone in Israel. It’s almost like Jesus is trying to provoke them…like he’s saying “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah …you can’t have it”. And his hometown, as one, rises up with a ‘how dare you!”….”who do you think you are!”.
Now…I tend to think their reaction is over the top extreme….trying to run him off a cliff…but in their anger…their resentment…they thought it was merited. Who was he to betray his own people? But here’s the thing. They were wrong…and Jesus walked away out from the midst of them.
We’ve seen a lot of anger and resentment on display lately…and it has led to violence that is over the top extreme. Some think it merited, I know. But they are wrong…and Jesus walks away out of the midst of them as well. Because this kind of righteous zealotry is not what Jesus is about. The kind of “Who do you think you are? What are you going to do for me? Why aren’t you looking out for the home team…your own people?” attitude is not what Jesus is about. Jesus has never had a “home team”. Jesus is about bringing good news to the poor. Setting captives free. Helping blind people see. And giving people who have the cards stacked against them…a brand new start…jubilee. Whoever they are.
And really…that’s the problem with Jesus. Everytime we want to make him part of our home team…put him on our side and think he gives us the advantage…we’ve pretty much lost the point. Because the point is…that God is always more concerned about the folks who are hurting…more focused on the people who are suffering than on people …well, people like me who have a pretty cushy life. I’m not saying God doesn’t love me just as much…I believe God loves every one of us more that we can ever really understand. But the work of God in the world …the work of Jesus….the good news…isn’t the least bit concerned about making my life even cushier. God’s work in the world…the place where God really is on the move….that’s happening where people are desperate. Where people are in need and in pain. You want to be on God’s team? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the folks in prison. You remember that from Matthew 25, don’t you? The people who do those things…they are the sheep…the ones who got it. Who understand Jesus. Who do what God wants.
God’s team doesn’t storm capitol buildings…sorry, it just doesn’t. God’s followers comfort those who mourn. They stand beside those who are victims of injustice. Seek to bind up the wounds of our neighbors and care for the sick. Jesus will make it clear again in the beatitudes…in a later sermon…he will say “blessed are those who are hungry…who weep….who hunger for justice…who show mercy…who seek peace. “ If you want to hang out with God…be blessed…that’s where you go to be in the center of God’s work. God’s “team” doesn’t care about your wealth or your nationality or your race or what you deserve or what you’ve earned. God’s team seeks out the hurting of every race and nation…every class and caste…and lifts them up….even when it means that people like me..the rich and the well fed…need to take a step to the rear. Mary knew that was what Jesus was about before he was even born. She sang it about him when he was just a flutter inside her womb. He will lift up the lowly and cast down the proud…feed the hungry and send the rich away empty. That’s what Jesus confirms in his hometown today. I’m not going to be “on your side”…you aren’t going to benefit from having me in your pocket…because you will realize that I care about the people you despise…they will matter just as much as you do. If they are suffering, dying, grieving, hungry, sick…my work is about them.
One of the struggles so much of Christendom has had…is the fact that we have skewed and used Jesus so much over the centuries to justify our “home team”. It started with Constantine…when the church went from being a persecuted minority to being on the flag that led the Roman armies into battle. Jesus became a mascot for those in power. But that was never who Jesus was. Jesus was the one that the Roman governor executed because he wouldn’t play along with the folks in power.
Jesus is the one who never makes the people in power happy. Because Jesus so deeply cares about those “others” who are forgotten and lost, taken advantage of and overlooked in our world. Because Jesus came to bring good news to the poor…and let the oppressed go free. And to open our eyes to see the injustice and grief we have been blinded to.
It’s Martin Luther King day tomorrow. And we remember a man who was committed to following Jesus…a man who knew what it was to be in prison, and to hunger for justice and to grieve…who knew what it was to face the outrage and violence of mobs. People today tend to idealize his movement and its nonviolence… but at the time,the response to it and to him was anything but “praise” by the white establishment. They were beaten and arrested and killed while a great many people around the country called them rioters and thugs and a threat to America. They were pushed to the edges of cliffs right alongside Jesus by people who were resentful and angry. And many, including Dr. King, were killed. They were doing Jesus’ work…and the response of white people who thought they were the ones on Jesus’ home team was the same as it was that day in Nazareth.
Friends…we are here because we want to follow Jesus. Somewhere along the line, the truth of “Jesus loves me, this I know” became real for us, just like it did for his followers 2000 years ago. That’s why we’re here. And this morning, we’re reminded that following Jesus means opening our eyes to those who are hurting…and letting his light shine through us in the midst of a dark world. Following Jesus means caring for those who are in need, and never prioritizing our “home team”…whether that means my race, my country, my hometown or even my own family. We are the body of Christ…the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. May we, like Martin Luther King…imperfect as we are….strive to follow Jesus. To love in the face of hate. To serve those who need us. And we can do that. All of us can do that. As Rev. King said, “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”