A sermon on Luke 4:21-30 preached at Government Street Presbyterian Church; Mobile, AL, January 2016.
All you readers out there can find a manuscript below. For some visual thoughts on this same story, check out this project I did in seminary.
When we join Jesus in the synagogue, in this morning’s reading from Luke, he is speaking to the congregation in his hometown. He’s just finished reading a prophecy from Isaiah, and his listeners are amazed, speaking well of him. They also ask “is this not Joseph’s son?” They’re saying, in a way, “hey, we know that guy! ” I wonder if there’s some surprise in there too. You know, like “…is that the same Jesus that we always used to see as a toddler running around the fellowship hall with spaghetti sauce all over his face? Look at him now, fulfilling prophesies!” Somewhere along the line, though, Jesus’s visit to the synagogue in his hometown escalates to the point where the people drive Jesus out of town with the intention of throwing him off a cliff. What happened?
Our reading from Luke this morning begins right after Jesus has read the prophecy from Isaiah. He tells the people that the Scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing. When I heard that, a familiar philosophical question came to mind: if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it still make a noise?” Jesus tells the faithful gathered in Nazareth that the Scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing, but are they really listening? When they really start paying attention to what Jesus has to say is when things start to get rocky.
Naturally, after the tree question came to mind, my thoughts drifted to the times I’ve spent in woods. When I’ve found myself outside, surrounded by more trees for company than people, it’s often comforting. It’s a familiar place for me, and it’s humbling to be reminded that there are things in the world bigger than I am. Being in a forest alone can also be an intimidating thing, as you realize the lack of easy communication with the other living things around you. Like the two-sided experience of being in a forest, I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to imagine Jesus experiencing similar positive and negative things as he stood speaking, surrounded by a congregation in his hometown.
Hometowns are familiar. I’m sure not everyone has a completely positive picture of where they come from, but I’m fortunate to. At last count, including summer jobs I’ve lived in seven states in the last ten years. I have loved parts of all of those places, and in their own ways each has added something to the person I am today. But there is also something so special about arriving back home in North Carolina after a long while away. The smells and sounds of my favorite coffee shop on Main Street (which, coincidentally, is the only coffee shop on Main Street). Happy greetings from church members I haven’t seen in months, if not years. Even the taste of a blueberry milkshake at my favorite North Carolinian fast food chain. I imagine, at some point, one of these new places I move to will end up being the one I stay in for a long while. But for now, in the midst of all of these moves, remembering my hometown has been a grounding thing for me. An encouraging thing.
Despite my own impression of the warm fuzziness of hometowns, Jesus I’m afraid, has a different experience. I wonder what that felt like for him. In the gospel of Luke, this morning’s story in the temple of Nazareth happens early on in Jesus ministry. It hasn’t been all that long since Christmas, on our calendar, but since then Jesus has grown up. He visited the temple with his parents each year, John the baptist prepared the way for him and baptized him, and Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert. That’s when this morning’s story happens. Jesus has been fasting in the desert for forty days, having to put up with the devil all the while. He finally gets to go home, to familiarity. To people he knows who have surely at some point encouraged him…and they try and throw him off a cliff. I guess this didn’t come as a total shock to him, since he says outright that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But still.
Let’s return our tree question. If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it still make a noise? Like a tree that falls, creaking and groaning as it sails to the forest floor, Jesus was a maker of noise. He still is. I think the question to ask isn’t so much if a tree falls…but when a tree falls, are we listening?
Easier said than done for the faithful people gathered in the synagogue at Nazareth. Jesus’ way of explaining how he would fulfill the prophecy is to remind people of good things other prophets did, not in their hometowns. After hearing these examples from the lives of Elisha and Elijah, I imagine the people gathered in front of Jesus felt betrayed. Entitled to more, maybe, from the savior they’d helped raise. When Jesus first started speaking in the temple, they were amazed by him, in a good way — maybe thinking “Finally! Isaiah’s prophecies have been fulfilled! Good news for the poor! Release for the captives! Recovery of sight to the blind! Hooray!” Quickly though their praise is dampened. “Wait a minute Jesus. We’ve known you since you were a kid. And now you’re saying you’re going to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor somewhere else?” I imagine this caused a great deal of hurt in that synagogue. Betrayal, confusion, fear. All of those things turned into anger — not just any anger, either. Rage. This is Jesus’ hometown and they are filled with such uncontrollable anger that they drive Jesus out of town with the intention of throwing him off a cliff.
I don’t know if Jesus felt the same way about home as I do, but think about how high a cost that was for Jesus. He made noise in Nazareth, the people heard it, and they did not take it well. I can’t help but think that, in a way, Jesus losing the love from his hometown in this story foreshadows the way he would lose his life at the hands of people he came to save. When a tree falls naturally in a forest it will, over time, return to the earth and become the ground that nourishes other trees around it. In literal terms, maybe a tree hollowed by lightening becomes shelter for some animals before it returns to dust. Maybe wind-broken branches provide firewood to keep people gathered around them warm. Jesus is like a tree in more ways than one.
Even in these moments, at the end of our Scripture passage for today, Jesus still doesn’t respond to rage with rage. Surrounded by an angry and actually pretty murderous mob, what did he do? He passed through the midst of them and went on his way. Just like that. Passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
So what now? The people of Nazareth were left on the brow of that hill probably wondering what in the world just happened. We are left here maybe wondering what in the world it has to do with us. When a tree falls, it can be unexpected. When a tree falls, it can be dangerous. When a tree falls, are we listening?
Unfortunately for us, Jesus didn’t make all that noise just to keep people comfortable. Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way, and I think we’re supposed to follow him. Jesus made noise and is still making noise, and I hope we are listening. Following Jesus may lead us into unfamiliar territory, out of our hometown comfort zones. I was also out of my comfort zone when my parents made me learn how to use a lawnmower back in middle school, but they led by example and endured my less-than-enthused self to teach me how. Our grass got cut and I still have all my fingers and toes, so it turned out just fine. I know this example seems pretty trivial — like really, I’m trying to compare Jesus to me mowing the lawn? But the fact that the word “north” is in the name “North Carolina,” does not imply that doing laps around the yard in July was anything close to what I would consider comfortable. So, I hope you’ll hear me out. When we are led out of our comfort zones, grass will stain our shoes and sweat may soak our shirts. It will be messy and intimidating. and Yet we hear the crackling of a falling tree in the distance, and we listen. This morning we also heard a little about Jeremiah — God called him but Jeremiah was not convinced. “Truly I do not know how to speak,” he said. Yes, there will be hills. We won’t always know exactly what we’re doing. We won’t always know exactly what’s waiting over the brow of the next hill. But I hope we will pass through the midst of our fear, our uncertainty, and our indifference and I hope we will follow Jesus anyway.
Jesus proclaimed to the people in Nazareth that he came to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free. These words may be ancient, but their age doesn’t make them lose their relevance. These are very real words — people are poor. People are captive, people are blind, and people are oppressed. I hope that part of our listening to Jesus’s noise and part of our following him will be to seek justice in all of those places. Sometimes maybe that looks pretty obvious. The good news of a warm meal or a welcoming smile. Looking past assumptions to truly hear a person’s story. Asking tough questions about where we come from and where we’re going. Maybe, also, we help release someone held captive by guilt, by offering her forgiveness. Maybe we help restore sight to someone blinded by grief, by reminding him we are here. Maybe we give hope to someone who has long been oppressed, by making sure she knows that her voice matters too. The Word of God does not promise to be easy. I’d imagine that at some point or another most of us have been able to relate to the people in Nazareth. That at some point or another many of us have probably thought “Wait. God, hold up. I thought you were looking out for me but now you’re saying you’re going to help those people over there instead?” For the record, I deeply believe that there’s enough God to go around, but our questions and doubt can still overwhelm us. And yet we are called to follow Jesus. Instead of trying to throw Jesus off of a mountain, I hope we’ll follow him over it. Stepping out of our comfort zones — getting those grass stains on our shoes — to serve God in new and challenging ways. What counts as “challenging” is different for each of us, but still Jesus draws us over the brow of the hill, making noise to guide us along the way.
When a tree falls literally in a forest, it is likely to nudge, or straight up smash into, other trees on its way down. Maybe the falling tree scrapes against another, marking the bark on its way down. Maybe the falling tree partially uproots one of its neighbors, making the second tree more likely to fall too. There are a lot of particular scenarios that could play out, but I think you get the idea. The chain of events here among humanity may not be as obvious as a game of dominos or the decks of cards we used earlier. But when we listen to noise Jesus makes — when we act on it — we begin making noise too. We’re falling trees, and others are bound to hear. Amen.