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They Ran Him Out of Town
February 1, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

LUKE 4:16-30

Jesus went home. Our window that we’re looking at this morning depicts Jesus returning to his home town Nazareth. The caption reads, “He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” He went home, and they ran him out of town. I imagine that he went home with mixed feelings. If you’ve been away from your home for a long time, and it’s time to go back, probably there’s an anticipation of joy. I know how thrilled and pleased I was when I was asked to preach in my home church. One of the joys I had when I was in college and pastoring churches, I was asked to come back and preach the Baccalaureate in my old Alma Mater. That was quite a thrill. Evidently I didn’t do a very good job because they didn’t run me out of town! They received me. 

There’s a joy and anticipation in going back home, but there’s also some fears. I imagine Jesus sensed a little nervousness about going home, like going back to reunions. You never quite know what you’re going to run into because home changes. You never can go back into the past and find it just as you left it. To go back home or to go back to former churches as we do occasionally, is just not the same. Those old relationships cannot be continued or started again. People change. The situation changes back there as you and I are changing here. To go back home is sometimes a little anxiety causing. I imagine Jesus was just a little nervous and a little on the defensive to go back home for he was now famous. Word had spread about him all over the area. We don’t know how long he had been gone from Nazareth in terms of time, but certainly in terms of experience it was like light years. Remember all that happened to him while he was away. He had that glorious baptism with the heavens opening, the sound of the voice, the dove descending. Then he went into the wilderness, struggled with his mission and came out to preach the kingdom of God. He went through the land to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near. Great things happened. People followed him, people were healed, mighty works performed, and the word got back to Nazareth. 

Jesus decided in those early days to use the synagogues, he became an itinerant synagogue preacher. The synagogues in those days had the custom of allowing visitors to speak. There was one temple in Jerusalem and there was a synagogue in every village. The law stated that wherever there were ten Jewish families, they must build a synagogue. The synagogue was where the teaching occurred. The worship service was made up of three parts. First, there were the prayers. And secondly, there was the reading of the Scriptures—the Old Testament. The scrolls were unfurled. The lessons were read in Hebrew and then translated into Aramaic, which is what people spoke at that time. Seven people from the congregation were invited to read the scriptures. Visitors were usually given the honor of reading the Scripture. The third part of the service was to teach, to expound upon the scriptures read. There was no professional ministry, there were no professional rabbis at that time. The leaders of the synagogues would call on people out of the audience to teach—guests or distinguished people of the community. You remember later on that Paul used the synagogues to teach the Christian message, and when he would speak about Jesus and the resurrection of the dead, he’d be chased out of town. 

That’s what happened to Jesus when he went back home to Nazareth. We don’t know too much about Nazareth. One book I read said that Nazareth was just a sleepy little insignificant village at that time. The other book said it was a huge city of 20,000 people, the size of Manteca, which was a huge city in that day. We don’t know really too much what Nazareth was like. We know that it was 15 miles from the Sea of Galilee, 20 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, about the relation of Manteca to Modesto and Stockton. But if you’re going to travel those distances on foot, that’s quite a distance. Nazareth also lay along the highways, the roads that went down to Jerusalem. 

Jesus went home and he went to the synagogue. I can imagine it was a huge crowd that day to go hear him. “Is not this Joseph son?” They clucked, can’t you just see them clucking? “Why, that’s Joseph’s son, Mary’s son! Do you remember all the trouble he used to get into? He’s coming back now.” They had heard about all his marvelous healings, and I wonder what they expected when they went to hear him that day. I suspect that they went not to hear him, but to look. They went to observe, not to worship. There’s a huge difference. When people first come to church, they come to look and not to hear. They come to observe, and not to participate. There’s a world of difference between being a participant in a church, a participant in the worship service wholeheartedly putting your heart and soul in hearing, worshiping and praying and just coming to look. I imagine that they came to look. 

When the scriptures were read, Jesus was invited to read from Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” He chose a beautiful passage to tell his hometown folks what he was about—his mission his ministry. The passage that he read showed that he was as interested in the physical side of life as he was in the “spiritual” side of life. He read about real, tangible, physical things—restoring sight to the blind, releasing those who are oppressed, setting them free, and preaching good news to the poor. A beautiful passage that tells us what Jesus was about. 

And then he sat down. It was the custom in those days to sit down while you taught, the rabbi’s sat down to teach. Up to that point, Jesus was very well received. Luke tells us that they talked among themselves and thought it was wonderful. They marveled, “Doesn’t he read well! That’s Joseph’s boy, such a fine, young man.” And as long as he stayed in the Bible, he was safe and secure. But when he started to apply the Bible to their lives, when he started to apply the Bible to that day, he got into trouble. Notice in our country today, (this probably isn’t very fair to say) many of the largest, most thriving churches and denominations are those that keep their noses in the Bible, and leave them there. But the churches that try to apply the Bible to our day, that try to bring the word of judgment to our nation, to our crises, to our problems, those are the churches that get into difficulty as Jesus did in that day. When he began to proclaim what the Bible meant, they ran him out of town. 

I think two things happened that day that explain why he was unsuccessful. The first is that they refused to take him seriously. They’d known him all their lives. They just refused to take him seriously. The Gospel of Mark tells us that when he went back home to Nazareth, he was unable to perform any mighty works. He was unable to do any healings because, Mark said, there was no faith. They didn’t believe. And Jesus said in this passage, “No prophet is acceptable in his own country.” And when he is not taken seriously, he’s hindered, he’s hampered, he’s prevented from doing his ministry. 

Secondly, they ran him out of town because they were angry, upset at what he taught, how he applied that scripture to his life and to their lives. For Jesus said that the poor to whom the good news is preached, that the blind whose eyes shall be open, that those who are oppressed shall be set free, that these people will include non-Jews, Gentiles and foreigners—of all things, foreigners! Jesus broke down all the barriers, all the distinctions that the Jews had built up around themselves for centuries. He laid them all to waste and said that God’s love shows no favoritism. God’s love shows no distinctions between people. 

He pulled two examples. He went back to the prophets Elijah and Elisha, reminding them of one occasion when for three years, there had been a famine in the land, and the prophet Elijah when he was thirsty and hungry, went to a widow in the land of Sidon. He asked for help and healed her son. He did not go to anyone in Israel, he went to Sidon. 

Then Jesus reminded them of Elisha who healed a leper and the leper was not a Jew. He was Naaman of Syria. God’s power, God’s love is not confined to Jews. Now that was very hard for them to take. “Why the audacity of this young upstart to tell us that some foreigners are as good as we are!” They rose up in anger and threatened to throw him off the cliff, but he calmly walked through the crowd and left. 

Throughout history, small, insecure, narrow-minded people have felt the need to have someone else to look down on so they could build themselves up. Small people who have low self images, who feel unworthy, who doubt their own respect, who doubt their own value as a person seem to need other people they can step on, to look down on and make jokes about in order to build up their ego because their ego is in such sorry, sad shape. They have to build themselves up at the expense of other people. Throughout history, communities, nations, individuals have tried to build themselves up by downgrading other people, whether they be blacks, Indians, Orientals, Mexicans, or the retarded. Almost every school room has one or two who get picked on to make the others feel like big shots. Almost every community has to have people they can look down on, to make jokes about, in order to build up their own egos. 

Jesus went right to the heart of all prejudice, the heart of all bigotry. God shows no distinction; all are equal in the love of God. And they ran him out of town. I wonder how long he’d last in Manteca, how long he’d last in Washington DC. I wonder how long he lasts with you and me. Do you run him off as he tries to enter your life, your mind, your attitudes, your prejudices, your conceptions, your values? How long does he last? Do you run him off? Can you take what he says? Do you take him seriously? Do you block him by not really believing him? Do you really believe that he can work in your life? Do you really believe that he has power to work in your life? Are you willing to take the risk—the risk of opening yourself to Christ, of opening yourself to the Holy Spirit? The implications of letting Christ into your life may be that he will shatter some of your prejudices, shatter some of your beliefs, shatter some of your theology, shatter some of your ideas about life, the world and even about God. 

That’s the risk. He may take you places you don’t want to go. He may make you love people you don’t want to love. He may make you be nice to your enemies. He may turn you upside down. That’s the risk. People of Nazareth would not take the risk. They ran him out of town. Will you take him seriously? Will you allow him to change you?

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris