“GOOD NEWS IN THE HOMETOWN”
February 13, 2005
Think for just a minute about the community in which you grew up. Most of us, wherever we go in life, still maintain a place in our hearts for our hometown. When we hear of things that occurred back home, that gets our attention. Even now, when I sit down to read the paper or watch the news, I always find that attention is drawn to local things before I go to world or national events. Your thoughts about what it was like in that community will tell a lot about how you feel about your life and about who you are.
In the passage that we are going to study this morning, we are dealing with Jesus’ hometown. Jesus was brought up in the community of Nazareth. Nazareth was a town of between 15 and 20 thousand people which was located about 70 miles due north from Jerusalem. It was about half way between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea. Contrary to what you and I may suppose, it was not merely a remote, country type of place, withdrawn from the world. William Barclay, for example, makes the point that Jesus grew up in a place where you could stand on top of one of the hills near the town and look over where the great events of the history of Israel had taken place. So many of the turning point events of the Old Testament story took place within sight of the hills around Nazareth. And it was also a place where you could stay in Jesus’ day and watch the world go by on the roads that passed through there. If people passed through from north to south or from east to west across the Roman Empire, they would be brought near Nazareth and Jesus would have been familiar with all of that.
What we are concerned with today is a visit to his hometown when the good news of salvation was announced. We are going to consider here in Luke 4 what happens when good news comes to the hometown. I am interested in something more than just our evaluating how Nazareth responded to Jesus. I want you and I to examine how we respond to good news that happens among us, or the opportunities and privileges that we are presented as a congregation of Christians because of Jesus.
A Holy Habit
Notice as we begin that mention is made in Luke 4 of what we could call a “holy habit” in Jesus’ life. All the rest of this grows out of one particular custom that Jesus had developed in his life and character. Beginning at verse 16 of Luke 4 we read, “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.” The synagogue was the place of Jewish life which was the center of the whole community. It was not only a place of worship where the law and the prophets were read each Sabbath Day. It was also the central place of teaching in the lives of these people. Here they learned who they were and what their lives were all about and what it was that they and their people believed in. The temple back in Jerusalem was the place of sacrifice, but the synagogue in their community was the place where the Lord’s word met their experience in life, and it was the place where they decided how they were going to respond to the Lord’s authority, and how they were going to go about living their lives in view of God and what he asked of them.
In this case, notice that Jesus went to that synagogue on the Sabbath Day, and observe carefully that the passage says, “This was his custom.” That is the most revealing statement that we have about the experience of Jesus between the time when he was twelve years old and the time when he started his public ministry. His character was such that on the Sabbath Day he went to the assembly. He was a part of the congregation at the synagogue.
This passage says that on the Sabbath Day Jesus went. It shows that when he went, he participated. Notice carefully verse 16 says, “He stood up to read.” As the passage unfolds, I believe you and I will notice that even when people slighted him or were not quite as kind as they could have been to him, he didn’t quit going. After they mistreat him here, as we are going to discover, the next time we see him after this in verses 31 and 32, he is again at the synagogue on the Sabbath Day.
The holy habit that I am talking about here is the habit of meeting with the Lord’s people. It is a custom that you and I can discount as being not all that important. We may do it in our own ways by saying, “Well, you know, just going to church never got anybody to heaven.” Or, we might say, “It just gets to be a habit, and there are hypocrites there, and it is not always that exciting and sometimes I don’t get a lot out of it.” You have heard, perhaps made, all of those statements at one time or another. May I just point out to us that we should not develop the opposite habit of what Jesus had if we are going to call ourselves after his name? His habit was to meet with people who loved God and sought his word even though he must have seen many imperfections in their lives and practices.
In Hebrews 10:25, the Hebrew writer appeals to his readers to “not neglect meeting together,” he says, “as the habit of some is but instead to encourage each other.” I would say to myself and to all of us that the most elementary custom or habit about Christian living should be this one here. Even when there are lots of other things that maybe we are not able to do, even when there are problems we perhaps struggle with in our spiritual lives, the one thing that is always the starting place is to faithfully meet with the Lord’s people. This was something that must have been very crucial in the development of Jesus’ character in his becoming a good influence and preparing the way for the service or the ministry that he was going to carry on in his life. The ability to be faithful in meeting with the Lord’s people is one thing that can help us to have the character to be faithful to the promises we keep in marriage, to be dependable in the responsibilities we have in work, to be individuals who are able to make a commitment and stand by it. One of the simplest ways you can start to develop that character is with this holy habit you meet in this passage here.
A Precious Passage
Secondly, we meet in this context a precious passage of scripture. In verses 17 through 19 you notice that Jesus “unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’”
In the synagogue service, there were various readings. There would be prayers, but then there would be seven different readings from scripture. First there would be passages from the law, then passages from the prophets. Apparently, the law had already been read by the time Jesus stood up to read, and there would have been brought to him, not merely a book with pages in it like you and I have, but instead a scroll, maybe written on parchment made from various materials or made from animal skins, but these precious rolls with the Lord’s word written on them would be held on one stick and then would be rolled over to another stick. It would not be divided into chapters and verses like my Bible is, but instead it is just written there in text. And our Lord was so familiar with all of that that he seems to have purposely rolled that scroll and found deliberately this passage that he read in their hearing that day.
This is an “on purpose” passage of scripture, in other words, that the Lord chose because it said exactly what needed to be said. It said the things the Lord wanted said to describe what the beginning of his ministry meant. The meaning was “good news,” and when you read the passage, you can’t help but notice that. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” it said, “because he has anointed me to proclaim good news.” The word “Christ” or “Messiah” meant “the anointed one.” Jesus, at his baptism, had the Spirit to ascend on him in the form of a dove and a voice say, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Peter would later preach in Acts 10:38 that Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and that he went about doing good and healing the people who came to him. Typically, when an anointed one was anointed with oil, it was to show that he was set apart for some particular service like a king or a prophet. Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit to show that he was sent from the Father to preach good news to the poor.
In this passage, notice some of the human condition that is described. The “poor” meant that these are people who are destitute; they have nothing. The “captives” were either people who had been carried away from their homeland and kept in a foreign land as slaves or they were people who were in prison. Those who were “blind” are thought to have been people who had been thrown in the back of a dungeon and kept in that misery for so long that they had even lost their ability to see. They had not seen light for that long. The “oppressed” or the “bruised” were the ones who were downtrodden and mistreated in a merciless kind of way.
All of those statements come from Isaiah 61:1-2. It was a passage of scripture which every person in that synagogue that day would have recognized as a promise about what the Messiah would do, and about the time when salvation would be made available to them. And one of the reasons they hoped in that so much is that they all knew that those descriptions had more to do with their spiritual existence than just with their physical condition. When Jesus read this passage, he is saying, “Here are the circumstances in which men live when they are left on their own. These are the results of combating sin and dealing with this fruit in our lives.” It means that we are left poor and helpless, that we are enslaved by sin and wrongdoing, that we are blind to the light of the truth and the light of goodness, that we are bruised and mistreated because of our practice of wrongdoing, our personalities are ruined, and our souls are lost. We are dependent on the news that was to be brought by the one who would proclaim the good news in this passage.
Then Jesus did something interesting. The last verse that he read, verse 19, is not from Isaiah 61:1-2 but from Isaiah 58:6. The Lord purposely looked back and found that verse and read it. The reason he read is that the imagery is drawn from the practice of the Jubilee year from Leviticus 25 in the Old Testament. You remember the Jews lived in cycles of 7 years. After 7 of those cycles had gone by, after 49 years had passed, there came the 50th year. On the first day of that 50th year the priests were to go through the land blowing the trumpets and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. During that year, all debts were to be cancelled, all slaves were to be set free, and all land was to be returned to its original family owners. It was a tremendous blessing and a huge way of picturing what the day of salvation would be. So when Jesus read this passage, it was indeed a precious passage that spoke of a time of hope, a time of beginning again where people would be free from their slavery, where people would be given life and hope and opportunity all over again.
An Amazing Announcement
In Nazareth that day the holy habit of Jesus brought into the synagogue where he chose a precious passage that was the basis of all of their hope. Then he made an amazing announcement (verses 20, 21). “And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
It was their practice to stand up to read the Lord’s word and then to sit down to do the teaching. You can almost feel the sense of expectation as Jesus rolled up that scroll. I think implied in this is the fact that Jesus had already been involved in his ministry in Capernaum and in Judea and other places, and news of the mighty works he had done has filtered into Nazareth and these people already know something about it. For him to read that passage on this day in view of what he has been doing, you can see why the sense of expectation. And then he sat down, and every eye in the place was fixed on him and he began to speak, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Think of the implications of that – not “will be,” not “is beginning,” but “has been” fulfilled. He was saying, “The day of salvation had arrived and that the authority of the anointed one was invested in him and that he had the ability to set captives free and to give sight to the blind and to take those who were bruised and make them whole again.”
In Luke 7:22, 23, John the Baptist will send messengers and want to know if he the one they have been looking for. And Jesus will say, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard. The blind received their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them.” That is what Jesus is saying this reading meant that day in scripture. Don’t miss this point. This makes the whole issue here “who he is.” When he read this and when he said, “Today the scripture is fulfilled in your ears,” he was claiming to be the Christ, the Son of God. The implication was that in his being there with them, the age or the day of salvation had started.
Remember that Jesus was not just a person who appeared and made this claim. He had the credentials for it. There is the witness of scripture. Luke has already made reference to prophecies fulfilled in him. Even the devil had quoted scripture to him in this same chapter, Luke 4. Then there is the voice of the Father that was spoken at Jesus baptism, and then there were the mighty works that he had already begun to do, all backing up the claim that he is making here at his hometown.
I just want to impress on our hearts today, again, that the real core issue of our lives is who we believe Jesus is, and then whether we are living in keeping with that conviction. Whether there is the integrity in our lives where the way we are living fits with what we say we believe about who Jesus is. That is the real issue of life. It makes all the difference in whether we remain among the captive and the downtrodden and the blind and the poor or whether we enjoy the benefits of the day of salvation.
The apostle Paul, in II Corinthians 6:1. 2, uses this picture to plead with people. He says, “Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” This means that just as when Jesus read that passage that day and announced, “This day it is fulfilled,” that same thing happens every time the gospel is preached. It is the day of salvation and the appeal goes forth to not receive the grace of God in vain.
The Great Refusal
That brings us to the fourth part of our text, and that is the great refusal which happens. There is a holy habit, a precious passage, an amazing announcement, and then a sad refusal in Jesus’ hometown. Notice as I read what happens, beginning in verse 22: “And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”
I want you to notice carefully what is happening here. They begin by speaking well of him. He talks well. Apparently, Jesus had more to say than just “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled.” Apparently he explained it or taught it. And they all were impressed enough with how he spoke and how he talked. Then notice it says, “They marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.” Notice carefully it doesn’t say they appreciated them. It doesn’t say they admired them or they affirmed them. They just marveled at them. And instead of accepting them then, they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Do you see what is happening? They leave the words that he is saying, what the scripture meant, the marveling and how he had said them, and then down to, “Wait a minute, this fellow can’t be anything. He is one of us. He grew up here.”
Have you ever heard anybody say, “I read scripture here and I see what it says about Jesus and I hear what he is saying, but it is so hard to be removed by all of these centuries to have faith in one who lived back then? If I could just have been there and if I could have heard him talk and if I could have seen some of the miracles that he did, then I would believe in him.” I want to tell you something. It never would have been easy to stand within arm’s reach of somebody who claimed to be the Son of God and to have accepted it. That is the case here. These people lived with him. They couldn’t accept him because they had such a low opinion of themselves. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they thought. “He is the carpenter. We have his mother and his brothers and his sister here with us,” as they said in Mark 6:1-3.
One of the ways we can avoid facing the impact of what scripture says is evaluating the life and the ability of the person who says it. You can get so busy, for example, evaluating how I had the lesson outlined or whether I said it like it needed to be said that you can forget to wrestle with what the scripture says. I want to urge you not to do that. Join me in trying to deal with what the passage is saying.
In this passage, the Lord challenged his people. In verse 23, he sees them running these things through their minds and he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself. What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” It is almost as if they are saying, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son,” and he knows their thinking, “Well, when you improve your status in life, when you show that you are something more now than what you were, then we will listen to you. So show us your power!” They don’t want to see it to believe in it. They want to see it to evaluate it.
Then secondly, as Jesus has tried to wake them up from their smug evaluating of him, he says, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” There is a principle in that I think has to be considered lest we make the mistake of overlooking the truth just because we are familiar with it. Why is it we take for granted the people closest to us? Their greatness, their abilities and their admirable qualities! People have always done that, and Nazareth did it with Jesus.
And then the Lord appeals to them to rise above the unbelieving tendencies of their fathers by making reference to two prophets in Old Testament days – Elijah and Elisha. He says, “But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.” What he is saying is “With all of Israel in those three and a half years, Elijah was not helped by any of them, but he went to a foreigner and an insignificant one at that.” Apparently, the widow of Zarephath was a Gentile, an insignificant or poor person at that. She is the one blessed by Elijah’s presence while all the land of Israel was suffering for three and a half years.
And then verse 27 says, “And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” Again, in Elisha’s day, the one leper who was cleansed or helped that we have a record of was the Gentile, Naaman. You remember that story in II Kings 5.
And the people at Nazareth got the point, but instead of their hearts being changed, their hearts being softened, instead of their repenting, instead of their being blessed by the presence of the Son of God that day, it made them so mad they couldn’t see straight. For him to suggest that Israel would overlook the one who was sent to bless them, and in order to bless somebody he would have to go to Gentiles, they couldn’t take it. Verse 28 says, “When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.”
That passage is a vivid one. It shows, I think, that this is the beginning of the whole ministry of Jesus. He came to bless people, to set them free, to be good news. But even in his hometown, they started a rejection that would finally take him to the cross, and the gospel would have to be taken to people who were not from that Old Testament covenant people. All of those things foreshadow the story the New Testament tells.
Maybe the saddest phrase in the whole passage is, “But passing through their midst, he went away.” The Lord did not force himself on them, but when they ignored, when they refused, when they rejected, he went away. If the good news came to Springfield, MO, would those same things happen? Would we be so busy evaluating how someone did that we would reject the truths that were presented and the Lord would just pass right through us without us having been blessed by it? I hope not. I hope we would choose to let our hearts be changed, that we would confess our faith, that we would be baptized into him for the forgiveness of our sins and then that we would be faithful to that commitment all of our days. Maybe you are here today ready to make that beginning. If so and if we can help, let it be known right now while we stand and sing together.