Sunday Again?, Luke 4:16-30, Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 27, 2019
Another week, another church service. “Do I have to?” “What difference does it make anyway?” “It’s the same thing every Sunday.” Even if we never say it, that’s what our old sinful human nature thinks. It’s why we sometimes find ourselves dragging our feet, and forcing ourselves to come to church.
There are so many important things in life, aren’t there? It would be easier to make a habit out of something else, anything else, on Sunday morning. It is all too easy to become satisfied with less Jesus, rather than more. Our sinful human nature doesn’t want us to be here.
But you can’t trust that old sinful human nature. Even though it knows exactly what it wants, which is to keep us out of God’s Word, and away from Jesus. Good for our sinful human nature, but bad for us! That’s why this whole church thing can be such a fight. Sunday service should be the most important thing in the world for us, but it isn’t.
It may not feel important for us, but it is for Jesus. “He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day” (16). How about that? As a child, Jesus went to church! He studied and learned Scripture by heart. And now as an adult, He is just as devoted to it. He attends services faithfully. His custom and habit is to love the Word.
Wouldn’t that be something? If we came to church not as a duty or burden, not out of a sense of obligation, not as a “have-to” or simply as a matter of routine, not even because we need it (though, let’s not kid ourselves, we do need it so long as that old sinful human nature refuses to leave), but to come out of a love for being here! That’s the life of Jesus.
One of the reasons I love our church year and lectionary calendar is how it follows the life of Jesus, for the most part. Just over a short month ago we celebrated His lowly birth in a Bethlehem stable. And although we know little of His early life, we do know Jesus was presented in the temple (2:39), and we know of the celebration of the Passover Feast in Jerusalem when He was twelve years old (2:51). Now after His Baptism in the Jordan (3:15–22) and being tempted in the wilderness (4:1–13), (which we hear about during a different time in our lectionary), Jesus returns to Nazareth to begin His ministry.
There is actually very limited archaeological information about Nazareth. It has been revealed as a small agricultural village of about 200 residents. It was a modest place, no large buildings, most of the homes were simple affairs whose back walls were formed by a hill.
As Jesus returned, it was only natural for Him to go to church, to hold God’s Word sacred, and to gladly hear and learn it. But this Sabbath Day was different from the ones in the past. This time Jesus didn’t come to the Nazareth synagogue as the supposed son of Joseph. He’d done that, been the obedient son, for thirty years.
This time, He wasn’t there to be a hearer of the Word. This time, He went to the Nazareth synagogue as a teacher of the Word, a rabbi, a guest preacher in His home congregation. He went as the Son of the Father in heaven. “And he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He 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’ ” (16–19).
The home folks in Nazareth had never seen that side of Jesus before. They’d never heard Him like that. So whether they came that day out of habit, or obligation, or even love of the Word, they got more than they bargained for. This wasn’t just another service, according to custom, go through the motions and head home.
“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” (20). Isn’t that a great description? All eyes in the church are fixed on Jesus. No dozing in the pew after a late night, no daydreaming about next Sunday’s Super Bowl (sorry Saints), no stealthy glances at a phone or watch. Wouldn’t it be great if those words described us today? “Jesus came and the eyes of all were fixed on him!”
Then came the sermon, at first it was not offensive to the people. He tells them that today is the fulfillment of this prophecy. And all the people are amazed at the gracious words He speaks.
If He was interested in their praise, He would have stopped right there. But He didn’t. He goes on to suggest that they are only waiting for Him to do some miracle, as He has done elsewhere. But Jesus tells them that they will end up rejecting Him, no prophet is honored in his home town.
Notice that it wasn’t a lecture on theology, or a list of ten steps to better yourself, or a rally for some social issue. In a simple and profound way, Jesus applied God’s Word to the people right there: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (21).
“What Isaiah wrote,” Jesus says, “is about me.” It’s as if the words walked right off the page and stood in front of them, like one of those movies where the characters of a book come to life as you read. Except this was no fairy tale. This was real.
Now the question is for you and me this morning: how do we see Him? Today, we heard Him looking strangely like God, but not the God of our expectations. Rather we heard Jesus as the shocking God who confounds our expectations. Today we do not hear Jesus in His victory over some demon, or leprosy, or even in raising the dead. Today we heard Him as God in the face of rejection, and that rejection to be the very act of salvation.
As Jesus preaches His first sermon, we hear the crowds grow angry with Him. They initially are impressed and seem to love Him, but not for long. When the message veers off course, in their opinion, they take Him outside the village as if to cast Him from the top of the hill to His death. They reject Him. And in this, He really does look like God, the God whom the Israelites have been rejecting for centuries.
Jesus is the Word in human flesh, the Word that’s living and active, present in this place. That’s why He comes so faithfully still, today: to deliver the Good News of salvation to you, poor and needy, to proclaim liberty to you who are in debt with sin, to give sight to you who walk in darkness, to set free you who are in bondage.
That’s the point of every Sunday. Jesus, true God and also true man, steps into our service. He never grows tired of doing this. He loves to be the Good News for poor, lost sinners like you and me. So Sunday isn’t about you, and what you’re doing here (though it’s good that you are here). What matters is that He’s here, here for the depressed and despairing, for the sinner and the sinned against, for all who are oppressed, victimized, abused, taken advantage of, and suffering. He’s the answer to our prayer.
Not all who hear believe, like the people in His hometown. What do they want with Jesus? Apparently not the Good News He proclaims, the liberty He brings, the sight He restores, or the freedom He promises. They want Him dead. So they drag him out of town and up to the cliff the city’s built on. Jesus passes through this crowd of murderous fellow-countrymen.
But before too many more years pass, He will once more face a crowd of angry fellow Jews who seek His life. At this point His ministry has run its course. He has taught the crowds and His twelve disciples, and He has born witness to the truth of God’s kingdom; He has healed the sick, cast out the demon, fed the multitudes, and raised the dead.
He could of course walk through that crowd as easily as He does this one we hear of this morning. But He does not. He submits to their murderous intent, endures their blows, the scourge, the lies, the cross, and finally, the epitome of a loser, He breathes His last and hangs lifeless and limp from that cross, a corpse. The Anointed One is crushed, bruised and wounded, stricken, smitten, and afflicted.
Jesus came to suffer for your sins, for the way that you’ve groaned about hearing His Word, for your indifference, for the times you’ve allowed yourselves to be distracted or enticed away from it. And instead of taking His Word away and leaving you without hope or help, He continues to come. He comes and extends the Lord’s favor to you once again. He doesn’t have to be here. He doesn’t have to do this. He doesn’t need what you give Him, your sins, your prayers, or your offerings. But still He comes, week after week, Sunday after Sunday, service after service, forgiving, loving, and showing mercy to you and to all.
So we’re not just the old, sinful, human nature after all. We can tell it to get out, to stop harassing us, because Jesus is here. It is Christ in us, who drags us out of bed, sometimes kicking and screaming, and into the pew so that we can receive His gifts again, so the Word can be fulfilled again in our hearing, so His forgiveness and life can fill us. More than that, He’s the one who leads us to rejoice and to say, “What, just one service this week? Is it over already?”
What makes this story so remarkable is not only that Jesus will be rejected, but in His rejection He becomes in fact the very Savior He proclaims Himself to be. Herein lies the great mystery of God’s kingdom. The victory is not had by God smashing the foe, but by God being rejected, murdered, and despised by the very people whom He is saving.
That’s just the way Jesus is, always in church, always crucified and risen for you, always with more forgiveness to speak, until that day when the sinful human nature is gone for good, dead and buried. Then you will be forever with the Lord, and you’ll love every moment of it. Amen.