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The Brow of the Hill

Luke 4.14–30

No one went out of their way to visit Nazareth.

It was lightyears away, both physically and culturally, from the biggest cities of the day: Alexandria or Rome. In fact, it was pretty far from the biggest city in Palestine: Jerusalem. Nazareth was in Galilee, a section of the region of Palestine spotted with small towns. The rich and powerful would vacation at the nearby Sea of Galilee, perhaps at the resort town of Tiberias, but no one in their right mind wanted to live there. But Nazareth was even pretty far from there. In the flyover country of Galilee, Nazareth was one of the most flyover-worthy. Remember when Nathanael, a resident of the tiny and nondescript town of Cana, heard that Jesus was from Nazareth? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asked? Even residents of Podunk towns gave Nazareth grief for being a Podunk town.

Do you know how some small towns love who they are? They play up the small town angle, and put a lot of pride in their main street, they have a bunch of festivals and town gatherings, and they all show up to football games on Friday nights and cheer on their team? But then there are some small towns that always seem to wish that they were something else. Always looking over their shoulders at the bigger towns, wishing that they could have their attractions, or their population, or even just a Walmart. It feels like Nazareth was one of those towns. They seemed to have an inferiority complex. A “wish we had a Walmart” complex.

Then, Jesus showed up. After years of not being much to talk about, all of a sudden, Nazareth had a celebrity on their hands. Joseph’s boy, who was always a little weird, but was one of their own, started to get famous for all the right reasons. He was preaching to huge crowds all over the region. He was performing miracles and healing the sick and the blind. Everyone was talking about Jesus. Some even whispered the word “Messiah” in the same sentence. And the people of Nazareth seem to say, “it’s about time. Finally, people around here see us for what we can be. Who is performing miracles in Cana? How many Messiahs do they have over in Magdala? How about the jerks over in Tiberias? They all want be us!”

When Jesus comes to Nazareth to visit, the whole town shows up. It’s like the day that war hero Harry Bailey comes home to Bedford Falls. When Jesus shows up in his old hometown, Jesus is already famous, and already known for some amazing ministry. So, when he stands in the pulpit at the First Baptist Synagogue of Nazareth, and reads from the prophet Isaiah, and tells them “that is what I am going to do. He’s talking about me,” they are on their feet! There is a 10 minute standing ovation as he rolls the scroll back up and gives it back to the attendant. “That’s Joseph’s boy,” they say. What they mean is “that’s our boy.”

If Jesus had walked out the door then and there, the story would have ended very differently. He would have been given the keys to Nazareth, had his pick of eligible wives to settle down with, and probably elected mayor on the spot. But that’s not what happened. Fresh off of an experience in the desert, where he was tempted with much more than the keys to a nondescript Palestinian village, where he was told he could have all the kingdoms of all the world. And he turned that down. But could he turn down the attention of his hometown, the chance to make his momma proud, the chance to help all of the people who helped him grow up?

Yup. Sure could. In fact, that is exactly what he did. The applause died down from the standing ovation, and instead of leaving well enough alone, Jesus kept preaching. My preaching mentor Joe Kutter told me on more than one occasion, “you missed three good chances to end that sermon.” Jesus missed about three good chances to end his sermon in Nazareth. Yet, he kept preaching. You might even say he picked a fight.

“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” In other words, if a doctor has a cure to cancer and her family has cancer, do you not think they are the very first people that she will cure? “Take care of your own,” the people of Nazareth are thinking, and even saying out loud: “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” At this point, the crowd must be getting restless. “Is he talking about us?” But they can overlook that misstep if he just stops talking. He doesn’t. He misses yet another great chance to end his sermon.

“A prophet is never accepted in his hometown.” Now they know…”yeah, he is talking about us…” Now folks are getting upset. You can imagine Jesus’ family in the back whispering “ixnay on the ometownhay…” But Jesus misses yet another chance to end his sermon.

“There were plenty of Israelite widows, but the great Elijah had to go to one of the widows from the evil Queen Jezebel’s neighborhood. There were plenty of Israelite military leaders, but the great Elisha had to go to one of the generals from our mortal enemy up in Syria. Why? Because the Israelites didn’t accept them, and you won’t accept me either.” And then, Jesus finally ends his sermon, or more accurately, the people of Nazareth end it for him.

The story could have ended so differently. But all of a sudden, instead of being excited that Harry Bailey has come home to Bedford Falls, they are ready to throw Harry Bailey off of Bedford Falls.  Jesus fails to stick up for his small town like they expected and hoped. They end up in a mob at the brow of the hill, ready to throw the golden boy to his death.

Last week, we talked about the early ministry of Jesus, and how hard it was for John to get it. He was ready to anoint Jesus with the pitchfork, but Jesus wasn’t ready to let John define his purpose and identity for him. Now, that dynamic continues. The people of Nazareth fail to understand who Jesus was. He was not put on earth to make them feel better about their identity. To stroke their egos. Did you notice the language that they used about Jesus: he is “Joseph’s son.” Luke loves to play with this misunderstanding of Jesus’ true parentage and identity. They wanted Jesus to be their boy. But Jesus was there to upend and disrupt and challenge and transform everything they thought they knew about God.

Come on. It’s like the sermon writes itself. This passage is gift-wrapped for the events of the last few weeks and the assault on the Capitol! An unruly mob? Misunderstanding of who Jesus was? Ready to cause violence and commit murder in the name of that misunderstood Jesus? Yes. Yes. And yes. And everyone has pointed a finger at these people…Democrats, Republicans, actors, athletes, even Trump has scolded them…after he sent them up the hill! It would be the easiest thing the world to compare the unruly mob on Capitol hill with the unruly mob in Nazareth. I should end my sermon there and go off to thunderous applause!

And if I was a good preacher and listened to my mentor, I would! But I can see Joe shaking his head at me, because I am going to keep preaching. I cannot count how many times I have heard from Christians in the last few weeks and months, “I’ll just be glad when January 20th gets here. Everything will be back to normal when Biden takes over. It’ll be great to have our boy back in the White House.” Take a deeper look at the presumptions of that statement: when my political party is in charge, then God’s will will be done. In other words, when “our guy” gets there, we can relax. Then “our kingdom” will be in charge.

But did you catch the quote at the beginning of the service from Richard Rohr? “(Jesus’) Kingship, precisely because it is so broad, so total, is doomed to be rejected by anybody who is still into tribalism, or small belonging systems. We don’t really like the big Kingdom if it gets in the way of our smaller kingdoms, and it always does.” Jesus is still here to upend and disrupt and challenge and transform everything we thought we knew about God.

Now, I am not being apolitical here. And I am not bothsiding. Perhaps you know the word or phrase. Bothsiding is a rather lazy intellectual move that people use when they run up against a hard decision or a complicated issue. Sometimes folks will say, “both sides are right… or both sides are wrong” as if that settles the argument. I am not saying “both political parties are bad, so let’s forget it all and go watch the Chiefs!” No, I think our calling as Christians is to have the hard conversations and live in the ambiguity. So, I am not saying—and I don’t think that Rohr is saying—that all political systems or parties or solutions are equally bad so just give up.

What I am saying is that when we think that Jesus is “our guy”…when we think that we have all the answers…when we think that we’ve got this in the bag, that is when Jesus looks us in the eye and says “I am bigger than that.” However we try to limit Jesus to play on our team, Jesus is bigger than that. In fact, that might be a great title to Jesus’ sermon here in Nazareth. “Let’s go help our widows!” The mission of God is bigger than that, and Elijah got it, and helped the widow at Zeraphath. “Let’s go heal our military commanders!” The mission of God is bigger than that, and Elisha got it, and healed Naaman. “Physician, heal yourself, your family, our people first?” The mission of God is bigger than that.

And Jesus is differentiating himself from the small “k” kingdom of the people of Nazareth. The tribalism of “our boy.” He is freeing himself from his family, his parents, his hometown. Later, we will hear Jesus continue to do that, when his family shows up to take him home. How does he respond? “These are my mother, my brothers. I am bigger than that.” Again and again, Jesus continually resists attempts to domesticate and categorize and control him. And it isn’t as if Jesus is saying that the people of Nazareth are bad. That they messed up, so he isn’t going to heal them, or perform miracles for them, or preach for them. He is simply saying that he isn’t going to do it BECAUSE he is “their” boy, their property. He’s bigger than that.

Jesus’s sermon here is jarring to any of us who think that political party and political success is the calling of the Christian. “Jesus is the Perfect Democrat!” He’s bigger than that. “Jesus is the Perfect Republican!” He’s bigger than that. “Jesus is the “Perfect American!” Bigger. “Jesus is the Perfect Baptist!” Bigger. Whatever your tribe, whatever your little “k” kingdom is, Jesus is bigger.

Interestingly, this sermon is often called Jesus’ Inaugural Sermon. Now, maybe I am being a little cynical here, but come on…what are the chances that the folks who put together the Narrative Lectionary weren’t thinking about the fact that the United States inauguration is three days after we read Jesus’ Inaugural Sermon. Maybe it wasn’t completely on purpose, but they had to be thinking about it, right? But here is the interesting point…they had no idea who was going to win. If they were making a political point with the placement of this passage, they weren’t making a partisan one. Perhaps, their point is the same one that the Psalmist made. Did you hear Shane’s reading this morning from the Psalms? “Do not put your trust in princes…” regardless of what political party they belong to. Because Jesus is bigger than that.

The end of the story in Luke is an interesting one. The angry mob takes Jesus to the brow of the hill, ready to throw him off, and then…he’s gone. They lost him. We talked a long time in the Two-Way about where did Jesus go? Did he pull out his Holy Invisibility Cloak? Was he like the Flash and ran away before they knew he was gone? We don’t know. Luke is a little short on details. But I think that is part of his point. They missed Jesus in the crowd, because they missed Jesus in the crowd. Luke seems to be telling us that Jesus escapes all of our attempts to control him. They were all looking for Jesus to be something he was not, to look like something else, to be something else, and so the real Jesus walked right by them.

One of my favorite artists of Biblical stories is James Tissot. He was a French painter in the 1800s and late in his life, had a personal revival of faith. He was already famous as an artist, but began painting almost exclusively Biblical stories. And I love his work because of the realism that he brings to the stories. In his depiction of today’s story, titled The Brow of the Hill, he captures the point that I think Luke was trying to make. Look again at the painting…do you see Jesus? The guy all alone here? Probably not…Tissot usually dressed Jesus in all white. This guy over here, then? Maybe? In the chaos and the anger of the crowd, it isn’t obvious who Jesus is. It is a wise point for each of us to take to heart. Instead of proclaiming “Jesus is one of us!” or alternately proclaiming that “Your Jesus is the wrong Jesus…let’s throw him off a cliff!” perhaps we should spend more time looking for Jesus. Humbly asking where he is. What he is doing. How we might be more like him.

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