A sermon preached on February 3, 2013 based upon Luke 4:16 – 30.
It’s hard to know for sure what happened that day Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth. At one moment things seem to be going swimmingly – the hometown folk welcome him with respect, inviting him to give the sermon during the worship service. “All eyes were on him” after he finishes reading the Scripture; he has their full attention.
When Jesus finishes his sermon, which is remarkably short, simply “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” everybody speaks well of him, amazed at the gracious words coming out of his mouth. Jesus could hardly have asked for a better response.
And then suddenly the whole mood “turns on a dime.” Jesus starts attacking them. The gist of his criticism is that they see themselves as being more deserving of God’s grace than foreigners. He runs through a couple of Bible stories in which God’s grace passed over Jews and was given instead to a foreigner, with the point being the folks in Nazareth better humble themselves or they were going to find themselves on the outside of God’s Kingdom looking in.
I’m sure Jesus was right about what he was saying, but the question I have is why he felt so compelled to give this angry lecture to the hometown folk when in all likelihood their world view was no different from the majority of folks Jesus had been encountering in others town – none of whom got the same tongue lashing. Pretty much all Jews would have felt more entitled to God’s grace than Gentiles – they were, after all, God’s “chosen people.”
Anyway, in response to Jesus’ tongue lashing, the hometown folk get seething mad and try to kill him. The whole thing’s kind of bizarre.
So what set’s Jesus off so?
The only clue we’re given is that one little sentence spoken by people about Jesus before he went on the attack: “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?” That’s all. It’s kind of ambiguous phrase. Maybe it was said warmly, as in “this is the son of that good man Joseph, the carpenter who died a while back. Wouldn’t he be proud to see how his boy turned out?”
Or maybe it was a subtle put down, as in, “Let’s not get carried away. He’s just Joseph’s boy, and Joseph was a nobody.” It’s strange; Luke doesn’t tell the story in a way that makes it clear just what was meant by that line. Which, if you think about it, seems sort of familiar — calling to mind the way conversations some times go when you’re with family, or at least people with whom you share a long history.
Something is said — one person takes it one way — another person takes it in a completely different way. “I know what you were implying,” one person says. “What are you talking about,” says the other, “All I said was…” And so an argument breaks out.
Each hears the words based of their interpretation of the long history behind the words. Who knows for sure what the truth is?
That’s how it is with families some times, which essentially what Jesus is dealing with here. These are the people he grew up with; his extended family.
It’s funny. Immediately after having made such a divine impression, Jesus suddenly comes off as so very human, subject to the same sort of frustrations family life can cause for the rest of us.
I’d like you to imagine with me a hypothetical family, who, as I describe them, you might recognize elements of your own family, or families you’ve known.
We’ll give this family a mother and a father, whose first born child is a baby boy, whom they adore. He gets a couple of years of being the center of attention; and then his siblings come along, whom he simultaneously loves and resents for taking away his parents’ attention.
He naturally gravitates to the role of leader with his siblings – the boss. An identity forms as he grows up that emphasizes traits like leadership, responsibility and organization, because the family dynamics essentially calls forth these characteristics from him, and it’s what others come to expect from him. “Who am I? I’m the leader – the guy who gets things done that need getting done; I’m the guy who keeps others in line so things don’t fall apart.”
With this identity he does well in school, and in his adult life he naturally gravitates towards positions of leadership, because that’s simply what he knows. He establishes a successful career in which numerous people report to him. Outside of his work he contributes in a range of helpful ways to his community. He is rightfully proud of his accomplishments; he’s worked hard to achieve them.
But over time he senses there are important things missing in his life. For one thing, he doesn’t ever have much fun. His identity of being the responsible one won’t allow him to let go – to play and be silly.
And for another, he’s lonely; he doesn’t really have close friends. There are plenty of people in his life who admire him and turn to him for help in getting things accomplished. But real friendship requires a certain willingness to make yourself vulnerable, and being so accustomed to being the person others rely on and look up to, he doesn’t “do” vulnerability – doesn’t know how. Rightfully or wrongfully, people often feel judged in his presence, because they know they don’t have it all together, but he always appears like he does.
The second born child of this family we’ll have be a daughter. Her brother has taken the role of being the responsible, organized leader in the family, so that identity’s not really available. In fact, the whole responsibility thing seems to evade her in part because her brother often steps in to take responsibility for her, telling her what she should be doing at a given moment. In contrast to her brother, she often feels incompetent and overwhelmed by life, and that’s how her family tends to see her as well.
From early on, however she has found pleasure in art and music, things her brother never showed much interest in or talent for. She gets affirmed by her parents and others for her creativity, and she establishes an identity as the artistic, creative member of the family. She makes several close friends with people with whom she shares this love of art and creativity. She studies art in school, and in her adult life creates art that many people feel touched by. But she continually struggles with a view herself as basically incompetent, repeatedly feeling as though she needs others to come to her rescue.
The third born child we’ll have be another boy. From the get go he has his brother bossing him around, and his drawings never measure up to the ones drawn by his sister. So an identity based around either responsibility or creativity seems to be pretty much out of the question. He’s often aware that in his parents’ eyes he falls short in comparison to his older siblings.
But he’s a spirited, mischievous little guy, and over time he embraces an identity as the black sheep of the family. When things go wrong in the family he generally gets blamed. Sometimes he deserves the blame, but other times he doesn’t, but he gets the message why should he even bother being good? He’s still going to get blamed, and he’ll never be as good as his siblings. He gets in trouble at school, and some with the law. Everybody repeatedly tells him he should have some more consideration for others, but their expectations in this department are pretty low. Girls, against their better judgment continually fall for him and his bad boy routine, and one after another he breaks their hearts.
Generally speaking though, of all of his siblings, he has the most fun in life, because he’s given up worrying about the approval of others, and he’s always up for an adventure.
We could go on and create some more siblings who find other niches in the family, but you get the picture.
Off on their own, away from their family, each of the siblings finds their selves confronted with the shortcomings of their original identities. Each makes some attempt to expand their sense of who they are, in ways that might surprise their siblings if they could witness these attempts. For each of them it’s just baby steps, but you’ve got to begin somewhere.
The first-born responsible son starts painting with water colors down in his basement, finding it surprisingly enjoyable. He makes an effort, awkward though it is to try and build a couple of real friendships.
The daughter signs up for community education courses to learn how to better manage her personal finances, and to learn how to better market her artwork.
And the rebel looks at the son he unexpectedly sires, realizes for the first time there is somebody in this world he cares about more than him self, and starts making some changes in the way he lives his life so he can manage being a decent father to his child.
They each make some progress, but it’s not easy. It often feels like the identities of their childhoods are actively pushing back against their attempts at being more than they have known themselves to be. And no where is this more evident than when they get back together with their parents and siblings.
At family gatherings the responsible son feels this irresistible urge to direct what happens during and starts giving unsolicited advice to his siblings about their problems. The creative one suddenly feels helpless, incompetent, and in need of being taken care of. And the rebel feels this urge to go get drunk.
It’s as if there is this gravitational pull within the family to get pulled back into the original orbit in which they understood themselves.
There is this paradox that the people who know us best, know us least. It’s only natural that we would think we know all there is to know about the other people in our family; heck, we’ve been around them so long we’ve observed their behavior literally millions of times, so it would seem we have a right to think we know what we to expect from them.
And yet these very expectations, formed over time in the family, create a kind of bondage. Our beliefs and assumptions about one another lock each other up. To a large extent the stability this provides is comforting, so we cooperate with this bondage and instinctively act in the manner expected of us. But it is, nonetheless, a kind of bondage.
If you are asked, “Who are you?” the question of your identity, most likely you will respond first by listing your various roles: I am husband or a wife, a mother or a father, a son or a daughter. You’ll talk about your work. Pushed to go further you may start mentioning your strengths, and if you’re not stuck the way the first born son is, maybe your weaknesses as well. You’d focus on your talents, your personality traits — all illuminating information for sure.
And yet on a higher level, it’s all bunk. I mean, take away your roles, do you cease to exist? Of course not, though it might feel like that is so. And your strengths and weaknesses – these are merely the qualities you have consciously expressed up until this moment. But your truest identity goes much deeper.
This is a big part of what is going on in our Gospel story this morning. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” That’s what the hometown folks said that set him off. Up until just a couple of months earlier, this may have been part of how Jesus himself would have identified himself. It’s the normal way of saying who you are.
But a new awareness has been growing inside Jesus that fully emerged in the moment of his baptism, when the Holy Spirit filled his body and soul with the love of God, and he heard the voice of God say, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” He now knew that his life flows out of the infinite love of God, maker of infinite possibilities of grace and giftedness.
And the words, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” expresses the community’s resistance to this new understanding of himself – their attempt to pull him back into the tame and familiar Jesus. And Jesus goes a little crazy in response.
But it’s not only Jesus’ identity that is at stake here. The God Jesus has come to know so intimately is so much bigger than Jesus had previously imagined. He is not Israel’s national god; he is the creator of the universe who loves and cherishes every single human being on the face of the earth.
And so Jesus feels this sudden urge to attack the people of his hometown because they are clinging to this identity of “God’s chosen people who are waiting for God to come and restore us to our rightful place among the nations of the world;” and this identity is part of the bondage that they need to be set free from — this identity stands in the way of their getting to know the God of limitless love and mercy and gracious possibilities.
So… to bring this all home: Jesus has come to set the captives free. That’s what he said in his sermon that day. There are certain ways in which all of us are held in bondage by the identities that were formed to a large extent in our families. We needed these identities, but past a certain point, they stand in our way of our growing into who it is God has called us to be.
God wants people to be whole; that’s what we see so clearly in Jesus’ ministry – he’s continually making people whole.
If Jesus himself is a model of what it means to be whole, we see in him a wide variety of ways of being in this world. Like the elder son in our hypothetical family, he is a responsible leader with organizational skills. Like the daughter, he is infinitely creative, as expressed in his mind-bursting parables that invite people to look at life in a wholly new way, and he also has a clear capacity for friendship. Like the rebel, he is the ultimate adventurer, not imprisoned by people’s expectations, and ready to stand up to rules that oppress.
He is strong but he can be vulnerable. We see him cry. He enjoys the company of people and often shows up at parties; he knows how to have fun. But he also values time alone in solitude to settle into the depth of his soul.
He is, in a word, he’s not “a part of a person” – he’s a “whole person”, and he calls us to grow into a similar sort of wholeness.
So once more I remind you that Lent begins in 10 days. Lent is a time to intentionally embrace the vision God has for your life, which is, broadly speaking on in which the wholeness within you is brought forth. It’s a life-long journey towards living out this wholeness which won’t be completed till we get to heaven. But God intends for us to embrace the journey now.
So what might expressing wholeness look like for you?
In what ways has the identity that was forged in your family limited who you have it within you to be?
And in what ways have your assumptions that you-know-all-there-is-to-know about the people you live closest to contributed to their bondage, as well as to your own?