People responding to Jesus’ first recorded sermon:
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked… Luke 4:22 NIV
A little way further into the same sermon:
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” Luke 4:28-30 NIV
This is the first sermon of Jesus that Luke records. The verses above show the response of the audience. No altar call here. It does not appear to have been a great evangelistic success. In fact it appears to have gone close to getting Jesus killed. It is not the kind of sermon I am used to hearing. It is confusing and confronting, even if it is also comforting.
But it is a sermon of Jesus, and it is worth thinking about. What exactly was Jesus saying? What was he doing? It is presumably not the first sermon Jesus had ever preached, even if it is the first one Luke recorded, since it is clear from what Jesus said that he had already been ministering in Capernaum. In Mark’s gospel the same encounter is related further into the story (chapter 6) and in Matthew it doesn’t appear until chapter 13. So why did Luke put it at the beginning, choosing to use this sermon to introduce Jesus’ ministry to his readers?
It starts well, with Jesus using a well known passage from the prophet Isaiah to explain who he was, his mission, and his target group – the poor. I love this passage and have written about it in the previous blog post. Jesus’ explanation of himself seems to please his audience, the people of his own village, his friends, relatives and neighbors.
But as he continues, their amazement changes to anger, rapidly becoming rage – extreme enough to make them murderous. It seems extraordinary but the people wanted to throw him off a cliff. What could make them so furious? Here is what Jesus said, the words that were so offensive:
Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! ’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum. ‘ Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” Luke 4:23-27
At first reading it doesn’t sound that offensive. I suppose a lot of the sermon is not recorded. What Luke has written down is a summary, the bare bones of the story, the stuff that made the headlines. But the essence is there. I have previously written about the good stuff, the part of the sermon the people liked. But what about the offensive stuff, the statements that moved the audience from speaking well of Jesus to wanting to kill him? Lets break it down and look at it more closely.
First, Jesus says something about his listeners: he reveals their thoughts. He perceives their skepticism, even though initially all had spoken well of him. He knows they are not willing to accept his claims about himself just at his word. They want proof. And they want to see some of the miracles that Jesus was said to have performed in the neighbouring town of Capernaum. He exposes their unbelief and no one likes to be exposed.
Second, Jesus says something about himself, and though what he says seems to initially just raise a few eyebrows, this reaction rapidly changes to offence and anger. He has already said that Isaiah’s prophecies were fulfilled in him; now he compares himself to Elijah and Elisha, two more of the great men of Jewish history. The people are confronted again by one of their own, someone they see as “ordinary,” saying that he is someone special. Who does he think he is?
Third, Jesus says something about his ministry which is also inherently offensive. He implies that his ministry is not just for Israel, his own people, but for the Gentiles, the enemies of the the Jews. Could he be speaking about the Samaritans? Could he be speaking about their oppressors, the Romans? Jesus is effectively saying that the blessings of God are not to be limited to the “people of God” but include the “Gentiles.” The Jews of the day had suffered a lot, but the one thing that kept them going was the knowledge that they were God’s chosen people, that they were special, and that eventually their enemies would be defeated, put in their place. They saw this as being one of the things that the Messiah, when he turned up, would achieve. Now Jesus turns up instead saying that their enemies were not going to be destroyed, but included in God’s blessings. He uses illustrations from the old testament prophets to back up his claims. This kind of statement could hardly make the people happy.
How would we respond if we had been listening to that first sermon of Jesus?
I do not like to be confronted with my own unbelief, not by Jesus or anyone else. But at times in my life it has had to be confronted quite forcibly for me to take notice. It was not a pleasant experience, even if the freedom that came from confession, repentance and deliverance was life changing. The question is, how do we respond when we are convicted of sin? Do we just get angry and defensive? Or do we acknowledge our own sin and determine to turn away from it
How do we respond to Jesus’s claims about himself? Do we laugh at him? Do we write him off as deluded, crazy? This perhaps characterises the modern secular response to Jesus. Are we indignant that any man should raise himself to a level far above us, equal with God? This is the kind of response that people of other religions have – traditional Jews, Muslims for example. They cannot tolerate a man making himself equal with God. And they cannot believe that he could be telling the truth. They were ready to crucify him. But what about us? What is our reaction? Do we crucify him in our thoughts and reactions, writing him off, dismissing him from our minds and hearts, deleting him from our mental hard drives?
How do we feel when we realise that God loves our enemies and includes them in his plans as much as he does us. When we realise that we are not above them, but that God’s heart is as much for the “sinners” as it is for us who have already found him. How easy it is for us Christians to begin to think that God loves us more than all the rest. And that it is because we are better than them. How easy it is for us to call down judgement and punishment on the world around us, rather than going to them with the love and grace of Jesus, the very same things that gave us life.
I think I understand the response of the people to Jesus’ sermon. I like to think that I respond differently, but I know how easy it is to be offended by Jesus, his conviction of my sin, his claims about himself, his willingness to show mercy to the bad people of the world. The challenge is to lay down our unbelief, to accept Jesus for who he says he is, and to join with him his mission to reach the world with his love and mercy. But this is for some reason a hard ask.
I began by asking the question why Luke used this sermon to introduce Jesus. I believe it is to set the scene for the life that Luke would describe in the following pages. To introduce a man who for all the attractiveness of his message says things that are deeply offensive to many, a man who both comforts and convicts. Luke puts before us someone who is going to thrill us with his compassion and kindness at the same time as making us deeply uncomfortable. He does not portray Jesus as someone who is nice to everyone. He does not shy away from the controversy that Jesus created wherever he went.
Luke paints a very real picture of who Jesus is and challenges his readers even here in this introduction to ask themselves how they will respond to this man who said so many outrageous things, and yet whose compassion for them in their poverty is impossible to ignore.