In a recent survey conducted by the Section on Worship and Board of Discipleship, namely Hoyt Hickman calling his friends in the evening on the telephone, he found that this text, Luke 4:1422, is the most popular preaching text in the United Methodist Church. On any given Sunday there are at least, by Hoyt's count, 94 congregations listening to a sermon from this text from within United Methodism.
It occurs in the lectionary on the third Sunday after Epiphany, but it is always in season, with young and fearless prophet Jesus in the pulpit giving the establishment what for, bludgeoning the status quo. I know in my own chapel in the last two years, I've heard this text used as an attack on the North Carolina prison system, South African apartheid, and the budget policies of the Reagan administration. It's a wonderful text for a progressive, denomination, with Jesus, the young prophet, giving it to the Nazarene establishment.
I remember well my use of this text in my homecoming sermon in Greenville, when I set the folk at home straight on Vietnam—just like Jesus I was.
With all of the odd, unfamiliar passages of Scripture, it is good to have one with which we are familiar: "Yes, the one about Jesus of Nazareth. We know who you really are: Son of God, Lord of Lords. Pity about those in Nazareth who didn't know." As we read the text, we wonder how they could have been so intractably ignorant. After all, Jesus is in the very bosom of Judaism. He is in the place where he was brought up. He is in the synagogue, as Luke says, "as was his custom." His chosen text, words from the prophet Isaiah, was as familiar to his hearers as Luke 4 is to us.
Here is no outsider, no rebel, no visiting fireman, but rather one of their own. "Is not this the carpenter's son?" they exclaim. And there is nothing in the story to indicate that they say this with sneering or contempt. They are genuinely proud of the one who comes to them. "Yes, Jesus, Joe and Mary's son, reading so well. One of our own. Home on summer vacation. It's good to have him back home. We've heard of his accomplishments in Capernaum. We know him."
And sometimes we wish we might have been there that Sabbath in Nazareth. Sure, we know this story of the homecoming sermon at Nazareth by heart. But wouldn't it have been good to be there as eyewitnesses? Then we could have seen Jesus firsthand. We could have heard him for ourselves. We could have witnessed. Haven't you ever thought to yourself, If only I could have been there! If only I could have seen a miracle or two, could have swept away the expanse of two millennia and been there.
We presume that believing would somehow be easier if we were there, because our trouble is we have to base our belief on secondhand, hearsay. But if we could have been there, belief would have been a cinch.
It is this terrible gap of time that the German philosopher Ferdinand Lessing called "the ugly, broad ditch." It is the ditch that we preachers look over every Sunday morning. Over here is the time of Jesus, and then 2,000 years later here is our time. We must labor heroically to somehow overcome that gap of time between the now and the then in our preaching. If we could only climb aboard some kind of time machine and be there, it would be easier.
And yet, if mere time were the problem, if the problem with this text were a mere problem of now and then, then why didn't they see him? Why didn't they know him?
They didn't know him because they knew him.
At 10:30 A.M. Sunday morning I'm in my office getting ready to go out at 11. The phone rings. I pick up the phone. Voice on the other end: "Who's preaching at Duke Chapel today?"
I clear my voice. I say, "The Reverend Doctor William Willimon, minister to the university."
Silence on the other end. "Is that that short, fat man? Nobody special?"
Can you see why I labor so hard on Sunday morning to sound special, to be new, to be different? They've heard me before, and worse, they've heard this text before.
Let me see now, what new can I say about this? Yes, I've got it: the story of the Prodigal Son from the point of view of the fatted calf! That ought to get them. I bet they've never heard that before!
When things are strange and unfamiliar, we fill with excitement. "How odd!" we say. "How utterly unusual! My, my, I'll just have to go home and think about that." And how we love to go home and think about that. We so like it when the preacher tells us something new. Margaret Mead once called us Americans "a society of neophiles," lovers of the new.
It was the ministers' Monday morning coffee hour and brag session, and one of the brothers was talking about a visiting preacher who was at his church. He said, "You ought to hear him. He's just wonderful. His illustrations, his style—you've got to come over and hear him."
One of the other preachers said, "Well, heck, you ought to hear me 300 miles away from home. I'm brilliant!"
There's something about the unfamiliar. But Luke wants it well understood. The problem with Jesus was not between the new and the old, but between the known and the known, between the people of God and their own memory.
Familiarity creates a comfort that blinds us to truth.
I preached in Canada last summer, backed up by a 300 choir, introduced for five minutes by a bishop who told everybody how lucky they were to be hearing me. I couldn't fail. But I stand up in Duke Chapel on Sunday morning greeted by a vast, "Oh, it's that short, fat man again. Nobody special."
Jesus, hometown boy, Joe and Mary's son, addressed Israel from her very own Scriptures, her own past, her own authoritative text, a text they already knew. "The day of the Lord is here," he announced.
"Amen!" they exclaimed. There was an excited stirring of the faithful at Nazareth. Old people leaned up on their crutches; the young began to twitter with excitement. The day of the Lord is at last coming. The oppressed looked up, and their faces were filled with hopeful expectation. "Amen!"
"And the Lord came earlier. There were lots of poor, hungry widows in Israel, but God chose to help a foreign widow. You know that story," Jesus said. "It's in the Bible. And speaking of old, familiar stories," continued Jesus, "you all know the one about Elisha, how he healed an Army officer a Syrian rather than all those poor deserving lepers in Israel."
The chorus of amens turned into a thunder of silence.
"When the Word of the Lord came to deliver us," Jesus says, "remember that it came to human need beyond the bounds. It's in the Bible. You know the stories of Isaiah, Elisha, Elijah," and they were silent. It is the silence of judgment when an exciting, new, interesting sermon turns out to be nothing but an old story we already knew.
The church, which like the synagogue before us also stands judged by these old, familiar stories, should be attentive. Proximity to and familiarity with the text and the ideas and the stuff of Scripture is a privilege that can blind: "Isn't this the carpenter's son? We know him."
"Yes," says Jesus continuing the sermon, "pagan Nineveh will get to judge this place, because Nineveh repented when Jonah preached to them. The queen came all the way across the world to sit at the feet of Solomon. And yet I tell you, one greater than either Jonah or Solomon is here. At the judgment you will claim your privilege, claiming that you remember the evening you had dinner with Jesus, that he was in your hometown, but to no avail."
Judgment begins with God's very own house. "Blessing belongs to those who hear and keep the Word," Jesus said when someone blessed his mother. And the church had listened, for like the good folk at Nazareth, we can be sure the privilege is perilous. We know. And sometimes our knowing is our very undoing.
Every preacher gets to be a hometown boy or girl sooner or later, for there is always that point in your congregation when you are no longer the Messiah sent by the bishop to set everything right and to fix everybody's marriage and to make everyone's children behave and to put this church back on its feet. Before long, you are the person. And when you stand up in the pulpit, the great excitement has turned to dull knowing, and they know this is the one who makes his home here with us: "We know this one."
"I wish I knew the Bible better," she said. And I wanted to say that it is possible to know the Bible all too well. Having Scripture, knowing it, understanding it, can be the most perilous kind of knowledge: "Luke 4. Yes, Luke 4. Is it that again, Jesus going after those poor, dumb, misunderstanding Jews? Yes, we know that one."
Familiarity creates a comfort that causes us to reject the truth.
Prophets often cut so deep, not because they were innovators but because they were so supremely conservative. They told us what we already know. Like Isaiah, Elisha, and Jesus, prophets dig about in what we already know and turn that back upon us. And when they do and you happen to be in the pew on that Sunday, there is that moment of dead silence when the smug satisfaction of knowing turns to the shocked, silent recognition of knowing, and the prophet has preached your sermon.
Martin Luther King, Jr., did not come preaching something new. He came shouting something we already knew: "You have said in your very own Declaration of Independence that we hold these truths to be , that all are created equal, and I insist that you either live by your own constitution or appear bafflingly inconsistent." And we killed him, because King told us what we already knew. He preached our sermon. Others have preached to us, but King preached for us.
The folk of Nazareth who first greeted Jesus with amen finally yelled, "Kill him!" because he painfully reminded them of what they already knew, namely, that the God of Israel is free and moving beyond our boundaries with grace. The worshipers at Nazareth already knew that God had blessed an undeserving outsider through Elijah's ministry. They already knew that a Syrian terrorist had been cured through Elisha, and it was a lot more than they wanted to know. They certainly did not come to church this day to be reminded of it that God had refused to play by the rules before and might very well refuse to play by the rules again.
What to do? Stone the young prophets. They failed at Nazareth, but not too far away they succeeded. Like Elijah, the prophet Jesus was a troubler of Israel's memory.
My last church was next door to the Jewish synagogue. We shared the parking lot with them. They parked in the parking lot on Friday; we parked in the same parking lot on Sunday morning. It was a good arrangement. The Rabbi and I used to get together for coffee on Monday morning to talk things over.
Well, you can imagine our excitement at Northside Methodist Church when we got word one week that Jesus was returning. And you could imagine our pleasure at discovering that he was returning to, of all places, Greenville, South Carolina. We knew that people in Iowa would be a bit surprised, but it made good sense to us.
We got together and finally did all those things we'd been intending to do for a number of years: we clipped the shrubbery out in front of the church; we painted the fellowship hall, which should have been done the year before last; the choir doubled its number of choir practices, working on special anthems; we hired a trumpet from downtown, a tympani even. Everything was put in readiness for the great day of arrival.
On that Sunday we gathered at the church. By 10:15 you couldn't get a place anywhere up and down the street. There were people we hadn't seen in church in years. By 10:30 the ushers had to start putting out chairs, and we gathered. There was an organ prelude and a marvelous call to worship. Jesus did not arrive. We sang another verse of "Just as I Am." Still, we waited. E came. We sang another hymn. E: the choir sang its special anthem. By 12:30 a number of the children became restless and had to be taken out, and by a quarter to one, people started to trickle out of the building, dejected and despondent. We gathered down in the fellowship hall about 1:15 and had lunch. Then we went home.
The next day, Monday morning, I was depressed. I was sitting there having coffee with the rabbi. He said to me, "Say, I met somebody you know this weekend."
I said, "Who's that?"
He said, "This boy, Jesus, stopped by: a rabbi, a nice boy."
I said, "He stopped by where?"
He said, "Over at our place Friday night. Everybody enjoyed seeing him."
I said, "Over there on Friday! We were waiting for him over here on Sunday!"
He said, "Well, I told him. I said, 'Look, you're in the neighborhood; why don't you wait and stop by?' But he said, 'I'm not used to worshiping on Sunday.' Then I told him you didn't know Hebrew, and he left."
The gospel of John says, "He came unto his own, and his own knew him not."
No, no, they knew him.
William Willimon is dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University in Durham, NC. He is author of 45 books and curriculum materials, including Pulpit Resource.
William Willimon is bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He also is editor of Pulpit Resource and the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Westminster John Knox) and author of Undone by Easter (Abingdon).