While in Israel recently I led devotions for our group on Mount Precipice in Nazareth. A tradition says this is where the infuriated folks of Nazareth threatened to throw Jesus to his death. Today there’s a nice plaza with tiered seats where tour groups can listen to their teacher who stands on the uneven rocks a few feet from the cliff. A precarious place for a preacher!
As I began to tell Luke’s story of Jesus’ return to his hometown, I was moved to think that I was near that very place where Jesus had opened the Isaiah scroll and read,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
By virtue of our pastoral calling, these words commission us too, an ordination charge laid upon us like vestments. As I read those words there in Nazareth I felt an unusual kind of kinship with Jesus, like a little brother perhaps, following in his footsteps. I thought of all the times I’ve felt the lovely weight and lift of the Lord’s Spirit on me as I spoke gospel words to hungry hearts.
I also thought of an ordination service I attended years ago in an African American church where my only assignment was to read those two verses from Isaiah. As I read, every line was punctuated by enthusiastic “Amens,” “Hallelujahs,” and “Preach it!,” then by applause and even glad laughter, a proper response if ever there was one. The words became my own testimony and God’s gift to the two young men being ordained that day.
But it was not like that for Jesus. After he rolled up the scroll, and while every eye was fixed on him, he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” At first, according to Luke, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” But then things went south.
“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” “Physician, heal yourself.” “Do what you did in Capernaum.” All countered by Jesus’ zinger: “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” He cited two examples where God passed over the needs of hard-hearted Israelites to feed and heal the pagans who trusted him—the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian leper. And those stories, pointed at the Nazarenes, incited the riot that brought Jesus to a precipice like the one where I stood.
Evidently Jesus’ neighbors assumed that since he grew up among them he was no better than they. Familiarity hadn’t bred contempt but neither had it prepared them for discipleship. That is still true. The most disheartening of the hard-hearted to us are those who were once as familiar with Jesus as we are and have now rejected him. But facing the blindness and antagonism of hard hearts goes with our calling.
That afternoon in Nazareth the group I spoke to received Jesus’ words eagerly. I realized again how most of us have been privileged to pastor people who have more in common with the widow or Naaman than with those self-satisfied Nazarenes. The Spirit of the Lord anoints us too, through Jesus, and we proclaim good news and the year of the Lord’s favor to people who welcome the gospel. Rather than walking right through the crowd of his furious neighbors Jesus has walked among us in grace. And for that great gift …
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.