Who is church for?

A sermon based on the lectionary reading telling of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth after he first preached to his local community as told by Luke (Luke 4:21-30, click here for the Australian paraphrase that I used).

When I first read the passage set for this morning my first response was a sense of puzzlement. It feels like half a story – the second half of last week’s story (Luke 4:14-21) to be precise. Both passages are quite short and could easily been cobined for lectionary purposes. Assuming that the creators of the Lectionary were not just trying to spin the material out to fill the weeks available, why have they chosen to split the story up like this?

The lectionary reading last week told of Jesus’ first pubic words after his baptism and temptation in the wilderness. If you remember, he was handed the scroll of the Book of Isaiah and opened it to a passage which promises good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and the coming of the year of the Lord’s favour. When he has finished reading, he handed the scroll back and told his listeners that this scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing.

But that was last week’s reading, this week’s takes off from there and records his audience’s response. Initially they seem pleased, they were impressed at how graciously spoke and expressed surprise that this was Joseph and Mary’s son, a local lad made good. Jesus keeps on speaking, however, and within minutes has managed to turn this favourably response into a riot in which he gets extremely close to being lynched. If this passage is important, if the creators of the lectionary have been genuinely insightful in how they’ve divided Luke’s Gospel up, then the key question for this morning is, “What was it that Jesus said that had such a disastrous effect on his audience?

On frist reading there doesn’t seem anything particularly offensive in what Jesus says. He says some stuff about a prophet never being popular in his own town, which is a bit odd seeing as Luke has just told us how well he has been received, and then retells two rather obscure stores from the Hebrew Bible. The first is about Elijah travelling to help a widow in Sidon and the second about Naaman, a Syrian, coming to visit Elisha to be healed of leprosy. What was so offensive about this, and what can we learn from the situation today?

Well we are clearly going to have to think of the context and use our imaginations. This is taking place in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee. Galilee was known at the time as a hot bed of radical Judaism. It was a remote province with no big cities and was not subject to the game of power politics that the Temple priests in Jerusalem played with their Roman overlords. The local people were far more influenced by the pharisees who fired them up telling them that they were God’s chosen people, they were the fragment that were holding God’s true purpose. When salvation came through the promised Messiah then they, naturally, would be the first to be saved. They were special.

But Jesus is having none of it. First, he exposes their underlying feelings, “you’ll start demanding that I do here in my hometown the things that I’ve done elsewhere”. He identifies that there is something greedy and self-serving about their expectations. Then he picks two stories very carefully, two stories about God’s wider purpose. These are actually quite difficult to find in the Hebrew Bible which is almost entirely about God’s covenant with the Jews. The stories are about earlier prophets offering God’s message to gentiles rather than Jews. The first is about Elijah who, during a crippling three-year drought which was causing misery in Israel, travelled well over 100 kms, presumably on foot, to help a gentile widow in Sidon to the north or Israel. The second is about Elisha, who despite living in a country in which leprosy was endemic chose to offer healing the Naaman the Syrian who had travelled a similar distance to see him.

Jesus was telling the local congregation, you’ve got it wrong, God’s Kingdom is not about you, or at least not just about you. It is about something much bigger, it is about the whole world and people who are poor, in prison or blind wherever they are and whether the worship God the way you do or not.

This is what inflamed the local community. They saw the way they worshipped God as the only way to worship God, they saw the relationship they had with God as exclusive. They had come to regard God as being for them. Jesus told them they were wrong. They should not see God as existing for them, they should see themselves as existing for God. It was this that turned them against him.

There’s a warning here for us isn’t there? Because the assumption that we are doing things the right way and that we are particularly special in the eyes of God is a very human failing. It’s what has fuelled the formation of almost every new Christian denomination over the last 400 years. We can get very comfortable within congregations and assume that way we have always done things is the right way. Our mission comes to be to draw people into the way we worship, the way we express our faith, the way we have always done things, rather than to empower them to find fresh ways of expressing their faith that are meaningful to them (and who knows, might be reinvigorating for us as well).

At a time of falling church attendance we need the humility to accept that the way we have done things in the past, the way that many of us feel comfortable in expressing our faith through worship, is not working for the wider population. Maybe we need to be challenged by this morning’s reading to move away from the comfort of the way we have always done things to explore fresh ways of being church which might be more meaningful to those who come from different backgrounds.

One of the reasons that I found this passage so engaging at the moment is that we’re have had a very strong response to our Living Life to the Full wellbeing classes. The current classes are over-subscribed with 29 booked in and a further 7 people waiting for the next series. They are coming for a series of eight 90-minute sessions on our premises. Some are church members, but the majority have no previous connection with our church. The temptation is to see them as potential recruits to the way we do things, to see them, through increasing our numbers as a way of enhancing how we worship. But the passage we have read this morning alerts us to a danger in this way of thinking, our mission should not be driven by a concern for what we need, it should be driven by a passion for what they need.

So this morning I’m asking for your prayers. Prayers first of thanks that so many people, who may not have been inside a church for a considerable period of time, are attending these classes. But prayers also that we will find ways of helping and supporting them to live out their lives to the fullest in ways that are meaningful to them. Prayers that, if necessary, we can put aside assumptions that our way is the only way, and work imaginatively to draw them into the love of God in new ways.

Let us pray that God’s Kingdom will come, not necessarily as we assume it should come, but in ways that include everyone, whoever they are, whatever background the come from, whatever life experiences they struggle with. After all it was Jesus who first prayed, “yet not my will, but yours be done”.

 

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