I would not presume to lay my experience alongside that of Jesus. And yet, I do know what it feels like to try to ‘preach’ in one’s hometown.
I can remember preaching in a congregation not far from where I grew up. Afterward a woman came up to me and asked me if I was “Tom Hunt’s daughter.” It turned out she had worked with him and in those first years after he died to know he was still remembered simply made me glad. Still, I wonder now if she actually heard a single word I uttered that day as she sat and tried to put together the pieces of who I was and where I had come from.
Some years back I was called upon to lead a communication skills workshop in a congregation which had been torn apart by conflict. In the room were people who had known me since I was a preschooler — and others who remembered me best in my awkward adolescence years. I felt uncomfortable all the way through it — not knowing how these people could think I had anything worth saying.
At our family Christmas dinner a few weeks ago, I felt as though I got a sense of what this will be from the other side. My 18 year old nephew, Andrew, sat down beside me and began to regale us with stories. I look at him and still see the toddler he was, toting everywhere his special case filled with Thomas the Tank Engine locomotives and cars. The day will soon come when he will bear even less resemblance to who he was then and I wonder if I will be able to fully embrace who he is becoming.
And so I wonder as we listen to Jesus today if we don’t find ourselves in much the same predicament as his first listeners so long ago. For you and I also know Jesus well. Many of us have been hearing these stories for a very long time and I would guess by now many of us have our own particular favorites which capture at least some aspect of our “preferred” Jesus. Maybe it is the tender baby Jesus — God coming to us in the very human, the very vulnerable. Perhaps it is the teaching Jesus, speaking words of blessing whose perspectives turn our understandings upside down. Maybe it is the tender, healing Jesus, or the one who notices the widow in the temple. Or maybe it is the Jesus who breaks the bread, pours, the wine, and kneels to wash the feet of his disciples. Perhaps we cannot think of Jesus without picturing him on the cross with all the struggle and all the meaning and and all the hope that offers.
Indeed, you and I sit in the synagogue today and we know Jesus very well. No, our memories are not those of neighbors and townsfolk who remember Jesus as a toddler, who recall an awkward adolescence, who just saw him as one of a passel of kids in the household of Joseph and Mary. Even so, we are challenged for a moment now to set aside everything else we think we know of Jesus and to simply hear what he has to say today. For what he offered in the synagogue so long ago is the picture of who he had become and of all that we are called to as well.
The words spoken in the synagogue that day carry the certain truth that Jesus came bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and sight to those who cannot see.
These words hold the wonder of the truth that with Jesus all who are oppressed know freedom and that something entirely different is happening now: the “year of the Lord’s favor” is ours not only to experience for ourselves, but also to share. As Jesus did and does.
And yes, these words from the Prophet Isaiah serve as the striking reminder that Jesus does not come of his own authority, even as you and I do not do so on our own as we seek to follow him.
Oh yes, those who first sat and listened to Jesus in the synagogue probably thought they knew him well. We hear something of their surprise as we listen to what happens next.
I wonder if our believing we know Jesus well leads us not to truly hear him at all — not to deeply comprehend who he was and who he came for. I wonder if as we hear Jesus reading in the synagogue if we forget to hear his words as our call as well. Does our familiarity with Jesus stifle our imaginations? Does our long acquaintance make us less sensitive to the radical nature of what he calls us to now? Are we, in some ways, like his first listeners?
- What must it have been like for Jesus’ first listeners to hear him reading in the synagogue in Nazareth? Do we bear any resemblance to them? Why or why not?
- How does Jesus’ reading from the prophet Isaiah speak today? Who are the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed? Is it us? Is it others?
- What does it mean to be anointed for something, to be sent with something? What does it mean for you? For your congregation?