May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
Our Gospel reading this morning is a continuation of the episode we began last week, where Jesus goes back to his hometown of Nazareth and is asked to speak in the synagogue there. The only clue that Luke gives us about Jesus' whereabouts between his baptism and temptation, and his return home is found in verses 14 and 15 of this chapter: “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” So, Jesus has already begun his preaching and healing ministry, and he is attracting the attention of people. The fact that he assumes that they are saying, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum” means that there is some kind of competition going on with these towns in Galilee over who will be most favored in Jesus' sight. Capernaum, the home of Simon and Andrew, becomes Jesus' adopted hometown, and immediately after this he goes there and heals Simon's mother-in-law. Certainly there must have at least been some jealousy from the people of Nazareth toward the town of Capernaum for stealing away their own son!
As part of his earthly ministry as the messiah, Jesus is a prophet. He even compares himself with Elijah and Elisha, two of the best known prophets from Israel's past. And he says that even they were not sent to any of their own people during times of famine and want, but that they were sent to gentiles instead. Lest someone gain too much pride over one of their own, prophets, (Jesus claims) are not accepted in their own hometowns. The same will be true of Jesus, and we wonder why. Why would Jesus say this, and why would Jesus not chose or even be able to perform any signs of God's power in Nazareth? It is one of the mysteries of the Christian faith, I think. These are people that knew him as he grew up, they knew his mother and father – isn't this Joseph's son? They also may have remembered the controversy that went on with Jesus' birth. He was, after all, conceived out of wedlock – even if we know the truth that he was born of a virgin woman, conceived of the Holy Spirit – the people of his day may not have come to believe this to be true. And on top of that, children born out of wedlock were treated much differently in that society than today, almost as if it was their own fault that they were born in that circumstance. So it may be that the request from the people was not sincere, but an attempt to dig up some evidence that this really was a holy birth and not the result of the actions of two people who were betrothed and not married.
And so, when Jesus calls them on the carpet for their intentions, they don't like it. They try to throw him off a hill on the edge of town. These people had intentions to do Jesus no good in driving him out there. They wanted him gone and they wanted him gone in a painful way!
Jesus is, as I mentioned before, a prophet. This is probably a good time to review the definition of a prophet, because I think that some may defining it the way that people of the Biblical days thought of prophets. They certainly had a sense about them about the future, but they were not strictly people who predicted what was going to happen, like we think of prophets today. Prophets were people who spoke God's word to people; they represented God in ways that often comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest spoke God's word of promise and hope when the people were in exile, but they spoke words of judgment and doom when they relied upon their own selves for their livelihood, forgetting that it was Yahweh that deserved all of the credit and worship. It was Yahweh who would deliver them from their enemies. It was Yahweh who would bring the rainfall and make the crops grow, not any other idol or god. Jesus spoke a word of comfort to the many people of Capernaum, Jerusalem, Caesarea, Jericho and other places where he travelled … except Nazareth.
I wonder if he really did speak a word to them but they just didn't realize it? I mean, he spoke of wonderful things that Elijah and Elisha did with and for gentiles in their days, feeding the widow of Zarapheth and healing Naaman the Syrian. When I hear those things, I give thanks to God that people who were once viewed as foreigners, outsiders and who were not included in their own community are loved and healed by Yahweh! There was something new happening for these people who needed hope, and Jesus reminds his own hometown that God's intentions are for the numbers of those who call him Lord to grow and grow and grow. But to those who are on the inside, who are not only included but are counted among the ones who exclude others, it might not be such a welcome word of prophecy. It is not such good news.
Who are the prophets of our day? Where are the prophets comforting and afflicting today? I am convinced that Pope Francis is a prophet, and his words and actions recently have comforted people like me – Lutheran Christians who have many close family and friends who are Roman Catholics with whom we want to share our faith and worship. I am thinking particularly about things that have happened in the last couple of weeks. Recently he said that if a Lutheran man or woman worshiping in the Roman Catholic parish of his or her own spouse prayerfully wrestles with it, it might be okay for that person to receive communion with their loved one. This is huge stuff! As a person who is married to a former Roman Catholic who still attends Roman Catholic mass when with my in-laws, I can tell you that this is a true blessing! Shortly after this, the Pope had received an audience of Finnish Lutherans at the Vatican. Before the group left, they attended mass, and to their surprise, when they came up from with their arms folded for a blessing, the priest held out the bread for them to take! Yes, Lutherans received Holy Communion by Roman Catholics in the Vatican! Then the next day, Francis announced that he would be attending a joint Lutheran/Roman Catholic event in Sweden next year to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Halleluiah! In 1999, I processed with a group from St. Boniface Catholic Church across the street to St. John Lutheran Church in Oak Harbor Ohio to celebrate the signing of a document called, “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” I was thinking things had gone about as far as they would go, but thanks be to God that there is a prophet who brings God's word of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. I do not think that the Lutherans and Roman Catholics will merge, nor do I think we should, but to share the real presence of our risen Lord together as we live out our faith in our own ways, that is something for which I have prayed for a long time! But I am not naïve…not all see this as a comforting word! Not everyone receives Francis' words as prophetic – some see them as reason for his removal or even worse. That is why we pray for the whole catholic church – small “c” catholic, and for the leaders of this church. Francis might be like Jesus in some cities, in danger of being thrown off the brow of the local hill. But I pray that his words continue to create faith and love in the world, just like Jesus' did 2,000 years ago.
And I pray that we may be a prophetic voice in our own community as well – that this community see and hear in us words of reconciliation, healing and joy. I pray that this town know that the people who carry on the work of the prophet and savior Jesus has been here to comfort those who are afflicted, and even to afflict those who are comfortable. I pray that we may be the prophets that God has sent into all of the towns, facing people who will and will not receive our message as good news and being faithful in proclaiming that good news, just as Jesus was. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.