At my first parish, a rural congregation set amid corn and soybean fields, we had just approved a building program that would increase our sanctuary seating capacity from 320 to 500, and give us more classrooms, a nice kitchen, and more fellowship space.
We were growing and we wanted to be able to welcome more people like some of those who had been coming to the church in the previous few years. These were people who had never been to church or hadn’t been in a church for a long time, but who, through the ministry of our congregation, were coming to faith in Christ, were being baptized, and were becoming active members.
After the vote approving the new building project, a fellow approached me. “Pastor,” he said. “I’m worried. We used to have a nice cheap church. But with these other people showing up, we may have to give more to keep things going.”
I frankly had no idea what I possibly could have said to that man. For him, the church was a closed club for “us,” not for “them,” whoever “them” was.
Jesus encounters an attitude like that man’s from the people of His own hometown of Nazareth in today’s Gospel lesson. It’s the last part of an incident we looked at last Sunday.
Jesus has gone to His hometown with a few disciples and, as was His habit, worships at the synagogue there. During worship, Jesus reads a few passages from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, written hundreds of years before His birth, words which foretold the coming of the Messiah Who would “bring good news to the poor,…proclaim release to the captives…let the oppressed go free…[and] proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus then sits down and with all eyes fixed on Him, says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The people who grew up and worshiped with Jesus through the years are excited. “All spoke well of Him,” Luke writes in today’s Gospel lesson.
But Jesus understands that their excitement isn’t from joy that in Christ, God was reaching out to all people, calling all people to repent for their sins, calling all people to believe in Christ, and offering the free gift of new and everlasting life to all people who believe in Him.
Jesus understands that the people of of His hometown are excited because, as Judeans and Nazarenes, they figure they have an inside track. Their imaginations run wild as they see Jesus doing wonderful things for their town. Jesus, they think, is one of “us,” not one of “them.”
If Jesus had been a religious huckster, He would have simply let the folks of Nazareth believe what they wanted to believe about Him. He would ride the wave of popularity for as long as He could, wringing all the power, prestige, and cash out of it that He could.
Instead, as was always true of Jesus, He takes the more difficult path.
“Doubtless,” Jesus tells the hometown crowd, “you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
The old saying Jesus quotes means, basically, “Take care of your own.” And Capernaum, a town on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, about twenty miles from Nazareth, is a place where, Luke says, Jesus had already performed many miracles. Capernaum is set in a region full of foreigners.
Jesus sees the true sentiments of the people of Nazareth. “All this Messiah business is great,” they think, “especially if you give us what we want, when we want it. Quit fooling around with them, Jesus; take care of us.”
Then, having summarized the sentiments of His townspeople, Jesus goes on to show them why they’re wrong to think as they do.
He recalls that in the days of Israel’s greatest prophet, Elijah, there were many widows in the homeland of God’s people, then experiencing a famine. But God only sent Elijah to a foreign widow, providing her and her son with food.
Jesus then recalls that in the time of Elijah’s successor, another prophet names Elisha, there were many lepers among God’s people. But God used Elisha to bring healing to only one leper, a foreigner from Syria.
At this, the people of Nazareth become enraged. Jesus is telling them that neither He nor God the Father are their private possessions. God loves and reaches out to all people.
For us, this is an important lesson to learn too. In Holy Baptism, God claims us as His own. We belong to Christ, not the other way around. Our call is to share the good news of Jesus Christ with “them” so that they can be one of “us,” not members of an exclusive club, but citizens of the kingdom of God where all who repent, repudiating their sin, and believe in Jesus Christ, live with God forever.
Christ, in fact, has commanded you and me to love those people who may not be one of “us.” And He has commissioned us to make disciples of “them.”
Someone has said that the Church is the only organization in the world that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members.
Because Christ has already saved us for all eternity, grateful that we are part of His kingdom, you and I can be empowered to invite others to repent and believe in Jesus and so, become part of His kingdom too. We can even be glad when people we’ve always disliked or people who have mistreated us turn to Christ and live.
The late Corrie ten Boom was a Christian from the Netherlands. Corrie and her family were sent to a prison camp in a place called Ravensbruck because they helped Jews escape their country, occupied by the Nazis, then pursuing their murderous campaign that would result in the killing of over 6-million European Jews. Corrie was the only member of her family to survive World War Two. In the ensuing years, she became an evangelist, calling people to repent for sin and trust in Jesus Christ for God’s forgiveness and new life.
One night, Corrie preached at a church in Munich, Germany. In the congregation was a man she recognized as a guard from the camp in which she had been imprisoned. He had often mocked Corrie, her sister, and other prisoners. The service ended. Listen to what happened next in Corrie ten Boom’s own words:
“He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. ‘How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.’ He said. ‘To think that, as you say, [Christ] has washed my sins away!’ His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often [about]…the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.Jesus Christ has come into our world not just for us, but also for them. It has always been the will of God that all people have the opportunity for reconciliation with Him and to be part of His kingdom.
“Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.
“As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world's healing hinges, but on [the goodness and healing of Jesus Christ]. When [Jesus] tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”
About one-thousand years before the birth of Jesus, King David sponsored a celebration as the Ark of the Covenant carrying the two tablets on which God had once inscribed the Ten Commandments, was carried to a tent in Jerusalem. David was so glad that he joined in the celebrating through a dance of pure joy. The Bible tells us that his wife saw this great man so humble himself before God and, she thought, acting in a way below his status as a king, that from that moment on, she despised David. But God inspired King David to write a special celebration song for that day. It included these words:
“Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Tell of His salvation from day to day.
Declare His glory among the nations, His marvelous works among all the peoples.”
It's always been the call and the privilege of God's people to share the salvation that comes from God with all people!
But not all believers care about doing that. A pastor once told me the story of a parishioner who was upset. Someone—a visitor—had sat in the parishioner’s usual pew. “This church doesn’t belong to him,” the parishioner said indignantly. “You’re right,” the pastor had replied. “And it doesn’t belong to you or me either. It belongs to Christ.”
Because the Church does belong to Christ—because we belong to Christ, it is our call and it is our privilege to invite others-
- the spiritually-disconnected,
- the people with annoying habits,
- the people we’ve never liked,
- the people who lead messy lives,
- the people who have hurt us
Make it your aim in life to reach out to them, because they need Jesus Christ every bit as much as us. Amen