Twenty-Ninth Day of Lent

Luke 4:23-30
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

One of the fascinating things about Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is how much conflict surrounds him. In fact, there are occasions when he seems to provoke it. Today’s reading is startling in that Jesus’ life is threatened after he preaches his first recorded sermon.

Nowadays the idea that a sermon could provoke violence is bizarre. In popular culture the sermon can be the time for some to doze off, and rather than the sound of angry voices what the preacher hears is the not-so-quiet rustle that accompanies the opening of boiled sweets. But that was not always the case.

On August 28, 1748 John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, visited Bolton. He wrote about that visit: “At one (o’clock) I went to the cross in Bolton. There was a vast number of people, but many of them utterly wild. As soon as I began speaking, they began thrusting to and fro; endeavouring to throw me down from the steps on which I stood. They did so once or twice; but I went up again and continued my discourse. They then began to throw stones; at the same time some got upon the cross, behind me, to push me down; on which I could not but observe how God over-rules even the minutest circumstances. One man was bawling just at my ear, when a stone struck him on the cheek, and he was still. A second was forcing his way down to me, till another stone hit him on the forehead; it bounded back, the blood ran down, and he came no farther. “

He came again the following year and things hadn’t improved, "We came to Bolton about five in the evening. We had no sooner entered the main street, then we perceived the lions at Rochdale were lambs in comparison of those at Bolton. Such rage and bitterness I scarce ever saw before, in any creatures that bore the form of men."

We can hardly imagine a sermon so offensive that it would cause such violence and disruption, but such was the offence that Wesley and his message caused that this kind of violence was frequent. There were all sorts of reasons for it, not least was the fact that the Church of England, by whom he was ordained, considered his open air preaching to be offensive. And his ‘method’ of spirituality which was open and available to anyone, especially the poor, was considered to be a threat to the established order. Nevertheless he persisted.

Jesus, in his first recorded sermon in his home town takes a couple of illustrations designed to provoke a response. The listeners want some special treatment because they are his hometown crowd, but he refuses. He tells two biblical stories of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha when they refused to work miracles for their own and instead helped Gentiles. This stirred the sectarian and selfish rage of his neighbours.

Not only will he refuse to bless his own in a special way, he is suggesting a ministry to Gentiles. And so they drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. I wonder what it was like for Jesus to be driven out of his home town. Was it scary? Was he hurt? How did his parents feel afterwards, were they nervous to show their face about the streets?

It wouldn’t take much to imagine ways in which a sermon could stir real anger today. It might be a sermon on Brexit, that counters the majority view of a congregation, or on LGBT inclusion which in the PCI could see a minister lose their job. Thankfully it’s not so prevalent nowadays but in the not so distant past ministers were driven from their congregations over their views on ecumenism.

The important thing to discern is when an issue needs to be raised and a congregation provoked to consider ideas which makes them uncomfortable. Jesus obviously wanted to provoke his neighbours on the issue of the Gentile inclusion. It wasn’t that he was being belligerent, but that he knew this essential element of the prophetic message was being ignored or dispensed with in favour of a more localised and selfish understanding.

Knowing when and knowing how to provoke conflict requires great wisdom and great courage. Gentile inclusion went to the heart of a Gospel message that began with God assuming human form in a radical act of identification and embrace. Any faith that didn’t have that kind of welcome was a faith worth confronting.

What would have to be said from a pulpit today to get you angry? To what extent is that matter a core element of the Gospel?

Lord Jesus
You are provocative
And confrontative
In a way I’m not comfortable with.

I dare you now
To show me the ways
In which I have domesticated
The Gospel.

The ways in which I have played safe
In how I believe and how I act.
Show me what I have missed
Or what I am blind to
Or would prefer wasn’t part of the message.

I promise not to drive you away.