When you were a kid, did your parents ever introduce you to people you didn’t know? What did you think of that?
[Take responses from the congregation.]
Was there ever a time when you had been away from your hometown for a while, and you came back? What were the kinds of things people said to you?
[Take responses from the congregation.]
In our passage for today, Jesus comes back to His hometown after doing some pretty amazing things in other towns. In the course of the story, we learn from Jesus how to get closer to God.
First, getting closer to God means freedom. Can you look with me at verses 18 and 19?
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Instead of bad news that about one more thing they can’t afford, Jesus says, “I’ve got some good news.” Where people are held captive by a job, or a habit, or a rut in a relationship, Jesus says, “I’ve broken your chains.” For those who can’t see hope, or who are blinded by selfishness, Jesus says, “I can help you see and feel again.” Instead of the world weighing us down—our bosses, our politics, our teachers—instead of injustice putting up a stop sign, instead of the incredible weight of our guilt, Jesus says, “I love you! You are forgiven.” And to know that we are forgiven—that’s pure freedom! To be close to God means freedom.
Second, getting closer to God means grace gets bigger. My junior year of college, I had the chance to study the conflict in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. I was staying in the Old City in Jerusalem, but I really wanted to have the chance to experience Jewish life. One week, Julie and I dressed up nicely, went down to the Western Wall and put our names on a list for Shabbat. A very kindly man collected us. He had a full beard—black with streaks of gray—and dark eyes with laugh lines at the corners. Family and extended family were in his apartment—with us maybe 10 around the table—and everyone was eager to see if we had any friends in common from the States. We were eager for them to tell us about their lives and what they were thinking about. Julie and I enjoyed ourselves tremendously, and I tried to steer the conversation around to try and understand how they felt about Palestinians and did they know any Palestinians. Within a couple of heartbeats, this kind and learned man went into a spitting rage. His response shocked me to the core and I quickly asked his forgiveness and we went on to speak of other things. I realize now that I didn’t have the right to ask that set of questions, and for another, had I thought about it, I would have realized he might have a reason for hating the other side—perhaps a loss or an experience. Nevertheless, the rage of this man of God as he dehumanized Palestinians, and how his compassion seemed reserved only for people on his side, still shocks me. In our passage, Jesus calls his neighbors out by reminding them of the times God’s grace was big enough to include a poor widow from Lebanon, and a foreigner from Syria, and Jesus’ neighbors respond with rage as if to say, “How dare they be included!”
Third, getting closer to God means grace melts fear. I recognize that perhaps it’s easy for me—privileged white, straight guy—to talk. But I have suffered when other Christians told me I wasn’t good enough to be a Christian, and I have recoiled in horror when I saw Christians use God’s Name to justify hatred and bigotry. The roots of hatred and bigotry lie in fear, fear that the other side won’t treat us well, fear of loss, fear that we are wrong, fear there won’t be enough jobs or wealth or power or love to go around. As the famous philosopher, Yoda, said in The Phantom Menace, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” John writes in his first letter, “God is love…Perfect love casts out fear.” The closer we get to God, the more we can relax and let God’s grace take over.
The closer I get to Jesus, the more I realize how boundless God’s grace is. It’s a scandal how big God’s grace gets as we get closer to God. None of the things we think can keep us away from God are barriers:
· We don’t have to have money—Jesus brings Good News to the poor.
· We don’t have to be born into the right family—Jesus makes us part of His.
· We don’t have to have our life together—Jesus frees people who are still in bondage.
· We can be completely clueless—Jesus brings sight to the blind.
· We can be oppressed and overwhelmed, weighed down and broken up—Jesus forgives us and says this year is the year we can start over and be right with God.
Getting closer to God means we are freed to start over. Getting closer to God means grace can be bigger. Getting closer to God doesn’t mean getting things our way. Getting closer to God means learning to trust in God’s way.