January 30, 2022, Does Jesus Love Vladimir Putin, Luke 4:22-30 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
Last week, if you remember, we read in Luke’s gospel about the day Jesus came home and preached in his boyhood synagogue. He had been preaching and healing and casting out demons round about Galilee, and the people in his hometown had been hearing some pretty spectacular stories about this native son of theirs. They hadn’t really had much in the way of expectations for this native son, to be honest. They’d known his family for years: Joseph was a good craftsman and an honest man; Mary and the kids – well, most of them were grown up now – but they were good neighbors, a nice family. Nothing special. But with all the gossip they’d been hearing from people passing through town, they were willing to come and take a look, see what all the fuss was about. In fact, there was a certain level of anticipation, even a little excitement, in the town of Nazareth on that Sabbath day.
He’s not a boy anymore, they realized, watching as he stood and received the scroll of holy writings from the attendant – not even a very young man, really, now they saw him up close – weathered and hardened by sun and wind and hard work. To be honest, he looked more like his carpenter father than like the scholars and priests, pale and immaculate always, as befitted their holy occupations. Even so, Jesus had an air of authority that took them by surprise, as he took the scroll, as he began to proclaim the ancient words of the prophet, clearly, confidently. And when he had finished, he sat down to teach. “Today,” he said to them, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Last week we read Isaiah’s words, which were all about the Messiah that God had promised to send to his people, to bring justice, to rescue them from their enemies. When Jesus told them that he was there to fulfill that centuries-old promise, I imagine there must have been a moment: of shock and doubt and hesitation and hope and excitement and skepticism, all rolled into one. I imagine there was a pause, pregnant with all the possibilities. And then Jesus spoke again. And ruined everything.
If there were only one thing we learned about who Jesus is, from reading this story, it would be this: that he had their number. Jesus knew exactly what his old friends and neighbors were thinking. He could see it in their faces. He could read it in their hearts. They wanted to believe that all those stories they’d been hearing about Jesus were true. They wanted to believe that the long, long, long wait was over and that the Messiah of God had really come – to them. They wanted to believe – as entirely unbelievable as it seemed – that the carpenter’s boy was also, somehow, a messenger from God. They wanted to believe. And they sat there and waited for Jesus to convince them.
And you might say Jesus blew it. “I know exactly what you’re thinking,” he said. “Let’s see some of those signs and wonders we’ve been hearing about, now you’re in your own home town. You’re making some pretty big claims for yourself, Jesus bar Joseph. Let’s see what you’ve got.” But instead of convincing his neighbors with an awe-inspiring demonstration of power Jesus shone a light into their hearts and exposed the truth. Sure, they wanted to believe. Well, they wanted to be convinced. But the simple truth was, they had no faith. Not yet, anyway. Matthew and Mark write that Jesus wasn’t able to do mighty works in Nazareth, because of the unbelief of the people. Mark puts it even more strongly. “Jesus was astonished at their lack of faith.”
But the final straw came when Jesus pointed out that when God comes looking for faith, it has often been found in the most unexpected, even shocking, places. Sometimes, faith is even found in those we’ve always considered our enemies. You know the stories, Jesus said, how God sent the prophet Elijah to care for a widow in Zarephath, a nobody in a Gentile village. Even worse, there was that Syrian general, Naaman, enemy and enslaver of God’s own people. Of all people, God picked Naaman, only Naaman, and cured his leprosy; God found faith with Naaman. And that was really going too far.
It is very easy to rejoice in the grace of God when he shows his grace to us. But how are we to understand the grace of God when the one receiving it is one we consider our enemy? When we hear those beautiful words of Isaiah about the poor hearing the good news and the blind receiving their sight and the captives being freed, we embrace them wholeheartedly. There were certainly poor people in Nazareth; there were plenty of Nazarenes who needed healing. Every one there was longing to be freed from the oppression of the Roman legions that had invaded their land. But what if God was planning to extend his grace to the Romans? Try to imagine yourself, what the grace of God would look like to you, if he showed his favor to those people you consider your enemies, to those you fear and mistrust, even to those who wish you harm? And here was Jesus in his home town proclaiming these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, even to your enemies.”
If we can really understand what a challenge that is to us, we might begin to understand the rage that swept over the faces of the crowd as Jesus continued to speak. Their whole identity was being the chosen nation of the One True God. And they had, for so long, been persecuted and oppressed by the nations around them – the Gentiles were the enemies of God and of his people. And now this carpenter’s son had pierced through that one certainty and the terrifying light of God’s grace began to shine through. Not the comfortable assurance of his lovingkindness, but the blazing unconditional goodness that utterly transcends, and so often offends our human understanding.
And just in that moment, they hated it. They rose up as one person to destroy what they refused to believe. They drove Jesus out of the synagogue, and they took him to the top of a cliff near Nazareth to throw him down, to stone him as a heretic. But by another act of God’s grace – there is a lot of grace in this story – Jesus passed safely, and miraculously, through the midst of that howling mob. By grace the people were prevented from committing a terrible evil. Because, it was also God’s grace that for the people of Nazareth there was still time – time for grace and truth to sink into their hearts and to transform their minds. There was still time for the seed of faith to take root.
As Christians, the grace of God is our very life. We believe that Jesus Christ loves us so much that he gave his life on our behalf. We believe that whatever sin we confess to our God, he forgives us and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. We believe that he has put our sins as far from us as the east is from the west; that he never again calls them to mind. We believe that God has sent his Spirit to make his home with us, so that we will never be alone, that he does not leave us as orphans. We believe that God has begun a good work in us that he will surely bring to completion; that he won’t ever give up on us. And we believe that God shows us his grace, not because we deserve it or earned it, but purely because he chooses to be gracious to us.
But do we understand – can we even accept – how big the grace of God really is? What if God chooses to extend his grace to our enemies? We know that our salvation depends on the grace and mercy of God. But generally we want to leave the really bad people to the justice of the world, as if the grace of God is only for people like us – you know, the good guys. And for its part, the world is always ready to give our enemies the justice they deserve. The members of al Qaeda or Boko Haram or the Ku Klux Klan deserve to be destroyed, as they have destroyed the lives of so many innocent people. Murderers deserve life in prison without parole – or better yet, the death penalty. Child molesters deserve the absolute worst that can be done to them. Abusive parents, mothers or fathers who showed their child no love or compassion, deserve to grow old alone. That’s justice. We get that. It is not at all hard for us to understand vengeance or punishment or condemnation. But it is very hard for us to even conceive of a grace that is big enough to extend to our enemies. Sometimes it is very hard not to be offended by the Lord’s favor.
Everyone in the synagogue in Nazareth spoke well of Jesus and marveled at his gracious words – until they realized that the grace he was talking about extended beyond the walls of their synagogue, beyond the limits of their village, beyond the boundaries of their nation, even as far as the hearts and homes of their enemies. And that was more than they could accept. It is a word for us to take to heart. How big is our understanding of the love and grace of God? Can we accept that God’s favor is on our enemies? On all those people whose political views make our blood boil? On people who are violently anti-Christian? On Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un?
A man once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” We might ask ourselves today, “Who is my enemy?” And do I believe, do I even want to believe, that God sent his only Son for love of that person? Or will I, too, be enraged by his amazing grace? +