Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Expectations Undo Receivability


Last year, I went back to St. John's, Montgomery, where I had served as a curate for five years, as one of their Lenten speakers. It was an honor and a challenge. It had been almost four years since I'd left. I remembered my time there fondly and felt fondly remembered by the congregation. But they hadn't heard me preach in a while, and I wanted to do well. I wanted to make them proud that, during my time there, they had raised up a good clergyman who was doing good work for God's kingdom.

The text I chose for the sermon was the office reading for the day, and, although I don't recall it right now, I do remember very distinctly feeling led to preach a sermon with a prophetic edge. Don't hold me to it, but there may have been a line in the sermon about how "arrogant, rich people need the gospel, too." It went over about as well as you would expect. It was a pretty good sermon, and I certainly stand by it. If I had preached it in my regular congregation, I think it would have been well received. I gently chide them frequently, and they are accustomed to a little honest ribbing. But this congregation was excited to welcome me home. They were happy to see me. And, although some people offered positive comments after the sermon, most people were turned off by its sharp tenor. They were looking forward to reliving all the good times we had together, but the gospel is the gospel, and it isn't always warm and fuzzy.

To a much stronger degree, in Luke 4, Jesus was enthusiastically welcomed by his hometown congregation until his message took on a sharp and prophetic edge, at which point they turned so thoroughly against him that they tried to throw him off a cliff. How did it all fall apart so quickly? Why did Jesus seem to stir the pot instead of graciously accepting the people's compliments? Why couldn't he leave well enough alone? Why did he need to tell the provocative stories of Naaman the Syrian and the widow at Zarephath in order to summarily douse their enthusiasm?

The hinge around which this dramatic reversal turns is easy to overlook. Jesus wasn't just picking a fight with his hometown buddies. More than his provocative words, the fact that Jesus was from Nazareth became the stumbling block over which the congregation could not pass unimpeded. Take a closer look at how things unfold.

After marveling at Jesus' words, the congregation remarks, "Is not this Joseph's son?" That's true, of course, but it is only part of the truth. Jesus is God's son, and to identify him purely as Joseph's offspring is to miss the point of who he really is. In response, Jesus begins a short exposition on hometown prophets. "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" But why would they have quoted that proverb? It isn't in the bible, but it makes sense. One might say to a snake oil salesman, "If you're really able to heal other people's infirmities, then why can't you heal yourself?" It's a challenge to his authority. Jesus felt challenged. It may not be fair to say that he was worried that he could not live up to their expectations, but it seems clear that their expectations were misplaced.

The fact is that he couldn't do feats of power in his hometown. Luke doesn't make that as clear as Matthew and Mark. Consider Mark 6:3-6a, for example:

[3] Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. [4] And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” [5] And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. [6] And he marveled because of their unbelief. (ESV)

Although the premise is different (no quoting of Isaiah 61 here), it's a similar engagement, and the result is the same. Jesus was ineffective at home. He didn't do great deeds of power in his hometown. Although his teachings there were remarkable, the end result was empty. As Mark puts it, "He marveled because of their unbelief."
I like the way Luke says it: And [Jesus] said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown." I might be making more of this than I should, but the Greek word for "accepted" is in its root a word that means "receivable." Consider that connotation. A prophet cannot be received in his hometown. There's a connection between the familiarity and the expectations that accompany it and the audience's inability to receive the truth that the prophet brings. Why? Because expectations get in the way. To the residents of Nazareth, Jesus would always be Joseph's son, and Joseph's son didn't come to earth to save God's people; God's son did.

How are your expectations getting in the way? You might not have grown up in Jesus' hometown, but maybe you did grow up in his church. Have you become so accustomed to the way things were that you can't see what God is doing today? Expectations inhibit our ability to receive the gospel. They stand in the way of God's surprising work. What are your expectations? Can they be shaken off?

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