Who is the Good News For?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 01/07/24, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  Isaiah 61 & Luke 4:16-30. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to Sermon Now

In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus’ rejection by his hometown of Nazareth is placed right at the beginning of his ministry. In Luke, Jesus is born, grows up, and is baptized by John. Then – filled and anointed by the Holy Spirit – he moves into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. Finally, after all this preparation and testing was completed, it says that “Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee … [and] he began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”

So far, so good.

But while the Gospel of Mark lets conflict develop and brew for six chapters before Jesus is finally rejected by his hometown synagogue – and Matthew takes 13 chapters to get there – Luke takes us to this moment first thing. We know that Jesus did ministry before returning to Nazareth, but for Luke this encounter in his hometown marks Jesus’ first recorded ministry encounter. The way Luke has composed the story, we experience the rejection at Nazareth as the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

In both Matthew and Mark’s telling, the rejection is a brief episode: Jesus shows up, he teaches in the synagogue, and he is rejected because “no prophet is without honor, except in his hometown.” People there knew his parents; they had seen Jesus in diapers. They were not interested in hearing and receiving the words he brought from God. For the people Jesus grew up with, he was too common and familiar to be a prophet.

Because Luke puts this story up front and center, the way he tells it is very different from the other two synoptic gospels. In Luke’s rendition, we don’t just hear that Jesus taught; we get a window into exactly what it was he taught in Nazareth. In Luke’s telling, Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth is the inauguration of his ministry. It’s an opportunity to tell us exactly what Jesus is about, and why his message is important. It’s a chance to reveal the kind of messiah that Jesus will be: a prophetic messiah, in the pattern of Elijah and Elisha. A messiah of the margins, not of the center. A messiah who suffers and is rejected, not one who conquers in the way the world understands conquest.

Luke accomplishes this revelation by showing us a Jesus who takes as his scripture reading the words of the prophet Isaiah, who applies the words of Isaiah 61 as a sort of “mission statement” for his own work. What does he tell his friends and family and kin in Nazareth that he is here to do? Why has he been teaching in the synagogues and doing deeds of power among the people?

Because “the Spirit of the Lord is upon [him].” Because God “has anointed [him] to bring good news to the poor.” Because God “has sent [him] to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke connects Jesus’ ministry back to Isaiah’s ministry, and if we want to understand what Luke is telling us about Jesus here, it’s important to examine the overall message of Isaiah 61.

First of all, it’s important to understand that the Book of Isaiah was probably written in several stages and in different historical contexts. Isaiah 61 is generally considered to be the third and final portion of the book, and it was probably written during the time when elite Jews who had been living in exile in Babylon were finally allowed to return to their homeland in Judah. This was a time period in which the people of Israel were trying to figure out what it meant to live as God’s people in a restored Jerusalem.

So when we hear Isaiah say, “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations,” we know what he’s talking about. Judah had been laid waste, but the time for restoration was at hand. 

This was the good news that the Spirit of the Lord God had anointed Isaiah to proclaim. This was good news to the oppressed, liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners. This was the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, in which all who mourn would be comforted. This was the planting of the Lord, the oaks of righteousness that would display God’s glory.

Isaiah describes the reign of justice and peace that God would bring to the people of Jerusalem. And it’s very interesting how he describes it, because what he is talking about is essentially an expansion of the priesthood. In the early days of Israel, the Levites and the sons of Aaron formed a holy priesthood that stood in the center of the Jewish people. They held no landed titles like the other tribes; their portion was the Lord – the other tribes gave them a tithe for their support. The priests’ job was to serve God in his tent, tabernacle, or temple.

In Isaiah’s prophecy, the priesthood is extended to the entire Jewish people, and all the nations of the world become the new “tribes” of God. Listen to this, this is God speaking to the Jews through Isaiah: “Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks; foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines, but you shall be called priests of the Lord; you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory.” According to the prophecy of Isaiah, all the nations of the earth will become the kingdom of God, and the people of Judah will serve as priests.

I find this vision from Isaiah 61 to be really astonishing. It’s something I never would have thought of, but now that I’ve heard it, it sounds right. It makes sense of what God has been doing in Israel all along. It fits with what God told Abraham, way back in the day: “I will bless you, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” According to Isaiah, this is the good news: The people of Israel will be blessed, and their blessing will bless the whole world. The kingdom of God will be realized, with the center growing – all the Jews becoming priests – and the outer circle expanding to include all the tribes and nations and families of the earth.


OK, so back to Jesus. Because in our reading from Luke, when Jesus is giving what we might think of as the “inaugural address” of his ministry, he centers on this Isaian prophecy. Jesus stands in the place of Isaiah and says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.” Jesus begins his ministry by declaring the electrifying relevance of Isaiah’s prophecy. The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What does this mean? If the prophecy of Isaiah is about the establishment of the kingdom of God, a universal kingdom that includes and blesses all nations, tribes, and families of the earth – what does it mean for Jesus to preach this word in the midst of occupied Roman Palestine? Isaiah foretold an age of blessing in which the Jews would stand at the center as a holy priesthood, and all the nations of the earth would become the people of God.

After reading from the scroll, Jesus sat down, which meant that he was about to give a sermon. And it says that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” When he told them that the scripture had been fulfilled, it says that “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Luke also adds that they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”

So the people were impressed, but echoing Mark and Matthew, there is also a hint of skepticism. “We know this guy. We changed his diapers. Can he really be the one?”

Still, compared to the accounts in the other synoptic gospels, everything still seems good at this point. The people are impressed with Jesus. So what comes next has always thrown me for a loop. Because, the way Luke tells it, it seems like Jesus intentionally infuriates his listeners. Enough that they’re provoked to murder! Why does this happen?

Seemingly out of nowhere, Jesus’ sermon takes a hard turn. He says, “Doubtless, you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And Jesus goes on to say that no prophet is accepted in his hometown. It’s as if he is daring the people to reject him, despite the fact that just moments before his audience had been murmuring in approval.

Still, Jesus hasn’t said anything worthy of murder yet. So how does he manage to get his kinfolk so angry that in a few minutes they’d be trying to run him off a cliff? It’s when he moves the framing from Isaiah to Elijah and Elisha. You see, Isaiah preached blessing to Israel and prophesied a central role for the Jewish people in the kingdom of God. But Jesus reminds the people of Nazareth that during the time of Elijah and Elisha, God did not always center the Jews. He points out that during a time of severe famine, Elijah only visited a foreigner, a widow and her son in Sidon. Jesus also points out that there were certainly plenty of Jewish lepers in the age of Elisha, but the only one whom God cleansed was an enemy of Israel, the foreign general Namaan.

Jesus’ family and friends thought that God’s promise was primarily for them, and that the kingdom of God meant that they would be in the center forever. For these folks, the good news was that they would be the privileged ones, and that all blessing would not only flow through them, but would accrue most especially to them. In the stories of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus offers a counter-narrative – one in which the blessings of God flow through the prophets, but which the people of Israel are free to reject – even as the nations of the world are blessed.

This is why Jesus mentions the deeds of power that he did at Capernaum. Capernaum was a place of mixing, full of all sorts of people – including Gentiles. In this story, Nazareth are the holy people, Capernaum are the nations of the world. Nazareth are the insiders, Capernaum are the outsiders. Nazareth is Israel, Capernaum is the Gentiles. When Jesus does not do deeds of power in Nazareth, but rather among the unclean outsiders in Capernaum, he stands in the legacy of Elijah and Elisha, who dared to eat with foreigners and heal the enemies of God of their leprosy.

When the people in the synagogue realize what Jesus is saying, Luke tells us that it drives them into a murderous rage. Jesus is saying, “You thought the kingdom of God was just for you, but it’s for everyone. You thought that you would be the center forever, but God is the center, and we all revolve around him.” Jesus stands in the tradition of John the Baptist, whom Luke quotes earlier in his gospel as telling the Jews who had come out to be baptized by him beyond the Jordan:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore, bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

We don’t like hearing that we’re not special. We don’t like hearing that we’re not better than other people. We don’t like hearing that God loves the Russian child and the Ukrainian child, the Jewish baby and the Palestinian baby, the African and the European – that he loves all of us, and that he will hold all of us accountable in the same measure. We don’t like hearing that the kingdom of God isn’t about us; it’s about God, his righteousness, justice, and peace.

Jesus’ kinfolk in Nazareth weren’t having it, either. They weren’t about to be told that God was giving blessings to their enemies and not to them. They were fully committed to an Isaian gospel of concentric-circle blessing, where they would always be at the center of the universe. But Jesus brought good news to the outsider, the unclean, the unworthy. And we killed him for it.

There has been plenty of anti-semitic theology throughout the centuries that has imagined that the Jews killed Jesus, or that the Jewish people were uniquely responsible for Jesus’ death on cross. That’s ridiculous. All of us, every single one of us collectively, are responsible for Jesus’ death. We killed him, and we continue – metaphorically – to kill him: in our refusal to give up our place in the center, to be correct, to be in charge. Just like the people of Nazareth, the very thought that we might not be the main characters in the story of our life sends us into a murderous rage.

The good news can feel like bad news, especially to those who have the most. But we all have something, don’t we? For the people of Nazareth, what they had was a sense of ethnic superiority; they were better than others because of who their fathers were. It’s ironic, too – because Nazareth was kind of a joke within the Jewish community. It was considered a cultural armpit. It was apparently common among the Jews of that time to say, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Even so, the Nazarenes knew that they were better than the folks in Capernaum, and certainly better than the Samaritans.

For those of us gathered here, we have our own pathologies. What makes us feel so special? What gives us the idea that we are better than other groups? What makes us feel that it is a unique tragedy when something bad happens to us, but when bad things happen to strangers far away, it’s just a statistic? What makes us think that God loves us more than other people?

The answer to this question is important, because Luke reveals to us that this attitude is a major stumbling block to the kingdom of God. If we want to follow Jesus, if we want to draw close to God, if we want to enter the kingdom – we must release our stubborn insistence that we are at the center. We are not the main characters of this story: God is.

This is reality; we can choose to receive it either as a blessing or as a curse. Wouldn’t it be a blessing to accept that Jesus is at the center, so we don’t have to be? We don’t have to be correct, or strong, or safe, or successful. We just have to be God’s. 

Jesus will do his deeds of power in Capernaum. Will we journey down from Nazareth to be with him? Will we get into the mix with him? De-centering ourselves, will we love our neighbor, the stranger, and even the enemy who wants to destroy us?