Here's the sermon as prepared. I went off-text a few times, but I mostly stuck to it. I left the section headings in the text, but I obviously didn't say them when I delivered the sermon.
Don't Shoot The Messenger
prepared by Greg Cohoon for delivery on April 13, 2008
Mount Pisgah UMC Praise & Worship Service
Scripture: Luke 4:16-30
Good morning. For those of you who don’t know who I am, I’m Greg Cohoon. I’ve been active here at Mount Pisgah in various capacities over the years. Most recently, I’ve been active serving on the Praise and Worship team, playing guitar. It really is an honor for me to be able to deliver today’s message in Kristen’s absence.
The Scripture for today’s message is a passage that I’ve recently studied as part of my participation in Disciple Bible Study. For those of you who have participated in Disciple, you know what a tremendous blessing that study is. If you haven’t participated in Disciple, I strongly encourage you to sign up for classes when they begin a new year this fall. Today’s Scripture tells the familiar story of how, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was rejected in his hometown. In the past, when I’ve read that Scripture, I’ve scratched my head a little, wondering why they rejected Jesus. This year, when we studied it as part of Disciple, I gained some new insight into the story. I hope to share some of that insight with you this morning, and challenge you to apply Jesus’ message to your own life.
WHAT WAS THE MESSAGE AND WHAT WAS THE REACTION?
When we look at this passage of Scripture, one of the first things that jumps out at us is the fact that after Jesus spoke, the people who heard his message ran him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff! Why would they want to do this? What is it that he could have said or done that would have caused the people to be “filled with wrath” to the point that they tried to kill Jesus?
Before we can answer those questions, we need to first examine what Jesus’ message was. Based on Luke’s gospel up to this point, we know very little about Jesus’ ministry. Prior to the passage we read today, the only thing that Luke tells us about Jesus’ ministry is that he has been teaching in synagogues around the countryside, and that he’s been getting a warm reception. Luke chooses the occasion of Jesus’ return to his hometown to really introduce us to what Jesus’ message is.
One thing we notice about Jesus’ message is that it is heavily steeped in what we know as the Old Testament. We see that he has great respect for the scriptures. It is important to recognize that Jesus based his message solidly on the Hebrew Scriptures. In the first part of his message, Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah, one of the great prophets, and declares that he is in fact the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy. As Jesus moves into the next part of his message, he doesn’t read directly from the scrolls, but he makes several references to scriptural passages. When Jesus mentions Elijah and the widow, he’s recalling a story from Kings. Same thing when he talks about Elisha and the leper. By basing his message in these passages of Scripture, Jesus is making an instant connection with the people listening to him. Yes, Jesus has a new message for them, but, because it is based on the Scriptures, it is a message that they should be ready to accept.
Now that we see the foundation of Jesus’ message, let’s look at what it is that he said to the people and how they reacted. The first thing that Jesus does is make an extraordinary claim about himself. He reads from Isaiah – a portion foretelling the coming of the Messiah – and declares that he is the foretold Messiah! What great news this was to the 1st century Jews. Oppressed by Rome, they were eager for someone to “proclaim liberty to the captives.” The Scripture we read today indicates that the people were astounded by Jesus’ message – they “marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.” They talked amongst themselves, simply astonished that this son of a carpenter could be so wise. How exciting it must have been for them to hear that the long-awaited Messiah was, in fact, a hometown boy!
Jesus, however, did not stop his message at this point. He goes one step further and challenges his listeners to really understand what exactly his mission as Messiah is. He knows his message is not going to be well received, but he delivers it anyway. And what was that message? Jesus had the nerve to proclaim that God is merciful! Those Old Testament stories he referenced were examples of God showing mercy. In the middle of a drought, God sent Elijah to provide relief to a widow. Similarly, God sent Elisha to cure a man of leprosy. When the people heard this message, their admiration quickly turned to wrath. They chased him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff! They didn’t like the message, and they responded by trying to shoot the messenger.
When I read this story, that part just doesn’t make sense to me. Why would the people seek to kill Jesus for teaching about God’s mercy? I believe the answer to that question lies just below the surface of Jesus’ teaching. If you want to look for examples of God’s mercy, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of examples to be found in the Old Testament. I think that Jesus chose these specific examples for a particular reason: the recipients of mercy were not Jews. The widow that Elijah helped was Sidonian. The leper that Elisha cured was Syrian. By choosing these two examples, Jesus is sending a powerful message: God’s love and mercy is for all of humanity, not just the Chosen People.
Think about that for a minute. What a challenging message this was for Jesus’ listeners. This was a difficult message for them to accept. For a people whose theology was steeped in the knowledge that they were the Chosen People, that the covenant God made with them was an inherited birthright passed on from generation to generation, originating with Abraham, they were not ready to hear this message from a would-be Messiah. They wanted their own ideas about God to be reinforced, not challenged. When we think about it this way, we can start to see why Jesus’ message was unpopular and rejected. We might even be able to understand why his listeners were so mad that they chased him out of town.
HOW DO WE RESPOND TO THE MESSAGE?
In many ways, we are just like those people who heard Jesus teach in his hometown. We don’t want to admit it, but as Christians, we often like to think of ourselves as “special,” too. We think we have all the answers. We know where we’re going when we die. We know that, even though we are sinners, by accepting Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, we’re destined for an eternity in heaven. We’re comfortable with our faith, and we feel sorry for all of those non-Christians in the world who just don’t “get it” like we do.
Then, we are confronted with Jesus’ message to the people in his own hometown. He tells us that, yes, we are special, but that we’re not nearly as special as we think we are. Jesus reminds us that God has had a plan for all of humanity – not just the Jews, not just the Christians. Jesus reminds us that God’s love and mercy is not just something he shows to his Chosen People; it is something that he makes available to everyone. When Jesus confronts us in this way, how do we respond?
I know this may seem obvious, but it’s import to point out: the first thing we need to do in order to respond to Jesus’ message is to be open to hearing it. The people in today’s scripture lesson were originally open to hearing Jesus’ message. They gathered at the synagogue to hear him teach. They listened to what he had to say. They were familiar with the Scriptures. We also need to be open in the same way. We need to attend church and Sunday School. We need to pay attention to what the preacher’s preaching, to what the teacher’s teaching. We need to be familiar with the Scriptures. We do not have the benefit of being able to go to our local church and hear Jesus teach directly, but we are fortunate to have his message preserved in the Bible. We are fortunate to have preachers and teachers who continue to challenge us with Jesus’ messages. If we want to follow Christ, our first obligation is to be open to hearing his message.
The second thing we need to do in order to respond to Jesus’ message is to be prepared to accept that his message may be something that we don’t want to hear. This can be hard for us sometimes. Like the people in today’s scripture lesson, we don’t want to be reminded that we’re not as special as we think we are. We want to find the parts of Jesus’ message where he reinforces what we already believe, and we want to ignore the parts where he challenges us. This is where we have opportunities to grow in our Christian faith. In today’s scripture lesson, Jesus reminds us that God’s love and mercy is not something that is reserved for one particular group of people, but it is something that is for everyone. If you’re not a Christian, God loves you just as much as he loves Christians. If you are a Christian, God loves you just as much now as he did before you became a Christian. This message might be something that we’re not interested in hearing: we want God to love us more because we’re Christian. We want to believe that we are “more special” than people who don’t believe the same things that we believe. The truth, however, is that every one of us – Jew, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, whatever – every one of us receives God’s love and mercy. This truth was the stumbling block for Jesus’ original audience. When they were challenged by this message, they just couldn’t accept it, because it was something that they didn’t want to hear. Instead of working to understand the message, they rejected it outright. Even more, they rejected the messenger.
The third thing we need to do in order to respond to Jesus’ message is to apply that message to our own lives. When Jesus reminds us that God loves everyone, we need to act appropriately. We need to quit thinking that we are in some ways superior to those people who don’t agree with us. Even more, we need to go out and share God’s love. God didn’t help the widow and the leper in today’s scripture passage directly – he sent Elijah and Elisha to show his love and mercy. We need to open ourselves up and allow God to use us however he needs to use us. Perhaps he will send you to volunteer at Urban Ministries. Perhaps he will ask you to answer the phones at the church office. Maybe God will ask you to join the next building team to Mississippi. Maybe God will send you to a hurting coworker or friend and provide support for them in a time of need. There are so many opportunities for us to be instruments of God’s love – all we need to do is look for these opportunities and act on them. When we act on God’s behalf in this way, we find that God not only enriches our own lives, but he also often uses us to enrich the lives of those around us. On the other hand, when we neglect to apply God’s message in our life, we are no better than the people who ran Jesus out of his own hometown. We are effectively shooting the messenger. We aren’t doing it directly, as the people in today’s Scripture did, but the result is the same.
Today’s Scripture speaks directly to us. It calls us to listen for Jesus’ message. It reminds us to be open to the possibility that his message may not be what we want to hear. Finally, today’s Scripture leaves us with a challenge. The challenge is to take Jesus’ messages, even the ones that are difficult for us, and apply them to our own lives.