The Return to Nazareth

Isaiah 61:1-6; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Luke 4:14-21

When you’re studying Scripture, it’s always good to stop and ask where you’re at. What book am I in? Who wrote it? Where does it fall in Bible history?  If it’s in the New Testament, how does it relate to the Old Testament, and vice versa.  What happened before this in this book? What comes next? What has been the special emphasis so far? These and other questions can shed a lot of light on a particular morning or night’s Scripture reading. Today it is particularly important to ask a couple of those questions about Luke’s Gospel, which is the book we’re in. We do well to ask where we’ve been before this and how this relates to the Old Testament.

Let’s start with where we’ve been before this in St. Luke’s Gospel. Luke 1 told us about the conception of Jesus and about John the Baptist. Luke 2 was packed with Christmas, the circumcision of our Lord, and the Song of Simeon. Luke 3 brought us John the Baptist’s preaching and ministry and then Jesus’ Baptism by John and His genealogy, showing Him to be the Son of David. Finally, so far Luke 4 has presented the temptation of Jesus. All of this brings us to today, to Jesus return to His hometown now that His ministry had begun.

Jesus returned back home, now a very public teacher, a rabbi. Here another question is useful, too: Had Jesus called any disciples yet? Flipping forward to chapter 5 would reveal that He had not. He was alone, although word of His teaching was quickly spreading, as Luke tells us at the beginning of our lesson. He was not necessarily invited there to preach. Any qualified male could read from the Scriptures in the synagogue. It just so happened that Jesus was the one who stood up to read today. And not only did He stand up to read, but He read a particular lesson, which was probably part of a lectionary like we Lutherans follow, the reading prescribed for that day.

Here we come to the second question I said would be important: How does this relate to the Old Testament? The answer is a little more obvious than normal here, but very elucidating. It relates to the Old Testament because Jesus read a lesson from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, the first lesson appointed for this morning. He took the scroll and read a Messianic prophecy, a prophecy about the Savior to come. And all was well and good up to that point. He’d read the lesson and everyone was fine. It was what came next that caused the ruckus.

Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, the person in charge of filing and protecting the scrolls, and sat down. Now that sounds like He was done, doesn’t it? We must remember that teachers most often sat at that time. They didn’t stand at podiums like lecturers today. Even at our seminary, it was common for professors to sit on a raised platform sixty years ago or so. Jesus sat and began to speak about what He’d read. That too probably didn’t raise too many eyebrows. Rabbis often did that, giving what we might consider a sermon today. And so Jesus was going to preach and everything was fine and dandy, until, until He said these words: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

These words cannot be appreciated highly enough. This is what sets Christianity apart any other religion that would lay a claim on the Old Testament. Christianity is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. And the fact is that the Old Testament cannot be understood apart from the New Testament. It couldn’t before the New Testament and it can’t after. The Bible has always been a book about Jesus, even before Jesus was revealed. Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, all of them were Christians, looking forward to the Savior to come, even if they did not know His name yet. They knew the Messiah would come and that through Him they would be saved.

Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and all hell broke loose, literally. The devil cannot tolerate this teaching. The Old Testament law he can work with, leading people either into self-righteousness or despair, but Christ–Christ saves, Christ crushes his head, Christ rescues sinners from guilt or the Pharisaical absence of it. Christ the devil must oppose and His Christians He must vex and assault. And so what comes next in Luke’s Gospel? “They drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.” Jesus would eventually be put to death for our sins, but not today.

Imagine our Lord’s sorrow. He was rejected by those who knew Him best, and not because stories of His sins had followed Him. No, He was rejected because God’s Word was rejected. You cannot have Christ but not the Scriptures and you cannot have the Scriptures without Christ. They are bound together too tightly to separate. And yet that is precisely what the Nazarenes tried to do in driving our dear Lord Jesus away. And not much has changed. We can still find plenty, and we can even be found among them sometimes, who read the Scriptures as if they weren’t a book about Jesus, who treat the Messiah as an idea, an abstraction, and not a person standing right before them in the Word: Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Savior, the only Savior. We can still find plenty, and we can even be found among them sometimes, who treat the Bible primarily as Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth, as a set of rules, as a fence to divide us from them (you pick the us and them), as something less than what they are: a book about Jesus and His love for sinners.

Jesus is the One about whom Isaiah wrote, who has come to us who are pictured by Isaiah in various ways: the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. This is “the year of the Lord’s favor,” even if some despise it, even if some reject Him. Christ has come for sinners, and we are sinners. Christ has come for us.

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” because Jesus is its fulfillment, as He always was, as He always will be, for us. Jesus knew rejection well, and He would never wish it on you. No, He wills that all of us be saved through Him, and that’s why He’s here, in His Word, as He was in Nazareth.

Wade Johnston

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