It was just an ordinary Sabbath at the Synagogue. There would have been the normal rituals, the reading of scripture, the recitation of psalms. Week by week, most of the men would have been expected to take a turn unfolding the scripture. The carpenter’s son had been heard doing just that in nearby Capernaum. He should take his turn in his home town too. So the scroll is handed to him. He unrolled it and found the place he wanted. A part from Isaiah. He read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
There is an expectant hush. What will he say?
“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
What joy! At last, God is going to sort everything out. They are poor people, ground down by all sorts of circumstances, suffering in all sorts of ways, all living under an overwhelming sense of oppression. Now this young man was telling them everything was going to be all right, not sometime, but now. This year. God was going to favour them. ‘What a good message,’ they all began saying to each other. ‘From Joseph’s son, don’t you know. Who would have thought it?’
But they’d interrupted him. He had more to say. He was talking about himself now. This wasn’t so good. He was telling them that he expected them to make demands on him, to do the wonderful, unexpected things he had done elsewhere. He was telling them they would reject him and what he said. They didn’t like this nearly as much.
Then he told them some stories, stories they knew, but he was drawing from them lessons they really didn’t like. It was insulting, an outrage. They were furious. But murderous though they were, it wasn’t to be by this crowd, and it wasn’t to be upon this hill that he was to die. But the shadow of the cross is already crossing his path.
It is one of the paradoxes of God that God is always and everywhere present, but that God is also always particularly present in certain people and in certain situations. That Sabbath, God was everywhere, but also particularly in Jesus. We understand that, but it would have been the most enormous surprise to the people in the Nazareth Synagogue. To them, if God was anywhere in particular, it would be in Jerusalem, not in the neighbourhood carpenter’s son.
But the point was this. God isn’t necessarily where you most expect him. And God doesn’t necessarily work though the people you’d most expect. So why not the local carpenter’s son?
Jesus picked two stories to make his point. He mentioned a story about Elijah. In his day, there has been a terrible drought which led to a terrible famine. Many people suffered. All were deserving of help. But God sent his prophet to one widow among many. This widow didn’t even worship the God of Israel. Yet it was to her that Elijah was directed and in her that God’s power and presence were made known. God chose to be particularly present to an outsider, not to one of the faithful ancestors of these faithful Nazareth synagogue goers.
Jesus mentioned another story. Many in Israel suffered from leprosy. Many of Israel’s enemies did too. Few could have been as high profile as Naaman, commander of the Syrian army, enslaver of an Israelite maiden. But it was in him, through the prophet Elisha, that God worked a miracle of healing, by which Naaman was won over to God.
So what was Jesus saying, and why did it enrage the congregation? He was saying this. You may have invited me to preach in your synagogue, but you’ll never accept me. It is not in you that the Lord’s favour will be found. God knows that, and now, as so often in the past, when God is doing a new thing, it is among the outsiders that he does it. You can see why it upset them.
But why does God do this? Why do new things, why start new stories with people ignorant of him? I think it has something to do with complacency, something to do with the narrowing effect of expectation. If you know all the old stories, if you are comfortable repeating them, perhaps you are less able to see the new if it doesn’t fit what you already know. Perhaps you tend to look back, rather than look around, and see what you expect rather than what is actually there.
That is an uncomfortable thought for churchgoers. Are we not the people of God? Do we not expect God to be most active among those who love him most? To work most with those most ready and willing to work with him? Are we the Nazareth congregation of our time, enraged by God working out new things elsewhere, in new people? Or rather, do we just not see that happening?
The fact is that the creative, creator God is always doing new things among new people. We heard how God asked Jeremiah to be a prophet. ‘There must be many better, more experienced, more eloquent people than me to be your prophet,’ Jeremiah protested. But still God chose the unexpected one, just a youth, an outsider from the religious establishment. Reading between the lines of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we see God working out a new narrative of love amid a disputations bunch of badly organised, argumentative, self-promoting, sometimes snobbish people.
God is doing new things now. Through volunteers from many countries who have travelled to Lesbos to help people off boats, through thousands more collecting clothes and boots to send to refugees, God is proclaiming liberty to captives in our own time. Through the compassion and generosity of ordinary people who give to foodbanks like the Storehouse, God is bringing good news to the poor in our time. These are just two examples
But do other new things that God is doing involve us? Can they? Or are we the insiders, angry, disappointed at being passed over while new things happen with new people? What Jesus was saying is that the people God chooses when he has something new afoot are outsiders. Not the one’s you’d expect. Not the ones with power and resources.
Now think about the Church. It used to be powerful. It used to have plenty of resources. It used to have plenty of people. It used to be right at the centre of society. No longer. The church has been pushed to the margins. So often, we feel helpless, without enough people and without enough resources and with no power whatsoever. But still we think of ourselves as insiders. Maybe, just maybe the changes in the church which have taken place over the last fifty years or so, and which we call decline and count as failure, are not these things at all. Maybe, just maybe we are still in the care of our loving, powerful God, the eternal God who sees all history in a single span. And maybe, just maybe God has ben preparing his church to be, once again, the outsiders in which a new narrative will be unfolded, moving his church to the margins to be among the people who need God most. It is time, not to look back, but to look around, to be alert to the new, the God given opportunities. The things is not to assume we already know what God will do. The thing is to be ready for whatever God chooses to do next.