“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:20)
You may as well admit it because we’re all thinking it anyway. Last week’s Gospel was a whole lot of fun. Jesus’ changing of 180 gallons of washing water to the finest wedding wine there ever was. Man what fun that was! And what fun that must have been in Cana of Galilee too. Let’s face it. If we could have this kind of Jesus every Sunday, every day, Christianity would be great fun. A party. Lots of wine and even a divine excuse to drink it. What fun!
Today is not quite so much fun. In fact, it ends with a congregation of unhappy hearers trying to toss Jesus off a cliff. And before that, some hard-eyed glances from the hometown crowd as Jesus makes His first messianic appearance in the place where He grew up. Having just returned from my hometown of Chicago and visiting my parents, I have a bit of a personal sense of this episode in Jesus’ early ministry. Going home is never easy. People are terribly familiar with you. They’ve known you since you were knee-high to a grasshopper, as they say. I would imagine that the synagogue in Nazareth was packed that day to hear from the local boy made good. I’m sure expectations were running high as the rumors spread concerning Jesus’ miraculous power. Perhaps the people in hometown Nazareth were expecting a few miracles of their own, seeing as how this was Jesus’ hometown.
I would also imagine that you could have heard a pin drop in the synagogue when Jesus stood up, took the Isaiah scroll from the attendant, and scrolled specifically to a passage from the prophet Isaiah. It had to do with the coming of the Messiah, and how He was anointed with the Spirit of God to preach good news and to work miracles. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set a liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then Jesus handed the scroll back to the attendant and sat down. Teachers sat in the synagogue. Every eye was fixed on Him. Every ear was open and eager to hear what Jesus was going to say. What He said surprised them. Shocked them. Offended them. Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At first they were amazed and delighted. This was new. They’d never heard anything like this before. The words of the prophet Isaiah were now fulfilled in their own ears. But then the light bulb went off. Hey wait a minute. Isn’t this Joseph’s kid up there? He played with our kids in the streets. Is He saying that He’s the anointed One that Isaiah prophesied? Who does He think He is, anyway? And their curiosity quickly turned to outrage.
It would for us too. Especially if we had watched Him grow up. It’s hard enough to believe that Jesus is God in the flesh; it’s downright scandalous when you’ve watched the Word made Flesh grow up right before your eyes. The kid next door. Joseph’s boy. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” we say. Or at least doubt. That’s why “no prophet is acceptable in his own hometown.” How could Jesus have grown up in that dense community and someone not realize there was something “different” about Joseph’s kid? The surprising answer is this: holiness can be hidden. Jesus’ divinity can be completely buried beneath His humanity so that there was no unearthly glow about Him, no halo with writing on it to identify Him, nothing.
You know what we say when we doubt. “Talk’s cheap, prove it. Show us, Jesus. Do a miracle, like the one you did over in Cana.” Or to quote Herod in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” – “Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.”
This speaks to our wrongheaded and wrong hearted notions of miracle. Miracles are not for believers but unbelievers. They are for those who do not have the Word. They are rare, exceedingly rare, otherwise they would not be called miracles or signs or wonders. If you can “expect a miracle,” then it isn’t one. If you can have miracles on demand like satellite TV, then it is neither a sign nor a wonder but just part of the ordinary order of creation. If water turned to wine every day the way it did at Cana, it would not be considered miraculous and Napa valley would be out of business.
The Nazareth synagogue had the Word. They had just heard the prophetic Word spoken to them by the Word Incarnate. What more could they possibly have needed? What more do we need than the Word in all its marvelous forms? Oh, we think we need more. Remember, the old Adam is a religion junkie of the first order. Loves those signs and wonders, which as Jesus Himself reminds us, can even deceive the elect. Jesus knows. Yes, He did miracles for the fringes, for those on the outskirts, for those dwelling in darkness, for those who did not have Moses and the prophets. Yes, Jesus did miracles for His fellow Israelites – healing the sick, cleansing the leprous, raising the dead.
But these were pointers, signposts to something greater. Miracles are not an end in themselves, and when they become that, they become a kind of idolatry, a false religion. The greatest thing that could be said was said in the synagogue at Nazareth. The Scripture had been fulfilled in the ears of the people. The Word of God had hit its target. The Spirit of God was seeking to work faith through ears renewing minds and hearts.
Jesus knew what was on their minds. “Physician, heal thyself.” Prove it. But Jesus offers no proof. They had the prophets; they had Moses; they had the Word. He reminds them that there were many hungry widows in Israel at the time of Elijah, but only the widow at Zarephath had her oil and grain multiplied. There were many lepers in Israel, but only Naaman the commander of the enemy Syrian army was cleansed in the Jordan. You would think that Israel had an inside line on miracles, but you would be wrong. These were outsiders, enemies of Israel even. All those hungry widows, and only an outsider gets a miracle. All those lepers and diseased Israelites, and only the enemy gets healed.
When bad things happen to believers, we say, “Where is God and why doesn’t He do something?” And there’s the mistake of unbelief, my friends. He has done something. Something much more significant and far reaching than an isolated miracle. Jesus has died on a cross, bearing humanity’s sin, the world’s brokenness, the curse of the Law, every disease known to man, Death itself. He bore all of that one time for all time, one Man for all humanity. Miracles pale by comparison to the cross. In fact, miracles all point to the cross and find their source in Jesus’ death. Every miracle costs Jesus His life.
Miracles are for one person only, the recipient of the miracle – the widow at Zaraphath, Naaman the Syrian. And if you don’t get yours, you’re disappointed, right? Mad even. Maybe want to throw Jesus over a cliff or at least find another religion. The cross is for everyone without exception. Miracles are temporary, a bandaid applied to a wound; the cross is eternal, the cure of the disease of Death. Miracles treat the symptoms; the cross deals with the cause. Miracles cannot save you; the cross saves you. Miracles do not forgive sins or give eternal life; the cross is your forgiveness, your life, your salvation. You can survive a drought of miracles; in fact, you can go an entire lifetime and never experience one. But you cannot survive a drought of the Word.
You have the Word, as surely as that synagogue in Nazareth that day Jesus preached to them. You have the Word in your Baptism, God’s signature seal upon you that you are His and He is yours. You have the Word in the word of forgiveness, that absolving Word preached into your own ears, fulfilled in your hearing. You have the Word of Christ in His Supper, speaking to you, “My Body given for you; my Blood shed for you.” You have the Word in greater richness and abundance than any generation before in the history of God’s people. And it is the singular evidence of our sinful condition and the old Adam in us that we value it so little, that we do not flock to hear and receive, that we, like the Nazareth synagogue, would throw Jesus over a cliff rather than deal with His Word.
Faith comes by hearing the Word. Your faith comes by your hearing the Word of Jesus. And that Word is, here today for you, seeking its fulfillment in your hearing. By the Word of Jesus, you are forgiven. By the Word of Jesus, you are fed. By the Word of Jesus, your faith is created and sustained. By the Word of Jesus, you have freedom from sin, from death, from the devil, from the damning sentence of the Law. All in the Word of Jesus, delivered to you, which, today is fulfilled in your hearing and your believing.
In the name of Jesus,