Nobody smiles during a prophet’s first sermon. Either your heart is broken or you want to break his neck, but you don’t break out in a full-toothed grin. For the prophetic word is too rough on the ear, the pill he puts in your mouth too bitter to swallow with anything but a grimace.
Isaiah’s pulpit opens with the message that Israel is far worse than an ox and an ass, indeed just like a city home to homosexual rapists. Hosea acts out his first sermon, slipping a wedding ring onto the finger of a prostitute, then fathering children by her – one big gross family emblematic of unladylike Israel who would have felt quite at home working any corner where drive-by idols might need her syncretistic services. Not exactly a way to curry favor with the crowd, this kind of preaching, but then again the prophets were called by God, not elected by popular vote, ablaze with nothing but zeal for the truth of heaven.
So it came to pass that the Prophet of prophets left not a single face smiling when he wrapped up His sermon in Nazareth. He had a way with words, this Preacher, a way that well-nigh sent Him plummeting headlong down a nearby cliff. What got Him in trouble was quite simply telling the truth – always a dangerous activity, for men prefer that you lie to them, especially if the truth exposes them for what they are. All Jesus did was point out the obvious: no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. The Midianite Jethro and his daughters welcome Moses with open arms, while his own people arm themselves with stones. Nineveh repents in sackcloth and ashes when Jonah preaches in their pagan streets while back home priests kept right on liturgizing in front of their golden calves. A Gentile widow dines with Elijah while famished Israelite widows covet each tiny morsel of bread. Naaman the Syrian gets baby-soft skin in exchange for his leprosy while Elisha’s own flesh and blood rot away in theirs. Why, every Israelite kindergartner could have told you these stories. Jesus was just a boy pointing out the naked truth about the emperor’s new clothing.
But unlike the citizens in the children’s tale, the synagogue crowd in Nazareth was not happy that someone voiced the obvious. And neither are you. For the truth about ourselves is painful. It hurts to hear that you would much prefer a thousand pats on the back to one loving word of correction or rebuke. You expect others to be patient with your shortcomings–slight though they are–but you have little or no patience with the smallest weaknesses of others. You can’t finish a single psalm, no, not one Our Father, without having your mind wander God knows where. Would-be preachers really do expect that they will be welcomed in their first pulpit, so much nicer and so much a better preacher are they than our Lord. And, worse yet, if they are not welcomed, rather than praying for the repentance of those who reject them, often they revel like a big-headed martyr about being just like Jesus. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for men so filthy rich with sin to squeeze into the kingdom of heaven.
Therefore, abandon the Nazareth mob. Move to the Nineveh of sackcloth and ashes. Pitch your tent among the faithful Midianites. Step in the Jordan Font alongside Naaman and watch your leprosy wash off and float downstream. Kneel at the rail beside the widow at Zarephath and let Elijah’s Lord feed you, with the flour of His flesh and the oil of His blood.
For today is the day of salvation, a salvation acquired outside the city of the Jews, outside the gate, the place of the sin-offering. Here He who was lashed with the lying words of the His own people and the cruel whips of the Gentiles suffers for both groups, all the sons of Adam, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, reconciling us both to God in one body through the cross.
Though rejected by His own, He ever stands ready to welcome you. Indeed, He already has. He has transformed you from Isaiah’s ox and ass into a dear lamb whom He carries upon His shoulders, rejoicing to bear you to your heavenly home. No longer are you part of the lustful and polluted Gomer for she has been redeemed, washed with water and the word, without spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. And you are of her, and she is of Him, and He is of the Father.
Therefore rejoice, or, if you prefer, smile, yes, smile with the joy of the redeemed, for the dawn which the prophets longed for has finally broken. The Spirit of the Lord is upon the Messiah. His good news is that you are His beloved. Your chains are loosed. Your sight restored. The year of the Lord’s favor is upon you.
And today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your ears.
(A version of this sermon was preached at Kramer Chapel, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN, on 01/30/03)