I wonder if you’ve noticed that the people closest to you are often the least likely to want your advice?  Your kids follow their coaches’ instructions much more quickly than yours; your young adult son or daughter doesn’t want your advice about who to date; aging parents would rather not have your guidance on where to live or what kind of help they should have, and your spouse probably doesn’t want your advice on much of anything!   Age-old leadership advice says that the best way to get someone to do something is to make them think it was their own idea.  We see evidence of this all over the place.  The bad news about today’s sermon is that I am not going to tell you how to fix this, mostly because I don’t know how.

But I do have a Bible story to tell you about a this idea; the story gives us things to think about in our own lives, and also as a church.  The story is about what happens when Jesus teaches in the synagogue of his own hometown.  We find in this story the comforting idea that you haven’t been doing anything wrong: it is a truism that the people closest to you don’t always want your advice—even if you’re Jesus Christ.

Let’s start by setting up this story with a little context:  In the centuries that lead up to the lifetime of Jesus, Judaism goes through a change.  You may remember that the early books of the Bible include a bunch of laws that involve ritual sacrifices as a central part of religious life, and that most of those sacrifices were brought, first, the Ark of the Covenant as it moved about with a nomadic people, and then eventually to the permanent home of the Ark in the Temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem.  But in 587BC, Jerusalem is sacked and the Temple is destroyed, and the Jewish people are dispersed to live in a variety of other places.  The Temple would soon be rebuilt, but this is the start of what you might call the age of the synagogue.  Unlike the Ark or Temple in a central location, synagogues were like satellite locations for worship, and were found anywhere you had 10 at least people—10 men, I’m afraid—who met together to study a scroll containing the holy scriptures.  At this point Judaism shifts somewhat away from the centrality of sacrifice and toward and emphasis on study.  Any male who had come of age was permitted to read the scriptures in the synagogue and discuss their meaning.  And this is what is going on when, in our story, Jesus visits Nazareth.

So the people have gathered, the time for study is upon them, and they hand Jesus the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, and he opens it to where he chooses and reads:

“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 favor.”

A beautiful, poetic message, encouraging healing, justice, and renewal.  And Jesus closes the scroll, and says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Let’s discuss.  At first, things are going fine.  ‘What a great selection for a study,’ they say, ‘this carpenter’s son turned a rabbi sure is doing a fine job, its so nice to have him home for the weekend.’

Then the trouble starts.  Jesus, who is a keen observer of human nature, knows the next turn the conversation is going to take—and he beats them to it.  He knows that the study group is about to quote a proverb: one of them is going to say, “Doctor, cure yourself,” and another is going to say to Jesus, “Do here what we’ve heard you were doing in Capernaum with all of that good teaching and healing…”  It is as if to say, ‘Ok Jesus, you want justice and good news for the people of Nazareth—start with the man in the mirror and get to work!’  But then Jesus says, ‘Thank you very much, but I am just visiting.  The suffering people of this town need you to get to work—and you know it.’

The hometown guys don’t really like being challenged in this way and begin to shift in their seats, but Jesus, who doesn’t mind pushing people’s buttons in order to speak the truth, Jesus doubles down on the challenge.  He references two other Scriptures, one about the prophet Elijah and the other about Elisha, and both stories are about the same idea:  that God often sends help not to the people who already know the Law and are just ignoring it, but instead, God often helps people outside the faith who could use a good word of hope.  God does this even when those people are supposed to be our enemies; and as for the insiders God seems to be ignoring, well, they’ve already got the truth right there in the Scriptures.  They just need to hear it.

Well, the people in the Nazareth synagogue don’t like this at all, and in fact they run Jesus out of town.  How dare he provide comfort and healing and work miracles all over the region, but skip over them.  And in a conclusion to the story I think is just great, the only miraculous thing Jesus does in this story is to “pass through the midst of them” as he went on his way.  Just as they are about to throw him off the cliff, he disappears!  And the angry people are left in disbelief; this young man they had just concluded was worthless enough to put to death was in fact God in their own presence…and now he is gone.  But they’ve still got the synagogue and the scriptures telling them what to do—so now they’re really going to have to get to work.

There are lots of applications of this story.  It’s true in churches all over the place, that the criticisms are many and people don’t like hearing them.  I can think of plenty of criticisms I could level at the congregation of my childhood, even though I love the place, and I can imagine the people who would want to run me out of town.  On the other hand, to the extent that Knox is home for me after almost 10 years, I can think of critiques of this place that you all might not want to hear.  And there’s nothing unique in that about my childhood church or about Knox.  All pastors can think of these criticisms—the ones that would not be welcomed; in fact, it’s a well-known practice in ministry that, occasionally you invite a guest preacher to say something to your congregation that you know they can’t hear coming from you!

On the other side of today’s Bible story though, the comparison isn’t as simple, for while a congregation is a congregation is a congregation, no pastor is Jesus Christ, I certainly am not, so if any of you responded to my critiques by quoting me a proverb, “Doctor heal yourself,” I would no doubt need to accept that advice from you.  In every congregation, the verse Jesus quoted in Nazareth is true:  we are too often lulled into comfort and complacency and self-preservation in our religious life together; we have forgotten Isaiah’s prophetic word that we are here to bring good news to the poor and to let the oppressed go free; and the pastor usually needs to hear it as much, or even more, than the congregation.

These are truths about church life, and as much as they may sting, the truths that sting hardest are usually not the ones about our church, but about our individual lives.  Most of us know the things we ought to change about our lives and we just don’t want to change them, so we hate it most when someone we love, someone who knows us well, points out something about us that we already know, and just don’t want to talk about.  I wonder what that thing might be for you, today?

There is beauty, though, to be found in seeing ourselves on both sides of this exchange between Jesus and the people in his hometown.  For sometimes, yes, we are on the receiving end of advice or critiques we do not want to talk about.  But other times, we are the ones who are giving the advice—and when we speak the truth to someone close to us, it is usually because we love them, and want good things for them; and  remembering that when advice comes our way might make us more gracious in hearing a critique.  But much more importantly, today’s story might allow a deeper truth to work upon us:  that the truth Jesus speaks from the Prophet Isaiah is truth that all of us need to hear, so that we can ask how it’s beauty is alive in our own lives and could be more and more.  Jesus speaks them because he wants greater love, justice, and joy for you, and for all of us together.  Jesus wants us to have the personal joy that is found in justice and service to others.  So listen once more to Christ’s teaching today, as I read it slowly:

“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 favor.”

And knowing that I can add nothing to the wisdom of Jesus himself, I leave you with the challenge he gave to the people in his own hometown.  “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Amen.