What do we want from a church service? Jesus may catch our attention here if we notice the single reported sermon he preached to his home “church”—the synagogue in Nazareth—in Luke chapter four.
But first let’s consider our own preferences in church worship songs and sermons.
What about singing? Not the melodies but the words. In many songs we ask for God to protect us; to give us victory and power; to comfort us; and to be stronger than our foes. God’s greatness and support are favorite themes.
And what characterizes most sermons? Aren’t they mainly invitations by preachers to apply a certain Bible truth or lesson in life? Truths that promise a more fruitful and fulfilling future? This crucial sermon focus on application often fills the final third or even up to half the entire sermon.
Yet isn’t this lopsided? It’s certainly good to honor God for his power but isn’t there more to him than his divine muscles and his rule-making skills? When we chase his benefits—almost as if he exists for our sake—are we missing a deeper agenda: that he loves us and invites us to love him and others in return?
So let’s look at a sermon where Jesus presented God’s point of view. He engaged Isaiah 61:1-2 as his way to reintroduce himself to his former community in Nazareth. But the sermon didn’t go well. When he was done some of the congregation tried to throw him off a cliff to kill him!
The text Jesus used from Isaiah doesn’t seem controversial. It promised Israel’s coming Messiah: “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 at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Yet his message didn’t win all the hearts and minds in the synagogue audience. But why not? He was back in the synagogue “as was his custom” (v.16). We also read, “all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words” he offered. They obviously knew him as one of their own and he was already an emerging figure in the region. Many had heard of Jesus doing miracles in nearby Capernaum and apparently wanted him to do some “here in your hometown.” But, as Jesus responded, “no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.”
Part of the problem may have come from what he taught. Jesus had applied the Isaiah text to himself: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He was the promised Messiah. But he also went on to treat his synagogue audience as if they were his opponents: a group unwilling to accept him as the one promised in the text.
First he set out the Messiah’s ministry ambitions: to help the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. That was fine, but Jesus then cited a pair of Old Testament stories that recalled Israel’s lack of faith. God’s work, by contrast, was offered to those from outside Israel. First to a widow from Sidon—located in today’s Lebanon. And then to Naaman, a Syrian soldier. Both were foreigners and non-Jews who trusted and followed God.
Is humility a key here? The events that day had two sides: one side was about Jesus coming home again. He was welcomed. He was invited to open the Scriptures. And he was admired as an able speaker and a rising star in the region. The other side was about the categories of people the Messiah—who Jesus claimed to be—would help: the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. And he noted God’s special grace to non-Jews. Not many in this Jewish congregation seemed to fit any of those categories. They were strong, able, and proud—proud enough to try to throw this young preacher off a cliff once he had them riled up!
So here’s our final question. Are churches today still too much like the synagogue congregation in Nazareth? Do we want a tame Jesus who will show off his wonders and offer us blessings? Or are we ready to follow the Jesus who sees the selfish and placid hearts that still like to gather in religious settings? The less comforting Jesus who invites us to join him in caring for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed?
It’s worth thinking about as we sing our songs and listen to our sermons each weekend.