Adapting (Fourth Sunday after Epiphany)

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This fall, I’ll be leading a trip to the Holy Land, and one of the places we’re going to visit is Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, which is the setting of today’s Gospel reading. And as I’ve often mentioned when I’ve talked about my previous trips over there, visiting the actual biblical places makes the story come alive in ways that it can’t if you just read the story from a book. 

So when you visit Nazareth, you learn some interesting stuff. For example:

  • Nazareth is in the middle of nowhere! It’s off the beaten path now, and it was in the first century as well… (this is why in John’s Gospel guys like Nathaniel ask, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?!”)
  • While the area around Nazareth is kind of pretty, it isn’t spectacular and nobody would go there for the scenery. You might think this would be the case because Luke thinks it’s built on the edge of a cliff, but it’s actually on a hillside. There is a cliff, with a spectacular view of the Jezreel Valley, but it’s a 3 km hike away … (which is why, if Luke’s version of this story is correct and people did want to throw Jesus off of the cliff, he would have had lots of opportunity to slip away…)
  • Today, Nazareth is a fairly good sized town. It’s actually one of the larger cities in northern Israel. But it probably wouldn’t exist at all today, except because of its association with Jesus. In fact, archaeologists estimate from the first century ruins that only about 200 people lived in Nazareth in the early part of the first century…

And knowing those things helps me to understand why, when Jesus returned to Nazareth after he began to become famous for his teaching, healing and miracles, probably most of the people in Nazareth figured that they were finally in for some serious recognition! 

They might be small, and out of the way, and not particularly noteworthy, but finally one of their hometown boys had made good! Jesus was becoming famous, and they could see that somehow God was working in him. And they probably figured that they should get something out of this. Now that Jesus had come home, what would Jesus do for them?

As Luke tells the story, it seems clear that those folks in Nazareth expected that they should get something from God. Perhaps they’d finally become famous.  Maybe even Jesus would stay and make Nazareth the base of operations. And at very least, they figured they were entitled to a double dose of Jesus’ miracles and healings. After all, they had raised Jesus, and shouldn’t they get some recognition now?

But when Jesus wouldn’t show favoritism, or perform miracles simply for their entertainment, they got mad. They began to wonder if all they had heard about Jesus was really true. And they figured that if Jesus wouldn’t do something spectacular for them, then they must not matter to Jesus’ plans. And so they figured Jesus wasn’t worth having around, and they chased him out.

The irony is that for 20 centuries Nazareth has been famous for being the hometown of Jesus. For 20 centuries, Nazareth has been one of the few places in the Bible people have heard of and can actually pronounce! And for 20 centuries, people have gone to Nazareth not because Jesus performed miracles there, but because it was through Nazareth that God raised up the Messiah.

So it turns out that Nazareth – and those 200 people that lived there – really were an important part of God’s plan to redeem the world. But they were important not because God did something FOR them, but because God did something THROUGH them.

And while it’s easy to criticize ancient people in Nazareth, it’s also easy for us to focus on what God has done for us, or what we wish God would do for us. Yet when we do that, we miss out on what God has done, and is doing, through us.  And we miss the point of what it means to be a community of God’s people.

Last weekend, at our congregational meeting, I made the point that, as a Christian community, we’re living in a very different social and cultural situation than we have in generations. And as we move into the future, it’s important for us to recognize that things are going to be different for us, and to consider what it means for us to be a community of God’s people in a different time and situation.  

That really was the challenge that the people in that synagogue in Nazareth faced as well. Jesus was already dramatically changing things around them, and things were going to work differently. And like many communities, the different ways that things would work had both possibilities and pitfalls. Communities of God’s people would need to adapt.

So what might that kind of adaptation look like for us? I don’t have all the answers to that, but Jesus’ experience in Nazareth suggests that part of adapting to new and different ways of living as God’s people means:

  • Realizing that our purpose as a Christian community is to help people have a living experience of Jesus in their lives… (the people in Nazareth literally had Jesus physically in their midst! That was the key thing! But they didn’t appreciate that as the center of their life together; and yet, that’s the core of what who we’re called to be…)
  • Considering how God has worked through us to help and give life to people we’ve never met and never will meet, instead of asking “what has God done for me lately?” After all, lots of those folks in Nazareth never met anybody in Capaernum or some of the other places that Jesus went. Yet they somehow weren’t able to say, “Wow! God did great things for other people, and in a small way, that involved us!”; and sharing Jesus with others, and passing on our faith in Jesus to our kids, is also part of the core of who we also need to be; and if Christian communities don’t do it, nobody else will…
  • Accepting that being a community which experiences and shares Jesus is  worth doing, even if the world around us doesn’t think who we are or what we do is important anymore; in the end the folks in Nazareth wanted to be the cool kids in the world; and after centuries of being in the center of western society, that’s still getting in the way of many Christian communities…

So what does it mean to be a community of God’s people when Jesus is calling us to a different way of living and a different way of understanding ourselves? That was the challenge Jesus presented to his home congregation in Nazareth. And it’s the challenge Jesus presents to us today.

It’s a challenge I’m going to be thinking more about on my sabbatical. But it’s a question all of us in Christian communities need to consider and act upon. And while none of us have all the answers (or maybe even an idea), we can be sure of a few things. We can be sure that Jesus is still in our midst, promising us his continuing presence. We can be sure that Jesus is going to be leading us into the future, even when it’s unclear what the future holds. And most of all, we can be sure that we’ll still be included in Jesus’ future, even when, like those ancient folks in Nazareth, we get things wrong.