You’ve probably heard the old saying, “You can’t go home again.” Tom Wolfe, the famous American novelist, actually used it as the title of one of his books. It’s the idea that “home” is really more a product of our memories and that, in reality, the things we think are permanent about our hometown are always changing, as are we.
Anyone who has journeyed back to their hometown after years away knows what it means. Things are just not the same anymore. Every couple of years I get nostalgic and want to head back home to Slippery Rock, PA for a visit, to touch some of those memories from high school. I want to remember what it was like to be at a Saturday football game, to go over to the old Bob’s Sub and Sandwich Shop with its slanting, creaking floors and gruff ladies behind the counter to order a Senior Super (hold the tomato), grab a can of Pepsi from the cooler, and play endless games of Galaga in the back room. I loved that old place and the hours my friends and I spent there.
But alas, the old Bob’s is not there anymore. It was torn down and replaced with a McDonald’s, of all things (a crime against humanity). Oh, the Sub Shop is still there, still serving the best sandwiches on the planet, but it’s now housed in the old Post Office a block away and it’s just not the same. Most of the people I knew are gone as well. Things have changed…but even more so, I have changed. Sometimes it takes going home to remind us of that fact. We have new families, new pursuits, in new places. It’s never going to be “home” again.
I wonder if this is what Jesus was thinking when he went home to Nazareth. The text tells us that Jesus left home at some point, going down to the Jordan to be baptized and then heading into the wilderness of Judea for forty days of temptation and preparation. After that, he spent some unspecified amount of time traveling around Galilee and preaching in the synagogues. We don’t know how long he was gone, but we do know that his traveling was unusual in a time when people, especially adult males, tended to take over the family business and stay at home.
But Jesus left for a while, and it’s clear that things had changed—and it would become clear to everyone else that he had changed, too. Luke tells us that Jesus “went to Nazareth, where he had been raised” and went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, just like he had done every Sabbath since he was a boy. In verses 14 and 15 we learn that news had spread about him as he taught in the local synagogues in Galilee, and now he had returned home—the local boy made good.
It made sense, then, that when the Sabbath came he was invited to read the scroll and preach from the text. You can imagine Mary just beaming, his younger siblings feeling a bit jealous, proud grandparents getting pats on the back from the neighbors as they sat in the synagogue (men and women on separate sides, of course). The attendant brought out the scroll of Isaiah (all the books of the Hebrew Bible were on separate scrolls), which was likely the reading for the day. The custom was that the reader stood to read the text and then sat down to interpret it, and Jesus unrolled the scroll to the place we now know as Isaiah 61 (of course, there were no chapter and verse numbers then, he just knew the passage he was looking for).
He read those words we heard read during Advent: “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.” These were the prophet’s proclamation of the jubilee year, a reference to Leviticus 25 and the release of debts and slaves which was to occur every 50 years. There’s no evidence that Israel actually practiced this, however, but Isaiah picks up the image anyway as a sign of what will happen when Israel is finally redeemed. For many Jews in Jesus’ day, especially those in Roman occupied Galilee, the text was a sign of hope that the foreign oppressors would be expelled, which is why they would have waited anxiously for the next line—the proclamation of “the day of vengeance of our God.” The Messiah would be the anointed one who would usher this jubilee into reality by leading the opposition against the oppressors.
But Jesus didn’t read that line. Luke says that he stopped reading, rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. And then Jesus uttered the words that began a revolution: “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today—the messianic era has begun. Today, Jesus says, the messiah is before you.
I almost imagine Jesus’ family, his oikos burying their heads in their hands at this point. “He’s always been a little strange,” his brothers and sisters may have thought. “I knew he was special,” Mary may have whispered, “but he’s gone too far.” The small crowd of extended family and family friends began to murmur. “What about vengeance on our enemies?” What did he say? Does he think he’s the Messiah? Isn’t this the same snot-nosed kid who used to run by my shop in the mornings? He just cut me a new handle for a rake, and now he’s the Messiah? Unbelievable!
But Luke has already hinted to us, the reader, that this was the agenda of the one born in a manger all along. The old man Simeon had seen it when Mary and Joseph brought him to the temple to be dedicated. “My eyes of seen your salvation,” Simeon prayed, “which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:29-32). The servant Messiah has not come to inflict punishment on the nations, not even on the occupying Gentile Romans, but to bring God’s love and mercy to them. This was Israel’s original mission, and now that mission was to be fulfilled by a Messiah who grew up making tools and not swords.
In other words, Jesus will bring to his hometown the radical message that God’s love and grace transcends boundaries—that the grace of God can actually turn enemies into friends if we allow it to work; that transformation is possible for even the most egregious of sinners; that outsiders can become insiders. Indeed, Jesus goes a step further by pointing out two incidents from Israel’s history where God gave preference, healing, and grace to outsiders. We’ve already talked about one of these incidents during our journey through the Old Testament in the fall: the widow from Zarephath in Sidon who gave bread to Elijah during a famine and who, in turn, received the blessing of food that wouldn’t run out. And then there is the story Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army (Israel’s enemy), whom Elisha cured of leprosy. There were plenty of people in Israel suffering from hunger and from leprosy, says Jesus, but the prophets were sent to these outsiders, who received the grace of God. Jesus’ point? His own people, his own family, his own town won’t receive this message, nor will they receive him, but the Gentiles will.
Jesus was inviting his family, his oikos, to take on that mission, but they will not hear it from him. It is much safer, much easier, much more self-righteous, to stay secluded in the hills, to stick with our own tribe, to keep things within the family. It’s those who stay at home who often don’t realize that change is needed. Jesus’ message of grace brought about a violent reaction in his hometown, and it still does so today when it challenges all interests and agendas with God’s surprising grace. Grace challenges tribalism, nationalism, racism, sexism, and a whole lot of other -isms that keep people separated from one another. Grace forces us to get out and take a walk and explore the places where Jesus wants to lead us and engage the people who may not be like us but who are important to the one who is the Lord of all the nations.
But Nazareth won’t hear it. They drag Jesus out to the edge of town to the edge of cliff to throw him off it. That’s how you stoned people in the ancient world—you throw them off a cliff and then rain large rocks on them to finish the job. The people of Nazareth have no authority to do this, but they have a mob mentality and will not be stopped—even if Jesus’ own family, members of the community, try to intervene. It’s interesting and instructive that Luke does not tell us that they tried to do so. Indeed, Jesus’ whole oikos is silent, or it least it seems that way. I would expect Luke to at least tell us that Mary hung on to him to protect him, but he doesn’t. It’s hard to say why. Maybe she and the rest of the family didn’t get it, either. Maybe they thought Jesus had lost his mind (they certainly think that later in Gospel story as we will see). Maybe they were too afraid of what it would cost them to intervene, given that they still had to live in the community. Whatever the reason, this incident exposes the truth that we see throughout the Gospel narrative—following Jesus is going to cost you something.
The Mount of Precipice outside of Nazareth is the traditional site of the cliff. It’s a stunning view from there overlooking the Jezreel Valley. From there you can see landmarks that were important in Israel’s history: to the east, Mount Tabor, site of Deborah’s victory in the book of Judges, to the west, Megiddo and Mount Carmel, site of Elijah’s victory over the prophets of Baal, and to the south the hill of Moreh where Gideon defeated the Midianites with 300 men carrying torches. All were sites of Israelite triumph. It seems fitting that the Nazarenes would want to throw him off the cliff there for extending grace to Israel’s enemies.
But Luke says that Jesus simply “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” I wonder how that worked? Did they get to arguing with one another? Did they lose Jesus on the way? Did, in fact, his family finally intervene? We don’t know. What we do know, however, is that Jesus will leave Nazareth and not return. He will go down to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, a journey that will change the world forever. There he will establish a new family, a family through whom boundaries are broken, grace extended, and peace offered to all the nations.
In 2015, my friend Chris and I took the 40 mile hike from Nazareth down to Capernaum, the place where Jesus established a new home and a new family of disciples. As I hiked out of Nazareth, however, I couldn’t help but think about how Jesus felt as he left everything and everyone behind. Did he look back, as we did, at the hills behind him or did he “set his face” on what was ahead. That was the choice before him, and I think it’s the choice that following him gives us as well.
Alyce McKenzie tells the story of a young American who became a tour guide in Israel and while he studied a lot, it’s difficult for a guide starting out to know every answer to every question. While in a bus going up to Nazareth, he pointed out to the group the cliff that may be the site where the people sought to throw Jesus off. A voice in the back of the bus asked, “What’s it called?” The young guide couldn’t think of the official name, so he blurted out, “It’s called the Mount of Jumpification.”
Says McKenzie: “Everybody has their own internal Mount of Jumpification—where they have the choice to reject [Jesus] and his message and his gifts. Or not. Where they have the opportunity to give up prejudice and celebrate the fact that God’s mercy and liberation are meant for all. Where they give up defensiveness, accept the prophetic critique, and commit themselves to Jesus’ kingdom of righteousness and justice…Between what Jesus says and how we respond, there is a question mark, there is suspense. We ourselves hang from a cliff—will we accept the hard truth about our lives and our acceptance or rejection of God through Jesus, or will we close our ears?”
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he says. “He has anointed me to preach 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.”
This is his mission and it is ours as well. We’re invited to be part of a new home, a new family centered around Jesus. In chapter 8 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus mother and brothers come down from Nazareth to see Jesus and, perhaps, try to talk some sense into him—maybe even to get him to come back home. They were unable to reach him because of the crowds gathered around Jesus. “Your mother and your brothers want to see you,” someone said to Jesus. His reply? “My mother and brothers are those who listen to God’s word and do it.” He would not go home again. Home is wherever the followers of Jesus gather!
One of the truths of living in Colorado is that most of us come from somewhere else. We’re a much more mobile society than that of Jesus’ day. We know we can’t go home again, but we have been called to a new family of disciples called the church. It’s here we find our “oikos,” our home, and the best Christian movements have always understood that the church is not an institution or a social club, but a community of Christ followers. Our Methodist movement was built on this principle, gathering people into small groups of disciples called “Class Meetings” for the purpose of building one another up in faith and in the mission of Christ.
We’re reviving that movement here at TLUMC. Our new Life Groups are part of that—small communities of people focused on becoming new families of faith—a spiritual home for learning and growing and becoming more like Jesus. We have some new groups starting this month and we’re very excited about them. Will you be part of a new family, a new oikos this year?
I get a Bob’s Sub every time I go back home. It’s not quite the same, but it’s fun to remember some good times (and grieve over some not-so-good times). But my home is here now—it’s wherever the followers of Jesus are gathered together. It might take a leap of faith to get there, but we find our true home wherever two or three are gathered together in Christ. Jesus left home and didn’t go back. He made a new one. We can, too.
That’s the lesson from the Mount of Jumpification!