Five questions I have for you this morning. Please don’t call out answers; it’s not a Bible trivia quiz. I just want us to ponder for a few moments. Here are my questions:
- Why are you here?
- What do you anticipate will happen in here?
- What do you think God wants to have happen in here?
- Are you comfortable here? (and I’m not talking about the folding chairs)
- What “ruffles your feathers”? Are there subjects you find irritating or even intolerable to have to listen to when you come to a worship service?
No, I’m not conducting a survey to see how we can make your worship experience here at Shema more enjoyable. Naturally we hope you find the worship here to be meaningful and that you grow in your understanding of God and His Word, but it is not at all my intention to conduct market research in the synagogue.
This morning we are going to consider an encounter in the life of Yeshua that is stunning for its drama, and thought-provoking. It might make you uncomfortable. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. How many times have you heard this from somebody who was justifying their never attending worship services: “I just haven’t found a church I’m comfortable in”? Biblically speaking, is being comfortable the goal of the worshiper?
What makes people uncomfortable? Did this person go to a service and the Holy Spirit was moving mightily, and they had come expecting nothing more than rituals and empty eloquence and were caught off guard? Or were they hoping to hear words that tickle the ear and make a person feel good about themselves, and what they heard instead was a message that they were sinful and in need of God’s forgiveness and rescue? The Gospel is hardly an ego-gratifying message. Or as the message read on a T-shirt, depicting
Yeshua dying and bloody on a cross: “If I’m okay and you’re okay, then explain THIS!”
You see, we human beings are rather fickle. Our emotions can carry us along like a roller coaster. This is true when we have expectations that go unmet over a long period of time, but perhaps more especially when we are confronted in a moment of time with an unexpected word or message, however true.
The fact is that fallen man is prone to spiritual lethargy, often necessitating wake-up calls, and God cares about us enough to provide them. It might come in the form of a disaster (though that seldom produces lasting results), or it may come in the form of revival, which is what is truly needed. Disasters don’t usually accomplish lasting change in us, because our “default mode” is comfort. We generally take the path of least resistance in every area of life. Once the disaster is past, we soon revert back to old habits. Let me offer up as evidence for the record the following facts:
According to the Barna Research Group, in the wake of the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, attendance at worship services among those identifying as Christian immediately spiked up 6% overall (4% among men, 8% among women). In fact, attendance at all religious services increased by about 25% nationwide after the attacks.
Listen to what the Barna Research Group had to say: Social analysts point out that people turn to religion in times of crisis and instability. The terrorist attacks on September 11 certainly shattered the stability and comfort of American’s lives, leading to a surge in church attendance and Bible sales immediately after the attacks. But what is the lingering effect of the attack and continued tension on people’s religious beliefs and practices? Those questions are answered with startling clarity in a new survey released by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California. Using 21 indicators of the nation’s spiritual climate, the study gives a comprehensive look at how people’s faith has changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. Not surprisingly, there has been a significant upturn in people’s concern about the future. In August, 73% of adults said they were concerned about the future; by November, that figure had increased to 82%. The population segment that expressed the greatest concern was adults 35 and younger, among whom nearly nine out of ten said they were concerned. The biggest increases in concern were registered among people 55 and older (up 17 points from the pre-attack level) and atheists (also up 17 points).1
Now, however, I want you to listen to what Sharon Tubbs, writing in The St. Petersburg Times had to say just one year later: “In the weeks after the terrorist attacks, Americans packed churches, synagogues and mosques. Some wanted to find answers for evil. Others sought solace among family and friends. But experts say attendance quickly dwindled; pews thinned within two months.
For the most part today, it’s worship as usual.
The increase “did not hold true,” said Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. “It lasted for a few weeks and that was it.”2
Why did church attendance spike? Simple: people needed comfort. Why didn’t it last? People wanted to be comfortable. I suspect that people’s return to church or synagogue or temple had little to do with getting ultimate answers to life, or readying their souls for the eventual day of their own death, but was merely one step on the road back to a comfortable existence. Why didn’t it last? Maybe it was just too difficult to keep getting up early on Sunday mornings. Or maybe in some churches the truth was being heralded faithfully, and those not inclined to repent found it just too uncomfortable to bear.
Let’s take a look at how one synagogue service in the Galilee got very uncomfortable very quickly, and perhaps in the process we’ll see where our own tolerance thresholds are. I know the Fourth of July is past, but this morning we’re going to witness some fireworks in the life of Yeshua. Please turn with me to Luke chapter four.
And Yeshua returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district.And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all.
This takes place immediately after Yeshua’s was tested in the wilderness. Recall that Israel had once been tested in the wilderness and found wanting (Ps. 95:8-11). Yeshua was tested in the wilderness and prevailed.
The text says He “returned” to Galilee. That’s where He had been before his testing. Early on in my walk with the Lord, I wondered why Yeshua spent so much time in the Galilee, and not more time in Jerusalem, where one might expect Messiah to stay. But then I read in the prophet Isaiah where it was foretold that God’s Servant, the Messiah, would call Galilee home, saying,
But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them…For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.
So Yeshua returned to the Galilee, and was evidently performing mighty miracles, and people began seeking Him out. “Word on the street” was there was a young upstart rabbi who was performing miracles and announcing the coming Kingdom of God. That was bound to stir up interest. The very early days of Messiah Yeshua’s ministry were characterized by great popularity, and He quickly developed a large following. It had been four centuries since Israel had seen a prophet in her midst! It was probably a combination of curiosity on the part of some and a deep longing on the part of others for someone to come and deliver Israel from the cruel, iron fist of Rome that initially brought throngs of people to come see who this Yeshua was. Synagogues around the shores of the Kinneret3 were extending invitations for Yeshua to come and teach.
I doubt He’d get those invitations from the synagogues of Bloomfield Hills today.
You see, the passage we’re going to study this morning reveals a marked shift in how He was regarded by those in His hometown. The “fireworks” are still ahead, so stay with me. Let’s pick up at verse 16.
And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read.
It was Yeshua’s custom to attend synagogue services on Shabbat. That might not seem in any way remarkable, since most people attend worship services weekly. But remember something: at this time the Temple was still in existence. Synagogue attendance was not mandatory. What were mandatory were the three annual Festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. A Jewish man would come to the Temple and make the prescribed sacrifices on those feast days. There would also be occasions to bring peace offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings and such to the Temple as needed. There would also have been occasions to show oneself to a priest after a period of uncleanness. But all these matters were handled through the auspices of the Temple.
Remember too, there were no such things as synagogues or rabbis in the Old Testament. The synagogue and the rabbinate developed as a result of our 70 years of Babylonian Captivity. Once back in the land, and with the Temple rebuilt, attendance at weekly services at the synagogue would have been voluntary.
I say this because too many people who call themselves believers are minimalists. If it isn’t absolutely commanded, they can’t be bothered to do it – whatever it is. In fact, some people identifying as believers don’t bother even to do the things that are commanded! Yeshua didn’t have to attend the synagogue, but He did – as a habit, a custom. The synagogue service, after all, revolved around the word of God. He desired to be there. He loved God’s word, and I think this is one way He set an example for us.
There’s something else I want to say. If the sinless, flawless Son of God deigned to attend services weekly at synagogues run by sinful, fallible human beings, how dare anyone ever say, “Oh, there just aren’t any good churches around.” Really?! Just who on earth do you think you are? Messiah Yeshua did not consider it beneath Himself to attend flawed, imperfect “churches” on Shabbat. What arrogance to imagine that it is beneath us! Don’t let people get away with that rubbish – call them on it!
And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,”THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOOD NEWS TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.”And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him.
This would have been the Haftarah reading, which came after the readings from the Torah. The Shabbat service in the synagogue consisted in standard prayers, followed by seven readings from the Torah, one by a Cohen, one by a Levi and five by Israelis. Following the readings from the Torah, it is customary to have a Haftarah reading – a reading from one of the prophets. You can follow the cycle of readings in most siddurs and also in a Chumash4 (a book containing the cycle of weekly Torah and Haftarah readings with accompanying commentary).
The Haftarah reading, traditionally, comprised not less than twenty-one verses. Yeshua read just one verse, Isaiah 61:1, adding to it a reference to 58:6, so we don’t know whether the entire text had been read and then Yeshua went back to take it verse by verse, giving His Targum (interpretation), or whether what would have been a longer reading was interrupted when the crowd in the synagogue reacted to His words, and there was never a chance to complete it. By the way, His having tied Isaiah 58:6 to Isaiah 61:1 and reading them together as though they were one passage was a popular rabbinical device we call charaz, or the idea of stringing together different verses, much as one would string pearls, in order to make one longer, thematic, reading.
I wonder whether Yeshua timed His return visit to His hometown synagogue at Nazareth to coincide with the Shabbat on which Isaiah 61 would have been the Haftarah reading, or whether He was permitted the luxury of choosing for Himself what to read as the Haftarah portion. In any case, Yeshua declared this passage to be referring to Himself, as we see in verse 21.
And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Let me tell you something: no rabbi ever said such a thing in giving a Targum!5 You need to understand just how remarkable a thing this was for Yeshua to say. It would have been as startling as His remarks in the Sermon on the Mount, when he repeatedly said, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…”. The effect was startling. Rabbis never spoke in their own name. Whether in pretense of humility or in earnest, it was regarded as impertinent. The tradition was that you gave your opinion through citing previous rabbis. Yeshua did not feel constrained to have to follow their tradition.
He was correct to interpret this passage as He did. Yeshua is the One who freed the captives, who gave sight to the blind, who preached Good News to the down-and-out, the disenfranchised of Israeli society; who released those oppressed by evil spirits. The Spirit of God most certainly was upon Him! More than that, it was His prerogative to speak in His own name, as is true for the author of any book. No ordinary rabbi would have dared ascribe this prophecy of Isaiah to himself. But then again, this was no ordinary rabbi. Yeshua was the Anointed One of God. Who else would the prophet Isaiah have been speaking of? Isaiah wrote more about the Messiah than every other Jewish prophet of old. This passage was just one of many which spoke of the glories of the Messiah. And here Yeshua tells the assembled worshipers in Nazareth that they are seeing its fulfillment firsthand! You can picture the astonishment that followed. Let’s read about it.
And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”
The congregation was bewildered by Yeshua’s authoritative assertion, in part, because they knew Him – at least, they thought so. Yeshua had, after all, grown up right there in Nazareth. No doubt the elders there had seen Him as a child, watched Him grow into adolescence and on into manhood. The same was true for the neighbors. They all knew Yeshua, and knew His family. They ask, Is this not Joseph’s son? Both Matthew and Mark record more fully what was said: He came to His hometown and began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”And they took offense at Him (Matthew 13:54-57a). In other words, “Hey, we knew Him when He was knee high to a grasshopper! We know His family, and none of them were scholars. He never went to any of our Yeshivas. So when did He become such a mayven?”6
And He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.'”And He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown.”
Yeshua knew their thoughts and their doubts and foretells their actions. He was indeed a prophet, though much, much more. Eventually He would return to Nazareth, and word of His many miracles will have preceded Him, (Capernaum is only 22 ½ miles NE of Nazareth – easily a day’s journey) and there would be the expectation that He “prove” Himself to the hometown crowd by performing miracles there, too.
A miracle desperately needed and prayed for is one thing. God delights to answer prayer. But a miracle demanded as proof is quite another. Those who insist on seeing a miracle before they’ll believe usually don’t get one. And in my experience, even when they do get a miracle, prideful people like that go out of their way to find some naturalistic explanation, rather than just admit they were wrong and repent and believe.
But Yeshua also foretells their mockery. He declares “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! This is only a slight variation on what would eventually be said to Yeshua as He suffered, dying on a Roman cross. It was recorded a thousand years earlier by David in Psalm 22:7-8, All who see me sneer at me; They separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying, “Commit yourself to the LORD; let Him deliver him; Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him.”
Yeshua then observes something long since proven true, and it reveals something about fallen man. “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown.” Wouldn’t you think a prophet would be most welcome in his hometown? But Mark records that Yeshua was not well received in Nazareth. Few believed in Him there, and on account of such unbelief He could do very few miracles. There’s only one reason I can think of to explain why a prophet would be unwelcome in his own town, and that’s jealousy; resentment.
It is ironic that we are quick to boast to others about having known such-and-such a celebrity before they became famous. Yet, at the same time, inside ourselves we resent them for their success. Resentment and jealousy are very much a part of the emotional makeup of this fallen human race. The Scriptures are unambiguous when it comes to outlining the sinful tendencies of man. And now Yeshua is about to press on one of our real sore spots.
“But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land;and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.”And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
Other than walking into a service wearing a Jews for Jesus t-shirt, I can think of no quicker way to ignite a firestorm in a synagogue than to challenge the subtle but very real ethnic/nationalistic pride inherent in much of Judaism both then and now. Whatever you may think of Messiah Yeshua’s tactics, never let it be said that He pulled punches.
Yeshua cites two examples of Israel’s moral failure: the widow of Sidon and the military leader of Syria, Naaman. The days of Elijah and Elisha were not good days in Israel. Most of our kings were disloyal, godless, idolatrous men. Our people were faithless. In the situation of both the Sidonian woman and Naaman the, these Gentiles showed more faith than God’s own people Israel, and were rewarded for it. These two passages out of the Book of Kings reveal a couple of truths:
- God judges the disloyalty and unbelief of a nation.
- God has a wonderful plan for Gentiles as well as Jews.
- There is nothing inherently superior about being Jewish.
It reminds me of John’s words to the Pharisees: Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham (Matthew 3:8-9)
You wouldn’t think that people in a religious service would get upset at the recitation of biblical passages. But they did, and they do. And if you think such prejudices exist only in the synagogue, you would be wrong again. I know of more than one pastor who was run out of a church for preaching truth from the word of God. People want their comfort. “Don’t you dare make my church service uncomfortable!”
Such anger is misplaced. Why blame the messenger, when your real complaint is with the message – the Scriptures. God’s word has a nagging way of finding whatever prejudices and sin continue to linger in the life of a believer. For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). That includes the Books of Kings and Chronicles. An honest read of any part of the word of God will show you things about yourself you didn’t want to see. The Scriptures, rightly preached, have the same effect as hydrogen peroxide on an open wound. It hurts, but you need it, unless of course you’d prefer an infection to set in.
But that doesn’t mean people have to like it. Look at how the men of the synagogue in Nazareth reacted to Yeshua’s words.
And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things;and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff.But passing through their midst, He went His way.
You know, the Galileans had a reputation for having short fuses. In fact, Galilee spawned more rebellions against Rome than any other part of Israel, even when those rebellions spread to Judea and Samaria (what is today called “the West Bank”). The people in that synagogue became enraged. They didn’t just kick Yeshua out of the synagogue, they attempted to murder Him! Why? Because He showed them their sin. This the verdict: light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil (John 3:19).
But lest you look at the men of Nazareth with disdain, let me assure you, this same thing could happen in any church or synagogue anywhere today. It could just as easily happen right here at Shema; and the problem isn’t traditional Judaism vs. messianic, or more liturgy vs. less liturgy, or more charismatic vs. less charismatic. The problem is us. The problem is you and me. We have this mistaken idea that “church” is supposed to be comfortable, when the truth is, “church” is supposed to be remedial. We’re not likely to tell ourselves the truth all week long. So we come together to worship, and part of that process is the word of God showing us ourselves, replete with our biases and prejudices and our bounteous sin, and it makes us uncomfortable. But it is precisely what we need!
I truly hope we will allow the curative properties of the word of God to have the desired effect in our lives. I hope we can learn to be uncomfortable in the House of God, knowing that He has our ultimate good in mind. I hope you and I will learn to be as forthright with others as Yeshua was. It serves no good purpose for us to tiptoe around the truth for fear of what people will think of us.
The good news is that you’re not likely to be run off a cliff for speaking the truth. Not yet anyway. But beyond that, I hope each of us will willingly subject ourselves to the authority of the Scriptures, and let them have their way in our lives through the work of the Holy Spirit who was given us as the pledge of our eternal inheritance.
May God give us the grace to patiently endure His chastening when it comes, for as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? (Hebrews 12:7); and as Yeshua said, Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent (Revelation 3:19).
1 The Barna Update, How America’s Faith Has Changed Since 9-11, November 26, 2001, Ó The Barna Group (http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=102)
2 What ever happened to . . . Our religious fervor?, Sharon Tubbs, Staff Writer, St. Petersburg Times
published September 9, 2002 (http://www.sptimes.com/2002/09/09/911/What_ever_happened_to.shtml)
3 Kinneret is what Israelis call the Sea of Galilee – because it is shaped kind of like a harp (Heb: kinnor)
4 Chumash is from the cardinal number 5 (Hebrew: vme î x’
5 A Targum is a rabbinical interpretation of a passage in sermonic form – basically to preach a text.
6 Yiddish: expert, authority or connoisseur. Not necessarily pejorative, though the expression can be used sarcastically, as it is meant here.