Culture/Ideas

How A Preacher Gets Thrown Off a Cliff Then & Now

We launched our “Luke by the Lake” summer Bible study last Wednesday which is intended to be a kind of “detox” for those who are weary of the ideological rancor and confusion in today’s toxic news media landscape. Let’s immerse ourselves in Jesus’ words and actions, and find our focus again.

Jesus launched his preaching ministry by returning to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4. I’ve always enjoyed this story as I know what it’s like to be a “hometown prophet.” He reached for Isaiah 61 and announced his messianic Kingdom agenda:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

(Luke 4:18-19)

He would then immediately set out to “practice what he preached.” But notice how his hometown congregation responds to the hometown preacher. First they are amazed and speak well of him:

“The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.” (Luke 4:20-22)

But not for long. Jesus’ good news announcement of blessing for God’s chosen people, Israel, soon shifts to a prophetic challenge confronting Israel’s tribalistic and nationalistic tendencies. Today this nationalism often bleeds into a kind of excessive patriotism that believes God’s favor lies with one particular nation, and thereby often loses sight of the global, transnational, multiethnic vision that is God’s salvation project (cf. Rev. 7:9).

Jesus has made a significant pulpit blunder (if he values his life) by daring to call Israel on its tribalism and nationalistic tendencies. What he says next results in something far less congenial than the polite handshakes at the door or small talk over coffee and donuts in the fellowship hall today. We read:

 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. (Luke 4:28-29)

I had the privilege to stand on that steep hill or cliff outside Nazareth last year (see photo).

Every preacher has should have a story of being pressed into a corner and seeing fire in the eyes of an offended congregant after a sermon, unless they are in the ear-tickling business. This current moment of political division and competing partisan narratives has placed many preachers in an impossible position (if keeping one’s job and not dividing a congregation is the goal). Say anything political, and you will likely upset half your congregation (if your congregation includes people on the Right and Left).

Jesus didn’t come to reinforce everyone’s beliefs and keep a congregation happy. He came to launch a movement and he calls disciples of every era to leave their various” ideological boats” behind, and to get in his boat filled with zealots and tax collectors, liberals and conservatives, for a dangerous voyage of exposing and breaking down social and political barriers and prejudices.

One of these perennial problems is the church’s tendency toward tribalism and nationalism — the belief that “God is on our side” and against our enemies. The other is our tendency to colonize God’s agenda to fit our own. When God acts in ways that do not line up with our expectations, we resist and ultimately reject God’s agenda while continuing to pursue our own misguided (even godless) direction, and shamelessly doing it in His name!

So, what happened to get Jesus’ hometown crowd so angry they were about to throw him off a cliff? He hints that his teaching and healing ministry is going to be largely rejected by the so-called good, Bible-believing Jews who claim to have “God on their side.” On the other hand, Jesus will be understood and welcomed by all the “wrong people,” and we need to insert our own particular “others” into that category for our cultural moment.

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[g] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.

Just like in Elijah’s and Elisha’s day, Jesus’ Kingdom blessings will burst the geographical, ideological, and ethnic boundaries of Israel in order to bless Gentiles such as the widow in Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. In his ministry, Jesus will love Israel’s enemies such as Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and Samaritans. He will shatter Israel’s religious norms by touching “unclean” lepers, healing on the sabbath, eating and blessing all the “wrong people.” Today’s Evangelical Christian should imagine Jesus being rejected by the Southern Baptist Convention, but strangely getting a hearing from LGBTQ+ community, socialists, and liberal activists. This is not a political claim so much as a basic biblical fact by anyone who pours over the red letters in their Bible.

Luke’s Gospel, more than any other, is intentionally showing Jesus as launching a scandalous movement that breaks down our human-made barriers, and the good news is only true to the full gospel when it has this here-and-now social and political critique and calling to be part of a New Humanity that refuses to force people in neat little boxes, and paint complex issues and ideas in simple black and white (or red and blue) terms.

Friends, there is a ton of crazy on both the Left and Right in our nation right now. Let’s try to avoid the sub-Christian tendencies found on both extremes. Let’s also try to see and acknowledge the goodness and Jesus-shaped values at work on both sides. Let’s not label all Conservatives as racists and White Nationalists. Let’s not assume all forms of “wokeness” and every social justice initiative is driven by some sinister form of Cultural Marxism. Let all people who follow Jesus test all their political convictions and instincts in light of his actual teachings and social interactions (I recommend starting with the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7).

Finally, preachers need to get more guts and speak Jesus-shaped, Kingdom Truth into the chaos of this cultural moment, and expect to face the fury of the mob of political idolaters filling many pews in our nation right now. N. T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham, once quipped that, “Wherever Paul went to preach he incited a riot; wherever I go to speak they serve tea and crumpets.” Like any preacher willing to speak hard truths, Jesus anticipates the shocked reaction he’s about to get in Luke 4:23:

Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ (Luke 4:23)

Likewise, pastors and preachers today who dare to bring a foreign word from outside the political silos of Fox News and CNN, who are channeling the provocative teachings of a crucified leader who challenged all the political and religious factions of his own day, should be getting plenty of quizzical and disturbed looks from their people as they preach. They will likely hear (audible or in their facial expressions, or in their quiet departure from membership) something like: “Hey, preacher, you sound a bit too Blue (or Red), and we don’t like you poking us with your scalpel; try healing yourself!” But the question is: Where does the sickness truly lie?

A second question: Who do prophets aim their boldest critiques and challenges at? Unbelieving secularists and liberal university professors? Or the religious leaders and institutions who claim to represent and speak for God? The answer in Scripture (and Jesus’ own ministry!) is clear: God loves his people enough to rebuke and correct, challenge and confront them. This is why 90% of my own social/political critique in the era of Trump has been toward my own tribe, the White Evangelical Church in America. My heart is broken and maddened by what I have seen within my tribe. Here’s what many, including myself, have observed:

White Evangelicals are among those most likely to distrust the science and most resistant to the CDC guidelines and getting the vaccine.

White Evangelicals have led the way in the anti-mask movement, insisting on “my rights” over the basic call to love my neighbor by simply putting on a mask in public.

White Evangelicals are among those most likely to believe and propagate conspiracy theories.

White Evangelicals are among those most vociferously supporting the lie that the election was stolen.

White Evangelicals are among those least willing to acknowledge and work to heal ongoing racism in our country.

White Evangelicals are among those most likely to believe the United States has God’s special favor among the nations.

White Evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptists are most opposed to women in church leadership.

White Evangelicals are among those most passionate about defending gun rights and most opposed to legislation.

And on and on and on.

Now, I make these observations not as a “woke” liberal, but as a moderately conservative White Evangelical pastor whose been educated at three Baptist institutions (not exactly bastions of liberal education). I spend most of my days reading the engaging Evangelical biblical scholarship, listening to conservative-leaning podcasts and “the good neighbor” AM 830 WCCO radio my dad listed to (and probably my grandparents on the farm), while dipping in and out of Fox News and MSNBC a few minutes each nights to get a taste of the two alternative political realities. I’m simply trying to grasp and teach others basic message of the Kingdom of God, and the social and political edges of the Jesus Movement Christians are called to embody in our world.

Certainly, we need to be wary of the goals and direction of Leftism, the insanity of Cancel Culture and Political Correctness, and unchecked University Group Think. We need to be equally disturbed about the paranoia, delusion, fear-mongering, and anti-intellectual Populist Group Think on the Right. I want to be only as “woke” as Jesus and only “woke” in his uniquely Kingdom way. But the opposite of woke is not conservative; it’s asleep, blind, indifferent, or in denial. “Get Woke, O sleeper!” the Apostle shouted to the church of his day, “And Christ (and his new vision for humanity) will shine on you (Eph. 5:14)! Oh, how we need Christ to shine his light and wisdom on and through the American Evangelical Church in this moment!

As I wrote some months back, echoing Patrick Henry’s famous warning to young America, “Give us nuance, or give us death!” Give us a more generous and lucid dialogue in our politics, or it will be the death of our democracy and nation.

I draw strength and sanity knowing that our true citizenship is the upside-down Kingdom of God whom Christ has placed us here in this land to be a signpost and colony of! So, before we throw any Kingdom preachers off a cliff, let us ask God to give us the “ears to hear” what Christ is calling the church toward and get busy being the Jesus-looking salt and light our nation and world need in this dark and bitter moment.

“Pursue the unpopular, cross-shaped Way. For the ideologies and lifestyles that lead to personal and cultural demise are broad, and the masses are flooding those paths. But Jesus’ ethical vision or Way leading to human flourishing is narrow and few find it. Beware of lying and misguided talking heads. They come to you in polished suits and wearing make-up for the camera, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. (Matthew 7:13-15 my paraphrase)

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