And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read" (Luke 4:16).*
Luke 4:16 is a good Adventist text. Like most Adventist evangelists, I have used it to hammer home the point that it was the custom of Jesus to keep the Sabbath. With the help of Webster's or Oxford's when I finish defining the word "custom" most of my audience is ready to concede that Sabbath-keeping is indeed part of walking in the footprints of Jesus.
But recently in preparing an evangelistic sermon on the Sabbath, I read and reread Luke 4:16, and the verses that followed gripped me with the essential core of the Nazareth sermon. On that Sabbath day in His home town Jesus seized the opportunity to proclaim the true meaning of His kingdom. What He proclaimed on that Sabbath is as important as the fact that He observed the Sabbath. In His Sabbath worship experience in Nazareth, Jesus gave us three great lessons in Christian fellowship: its time, its basis, and its scope.
A time for fellowship
By going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus underscored the need for a special time for fellowship. Some would suggest that the coming of Jesus has set us free from such obligations as the observance of the Sabbath. No way. Luke's use of the word "custom" was not to stress the routine nature of the occasion, but to affirm powerfully an indispensable part in the life of Jesus that He recognized that the Sabbath is God's community time, and He practiced it as such. His example acknowledges that the Sabbath is God's special time for a special fellowship with His people. Jesus' entry into history made no difference to this special time set apart at Creation, recognized as a memorial of God's liberating act in human history (see Deut. 5:6), and codified at Sinai. By His own example, Jesus sanctified the Sabbath observance and showed its intended meaning.
Part of this example was the purpose of the Sabbath: it's a time for adoration and worship, when the community of faith comes together to speak together the language of praise. In that speaking together, the community of faith assures the continuity of faith. Nothing ought to diminish that design. The evil nature of Nazareth, the hypocrisy of the community's leadership, the indifference of the people around, or even one's own unpreparedness to face the awesome presence of God is no excuse to refrain from coming to God's temple. God is there, and the Sabbath is His time in space, inviting sinners to seek His forgiving grace and urging saints to acknowledge the source of their being, strength, and hope.
The basis for fellowship
By the sermon He preached, Jesus revealed the basis for Christian fellowship. That fellowship is based on Christian good news. That good news is the raison d' etre for the community of faith. From the prophet Isaiah, the Lord drew out the fundamental ingredients of His good news. It's not some thing so otherworldly that it's irrelevant for here; it's not so intricate that one needs a rabbinical expertise to understand its nature; it's not so mundane that it has no eternal significance.
The gospel Jesus preached is relevant, simple, and eternally significant. It's a message of freedom from oppression; of sight to the blind; of good news to the poor all within the context of the year of the Lord, and all made possible because the Spirit of the Lord had anointed Him, set Him apart, and directed Him for that specific task.
Persons before and persons after Jesus have spoken about freedom and justice, but the one singular difference with the proclamation at Nazareth is the assertion that freedom and justice, in their truest and fullest sense, are possible only within the context of the "year of the Lord." The year, of course, does not refer to a calendar, but to the era of salvation that Jesus has inaugurated. With Him has come the possibility of true liberation and justice the liberation of the whole person in the process of establishing His kingdom of justice and peace. The passage that Jesus quotes is from Isaiah's prophetic hope that the Messiah would intervene in history and usher in the kingdom. And Jesus added, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21).
The word "today" is significant. The Jews expected the kingdom of God to come sometime in the future in a dramatic, militaristic way, up rooting an alien regime in Judea and ushering in the Davidic throne. But Jesus gave no such hope. He was saying that the kingdom had already come in His Person, and that He would break the power of sin, crush the devil, and free the oppressed captives of his domain. The freedom that Jesus spoke is a freedom from sin as well as its resultant effect upon the community in which the individual lives. The gospel of Jesus is thus individually and corporately relevant.
Wherever there is a struggle with sin, wherever poverty and injustice dehumanize a person, wherever there is brick without straw, duty without dignity, existence without hope, religion without love, the gospel, with all its liberating power, needs to impact and create the new person.
By this we are not talking about a call to arms or a covenant with humanistic notions of freedom and dignity. We are referring to a personal identification with the Nazareth edict, with the Man of the cross. Find from Him the cost of sin. Seek from Him the forgiveness for sin. Identify with Him fully. Carry the cross He gives daily. Create with Him the community of faith, freedom, and justice. Proclaim to the world in word and deed that the kingdom of God is not a pie in the sky by and by, but a reality that confronts life where it matters most here on earth.
Once that happens, the other would follow: a commitment to carry out the Nazareth edict wherever we live. The point deserves to be repeated. With out the individual experience of identifying with Jesus, there can be no readiness to create the community of faith. Without letting the dynamic of the cross do its work of freeing the individual from the guilt and power of sin, there could be no adequate expression of communal love or justice. The kingdom must transform the person first before it can impact the persons who make up a community.
And without the willingness to participate in that community and to live the Nazareth plea, the individual claims of knowing the Lord is at best meaningless.
The scope of fellowship
At Nazareth Jesus defined the fellowship of His kingdom as going beyond the known frontiers of His congregation to include the unknown, the rejected, and the apparently lost. He was introducing a new definition of community and corporate responsibility, and it is at that level the Nazareth community failed. As long as "gracious words. . . proceeded out of his mouth," "all spoke well of him" (Luke 14:22). Gracious words are soothing to the soul. A message of love and care is like the balm of Gilead, full of healing and restoration to the suffering individual. But the moment Jesus outlined the universal implications of His gospel, the Nazareth congregation was ready to slay its Prophet.
What went wrong? The admiring congregation at Nazareth turned into a vengeful mob because they were not ready to accept the frontier-free nature of the gospel of Jesus. Jesus was saying that His kingdom was for the Jews as well as the Gentiles. Both the chosen Elijah and the gentile widow of Zarephath can experience the goodness of His kingdom. Both Elisha the prophet and Naaman the Syrian leper do need to experience the cleansing stream (see Luke 4:25-27). But the people of Nazareth, who defined chosenness as exclusiveness and there fore thought that gentiles were fodder for the fires of hell, could not stomach a message as radical as that of Jesus. We can have Elijah and we can accept Elisha, they argued; but who is this carpenter's Son to tell us to take in the triple disaster of Zarephath (a Gen tile, a woman, and a widow at that) or to understand the puzzle of Syria a gentile leper? But the preacher at the Nazareth pulpit would have it no other way: such is the cost of His kingdom.
And immediately admiration gave way to anger, acceptance to rejection. And such failures at the corporate level to accept the implications of the Christian gospel are not limited to distant history. As long as Jesus leaves me alone, offers me my freedom from sin, provides me a cushion to lean on, and directs me and my family toward a home beyond the sunset, that's just fine. I can praise the Lord for moving so mysteriously His wonders to per form in me. But the moment Jesus challenges me to live and love within the context of a community accepting as potential partners of the kingdom those with a different perspective, a varying look, a flatter nose, or whatever I find myself at a fork. Should I let the moral me subtly merge with the immoral mob, full of righteous wrath, rushing to throw the Lord headlong down the hill? Or should I let the Lord crucify my pride and prejudice and make me a part of His family, where everyone who takes up His cross really belongs?
* All Scripture passages are from the Revised Standard Version.