Thursday, August 20, 2009

Luke 4:16-37 - A Tale of Two Synagogues

The synagogue at Capernaum
Just after the Temptation of Jesus in Luke chapter 4, in which Christ established his authority, we have the tale of two synagogues, first the one at Nazareth and then the one at Capernaum.

  1. NAZARETH: At Nazareth, Luke says that the congregation “spoke well of him” and were “amazed at his gracious words” (4:22). They were polite. They were properly religious. But when he explained to them the text which he had read in the scroll at Isaiah 61, that God’s grace extended even to the Gentiles (4:24-27), their polite religiosity evaporated before the heat of their fury at the truth (4:28). Jesus had dared violate their religious prejudice, their long-time way of doing things. Didn’t he understand that “we’ve never done it that way”? Their anger turned to violence and attempted murder. But their offense was rooted in self-centeredness. They had not submitted to his authority. They spoke well of him only so long as he did as they expected him to, as long as he towed their line, as long as he was loyal to them and they way they did things. And Jesus? How did he handle that furious response? Jesus didn’t defend himself. He didn’t fight back. He walked away.

  2. CAPERNAUM: At Capernaum, by contrast, the congregation was not just enamored at the way he spoke, but they were “amazed at his teaching because his message had authority” (4:32). Jesus did not rely on centuries of rabbinical opinion. He spoke the word of God from the text. Then in a dramatic display of the fulfillment of Isaiah 61 in their hearing, a demon cried out, “Ha, What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (the town where his authority was not honored). Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” (4:34). Jesus’ first public miracle was deliverance from a demon, what Isaiah 61 calls releasing the oppressed. In swift, short, sharp authority, Jesus silenced the evil spirit and commanded it come out of the man. No incantations, no prolonged magic, no pleading. Only a severe, “Be muzzled. Come out.” His authority demonstrated itself by coming out of the man without harming him (4:35). And the congregation’s response to this display in the middle of their worship service? Amazement. Recognition of his authority. Spreading the word about Jesus Christ all over the region.
  1. A Few Observations and Applications to our churches:
    1. First, our congregations respond to Christ’s authority in similar fashion. We know how to be polite and courteous. We know the correct religious platitudes and pseudo-gracious words and tones to use. The Chinese have nothing on us. We have our own religious tonal language. But don’t cross the line, or the fury will explode. Don’t offend our religious prejudice or we will remove you, you vile speaker of truth. The root of course is the same as plagued the Nazareth synagogue. Disdain for Christ’s authority. Some of us have been in church so long that we actually begin to believe that the church belongs to us, and that we are in charge. In fact we aren’t. Jesus is the one who sits in authority, not you and me. Jesus walked away from the synagogue at Nazareth. He’s a gentleman. He will not force himself on those who reject his Word. And then we sit and wonder why our churches are dying.
    2. Second, our congregations thrive when they submit to Christ’s authority. Now I doubt that anyone expected to see a demon come out of an otherwise normal synagogue member when the parishioners arrived that Sabbath morning in Capernaum. But Jesus’ presence brought miraculous deliverance. The submission of God’s people to Christ’s authority brought about Christ’s cleansing, Christ’s power, Christ’s healing, and Christ’s peace.
    3. And one more thing. Submission to Christ’s authority also brought about evangelism. The text says that news about him spread throughout the surrounding area (4:37). How did that happen? It happened because that congregation, amazed and submitted to Christ’s authority, talked about that Jesus. They told their neighbors and their coworkers about Jesus. They told their families about Jesus. They spread his fame and made his name great in that region.
    4. Now here we are sitting with one another. Will we submit to Christ’s authority? Will we celebrate Christ’s Word, even though it offends our personal, religious prejudice? Will we spread His fame throughout our region? May Christ grant it by His authority. Amen.