The Familiar Stranger: an account by a former cynic. A sermon based on Luke 4:21-30.
Jesus 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. Jesus said to them, "Surely you will quote this proverb to me: 'Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.' " "I tell you the truth," he continued, "no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 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. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian." 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 down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
The day Jesus came back, he was a like familiar stranger to us. We’d heard about his teaching, how he gripped and amazed people with the power and the clarity of his preaching. We’d heard about his way of reading the Scriptures, bringing them to life in a way the other teachers never could do. We were told that hearing Jesus was like hearing a prophet speak the very word of God. The sayings of Jesus were already legendary, they were already catchphrases in all the towns of Galilee. But it wasn’t just amazing teaching that marked Jesus out from the others. He had power, apparently. He healed people, so we were told. We’d heard about Simon’s mother-in-law cured of her fever. He even had control over demons, so it was claimed. We’d heard about the demon possessed man at Capernaum.
The day Jesus came back, we expected to see and hear great things. We expected Jesus to preach and speak with the same power and the same passion we’d heard about. We expected Jesus to perform great works of healing, to demonstrate that his words could be matched by his actions. After all, actions speak more loudly than words. And in the synagogue Jesus certainly showed us how well he could speak. He amazed us. Not with his insights. Not with the craft of his sermon. We were amazed by his assurance, and by his claims about fulfilling the Scriptures. Jesus believed that the day of the Lord’s favor had arrived! He believed that he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord, that he was bringing in the kingdom.
The day Jesus came back, we remembered Jesus as a boy. We remembered how well Jesus had been to us friend, colleague, member of the local community. We remembered how he worked with Joseph, how he had learned the family business. We remembered how diligent he was in everything. We remembered then how he grew in wisdom and in good reputation. We remembered our surprise and our shock on the day he left us, on the day he quietly left town to seek out John the Baptist. We were surprised, but we had no right to be surprised. Although we were familiar with Jesus, even then he was a stranger to us. We just didn’t realize how strange he was, he different, how set apart, how holy he was compared to us. And yet, he was so familiar. We’d grown up with him, we’d gone to school with him, we’d played with him, boys growing and sharing, fighting and jesting. We had no right to be surprised. Jesus was a familiar stranger all along.
The day Jesus came back, we were surprised to hear him rebuke us. We were so angry, we almost threw him over the cliff to his death. You might think that Jesus was stirring things up, that he was out to cause controversy, that he had some chip on his shoulder, a tragic psychological flaw against his home town, against his roots. Maybe the quiet boy secretly loathed and hated his small town upbringing. Maybe getting out of Nazareth had always been his aim, and now that he was back, now that he was somebody, he could express his true feelings against the town that had failed to recognize his true nature, his true character, and his true destiny. But that would be the cynic’s take on the story, the blind man’s view of Christ’s history.
The day Jesus came back, we really did think he needed help. Some of us really thought he’d lost it. We couldn’t piece together the jigsaw puzzle. How could this man be the same man we knew for all those years as a boy, as a young adult? Why did he not perform any miracles here? How was he able to pierce our minds and our hearts with his remarks? With his self-awareness? He compared himself to the prophets. We thought he was mad. The people tried to kill the prophets. We tried to kill Jesus. In doing so, we fulfilled his words. In doing so, we vindicated his claims.
The day Jesus came back, he walked away from us. He actually walked through us as he walked away from us. He’d seen through us in the synagogue, and we couldn’t handle it. He’d disappointed us, and so we tried to destroy him. But for all our rage against him, he remained untouchable, indestructible. He exercised his power in walking away from us, and yet, for a time, most of us didn’t get it. We couldn’t see that his demonstration of power that day was not through miraculous healings. It was through restraining grace. It was through a meekness that defied simple explanation. Had we killed him where would we be now? Had he retaliated would we be alive today?
The day Jesus came back, I never thought I’d end up calling him Lord. He was Joseph’s son, so I thought! His reputation for preaching and teaching and works of power seemed to us phony. For months after that day we all held him in contempt. He had rejected us, he had mocked us, he had spurned us, so we felt. Now I see it the other way around . We rejected him. We mocked him. We spurned him. When we heard about his execution, few of us were surprised, and some of us were actually pleased. He got what he deserved! When I started to hear the reports of his resurrection I was angry at first. How could this be true? How could he have so brainwashed people, that they made him into some kind of god?
The day Jesus came back, I started out on a new journey. The familiar stranger had returned to show himself to us again. He lodged himself in my consciousness. My anger and my rage, my insecurities and my fears, were all brought to the surface in seeing Jesus again. My hope in God was shown to be confused. I had no sense of God’s ways in the world. I didn’t know that God’s servant had to be a suffering servant. I didn’t then realize that I was the cause and the reason for his suffering. He suffered my rage and my abuse that day on the edge of the cliff. On that other day he suffered again to the depths, falling over the edge into the pit. He who had no sin became sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Jesus died on the cross for my sins, just as the scriptures taught, the scriptures that he had taught with such power.
I wont see Jesus again until the day he comes back. Nobody will have the option of rejecting him then. He’ll be here to stay. He’ll be here for good. Love him or loathe him we will all bow the knee to him. Don’t be a stranger to Jesus when he comes back! Get to know him now. Now is the time of salvation, the age of opportunity.
When Jesus comes back he will not be a stranger to me. Rather, he will be strangely familiar. I will see the marks on his body, those marks of his suffering. I will recognise his frame, his silhouette, his features, his looks. But, for the first time ever, I will see him as he really is. I will see his goodness. I will see his grace, and his power in meekness and majesty. I will understand why his history, his life story, had to be the way it was. I will welcome him as friend, as Lord, as Saviour. I will start to enjoy the freedom and the new life that he proclaimed that day in the synagogue. I will begin to know him as he is, and forever in his presence I will grow familiar with his ways. I will no longer be a stranger to his grace. Together with all his people I will share in his reign of love and peace over the new humanity, that new world where every face is familiar, and no face is a stranger.
‘Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.’