Hometowns, no matter how long or short a time we have lived in them, tell a story that can define our lives. Look at the difference between saying you were born in Wauwatosha, Wisconsin and saying you were born on the upper East Side of Manhattan or Pepeekeo for that matter. Whether we like it or not, we are often pigeon-holed by our place of origin.
Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, is the setting of today’s scripture. Bible commentators title it The Rejection at Nazareth, a surprising account from Jesus’ early ministry when he returns home with his disciples, the sound of cheering crowds still thrumming in their ears. But instead of a hero’s welcome, he’s given the boot by the homeys after he preaches a message that nobody wants to or is able to understand.
What is so ironic about Nazareth’s response to Jesus, despising his message and according to Luke, wanting to throw him off a cliff—is that Nazareth itself suffered from a terrible reputation. It was just a nondescript dot on the map, population four hundred and eighty. Inevitably compared to its nearest upscale neighbor—Sepphoris, where the citizens rode around in stretch limos and not in a rusted pick-up truck.
In the very first chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus is in Galilee and Phillip invites a friend, Nathanael, to come and meet “Jesus, son of Joseph, of Nazareth”—and do you remember what Nathanael says?
He makes a joke. He throws shade at Jesus. Nathanel says, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’
Poor Jesus, he was dissed by his own kind. And he was disrespected as a rube from a backwater berg. Whatever happened to the hometown advantage?
Mark makes it clear– Jesus used his rejection at Nazareth to prepare his disciples for life on the road—as we heard in the second half of today’s reading. Jesus warns them that not everyone was going to roll out the welcome mat and give them a lei when they entered their town or city. There would be painful experiences they would need to shake off and move on from.
As people of faith wanting to make a difference in the world— even given our best efforts, we must allow those we seek to help, to refuse our help, to say no to our efforts. We should not expect that our mission always will be successful—we need to remember that rejection and failure are part of being a disciple.
Jesus goes to his home town of Nazareth and teaches in the synagogue, not because he has a point to prove, but because he wants to start with his own people; to begin preaching the gospel among them.
But they will have none of it. They reject him as he begins his ministry, even as the religious leaders and people of Jerusalem will reject him later, not simply as teacher but also as messiah.
What is amazing in this story is the inability of people to recognize what God is doing in the midst of the familiar, in one whom they know, in the midst of the worship they have kept for so long.
Instead, they wait with eager longing for the messiah who will come some day, certain of how he will appear, except that when the day arrives, they miss him altogether.
Part of me wants to say, “What’s wrong with all you people in Nazareth? Are you blind? Are you that dense?”
After all, here was Jesus standing right in front of them, teaching the scriptures, expounding their meaning. How could they miss him?
But my years in local church ministry prove a valuable point—I never served a congregation that didn’t kvetch that they couldn’t find someone to serve on a board or a committee—how hard it was to find a leader, they lamented. But, maybe we were like Nazareth—not seeing the talent, the gifts, right in front of our noses.
To me—the most poignant part of today’s reading are those two sorrowful lines in verse 5 and 6: “he could do no deeds of power there: 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief.”
How much do we limit God’s power by our small thoughts and myopic vision? How much do we curtail the awesome things that we might be able to do—if only we had the faith? Which sometimes means, being that one voice in a crowd.
Here’s a lesser known story about what hometowns are capable of doing to and for their own.
About a year after Dr. Martin Luther King wrote his letter from a Birmingham jail, he was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the young age of 35.
But how would King’s hometown of Atlanta celebrate this great honor of their native son?
At first, there was talk in the black community about having a dinner at a local restaurant. Instead, a number of leaders decided to host the first multiracial banquet, bringing blacks and whites together to share a meal in public, even though in 1964, interracial dining was still against the law in Atlanta.
So after King’s dinner had been announced and a date set, and phone calls made and invitations sent out– nobody was buying any tickets. Atlanta’s powerful business community refused to see an awesome leader in their midst and rejected the idea of interracial equality.
Then the banquet organizers sent a letter to Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, asking for the company’s help and J. Paul Austin, chairman of the Board at the time, had the opportunity to lift his voice:
He issued a press release that said: “It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner. We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all have to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.”
Two hours after J. Paul Austin issued his statement, every single ticket was sold out.
All Nazareth needed was just one J. Paul Austin to help Jesus make miracles happen. All Nazareth needed was for just one person like Mr. Austin who could see past the stereotypes and refuse the tunnel vision of their times and lift up their voice.
OK—it can’t hurt to be the CEO of Coca-Cola, but it could just as well have been some other civic leader from the Atlanta community taking a stand and speaking out.
What do you think—
Can you be that one voice of faith that makes miracles happen? Will you be the one to welcome a prophet, even in your own hometown?