It’s not always easy coming home.
Jesus has to make this experience as he returns to his hometown of Nazareth after a year or so of life on the road – a new life as a rabbi and healer, a new life as the Son of God proclaiming the kingdom of heaven come near in word and deed. A new life that led him away from home and his community – first to the banks of the River Jordan in Judea, where he was baptized by John. Then into the wilderness for 40 days. From there to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where he called his first disciples and started to teach and work miracles – and where he was constantly surrounded by crowds of people, hungry for this kingdom Jesus was preaching and practicing. From there to the ‘other side’ of the Sea of Galilee, into foreign and pagan territory, where the response was not as enthusiastic as in his home territory of Galilee.
And all the while, the religious authorities are keeping an eye on Jesus, rather offended by what they see and hear. Jesus and his message are quite controversial – enthusiastically embraced by many, seen with suspicion and rejected by others.
After these forays, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, which is located in the Galilean hillside, about 30 miles away from the shores of the Sea of Galilee – a journey of 2 days or so back in Jesus’ day. Remote, yes – but not remote enough that news about Jesus hadn’t somehow reached this small community of about 500 people – a community where everybody knew everyone else.
It must have been quite shocking, scandalous, for the people of Nazareth – and especially his family – when Jesus, the carpenter, just disappeared, leaving his family, his profession, his place in the community, and all his duties to begin his new life. Why in the world would he do that? A few Sundays ago, we heard the story about how Jesus’ family tried to restrain him and take him home, because they thought that he had gone nuts. One can assume that, in this tight-knit community of Nazareth, not only Jesus’ family thought that way.
So it’s interesting to see what happens as Jesus returns to Nazareth. The people there seem strangely disinterested in Jesus. Or maybe just cautious. What is this madman going to do here? The townspeople don’t welcome Jesus with open arms, like other communities did – bringing their sick to him, trying to touch his cloak, listening eagerly to what he has to say. As Jesus teaches in the synagogue, the people assembled there feign surprise and astonishment. Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us? Haven’t we known this guy all his life? Where did he get all these ideas?
The people of Nazareth– Jesus’ former community, after all – can’t deal with this ‘new’ Jesus. He is not the man they used to know – not the man they thought they knew so well. In a sense he is a stranger to them. And they don’t like it.
No wonder Jesus has trouble doing ‘deeds of power’ in Nazareth – there is just too much prejudice, which leads to resistance. It’s tough to come home as a changed person. Maybe even impossible.
Can we – should we – blame the people of Nazareth for their inability to accept Jesus as someone new, someone else? Don’t we all have trouble accepting someone if they turn out to be someone else than the person we used to know – or the person we thought we knew?
How many people from the LGTBQ+ community, for example, experienced rejection by their own parents, their families, their communities – and that includes communities of faith – after coming out?
It is not only tough coming home as a changed, a ‘new’ person – it’s is just as tough to welcome someone home whose life has taken a different turn than we expected.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if God chose to be incarnated and born into this world today? Where would God be born? As a white, black, or brown person? As a man, a woman, or a non-binary person? Rich or poor?
And what would God be? A pastor or televangelist? A social worker? A CEO of a large company? A scientist? An artist? A politician? A carpenter or line cook or seamstress or custodian?
It’s a fascinating mind game, and we all most likely have our ideas, even expectations of what God would look and be like. And if you don’t believe me, just check yourself if you bristled at any of the options I just described – you know, Jesus not being that young man with European features in flowing white robes that we so often see depicted in art. Most if not all of us have made an image of the incarnated God for our lives, an image we tend to cling to, not able to imagine anything else.
What if God was incarnated once more and chose to come among us, to come ‘home’, if you will, into this nation that claims to be built on Christian principles – with millions of people who claim they know God as incarnated in Jesus Christ – and his will – so well? What if we had to realize that Christ is not the one we thought we know – that Christ might be much different from what we expect God Immanuel, God with us, to be?
What would Christ have to say on this day, which is celebrated as Independence Day in this country? What would he say about freedom – especially the distorted kind of freedom we find so often in this country, a kind of ‘freedom’ that in essence is nothing else but fulfilling our selfish desires without regard for the wellbeing of the neighbor, without regard for the commonwealth, without responsibility? What would he say about the freedom to bear assault weapons, the freedom to consume mindlessly, the freedom to ignore the neighbor in need, the freedom to lie, the freedom to say things with the intent of hurting someone else?
Imagine Christ coming and teaching among us, using the same or similar words he used roughly 2,000 years ago. Love your neighbor, even though this might be the most difficult thing to do. Love your enemy. You are the light of the world – let your light so shine before others. Sell everything you have, and then come, follow me. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me; and whatever you withhold from the least of these, you withhold from me. Treat others the way you would like them to treat you. Offer the other cheek. Take up your cross. Do you think such messages would fly today – in a society, where many don’t even want to wear a mask for the sake of their fellow human being?
Imagine Christ coming among us and hanging out with the same kind of people he hung out with roughly 2,000 years ago. Those society has given up on. Outcasts. Those ill and possessed. Addicts. Tempters. Traitors. But also those in power. Religious leaders. Rich young rulers. Imagine Christ eating with all of those, sharing a meal, sharing community, sharing thoughts and ideas with them, not caring about whether they might be worthy or not, just seeking to connect.
Imagine Christ challenging the authorities, religious and otherwise, as he did roughly 2,000 years ago. Imagine Christ challenging us, as he challenged people back in the days he roamed the earth. Imagine Christ sending us, just as he sent his followers, with the mandate to plant the seeds of the kingdom of God in word and deed wherever we go, even though we might not be welcome everywhere?
There are probably many who’d think Christ must be nuts. An idealist. A dreamer. Maybe even – gasp – a socialist. Someone who has no idea what human life is about and that we have to follow the laws of the economy – at any price. Someone who isn’t who we thought he is. Would Christ be able to get through to us? Would Christ succeed in touching us, healing us, especially if this incarnated God looked so different and acted so differently from what we expect?
I don’t claim to have the answers. It’s all speculations. But I am pretty sure an incarnated God in our midst today would astound, surprise, challenge, and probably offend me as well. Because I have my image of Christ, just like most everyone else. But we have to remember and accept: God is bigger and more mysterious than anything I or anyone could imagine.
As committed followers of Christ today, we have to remain open to the works of this mysterious God in our midst, and to remain open to the coming of Christ among us today, revealing himself through sometimes quite unlikely and surprising people and situations. We have to engage with God’s word, we have to listen to God’s voice in the hustle and bustle of our times, we have to open our hearts and minds to God’s Spirit, and to allow ourselves to be challenged. To gratefully accept God’s gifts of grace and love and forgiveness – and to share them with others. To cherish the gift of life – and to share this gift with our fellow human beings and all of creation. To not lose God’s vision of the kingdom of heaven – a kingdom where there will be enough for everyone, and pain and crying and death will be no more – out of sight, and to live into this vision as much as we can – together, and with God by our side.
We have to remain open to the idea that Christ might be different from what we expect – that we only know Christ in part – and humbly accept that God is much bigger and broader and deeper than we can even begin to think. And that this God offers us and all life that is bigger and broader and deeper than we can imagine. And that true healing and wholeness and reconciliation can only happen if we trust in this God and follow him. Amen
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