Cliffhanger (Sermon)


Luke 4:14-30

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”

24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.  (NRSV)

         Spiders, snakes, needles. Honestly, those things don’t scare me as much as they seem to scare some folks. Having said that, I really do not like getting surprised by a snake.

I can get a little claustrophobic, though. If I just think long enough about crawling on my belly in some dark cave, I have to run outside and stand beneath the wide, blue sky.

Heights can bother me, too. The closer you get to the edge of a cliff, the more you feel the invisible hand of gravity reaching up and tugging at you. When I think of free-climbers clinging to rock faces like ants on a brick wall, they seem more like another species than just other people.

The things that scare us do so because they threaten us, or we don’t understand them, or they lie beyond our control. And to face them is to stand at the edge of a precipice and to feel the gravity of some great unknown. Injury or death could be that unknown. It could also be the challenge to claim spiritual or physical capacities in ourselves that we’ve never recognized, capacities that call us to be and to do more than we’ve ever imagined.

Years after the Israelites had been defeated and exiled, the prophet Isaiah appeared and said to Israel, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to” you, Israel.

While Isaiah’s prophecy was good news, even good news can put us at the edge of a cliff. Let’s remember, Isaiah was preparing Israel for deliverance and return to Jerusalem. Since Israel had been exile for many generations, the Israelites knew only captivity in Babylon. So, for Israel, freedom from Babylon meant more than autonomy. It meant a return to a reliance on God, which requires a kind of cliff-hanger spirituality that is both feral and disciplined. 

Animals born into captivity almost always remain captive. They depend on being fed, sheltered, and protected—and protected from themselves as much as anything else. They may still have some instincts, but instinct without experience can be a dangerous thing.

We have an old border collie named Todd. Todd struggles just to stand these days, but years ago, by pure instinct, he’d chase a stick all day long. He could not not do it. If we had ever unleashed him on a herd of sheep, though, he would have gone nuts—running, barking, nipping. While Todd had never been a wild animal, as a border collie he had genetically-determined instincts, but he had no training, no vocational continence. And without the necessary discipline, old Todd would have run a herd of sheep right into traffic or over a cliff. 

In his very first sermon, in his hometown, Jesus reads Isaiah’s announcement of deliverance and hope. Then he sits down and says that in that moment, Isaiah’s words are being fulfilled. In him, in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s feral yet disciplined Spirit is alive, present, and bringing good news to those who are poor, captive, blind, and oppressed.

The worshipers in that small town synagogue seem to feel excited and proud that a local boy could preach such a courageous sermon. Then Jesus ruins the mood. He reminds them that God’s grace is not limited to those whose skin, speech, religious expression, or national loyalties line up with their own selfish prejudices and fears.

Jesus reminds the people that, when Israel was struggling just to survive, two of the greatest Jewish prophets, Elijah and Elisha, took time to tend to Gentiles first. They tended to people who did not belong, people who threatened the community’s self-perceived purity. Fearful of Gentiles, Israel abused and exploited them because of the undisciplined, idol-serving leadership of kings who—since the days of Samuel—had ruled a people who demanded to be governed “like other nations.” Israel wanted to be a people of military, economic, and cultural dominance. And when nations who claim to trust God pursue such idols, they almost inevitably forsake God.

Jesus makes his bold and disorienting declaration about God’s grace to people who raised him and love him, and when he does, they immediately try to kill him. Luke’s description of the attempted murder is striking and revealing. The angry crowd chases Jesus up to a cliff, intending to throw him off. And just when they think they have him where they want him, where he can do no more damage with his open-hearted theology and radical ideas about grace, Jesus slips through their fingers and disappears.

It’s not the disappearance that interests me. It’s the fact that the people find themselves at the edge of a cliff. They find themselves at a liminal place, a place of reckoning. Doesn’t it seem that Jesus led the crowd to the cliff rather than the other way around?

In her insightful little book entitled When God Is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about coming to the limits of what human language can say and comprehend about God. She says that when “we come to the end of speech…[we] gaze slack-jawed at what still lies beyond. If you have ever stood on a high cliff over the sea and felt that strange, frightening pull toward the brink, then you know what I mean. There is a human fascination with limits that is both holy and chastening at the same time.

“Without limits, we would have no feel for the infinite. Without limits we would be freed from our longing for what lies beyond…When we run out of words, we are very near the God whose name is unsayable.”1

         We can grow comfortable with thinking that God is comprehensible. But isn’t that comfort just complacency? Isn’t it a self-serving lack of reverence and awe? Many Christians, says Barbara Brown Taylor, “would rather be bored than scared.”2That could be true—if we’d rather avoid the possibilities of developing the spiritual potential of people who trust and follow an incarnate Mystery?

Todd was happy enough chasing sticks, but what if he’d been taught to use his God-given gifts to participate in a wider purpose? What joy would he have known if he’d been given the chance to help tend a flock?

When Jesus led those folks—who thought they knew him—up that cliff, he left them there to stare slack-jawed into a mysterious and transforming moment of prophetic revelation. They did not, in fact, know Jesus as they thought they did, because they did not know God as they thought they did. God was deeper, broader, and scarier than they had imagined—probably because God was deeper, broader, and scarier than they had been taught.

God is always calling us to participate in God’s deep, broad, and rather scary purposes of doing holy justice, welcoming strangers, showing compassion to the oppressed, lending our voices to those who have been silenced, forgiving and loving enemies. And that call almost always starts with us standing at the edge of some cliff, staring awestruck into the eternal mystery that is God and wondering, “What would happen if we gathered our fears in one hand, our courage in the other, and followed the Christ who calls and equips us to love as he loves—and then disappears?”

1Barbara Brown Taylor, When God Is Silent. Cowley Publications, Cambridge/Boston, 1998. p. 91.

2Ibid. p. 66.

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