Presentation by Bruce Johnson on February 10, 2019
Becoming a People of Faith
Luke the physician is one of the most interesting characters in the New Testament. There are many legends and traditions about who he was and what he accomplished in his lifetime but a few things we know for sure. At some point, he joined Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and accompanied him as he traveled from city to city spreading the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. As they traveled, he served as Paul’s personal physician.
During his last visit to Jerusalem Paul was arrested by the Roman authorities. He was detained in the coastal city of Caesarea for some time and then sent on to Rome where he remained under house arrest for a very long time. Paul was eventually executed by Emperor Nero. Throughout this long ordeal, Luke was his faithful companion. He stayed with him to the very end.
In the years following Paul’s death, Luke undertook a research project that resulted in two manuscripts that were eventually incorporated into the canon of the New Testament. The first was his version of the gospel and the other was the book we call the Acts of the Apostles. Together these two books constitute almost 25% of the New Testament.
It appears likely that Luke was not a Jew. He was probably one of the many non-Jews who, in those days, had joined a synagogue. Such people were referred to as “proselytes” or “Godfearers.” It is believed that he was from the city of Antioch where there was a very large Jewish community.
Matthew and Mark include an account of Jesus return to his hometown of Nazareth. However, whereas Matthew and Mark make passing reference to this event, Luke’s account is far more detailed. It appears that he may have found some elderly people from that area who were able to recall the occasion when Rabbi Jesus actually spoke in the Nazareth synagogue.
One detail that Luke found particularly interesting was their memory of the text from the Hebrew Scripture that was read that morning. His source recalled Jesus’ comments on the reading and even remembered the reaction of the people who were there.
The reading had been from the book of the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because
He anointed me to preach good news to the
poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to
the captives and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to
proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Following the reading, Jesus spoke to them. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!” He went on to remind them of the old saying, “physician heal yourself.” He was referring to the fact that some had observed that he had performed none of the acts of healing that they had heard he had been doing in other places — especially the fishing village of Capernaum. Jesus reminded them of yet another saying, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”
Jesus went on to remind them of two stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. The first was about the prophet Elijah and the other about his protégé, Elisha. You may recall that Elijah was not well received by the people of Israel. They didn’t care for his message. So, in the story, Jesus told that morning Elijah had taken refuge in the home of a poor widow named Zarephath. Zarephath was not an Israelite. She was, in fact, a Sidonian. While Elijah was staying with her, her child became sick and was dying. Elijah prayed and the child was miraculously cured.
The second story was about the prophet Elisha, a prophet who, like his mentor Elijah, was also not well received by the people of Israel. It seems that a man named Naaman, the commanding general of the Armenian army, had contracted leprosy. Now, this general had recently led his army in an attack on Israel. As was the practice in those days, those who were not killed in this assault were taken back to Armenia where they were used as slaves. One of these captives, a young woman, had become the personal servant of this general’s wife. When she became aware that her mistress’ husband, the general, had contracted this dread skin disease, she told her about the prophet Elisha. “He should go to Israel and ask this prophet to pray for him.” She was certain that he would be healed. So, the general, desperate for relief, took her advice and traveled to Israel. When he came to the prophet’s house, he asked to speak with him. Elijah did not come to the door. Instead, he sent word to the general that if he would go down to the Jordan River and bathe, he would be healed. The general was incensed! “We have plenty of rivers in Armenia. I don’t have to come all the way to Israel to wash myself!” The general’s aide tried to reason with him. “If this holy man had asked you to perform some heroic deed you certainly would have done it. So, why not do what he advised and see what happens.”
When the general calmed down and thought it over, he decided to do as Elisha had asked him. When he came out of the water and began to dry himself, he discovered that his skin disease was gone! He had been healed!
It seems that the people in the synagogue that morning got the point. They understood what Jesus was implying and they didn’t like it. In fact, they were insulted! Jesus was telling them that the reason he was unable to heal any sick people in Nazareth was that there was no faith there. Like the people of Israel in the time of Elijah, they lacked faith.
When I say that “they didn’t like it,” I mean that it made them angry! They pushed Jesus out of the synagogue and on up the hill to a precipice. They were going to throw him off the cliff! When Luke asked his informants, “what happened,” he was told that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
This account of Jesus’ visit to his hometown is one of many details that are found in Luke’s gospel but not in the other three. Why did Luke find this story so important that he would want to include it in his gospel narrative? Recall that Luke had spent several years of his life accompanying Paul on his missionary journeys. He had been with him in Rome when he was held under house arrest. He stayed with him to the very end. The heart of Paul’s message was that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Not just Israel but the whole wide world! Luke, the gentile, was convinced that the grace and love of God extended beyond the descendants of Abraham. Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham. But, when we turn to Luke’s gospel we find a genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam!
I’m convinced that one of the reasons that Luke was particularly drawn to this story of Jesus’ visit to his hometown is that when Jesus spoke to the people that morning, he reminded them of two stories from the Hebrew scriptures, both of which involved people who, like Luke, were not Jews. One was a Sidonian and the other an Armenian.
Our gospel this morning is all about faith — believing, trusting, obeying. Did you ever hear someone say, ‘I just don’t have any faith in that person’? It implies that they don’t really trust the person. In his ministry, Jesus was constantly calling on people to have faith, to trust him, to follow him. He was quick to spot faith, even in a crowd. Remember when he spotted Zacchaeus up in a tree? On another occasion, a woman touched him in a crowd, and he stopped and asked, “who touched me?” The disciples remind him that they are in a crowd being pushed on all sides. But this woman’s touch was different. It was the touch of faith.
Recall the story of the father who came to Jesus with his very ill son begging him to heal him. Jesus tells him that it can happen if he has faith. The Father replies, “I do believe” but then he adds, “help my unbelief!” I think we can all identify with that poor father.
That morning, in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus looked around and sensed that something was missing. There was no faith there. If Jesus were here this morning — here at All Saints Church in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania — would he see faith in our eyes? Are we a people of faith this morning? Yes, we are believers. But surely, we must join that father who brought his son to Jesus for healing and pray that God will help our unbelief.