In his latest work, “How God Became King,” New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham N. T. Wright describes a huge problem he sees manifest in the Church.  He observes, “It has been slowly dawning on me over many years that there is a fundamental problem deep at the heart of Christian faith and practice as I have known them.  This problem can be summarized quite easily: we have all forgotten what the four gospels are about.  Yes they are about Jesus, but what exactly are they saying about Jesus?”  Wright then goes on to paint a picture of just what this problem looks like in action.

He reflects upon a boyhood project that he and some of his friends engaged in.  He and his pals took to answering questions regarding Jesus.  Why was Jesus born?  Why did he live?  Why did he die?  Why was he resurrected?  and so on.  Even though he admits that he does not remember the answer to the question that he took to investigating, “Why did Jesus live?” or even if he came to an answer at all, he  reflects on how difficult the task proved.  What Wright seems to be getting at is the way we Christians have been trained to read, or not read, the whole story of the Gospels with these basic questions in mind.  We have accepted shorthand answers.  These answers are handy and easy and seem to be universally accepted and understood.  But, because they have been “understood” for so long we Christians have lost the way we came to them as good answers in the first place.  This is Wrights point I believe.  We no longer know what the Gospel accounts are about.  We rather work backwards from the answers and assertions we have in place, if we work at all, and bend the story to fit. 

Today we are going to look anew, afresh, at this passage from Luke as a snapshot of the whole Gospel account.  And we are going to read with this question in mind, “Why did Jesus have to die” according to Luke?  Now, be prepared to be uncomfortable, and confused, because we are going to come to answers that seem to go against the intuitive answers you have grown up with.

We have, of course, all learned the answer to that question (Jesus died to save me from my sin) through the teaching and preaching we have heard over the last few years and decades of our lives.  And, in many ways, that answer is reinforced in our minds because the greater portion of “the Church” in America answers the same way, which is a powerful witness to that answers validity.  Now, that answer is certainly true.  We can claim that our sins are forgiven by the authority of Jesus, because his life, death, and resurrection testify to his identity and authority.  But, do we get an answer like that from our reading in Luke today?  Can we reasonably say that Luke wants to communicate that Jesus death forgives the sins of individual American Gentiles in the 21st century?  If you had to answer the question based on this passage what might the answer be?

Take a look and read again the passage from Luke that we have today.  Jesus is in the synagogue of Nazareth—his hometown.  He reads the scroll of Isaiah and declares that the Promises of God given through Isaiah now stand fulfilled in His flesh and blood and Word.  Even more amazing than that is the way Jesus claims to be the “Anointed One.”  Does anyone happen to know what the Hebrew word for “anointed one” is?  Messiah.  Jesus claims that the prophecy of the Spirit Anointed Messiah is fulfilled in this town of Nazareth.  To this amazing declaration the people of Nazareth respond by acknowledging the gracious nature of Jesus’ words to them.  I would equate this to Oskaloosa’s hearing Tyler Sash make a statement on national T.V. about how the town helped make him the great athlete and man he has become.  The town would hear that with pride and expectation.  But, with Jesus this is different.  He is not claiming Nazareth has made him great, but that God has made him great and sent him as Messiah of Israel.  This is not a gracious claim, not really, which is why the people’s next response is, “This is Joseph’s kid right?”  In response to Nazareth’s reaction to Jesus’ Messianic claim Jesus gives them a proverbial warning focusing on Elijah and Elisha.

Unless we are very familiar with the OT we are going to miss the significance of these references by Jesus.  I dislike the idea of being brief with such a thing.  And since I cannot get away with reading the story of Israel like Ezra did (for the better part of 6 hours) I will be brief.  Elijah and Elisha were sent away from Israel by God because of Israel’s wickedness.  The prophets were sent to a gentile widow and a gentile warlord with leprosy, even though there were many widows and lepers in Israel during their time. Now, these words from Jesus change the attitude of the people of Nazareth toward Jesus.  His graciousness has swiftly vanished.  What do they do now?  They reject him and they drive Jesus out of town to the edge of a cliff with the intent to kill.  But, what reason do they have to kill him?  If Jesus had died here how would we explain his death?  Well, there are a few ways to answer the question given what we have read so far. 

Jesus is going to die because Jesus is fulfilling the Scriptures, it is because Jesus reveals his words are not to be heard and treated as the gracious ramblings of a simple local boy but as the very Words of Israel’s God—the same Words that led Elijah and Elisha to leave Israel in favor of Gentiles.  He is to be treated as Messiah.  So we could say, Jesus is about to be killed because he is being the Son of God, he is Being the Messiah, He is fulfilling Scripture, or exercising the Authority of God.  I think these are all good answers that flow out of this Gospel account and are maintained throughout the story Luke is trying to tell about Jesus of Nazareth.  But, why are these answers important for us to come into contact with?

The first reason is that these answers are drawn from what the Gospel writer wants to communicate to the readers/hearers of the Gospel.  That is not to say that at some point Luke is not trying to communicate that Sins are forgiven by Jesus—because he tells us that.  But that is not the only answer we can come to, if it is even the main answer Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John want us to come to.

The second reason is that trying to answer these questions forces us to interact with the WHOLE Gospel if we are going to answer them well.  And by “Whole Gospel” I mean what Luther meant as the whole story of Jesus, which extends from Abraham and Moses to Jesus to the Apostles and to the Church where the teaching and preaching of the Apostles still takes place.  When we read the whole Gospel this way, with these questions in mind, we are in a better place to answer the question “Why did Jesus die” but also, and perhaps more importantly to us, how do I (a 21st century Gentile) now get to claim that this Hebrew man named Jesus claims authority over my Sin?  Answering this way, rather than our normal shorthand (Jesus died for my Sins), more than anything else emphasizes that I, Me as an individual, am not the first or only focus of Israel’s God’s action for salvation in time.  That might be the point that hits harder than any in this time and culture. 

It was Israel who was at the center of God’s attention for salvation.  And through Israel salvation would come to other nations.  When we easily say, “Jesus died for my sins.”  Whether we intend to or not we are denying that it was Israel God came for first.  And in denying Israel we cheapen, if not totally negate, the Grace extended to us by Israel’s God to us Gentiles, as outsiders, as those not from Abraham.  If we were the ones God first had in mind to save then what is Grace?  As it stands we are not Israel, we are the happy fools standing around on street corners who get dragged into the feast of a King we did not previously know.  We are the ones given a kingdom we have no claim to.  We are given an inheritance we have no blood claim to. Grace has been showered upon us Gentiles.  And, as I am fond of telling you, the story of how that Grace is showered upon us is a long one. 

In the name of Jesus—Amen. 

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