The prophet goes home

“Prophecy,” wrote Abraham Heschel, “is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor. God is raging in the prophet’s words. In speaking, the prophet reveals God. This is the marvel of a prophet’s work: in his words, the invisible God becomes audible. Divine power bursts in his words. The authority of the prophet is in the Presence his words reveal.”[1]

The prophets, all of them, it seems, hesitate to take the call. “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy,” we hear Jeremiah protest, no doubt with trembling in his voice. “Do not be afraid of them,” the Lord replies, “I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:6, 8). The calling is inescapable. The prophet groans, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). Silence becomes fire in the bones and speaking means giving voice to what many don’t want to hear and what some do not want said. The God who becomes audible outside the safety of the liturgy and in the voices of the anointed but non-ordained does not often find receptive hearts.

Jesus returned from the wilderness to Galilee, filled with the Holy Spirit, and he began to teach. He was praised by everyone, we read in Luke. His were words people wanted to hear. His were words people ate up like bread, good bread. His were words in which the invisible God became audible; his proclamation, some soon would say, made the invisible God visible and tangible. His authority was the Presence he revealed.

Jesus came to Nazareth. This is where we get to hear for the very first time what he was teaching. He read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, beautiful words of being anointed and sent to bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind and the year of the Lord’s favor – and he let the Lord’s favor be the last word: he didn’t read the conclusion of the sentence that announced the day of God’s vengeance. For those with ears to hear the teaching had already begun with what he didn’t announce.

He rolled up the scroll and gave it to the attendant and sat down to teach. “Today,” he said, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And that was all he could say for a while, because the people in the synagogue started talking with each other about the gracious words that came from his mouth. “Today,” he said, “fulfilled.” The good people of Nazareth loved Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor because they were poor, and they had waited so long for redemption and release – and there he sat, Joseph’s boy, a son of Nazareth, speaking of fulfilment – an end to their captivity and oppression. What a happy Sabbath day it was!

Until Jesus continued to teach, that is, antagonizing them, it seems, with every additional word that came from his mouth, further elaborating what kind of fulfilment he was declaring. We don’t know if he put words in their mouths or if he had overheard bits and pieces of conversation when he said, “Doubtless you will quote to me…” He talked about the proverbial doctor and their expectation that he do in his hometown the things they had heard he did in Capernaum. Those things, healings presumably, and perhaps even greater things since this was home after all, they were his people, weren’t they? But he was no doctor, he was the prophet who proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor, and he would find little favor in his hometown. He merely hinted at a couple of stories they knew and loved, stories about two of the great prophets of old.

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; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.

That was all he said, but his examples of God’s boundless mercy didn’t bring more joy to the congregation, but rather something that stung, something like envy or wounded pride, something that felt like an indictment: Jesus reminded them that God’s promise to bring about righteousness and restore life to wholeness didn’t stop at the border. The prophets of God, he reminded them, had brought healing to Israel’s enemy, a general of the Syrian army, and they had brought hope and salvation to a Gentile widow and her son north of the border. Jesus’ fulfilment wouldn’t stop at the border either, not at any border. The good people of Nazareth thought that “today” would finally mean “their day” had come, and they couldn’t bear the thought that on this day of fulfilment for all, their hometown wasn’t God’s hometown any more than the rest of the world.

Will Willimon wrote about a friend of his who returned from an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. “When his Holiness speaks,” his friend said, “everyone in the room becomes quiet, serene and peaceful.”[2] There are moments when Jesus speaks and everyone becomes quiet, serene and peaceful, but this wasn’t it. Filled with amazement when he began his sermon, the people were filled with rage when they ended his proclamation violently, driving him out of the town, ready to kill him. But he passed throught the midst of them and went on his way.

Jesus didn’t go on his way because the people of Nazareth rejected him – it was rather the other way round: they rejected him because he insisted on going on his way; they rejected him because his hometown wasn’t theirs but the city of God where all are at home; they rejected him because he refused to be domesticated in familiarity.

In a way the scene foreshadows the entirety of Jesus’ Spirit-filled and Spirit-driven proclamation of God’s gracious reign. One moment we are amazed at the gracious words he speaks, and then we’re ready to silence him, whatever it may take, because we can’t handle the complete freedom of his sovereign grace and boundless mercy. We’re no less tempted than the good people of Nazareth to think of ourselves as God’s own hometown. Many churches in the United States in the second half of the 20th century got accustomed to viewing the world from a perspective of privilege; it was a comfortable perspective, an influential perspective. But our privileged position has also held us captive to ways of being God’s people in the world that no longer serve God’s purposes. We are only beginning to learn to look at things from a less privileged angle, and I believe this can be a liberating experience. It can teach us to trust the Spirit’s guidance, the living voice of Christ, rather than cling to forms that no longer serve God’s mission. It can lead us into fresh understandings of who God is for us, how we perceive God at work in the world, and how we can participate today in that proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.

We have a deep-seated desire for Christ to come to our hometown and do here the things we heard he has done elsewhere, but he comes to us, again and again, to call us to his hometown, the city of God’s reign.

“Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor,” wrote Abraham Heschel. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” cried Moses on the long journey to the promised land (Num 11:29). And God declared, according to the prophet Joel, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (Joel 2:28-29). Jesus’ Spirit-filled and Spirit-driven proclamation of God’s gracious reign continues with us on whom God has poured out the power from on high; it continues with this curious gathering of men and women, young and old, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. Inspired to dream dreams and given visions of the world where God is at home, the church is called to be on the way with Christ, humbly, obediently, and courageously. We are called to give voice to those holy dreams and visions in the midst of a world still filled with silent agony, still plundering the poor, still awaiting the fulfilment of its redemption in Christ.


[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings; quote from a review by John Dear at

[2] William H. Willimon, The Christian Century, January 27, 2004, 20.