In his first teaching appearance, Jesus is chased out the front door. This is not really what I’m after should I go candidating at a church. I don’t like being beat up online in the virtual world—I’m quite sure I’d avoid it in the real world.
But Jesus—he walks right into it. WTH? I’m glad this is an unlikely scenario for me. Yet I think the Jesus we glimpse in Luke 4 tells us a great deal about next generation Christians and the Jesus they don’t know.
Everyone has heard of this young up-and-coming teacher, Jesus. Most likely, many of them already doubt the chances that a carpenter’s son could teach them anything. A pauper from Nazareth? Not really rabbi material. And yet, there are those persistent stories about his wise words…
So it’s SRO in the synagogue the morning he shows up.
Part of the audience is waiting for the next big thing—some spectacular show like the water and wine gig. Part of the audience is waiting to trip him up and dismiss him.
(Jesus) unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”
He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4)
Those hearing Jesus for the first time here see some important things in this first encounter.
First, they see a man who is unafraid to assert his identity and authority. He knows they expect little. He is fully aware of their skepticism. He confidently takes hold of the Scriptures, reads, sit down, and then unleashes a giant bomb on the little meeting.
“These holy verses? They’re talking about me. I am the product of the prophecy. I’m the One. That’s all for today.”
I love how Jesus just drops these little gems into conversation, and then goes back to eating his Cheerios or whatever like it is a common, everyday occurrence to go around telling people you’re God.
Only God could pull this off successfully.
Second, they see a man who also is unafraid to say some unpopular things. As long as his listeners could smugly put themselves in the position of oppressed martyr, they were fine with his words about releasing captives and helping the poor. But Jesus had no plans to let them color themselves the victims in this picture. He insisted they join him in being the agents of change for the real poor and marginalized. They did not like it. Most of us prefer to feel like martyrs rather than oppressors. It’s decidedly more comfortable.
Jesus wasn’t too concerned about comfort. He knew who he was, he knew why he came, and he knew he had the authority to carry it out. And he wasn’t afraid to say so.
Many people, especially in the next generation, are rightly turned off by the presentation of Jesus as an angry, judging, vindictive God.
But I wonder if many aren’t equally turned off by the presentation of a Jesus who can’t or won’t take charge and tell the truth like it is. A wimpy Jesus who hangs around going, “Hey, whatever, it’s all cool in the end.” A Jesus who is just OK with whatever we want to say his mission was and whoever we want to believe he was.
“What if the blasé religiosity of must American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel so devoid of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit, that it might not be Christianity at all?” (Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian)
In other words, if Millennials have a lukewarm interest in Jesus, maybe it’s because we’ve offered a version of Jesus that resembles warm milk in soggy Chex cereal.
I wouldn’t want to stake my life’s purpose on Soggy Jesus. I would find no comfort in trusting a Jesus who couldn’t make up his mind to be who he was and stick with it. I suspect, based on the research, that this is true for many younger than I.
Conversely, I am comforted and empowered by Luke 4 Jesus. He is bold. He is purposeful. He is unafraid. That’s a Jesus I can follow with confidence. That’s a Jesus we can present to a generation tired of blue-robe-in-a-video Jesus who never seems to do anything but vaguely tell people to be nice.
This Jesus, in fact, tosses a grenade into “nice.”
“Jubilee (in Isaiah 61) is a corporate global forgiveness. And the people who will benefit will be outsiders. His hearers did not want that. They did not want to forgive others. Did not want real justice, only their justice. That’s why he is hated in Luke 4.”
He disrupts a nice, comfy church service with a proclamation that God is inaugurating the Kingdom, He is its King, and things are going to get real shaken up around here. Those uncomfortable “other” people are going to be invited in and valued. This Jesus is the absolute opposite of God-bless-America Jesus who wants to see us all safe and secure. This Jesus is taking authority and doing strange things. He is asserting his purpose and identity clearly—and not leaving room for anyone to call it anything else.
This Jesus is not “nice.” But he is honest. He is confident. He is purposeful. In an age when young churchgoers (and non-churchgoers) crave authenticity, this Jesus is the real deal.
Now, I am not Jesus. You are not Jesus. So, we don’t have the authority to go around asserting our opinions like they are infallible. Nor dare we equate a strong Jesus with a Jesus who stands irrevocably for whatever we stand for. We had better do another close reading of Luke 4 before we decide that Jesus is on our side.
But nor should we present a Jesus to the world, and to its young people, who stands in a pulpit and offers us little more than, “Hey, follow your heart. I’ll love you anyway.” (The latter statement is certainly true; the former is certainly bad theology. And stupid.)
Let’s give them a strong Jesus.
Not a judgmental Jesus (strong in what I want him to be strong about).
Not a legalist Jesus (checking off what he doesn’t like about us).
Not a separatist Jesus (you’re in, you’re out, keep up that wall against evil).
A strong Jesus. A Jesus who knew who he was, knew why he was here, and knew he had the authority to carry that purpose out. An unafraid Jesus.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.