It’s hard to preach to people you know well: Friends, family, people who remember you as the snotty-nosed little kid who was getting into trouble or the pimply-faced, socially-awkward teenager. When people know your history it is very difficult to outlive it, and when prophets have a history in a place it changes the dynamic of what a preacher is expected to say. Prophets are temporary; they are always just passing through; but when it’s the hometown kid something changes—the temporary and the forever collide and our expectations change. This is what happens when Jesus returns home to Nazareth. You can hear the adults—you know, those of Mary and Joseph’s age—saying things like, “Hey, look, it’s the little J-man, all grown up and going to read the Bible to us! Wow, isn’t he smart?”
To some extent—and this is probably even more true in small towns and rural areas like Nazareth or Hallock—people are always seen as kids, no matter how old they are. This can be endearing and it can be patronizing. It can mean that the message they bring is not heard when it is spoken or never spoken for fear of what the elders think. I tend to think it is far more challenging for a person (especially a young person) to speak up in this community than in a big city, for example, because whatever message they bring will get wrapped in their personal history. Being a prophet to the hometown team is hard. Preaching the Christian message to those who know how flawed you were—and are—is nearly impossible, because the Christian message is not one of preference for people who look like me or sound like me. Jesus brings a message that tears through the hometown advantage. He doesn’t preach what the people want to hear but what they need to hear. He tells them the hard truth, which is that you aren’t any more special than anyone else. Not surprisingly, the people tire of this message quickly.
We want Jesus to be on our team—and what could be wrong with that? Why wouldn’t we want Jesus on our team? If we were drafting a team of the most important people in our lives wouldn’t it be a good thing to include Jesus? There’s just one problem: Jesus doesn’t do teams. Jesus has preferences but not teams. And his preferences tend to look the same, which is a preference for the one who is in the greatest need, for the lost and the lowly and the powerless.
This home-town phenomenon is pretty much the same today. We talked about prophets in Confirmation last Wednesday with the 7th and 8th graders and their parents, and we made up a list of all the people who might be modern-day prophets. Whenever we do this I’m struck that it begins to sound a little like we’re listing the people on our podcast playlist. For example, I might say that Wendell Berry is a prophet, but that may be because I rather like what Wendell Berry says. You might like what Mike Rowe says. Or you might like what Pope Francis says. Or you might like what Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders say. I don’t know. Does that make them a prophet? If Jesus and if any of our examples from the Old Testament are any indication the best way to tell if you are listening to a prophet is to ask yourself A) is this person preaching for the visitors rather than the home team, and B) is this person about to get his or her self crucified for what they are saying? If you can answer “yes” to those questions then you may be dealing with a prophet. People don’t like what a prophet has to say. People didn’t much like what Jesus had to say. Because of this, we are forever domesticating Jesus to fit our already-held beliefs. We make Jesus into our image. We tone down the harshness of the prophetic voice at least as long as the prophecy is aimed at us—the hometown team. We follow Jesus to whatever extent it makes us feel good about ourselves, but the moment it makes us question things we turn away