*Sermon preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 27 January 2019. The sermon delivered had a few really minor changes in the moment, as we continue to look at the intersection of discipleship and being a community centered in Jesus. – Vinson
Gospel of Luke 4:14-21 (New Revised Standard Version
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Returning to his hometown of Nazareth following his temptation by Satan in the wilderness, Jesus entered into his home synagogue. Word about him was already filtering through Galilee about their native son. Given most synagogues did not have their own clergy, it would not have been unusual for a distinguished person to speak, so Jesus was invited up front. In an age when Hebrew had been replaced by Aramaic as the common language with many not literate in Hebrew enough to read the scriptures, I expect is wasn’t his first time, but now was different as Jesus was asked to read scripture and comment upon it. Taken from the synagogue’s ark, the Book of Isaiah was handed to Jesus, a tightly rolled up scroll probably much like the Isaiah scroll found in an Israeli cave back in 1947 and dated to sometime between 150 and 400 BC. A foot wide and written on maybe 17 or 18 parchment sheets stitched together, a few minutes would have rolled by as Jesus had to unroll most of 25-feet long 66-chapter book just to get to the reading from Isaiah 61.
Now, far from Jerusalem at an intersection of commerce from the nearby foreign nations, in a town lying in perhaps the most progressive part of tetrarchies that made up the former nation of Israel, if anywhere would seem a great place for Jesus to start, this would be it. Eyes focused upon him as Jesus found the place and read. Then, sitting down in the style of the time when preparing to give a commentary and an application of the text, Jesus taught. To us it would have been closer to a Sunday school lesson that what we would call a sermon. Whether we’re seeking a personal relationship with Jesus, or we want to speak of what a Jesus-centered faith community is supposed to look like, this is the scripture for us to first sit with as we take our next steps. While there is certainly the hint Jesus had much more to say than recorded in the gospel, here in a few powerful sentences – Jesus conveys God’s vision statement for his ministry… bringing good news to a world often very much occupied with bad news.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
I only bring this up because if we have listened closely to the gospel text this morning from Luke, this good news of Jesus is only “good” when we first admit what hurts in our lives, what’s lacking, what’s been difficult, what’s our wounds and our sins.
So let’s hear the words of Jesus again, as we ponder this. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” It’s a truly hope-filled text, but in truth – it’s only is so when one is willing to embrace both sides of it.
I’ll unpack what I mean. It is pretty easy to hear all the positive inflections when we read these words. It even reminds me of hearing the words spoken of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday. But, that day of glory is darkly mirrored in Good Friday, is it not? So Jesus lifts up hope in the face of poverty, of captivity, of blindness, of oppression. None of those are happy experiences, in whatever form we experience them – personal, relational, work, or anything else. It’s to acknowledge that at some level, all of us are certainly touched by sorrow, if we are honest with God. Some of us, at least in an objective sense, undoubtedly experience more than others. In our shared humanity we know this truth: None of us are immune from pain, from suffering, from wounds to the heart, the body, the spirit. It is to this, Jesus says, that he has come to bring good news, to bring release, to bring freedom, to bring recovery, and to bring favor. The words themselves hearkening back to Leviticus, chapters 25 to 27, with a key verse at 25:10, wherein it is said: “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…”
If those words sound familiar, I’d note that they are what’s inscribed upon our nation’s Liberty Bell, these words of the Biblical “Jubilee.” Released from debt, released from captivity to sin and evil – setting aside whatever “captivity” binds people in prison, in addictions, in abusive situations, and so forth. Not just for the year as in Leviticus, but it’s expanded by Jesus into the broader sense that this will be the way of the Kingdom breaking forth now until he returns. Life will be reordered by God’s values for people, resetting our lives to God’s intention in the Creative act recorded in Genesis.
There is a caveat that the listeners in the synagogue ran into: they marveled at the words of Jesus, but ultimately could not take them into their being. It points to how that it’s only when we accept the realization that we aren’t complete in and of ourselves and difficult “bad news” is present in our lives, that we are able to fully participant in this new reality that is Jesus Christ. The folks in the synagogue are thinking Jesus speaks oh so well, but they’re too comfortable with themselves to take his words into their being. Jesus comes bringing good news to those in need, not to those who are comfortable in seeing nothing needs to change. Accepting our release from such captivity takes us surrendering our will to God, as we are.
As we mull over the words of Jesus as being fulfilled in our own hearing “today,” we hear how there’s good news to be had for the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. God offers comfort, but such comfort will only mean something to those who acknowledge their own discomfort. It is held at a distance, with the heart silenced by the head. It’s like wrapping ourselves so tightly in the concept of the resurrection to come that we don’t acknowledge it is a resurrected life in the now. Such a life in the now always starts with honesty about where we are today in life if our walk with the Lord is to heal. Accepting our recovery from such blindness is about surrounding our heart to God, as we are.
However, over the years of ministry I’ve known enough folk along the way who knew the answer as to what would make them truly free, but just could not surrender what was owning them in one form or another. I have found it painful at times to witness, because I see the suffering that could end in the grace of God. Let’s be honest, our own internal messages, the ones we learned somewhere in life about not it not being OK to be sad, or angry, or hurt, can be a real roadblock to Jesus and is a limit to the work of the Spirit. Not has everyone has experienced needed permissions from family and friends, or been granted a fulsome ear – and so ready to open up. And too, sharing stuff may have an aspect of guilt or shame tied up in it somehow that increase the fear of accepting grace – and so it gets locked away, sometimes for decades. Accepting our freedom from oppression in this and every form is about surrounding our life to God, as we are.
It’s only then we experience the immense freedom from speaking our truth, and receive the help and comfort that God offers – release, sight, healing, freedom, and more, and as a follower, that we move beyond receiving help and comfort to living a life that offers it to others. It is only then we hear Jesus is happening TODAY in our lives for we receive the good news AND we become a part of his Good News. “Today” is an important word for Luke; he uses it more than all the other gospels combined. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.” “Today you will be with me in paradise.” And twice in the Zacchaeus story: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay in your house today.” And then, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” And finally, in our text: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” So I would suggest as good a description as one can have for what it is to be the Body of Christ – is being God’s presence to those in need TODAY, according to the mercies we’ve received and the gifts we’ve been granted TODAY. Accepting such favor from God is to become a part of the proclamation itself of the Kingdom breaking forth as our spirit honors God, as we are.
We talked last week about our huge team and all the smaller sub-teams that make this ministry we have in common. I know that I can pretty much look around and say, there are no bystanders here. Each is seeking to serve. That’s one sign of a healthy congregation. Another sign of a healthy congregation is Jesus is how we translate the words of Jesus into our individual lives and life as a community gathered in him – as those called to offer his healing and a place of safety for ourselves and each other – that we may find hope and healing, that if one is:
If you are afraid? Come and find courage.
If you are lonely? Come and be included in our family.
If you are ill? Come here – or better, let us come to you – to care for you.
If you are isolated? We will visit you. We will welcome you. We will bring you into our community as an equal.
If you are discouraged? In our every gathering together, we encourage one another.
In such a spirit, we remember that God has come for not for the perfect but the imperfect, not for the healthy but for the ill, not for the righteous but unrighteous, not for the strong but for the weak. God comes, that is, for all of us.
In this, I would ask you to join with me in prayer for one another, to have the strength and energy to live in response to Jesus’ promise. So I am going to ask you to close your eyes and hold in your mind’s eye those around you… [extemporaneous prayer]