January 13, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday January 15, 2017. From our ongoing series at Central Church of Christ, “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”
Scripture is Luke 4.14-30.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.
Jesus’ homecoming sermon
Last time, we left Jesus still dripping from his baptism. The Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove. And we heard Father God tell him: You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness. A tender moment between all three persons of the Trinity. Father, Son, and Spirit were all there.
But the tender moment rather quickly dissolved into a time of testing for Jesus. The Spirit led him out into the wilderness for a showdown with the devil. Three times, the devil offered him an easy way out. Jesus made costly choices out in the wilderness. He chose to serve others instead of himself. To lay down his power and privilege and become powerless on the cross. To go to Jerusalem and die a shameful death.
And it’s right after Jesus makes those costly choices that Jesus’ ministry begins, and our lesson today picks up. The Holy Spirit led him from the wilderness to Galilee and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. Why was everyone talking about Jesus? Luke says: He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. Whatever he was teaching got everyone fired up.
We get a flavor of what Jesus must have been teaching when Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth to teach in the synagogue there. He goes to Sabbath service—as he normally did, Luke makes sure to remind us. Mary and Joseph raised him right. He got up to read the scripture lesson, from the scroll of Isaiah. And he more or less read Isaiah 61.1-2. I’ll tell you why I say more or less shortly.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then Luke says Jesus handed the scroll back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. A little explanation. Back then, the Jewish custom was you stood up for the word of the Lord, and you sat down to preach. And you probably wish my sermons were as short as his was that day: Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it. That’s it. That was the sermon.
The Isaiah passage provides a manifesto for Jesus’ ministry. It also sets the agenda for the rest of Luke’s Gospel. Luke wants to show us Jesus as God’s Messiah for Israel: preaching the Good News of God’s salvation to the poor. Bringing in the year of the Lord’s favor: the Jubilee.
Jesus wanted the people in his hometown synagogue to know—and Luke wants us to know—that Jesus is our Jubilee. We find our forgiveness, our freedom, our homecoming, and our rest in him.
Isaiah, more or less
Remember how earlier, I said Jesus more or less read Isaiah 61.1-2? Here’s why. Isaiah 61.1 says something about binding up the brokenhearted. For whatever reason, Jesus replaced that with a line from Isa. 58.6: to let the oppressed go free. Or, to liberate the oppressed. I suspect he did this for emphasis. Both Isaiah 61 and Isaiah 58 use the word for to release, to liberate, to set free. This word is often translated to forgive, as in, to release from a debt. For instance, Luke 3.3 says John called for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. The same word is used there. The people want to be set free from their sins.
By substituting a line from Isaiah 58—probably just a column or so over in the scroll—Jesus ends up using the word to forgive, to release, to set free twice in the reading. First, to proclaim release to the prisoners; and second, to liberate the oppressed. The same verb is used for both.
What was Jesus trying to emphasize then? Well, first it helps to take a look at Isaiah 58, where Jesus got the second release phrase. In that passage, God called the people away from religious rituals to show repentance—like fasting. Instead, God calls his people to show their repentance in how they live their daily lives. So Isa. 58.6-7 says:
Isn’t this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated,
and breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them,
and not hiding from your own family?
This is very close to what we heard from John the Baptist in last week’s lesson: Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives (Luke 3.8). Those who have extra clothes and food should share, John said. For John, that’s repentance looks like. It’s not just feeling bad or saying sorry. Repentance calls us to action. So Jesus says his agenda is in line with John’s. And that agenda is taken straight from the Old Testament prophets—like Isaiah.
But that’s only the beginning. I mentioned the Jubilee earlier. Using the Isaiah passage, Jesus says he has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The year of the Lord’s favor is the year of Jubilee. You can read all about the Jubilee year in Leviticus 25. But the gist of it is that it’s a year of forgiveness and fresh starts. The land got a rest—it is released from being worked and harvested. All debts were forgiven, and all slaves were released. All lands that had been sold since the last Jubilee were returned to the family that originally held them. Everyone got to come home. In fact, Lev. 25.10 says that the Jubilee is a year to proclaim liberty—same word again: release, forgiveness—throughout the land to all its inhabitants.
Isaiah 61 used the image of Jubilee for God bringing his people home from captivity in Babylon. Their sins were forgiven, their slavery was over, they were being called home. Like Isaiah, Jesus used the image of Jubilee to set the agenda for his ministry. He was saying, I’ve come to forgive debts and set people free from sin and shame and the satan. I’ve come to heal people and give them rest. I’m calling everyone home—even the tax collectors and sinners. Especially them!
Last week, we heard Luke use the words of Isaiah to describe John the Baptist’s ministry: Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled (Luke 3.5, quoting Isa. 40.4). Luke wants us to see Jesus’ ministry in the same light. Making crooked paths straight. Leveling the ground beneath our feet. Making everything even. Giving people a clear path back home to God.
Isaiah, more or less—part 2
So Jesus read the Isaiah text, more or less. I’ve told you about the more. Here’s the less. Jesus ended the reading on the line, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus has come into the world to proclaim Jubilee. A time of forgiveness and release and new beginnings. A time of God’s favor. But he cut off one line from the reading, and I’m certain it wasn’t an accident. Isa. 61.2 says: to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and a day of vindication—or vengeance—for our God. Jesus cut the reading off before he got to the day of vengeance. I wonder why?
Certainly it wasn’t because Jesus didn’t believe a day of reckoning was coming. Luke certainly doesn’t tell the story of Jesus that way, either. After all, we hear in his mother Mary’s song that as sure as God lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry; God also scatters the proud, dethrones kings, and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1.51-53). Last week, we heard John warn of the angry judgment that is coming (Luke 3.7). Later on, Jesus will teach about a time of God’s vengeance. In Luke 6.24-26, he says:
how terrible for you who are rich,
because you have already received your comfort.
How terrible for you who have plenty now,
because you will be hungry.
How terrible for you who laugh now,
because you will mourn and weep.
How terrible for you when all speak well of you.
Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.
So no doubt, like Mary and John, Jesus knew a day of vengeance would be unleashed. God would vindicate himself and his people and every victim of injustice. But by stopping the reading where he did, it’s like he was saying: A day of vengeance is coming; but that day is not today. One day those who live in comfort at someone else’s expense will know deprivation. Those who fill themselves without sharing will know hunger. Those who laugh at others will lament. Those who hail the false prophets who preach: Peace!, when there is no peace, will be disgraced.
But today is the day to preach Good News to the poor. To proclaim release to the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind. To liberate the oppressed. Today—right now!—God proclaims a general amnesty! Today—right now!—is the time of God’s patience. Today—right now!—is the year of God’s favor.
Because Jesus told the people: Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it. Church, the year of the Lord’s favor began in Jesus’ day, and extends until Jesus returns. In the meantime, the life’s work of the church, and of each disciple of Jesus is to proclaim and to live out the Good News of God’s salvation. Today. Right now. Wherever we’re at.
The year of the Lord’s favor is now.
It’s all downhill from here
It was a beautiful sermon Jesus preached. Concise. Timely. A message full of hope. Jesus had his hometown synagogue eating from his hand. Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips, Luke tells us.
Which is why what happens next is so shocking. It all went downhill from there. Almost literally. By the time Jesus was finished talking to them, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff.
Jesus seemed to have a spiritual gift for getting people mad enough to kill him. That gift drove him from his hometown all the way to the cross. But that’s a story for another time.
What did he do to get his neighbors—people he’d known his whole life—mad enough to throw him off a cliff? I think it’s when he overheard them saying, This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it? Legally, he was Joseph’s son, yes. But Luke has already revealed to us that Jesus is God’s Son first. The angel Gabriel had told his mother, Mary: he will be called the Son of the Most High (Luke 1.32). When he was twelve years old, and stayed behind in the temple at Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph fussed at him, Jesus told them: Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house? (Luke 2.49). And last week, after Jesus was baptized, we heard God say: You are my Son, whom I dearly love (Luke 3.22). Jesus had come to earth to do his Father’s work. His agenda was God’s agenda; not his neighbors’.
So Jesus told them: Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in’ the other villages. Doctor, heal yourself. Means something like: Charity begins at home. Stick to your own kind. Stay here and take care of us. They wanted Jesus to be their hometown prophet. They wanted to own him. And Jesus knew that couldn’t happen.
So he reminded them about the years-long famine in Elijah’s day. How God had sent Elijah to feed a Canaanite widow. And how, during Elisha’s ministry, God sent him to cleanse the leprosy of a Syrian general named Naaman. Canaanites and Syrians were enemies of Israel. Jesus told his neighbors, in no uncertain terms, that God didn’t intend for Jubilee to be proclaimed only to them. Jesus had come to preach the Good News of God’s salvation to all the poor folk. To heal all the blind folk. To proclaim forgiveness and release to all the captives. Yes, even the tax collectors and Samaritans and … even the Romans. God had sent him to proclaim Jubilee to everyone. Even their enemies.
And that’s what got them mad enough to throw Jesus off a cliff. Because there’s this human tendency to think blessing is a zero-sum game. Good news for somebody has to mean bad news for somebody else. There can’t be a year of the Lord’s favor without a corresponding day of vengeance for our God. Jesus came to show us it doesn’t really have to be that way.
Luke has already told us that Jesus is following the agenda revealed by the prophet Isaiah. God has sent him to the world so that all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Luke 3.6, quoting Isa. 40.5).
Jesus came to proclaim Jubilee—forgiveness, release, healing, and rest—to the whole earth, and everyone living in it. Not just his own people people in his little village. And church—Jesus isn’t our private property, either. No more than he was Nazareth’s.
What this story means for the church
That day, Luke tells us, Jesus passed through the crowd and went on his way. But the day would come when Jesus would visit Jerusalem. And the people there—some of his Jewish neighbors, and their Gentile overseers—would run him up a hill and crucify him. A lot of folks just hate the Good News that God loves everybody equally; and God is reaching out to everybody; and God wants to set everybody free. Some people are so enslaved by their own power; their own ambition; their own fame; their own privilege; their own agenda that they hate to see anybody else set free. It’s the truth. Two thousand years later, many still haven’t learned this lesson. They just can’t see the truth for what it is.
I think Luke made sure to tell us the story of Jesus getting run out of his hometown to remind God’s church in all times that Jesus is not our private property. We don’t own him. He didn’t just come to save a few of us. He’s not interested just in what goes on in these four walls. Jesus cares about and is moved by and longs to embrace everybody. Jesus loves the people in Flint, Michigan drinking poisoned water. Jesus loves all the down-and-out, out-of-work people in Ohio and West Virginia and Alabama. Jesus loves the folks in Memphis, Tennessee where the infant mortality rate is worse than some developing nations. Jesus loves the women and children who are being trafficked. Jesus loves Syrian refugees. Jesus even loves all the people doing them wrong. And he loves them enough to want them to knock it off and make it right. Because Jesus lived and died and was raised so that we would know that God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2.4). And the truth that God wants all people to know is that God loves us all relentlessly and without regret. And God wants us to love our neighbors relentlessly, too. Even the ones who’d run us out of town.
I think Luke told us the story about Jesus getting run out of his hometown to remind the church that what God is doing through Jesus isn’t just for us. It never has been. When God called Abram, he told him: all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you (Gen. 12.3). When Jesus gathered his first disciples, and took them on a mountain, he told them: You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden (Matt. 5.14). Jesus proclaims the good news to us in our poverty. He releases us from our captivity to sin and shame and fear and death. He opens our blind eyes. But he does this so that we can go out and proclaim good news to the poor. So we can release other prisoners from sin and shame and fear and death. We can lead others out of the dark dungeons of oppression so they walk in the light of God’s freedom. So that we can proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. So that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.