THE YEAR OF THE LORD'S FAVOUR
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It seems fitting that we’re looking at this passage from Luke to begin our Lenten journey in 2019. Some years ago our church looked at our mission statement which we’ve had for a long time and which I think sums up very well and very succinctly what the mission of this church or any church is. “Continuing Christ’s work in the world.” We looked at that mission statement and wanted to flesh it out somewhat. We asked the question “What is Christ’s work in the world?” We then asked “Well what did Christ say it was?
Which brought us to Luke 4.
Jesus’ manifesto. Jesus’ inaugural speech. If he were a politician running for office today, this would have been the big event speech which everyone would have been reporting on. Breaking news! Jesus has returned to his hometown. Luke has described Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John. Luke has described the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. He’s described how Jesus went into the wilderness and was tempted. How he returned to Galilee filled with the power of the Spirit and began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
So what was he saying?
We come to this wonderful scene. They say you can’t go home again. Jesus comes home. Home town boy. The town where he had been brought up. It was his usual Sabbath practice to go to the synagogue. Worship there consisted of prayers, of reading the scripture, of talking about the scripture, of the giving of alms. Sounds very familiar really. The synagogue was a centre of community life. Jesus had grown up in this life. He was in the centre of a place and a people who were very familiar to him.
You can picture the scene. Jesus stands up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah is handed to him. He unrolls it and finds the place where it is written. Luke 4:18-19. Taken from Isaiah 61:1-2. He rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant and sits down. The eyes of all were fixed on him. They’re intent! He began to say to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The first thing I want to note here is that this plan that Jesus is putting into effect is one that had been in the works for a long time. This whole salvation plan did not begin when Jesus was born. The plan had been put in place. Promises had been made. The script had been written by the prophet Isaiah. Jesus is enacting the plan. We’re part of something much larger than what goes on in this church today or what’s gone in this church over 60 years or what’s gone in the church over 2,000 years now.
The other part is the immediacy of Jesus’ message. Note the first word of Jesus’ one line sermon here that Luke gives us (though we may assume there was more as he began to say to them) – Today. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” As someone has said it’s not one day in the past. It’s not some indistinct hazy date in the future we’re talking about. Today. “…to you is born this day” is what the angels told the shepherds. “I must stay at your house today,” is what Jesus will tell a certain short-statured tax collector. Today.
This scripture has been fulfilled. Jesus’ mission statement. Jesus’ commission. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. The anointing that brings to mind Kings of old. The same Spirit that lives in us and empowers our mission. All of these things work on a literal level and all of them work on a spiritual level. It’s a picture of what salvation means. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. Good news to those who possess a poverty of spirit. Blessed are the poor, Jesus will say later on in the famous sermon on the plain in Luke 6. Welcome are the poor in this Kingdom because it’s not about your station in life or how much you make or what level of education you’ve achieved. It’s about knowing our need for help from beyond ourselves. Help has arrived in the person of Jesus. Help has arrived to do something for us and something indeed for all of creation (because it’s not just about us and we’ll come back to that in a little while). He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives. Release from the captivity of sin. Note here that sin is not portrayed so much as guilt for which we need to be forgiven as much as it is something from which we need to be released.
Recovery of sight to the blind is next. A new way of seeing – everything. Eyes that see in the light of Christ. Also actual recovery of sight. Healing. Human flourishing. This is what Jesus has come to enact. The image of prisoners being released here works well. Being released from darkness into the light of day. Able to see. “What do you want me to do for you?” is what Jesus will ask a blind man outside Jericho. “Lord I want to see,” is the answer. May this be the prayer of all of us. To see people as beloved of and made in the image of God. To see the things of this world as reminders of God’s love and care. To let the oppressed go free. This is actually from Isaiah 58 where the message from God is that people are fasting and being outwardly very pious and religious yet serving their own interests and quarrelling and fighting and striking with a wicked fist. The word of God comes - “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
This is what Jesus is declaring. What does this mean for us who seek to continue Christ’s work in the world?
The year of the Lord’s favour. Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Today. This is the message. This is the good news.
The question for us becomes – What are we going to do with this news? The reaction of the people of Nazareth was initially good. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they say. Jesus, anticipating their reasoning tells them “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you do in Capernaum.”
You can’t go home again, they say. Jesus is anticipating a demand from the people of his hometown that he be their prophet. That he does these things for them. They’ve heard about what he’s done in Capernaum and they want to know “What is in this for us?”
Of course, as we’ve been saying, the kingdom of heaven is not all about us. Let us not approach the good news by asking what’s in it for us. Let us not circumscribe it in such a way. Oh, there are things in it for us, of course. Peace. Assurance. Joy. Comfort. An interior change. A renovation of our hearts. There are things in it for us but it’s so much larger than me because to follow Christ is to be caught up in God’s grand salvation plan which was planned long ago and was brought about in the person of Christ and his life and death and resurrection and is being brought about and will be brought about one day when we hear that voice saying “See, I am making all things new.”
This is the good news!
Jesus reminds the people of Nazareth that God’s grace extends even to those we see as enemies. In Elijah’s day, mercy was extended to a widow in Sidon. A Phoenician. The “other”. In Elisha’s day, it was a Syrian general who was cured of leprosy. There was a strong sense in Jesus’ day that the Messiah would come to rout Israel’s enemies. Normal yes? We talked about this when we looked at the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ call to enemy love. Confound our enemies! This sounds good us no? The Kingdom of God is about something else.
Luke leaves something out of the Isaiah reading. The day of vengeance of our Lord. The day of justice will come, we pray for that. In the meantime - the year of the Lord’s favour. A period of time that started with Jesus and is still going. A time of welcome to the kingdom. A time of grace.
Someone has said that the conflict here is not between Jesus and Judaism or the synagogue and the church but Judaism and its own scriptures. The people of Nazareth knew these things about Elijah and Elisha. They knew the promise was for the children of Abraham to be a blessing to all nations. All nations. What was it that the people of Nazareth had to take to heart?
What is it that we need to take to heart? This period before Easter has traditionally been a time of self-examination. Of turning to God in a more intentional way. Of leaving things behind that would inhibit our growth in Christ. A time of renewal. What do we need to learn about God’s grace? What do we need to learn about God’s promises? “Is this not Joseph’s son,” the crowd asked. We know this guy. We’ve known him since he was a kid. We’ve known him since we were kids. We’re used to him. Are we used to Jesus? Too used to Jesus? As we go through Luke’s Gospel, how might Jesus speak to us through this season so that we see him in a new way? So that we see him with eyes that see more clearly. See him in places that we are used to seeing him. See him in places maybe we’re not used to seeing him. They say you can’t go home again. Kathleen Norris is an American poet/essayist/Benedictine oblate. She tells a story of being artist-in-residence at a parochial school, getting the children to write their own psalms; of how children who are picked on by big brothers and sisters can be particularly good at writing what she calls “cursing” psalms. A young boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” It begins with the boy speaking of how much he hates it when his father yells at him. The boy responds by throwing his sister down the stairs, wrecking his room, and then going out and wrecking his whole town. The last line in the poem goes “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’” Norris makes the following comment – “’My messy house’ says it all: with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, he made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depths of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward redemption, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?
Jesus passes through the crowd and goes on his way. His way is leading to the cross. What might it look for us to ask God’s help in making our messy hearts an inviting home in which to welcome Christ as we journey with him to Jerusalem this Lenten season?