Raising the Curtain
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It’s amazing what is available to be found on the internet. It’s a wonder for those of us old enough to remember a life pre-internet. For those not that old, please allow us to indulge in our wonder and maybe indulge in a little wonder yourselves! A case in point is this rather random clipping from the Folsom Telegraph, Wednesday, November 19th, 1979.
“Most people wish to serve God – but in an advisory capacity only.” Someone has said, commenting on this – “We all know what we want God to do. We are not so good at bringing our hopes and intentions into line with what God has in mind.”
Discuss among ourselves. I will say at this point that it is not under our own power/strength of will that our hopes and intentions, and actions are brought into line with what God has in mind. To follow Christ is to have the Holy Spirit in us, resting on us like a tongue of fire. Renewing us. Transforming us.
The same Spirit that was in Christ, on whom the curtain goes up today. Jesus’ words in the synagogue of his hometown Nazareth, which Luke puts at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus was inspired, literally. The Spirit had descended on him like a dove at his baptism. The Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tested by the devil, the accuser, the liar. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” are the first words from the prophet Isaiah that Jesus reads in his hometown. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. The Spirit of the Lord is upon you.
This passage has held a position of some importance for us here at Blythwood. Our tagline here is “Continuing Christ’s work in the world.” It says so on our sign, so it must be true! I kid but we pray that it may be true. A few years ago, we asked the question, “What is Christ’s work in the world?” To answer it, we said, “Well, what did Jesus say his work was?” All of this led us to Luke 4. Jesus’ manifesto. Jesus’ inaugural address. In this story, Luke tells us who Jesus is, what his ministry will be, and what his church will be and do. Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom (and if you wonder why you hear me use the phrase “as is our custom” so often – this is where I get it). It was Jesus’ habit to be among the people of God in a service at which the Word of God was read and spoken about, at which prayers were made, at which a collection for the poor was taken up. It was Jesus’ habit to be at such a weekly service of worship of God. I’ll just leave that out there. Jesus’ good news message here is spoken at a place that is at the centre of community life. The synagogue generally not only served as a house of worship but as a kind of community centre, a place of hospitality for travellers, a place of teaching. The good news of Jesus is to speak from and inform the centre of life.
We have this great scene that kind of moves like this. Jesus stands up to read (because they would stand up to read and sit down to teach – interesting). The scroll of the prophet Isaiah is handed to him. He unrolls the scroll and found the place where it is written…
Are you ready?
“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 favour.”
Here is the original – “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God.” Two things we should note here. The first is the inclusion of a line from Isaiah 58:6 – “to let the oppressed go free.” Isaiah was a prophet, and look at the word he brings from the Lord – what these words of Jesus should draw our attention to from Isaiah 58 – “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to gith and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bullrush and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 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? It is not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…” That last part reminds me of a song that goes, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79). The Prince of Peace is reading the words. The curtain has gone up, and the script had already been written.
The part that Jesus doesn’t read is “The day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus is declaring the year of God’s favour – the age in which we live. The age of grace. We remember the angels’ song at Christmas. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours.” Peace among those on whom his favour rests. Someone has described the year of the Lord’s favour like this – “is the season of God’s “hospitality” to the human race, which it is Jesus’ mission to proclaim and enact. It is a time when people are simply accepted, not judged. True, it is a summons to conversion—an urgent and insistent summons to a deep and transforming conversion. But before conversion, there is acceptance, welcome, a hand held out to the afflicted, the trapped, and the bound.”
Good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind. Freedom for the oppressed. The year of the Lord’s favour. This is what Jesus is all about. All of these things working symbolically and practically. Good news to the poor in spirit – good news to those who know their need of God. Good news to the economically disadvantaged and all those who are on the margins of society. Release and freedom to the captive and the oppressed. Forgiveness of sin is seen as not simply addressing personal guilt but the freedom from a force from which we were unable to extricate ourselves. Healing and wholeness. A whole new way of seeing God and neighbour and ourselves and the world.
The action in the scene goes on in reverse. Jesus rolls up the scroll. Gives it back to the attendant. The eyes of all were fixed on him. Undivided attention. The first public words that Jesus speaks in Luke’s Gospel (I mean apart from what he just read). “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The first word that Jesus speaks is “today.” The good news of Christ is not to be relegated to “on a day-long ago” or a vague “someday.” There is an immediacy about it which gives the day purpose and promise. To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah. Zacchaeus – I must go to your house today (and I like that Jesus invited himself places!). Today, you will be with me in paradise.
“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We have heard it too. What are we going to do with Jesus’ words? We’re invited to catch the vision. We’re celebrating our first anniversary of being able to meet together again in person without a break. I’ve looked at it in many ways as a year to regroup and be consolidated in the Spirit. We’ve seen God doing wonderful things during that year. What is it going to mean for our church as we ask God how God would have us take this good news outside our walls – either reconfiguring old ways or in brand new ways? The vision remains the same. A few years ago, we described what these verses mean to our church like this, and I believe all of this still holds true: “God has poured out His Spirit on us, enabling us to do His work. This includes preaching the good news of Jesus and the reconciliation he has brought about, in action and in word. It also means helping to feed and clothe those who are unable to do so for themselves. We are called to proclaim the freedom and forgiveness that is found in Christ and to work through love, mercy, and compassion to free people from systems that tyrannize and oppress. We are called to proclaim the breaking into our world of the Kingdom of God to those who are blind. We are called to proclaim and live the year of the Lord’s favour Jesus has brought – the forgiveness of sins, eternal communion with Father, Son, and Spirit, relief from suffering, from sickness, from injustice, from poverty and from oppression.” What will this look like for us? I’m excited to find out. May our response be one of acceptance of Jesus’ mission and the call on our lives to take part in more than an advisory capacity. The response in Nazareth seems favourable at first. The gathering was amazed at the words of grace coming from Jesus’ mouth. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they ask. In other words, he’s one of us.
Simeon made this promise about Jesus – “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” (2:34-35a) It can be painful to have our inner thoughts revealed. When it happens, remember that the one revealing them is all about grace and mercy. “Doubtless you’ll 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 did at Capernaum.’” Doubtless you will act out of self-interest because this is what we tend to do. We get it. Look at sports. We love hometown heroes, and we love them best when they’re performing their heroics for their hometown. GTA boys win a cup for the Leafs! We’ve heard what you did in Capernaum, now we’re in for some good things! Instead of trying to mollify them, Jesus reminds them. Hey, you people of God. This grace thing was never solely about you. Elijah was sent to a widow up in Sidon, Jezebel’s hometown in actual fact. The leper that Elisha cleansed was actually a Syrian!
Who are the people in our world who are seen as beyond the grace of God? Who are the people in our world for whom we would consider it offensive that God’s grace be extended? We love to categorize people – especially people with whom we disagree. Jesus reminds this crowd and this crowd that the grace of God goes beyond our categories, and this is the way it has always been for God.
Do we accept God’s grace, or are we scandalized by it? The Nazareth crowd is scandalized to the point where they try to kill their hometown hero. It doesn’t work. He passes through the midst of them. Even death won’t stop Jesus’ mission, as we’ll see in a few weeks. It seems to, at least for a couple of days. But he passes through it.
We are invited to Jesus’ table today not based on any category to which we belong but based only on our awareness of our need for grace and mercy and our acceptance of the grace and mercy found in Christ Jesus. Jesus has spelled out his mission and our mission, should we choose to accept it. May our coming to the table today be an outward sign of our “Yes,” and may this be true for all of us.