Loving God, may your Holy Spirit be upon all of us this day. May your empowering and inspiring love fill, bless, encourage, and strengthen us, as we seek to live faithfully and follow in the way of Jesus. Amen.
Today, as we continue our sermon series on those epiphanies, those “ah-ha,” moments in the gospel stories for this season, we find ourselves with Jesus in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
Jesus’ ministry in Galilee had just begun and was starting to take off. He hadn’t yet called any disciples to join him. But he had been teaching in the synagogues and word about him was starting to spread.
On this particular Sabbath day, he returned to Nazareth to teach. And so, he stands before the congregation and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah words that were probably familiar to many of the folks gathered there that day:
“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 then he sits down to teach (which was the common practice) and says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And I have to wonder: did he say anything else? Or was this the shortest sermon in the history of the world? We don’t know.
But for the gospel writer, who is striving to share the heart of this story with his audience, this one sentence says a lot. Jesus, empowered and inspired by the Spirit of God, is the embodiment and fulfillment of this good news from Isaiah. To use a similar description from the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Word who “became flesh who lived among us.”
For those at the synagogue that day, the “ah-ha” moment may have been that Isaiah’s words we not merely historical. They were not just vestiges of past hopes and dreams. Instead, those words of Isaiah, those hopes and dreams of Isaiah, were being renewed, refreshed, made relevant for the present world, and embodied in the mission and ministry of Jesus.
Like many good prophets do, in this moment Jesus lifts up the words of the prophets who have gone before him, takes the mantel of their ministry upon his own shoulders, and brings their mission into the present.
As it turns out, not everyone in Nazareth was on board with Jesus’ mission and ministry. But Dave will get into that part of the story next week.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus said. What if the “ah-ha” moment for us is that this scripture is still being fulfilled in our hearing? Still being fulfilled today, right now in our lifetimes, in our present world.
Today, the hopes and dreams of Isaiah, the hopes and dreams of Jesus, are our hopes and dreams.
What if the Spirit of the Lord is upon us? What if God has anointed us?
Do you think of yourself as anointed? Many of us white, mainline Protestants don’t use that word very often, but some other Christian traditions do.
But we are anointed. We are called. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit. We are gifted in our own various ways with much to offer this world.
And these imperatives, these proclamations of Isaiah and Jesus, are not to be left upon the pages of scripture. They are not remnants of a time gone by. They are the Living Word that Jesus embodied in his life and ministry. And now it’s our turn to embody this Living Word for ourselves.
Far from being stuck in the past, Luke chapter 4, verses 18 and 19 provide a pretty good job description for the church in any age:
“To bring good news to the poor. 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.”
Many commentators also note that Jesus proclaims God’s favor but leaves out the proclamation of God’s vengeance that follows in the Isaiah passage that he is reading. At least that’s how Luke tells the story.
I find that interesting. And to me there is a lesson in this about how we interpret and apply the words of ancient scripture to our modern contexts. Perhaps Jesus knew that what was needed by the people in the synagogue in that moment was a message of favor, not of vengeance.
Certainly, when we look at his life’s work, we see that Jesus embodied God’s love and grace. And, in this moment, Jesus chooses to emphasize Isaiah’s vision of what God’s favor looks like: good news, liberation, and healing – all grounded in love.
And, of course, it has to be more than just talking the talk, right? Jesus would also walk the walk and invite others to join him.
And so, the question for us is how we walk the walk.
It’s not a new question. I think it’s probably a question a lot of us have spent a lot of time on. It’s a central question of the life of faith for us as individuals and as a church community.
And these proclamations of Isaiah and Jesus invite us to consider some specific questions.
Who are the poor in our neighborhood and world? And what good news do they need?
We know that there are many people who are in varying degrees of need in our world. And good news for the poor has to be more than just words. That good news must involve some action. So, how do we make a difference?
First, how do we respond to immediate needs like the need for food or a safe place to live? There are a lot of ways to provide direct service or support organizations that provide services for people in need. Our church supports several here in Long Beach. And I know many of you do a lot of volunteering and donating.
Second, how do we make lasting changes in our society so fewer people are poor, so fewer people struggle to make ends meet? This one is trickier, I think. The reasons why people are in need are many, varied, and multidimensional. Societal change takes a long time. Politics are involved and that gets complicated. People disagree. It can be hard sometimes.
But I do think that part of our call as people of faith is to stay engaged, to try to understand the root issues and causes of poverty and inequity, and to work through social and political channels for systemic change.
This is also part of how we respond to that call to proclaim release to the captives and free the oppressed. No one said it was going to be easy or quick. Isaiah did his part. Jesus did his part. And now the call is ours to respond to.
God has always been about liberation.
Freeing people from whatever has held them captive and bound them literally or metaphorically is part of God’s character, as witnessed to by both testaments of the Bible and throughout our religious history.
So, how shall we be voices of liberation and witnesses to the liberating work of God in our time? Who do you know who needs to be reminded that they are loved? Who needs to hear that they are deserving of release? Who needs to hear that freedom is possible? Who are the voices of liberation we should be listening to and partnering with? And how do we more fully live towards liberation for all?
Sometimes a path towards liberation from whatever it is that binds us begins with a reminder that freedom is possible.
And who needs to see more clearly? This proclamation of recovery of sight to the blind is an interesting one. Though there are stories of Jesus healing people who are physically blind, I think of this proclamation primarily as a metaphor. What don’t we see? What’s blocking our sight? What’s getting in the way of our ability to perceive what we need to perceive.
It may be tempting to point out to others that they just aren’t seeing clearly, they just don’t get it – whether that is political leaders, family members, or whomever. We all do that. But I would also urge us all to remember another teaching of Jesus when he reminded us to take the log out of our own eye before we start digging around for the speck in someone else’s.
Perhaps we’d do well to start by asking God to help us see more clearly.
We also ought to recognize that limited sight, limited perspective, is part of the human condition. We need each other to see more fully, more completely.
None of these are really individual questions, even though they have individual dimensions and each of us are invited to consider them for ourselves.
These are questions every community of faith ought to reflect upon regularly. These questions are both perennial, global questions that have spanned the ages. And they are also current, contextual questions we must consider from our own vantage point, in this place, in our lives, in our time.
And there are many valid answers. There are many ways these proclamations of Isaiah and Jesus might inspire our various ministries as a church and our individual lives of faith.
Back in 2005, when I was in my first year in seminary, I went to New York City for a week in January for an intersession class on the arts and ministry in an urban context. One evening, a group of us went to Great Hood Memorial AME Zion Church in Harlem for their Hip Hop service which featured a fusion of Hip Hop, Rap, and Gospel music.
While I was there, I picked up their promotional postcard because it had such a striking image on it. In the middle is a depiction of Jesus as a black man with arms outstretched over the Manhattan skyline. It was clearly inspired by the famous, huge Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. And written across Jesus’ shirt is: Luke 4:18 That’s What’s Up!
The service was a lot of fun, of course! And afterwards a few members of the worship band joined our class group for a drink and a conversation about what they were doing. The church started that service because they were looking for a way to serve the younger generation that lived in their neighborhood. They knew there were young people living right there who either grew up in the church (but didn’t feel all that connected) or who had never really been part of a church community before. They wanted those young people to know that God loves them and to know that there was loving, supportive community to be found right there in the neighborhood. They wanted to bring hope, inspiration, and connection to those who needed it.
So, they decided to try something new and different from their Sunday morning service. And they invested the time, energy, and money it took to do it well. They committed the pastoral resources to put on the service every week. They hired good Hip Hop musicians who lived in the neighborhood, knew the culture, already performed this style of music, and who were excited about this new ministry. And it was evident to me that they prayed about it and lovingly provided this ministry to their community.
They took the mandate of Luke 4:18 seriously.
I lift up this example not because I’m suggesting we should start a Hip Hop service. Though you never know! But, instead, to remind us of what can happen when a church takes a good look at their community, listens to the voices of their community members, discovers some needs of that community, and tries something new that they haven’t done before to serve that community.
That’s part of being the church.
And the beginning of another new year is a great time to consider both for ourselves in our own lives and for our church collectively how we might continue to respond to God’s call to us to live out these hopes and dreams of Isaiah and Jesus that now belong to us.
How shall we proclaim God’s deep, abiding, and liberating love far and wide?
What do we do well that we should we keep doing? What might we try that’s new?
Because… Luke 4:18. That’s what’s up!