Lessons for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
Described as his first sermon, the way Jesus chose to begin his public ministry is of interest and, while simple and straightforward, provides a beautiful starting point for what will come.
Luke’s account begins with Jesus “filled with the power of the Spirit,” returning to Galilee, to Nazareth where he was brought up. Luke uses the apt phrase, “filled with the power of the Spirit,” to describe the transition to Jesus’ inaugural preaching. Jesus’ possession of the Spirit has already been stated twice, once at his baptism and then again when he is led into the dessert. We are not surprised, therefore, that Jesus is filled with the Spirit as he begins to preach and to teach in the synagogue.
Luke also notes that Jesus had become rather well known in the vicinity as “a report about him spread through all the surrounding country” and that Jesus “was praised” by everyone. Jesus, it seems, had been making the rounds, teaching and preaching in a circuit of local communities before coming to his own home town – where, we will learn, Jesus receives quite a different welcome.
A MESSAGE OF HOPE
In any event, Jesus went “to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.” Jesus was a pious Jew who would have worshiped in the synagogue regularly, an act that recurs in Luke’s Gospel (4:33, 44; 6:6; 13:10) as well as in the Acts of the Apostles (13:5, 14:1; 17:10; 18:4, 26; 19:8). As would have been custom, an attendant offered Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, part of the sequence of readings that would have followed from the Torah proper. And Jesus unrolled the scroll, the vellum on which the scriptures were written, rolled on two spindles. Jesus would have found his place by holding a spindle in each hand, one hand unrolling, the other rolling it back.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,Luke 4:18-19
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.”
Jesus offers a mixed quote from Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 58:6. But it important to recognize that this is not a haphazard quote. Jesus didn’t just unroll the scroll to an accidental place. He opened the scroll to a particular place, knowing when and to whom Isaiah was speaking. It helps to recognize that in Isaiah 61 the prophet is speaking to a people in exile, a people who had a real chance and opportunity to forget their faith and abandon their God. You see, in 587 BCE the Babylonians conquered the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, taking the people into exile. In the scene from Isaiah, the Israelites are living apart from the promised land, away from Mount Zion and the holy Temple. Isaiah is speaking to a people who needed to hear a word of promise, not despair, and be given a word of hope that would serve to keep their faith in the covenant alive.
The German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who defied Hitler and the unspeakable Nazi terror, once wrote that
“the essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy.”Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, SCM Press, 1967, 25
THE BASIC TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL
Sometimes, those of us who preach the gospel and many of us who gather to be Church, we make things a bit more complicated than they need to be. We tend to use language and lots of words which cause confusion and we employ so many ideologies and systems and notions that cause enmity and diminish hope. We do this to defend our positions, usually as a way of supporting our personal preferences rather than seeking love – which is the basic truth of the Gospel.
And we have done a good job of arguing over the years. In the earliest days of Christianity, there were divisions between Greeks and Jews especially regarding the care of widows. There have been numerous heresies that have divided the Church: Gnosticism, Marcionism, Sabellianism, Donatism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Eutychism, Monophysitism, Monotheletism and Iconoclasm. In 1054, the Church split between east and west and for the last 499 years the western half of Christendom has been divided between Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Pentecostals, among thousands of other denominations. Within Anglicanism, there are divisions now between Anglo-Catholics, High Churchmen, and Evangelicals, between conservative and progressives.
Now, I’m not saying that the discussions, debates, and the search for truth are not important. But sometimes I think that we use a lot of words and ideologies and systems that just complicate the basic truth of the gospel – words that divide rather than unite, and confuse rather than clarify. They are words and ideologies that rob us of a way of living that is intentional, that rob us of a clearly spoken message that brings good news, proclaims release and recovery, and lets the oppressed go free. They rob us of the intentional, clearly spoken, and straightforward message that proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And that is the deeper message of Jesus’ first sermon. After Jesus proclaimed the message form the prophet Isaiah, what did he do? He preached a sermon, a simple sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This is not a proclamation seeped in arrogance. Rather, it points to the enduring truth of the one we call Savior and Lord. It defines the character of Jesus and the essential shape of his ministry. Jesus will announce good news to the poor, the blind, those in captivity, and the oppressed. Luke’s narrative will shoe a messianic program carried out in the specific stories told about Jesus. While some sought a political or economic explanation through the announcement of a Jubilee year, Luke will portray Jesus’ liberating work through personal relationships, encounters of exorcism, healing, feeding, and teaching.
“The radical character of Jesus’ mission is specified above all by its being offered to and accepted by those who were the outcasts of the people.”Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke, Sacra Pagina, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 81.
Now, with seeming to digress, I think that it might be valuable to recall the Gospel progression, particularly noticing the two scenes that immediately precede this one in Luke’s account. First, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan (Luke 3:21-23a). Second, Jesus was driven into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1-13, Luke 3:23b-38 is the Lucan genealogy). Both of these events are foundation events, establishing for the reader a connection between God, Jesus, and God’s people.
BAPTISM IS A BEGINNING
First, for Jesus, baptism was a beginning, not an end. As Luke tells the story, when Jesus had been baptized “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” (Luke 3:22a). And then, in verse 23, we learn that “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.” Literally, the phrase here is “Jesus, thirty years old, was beginning…” The true sense is that this baptism is the beginning of the work that Jesus will do.
Second, now full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is led into the desert where he is tempted by the devil. Luke gives a sense of deliberateness in this scene, that Jesus was led into the desert in order to be tempted. Having so clearly learned that Jesus is through the Holy Spirit God’s son, we now are given a glimpse into the quality of Jesus’ sonship. The sequence that follows gives credibility to the good news. On the one hand, the passage shows the construct of the struggle between God and the powers of evil. The devil has real authority with is shadow kingdom a parody of God’s. The devil, though, is able to tempt Messiah. On the other hand, the temptation sequence is about Jesus choosing to be obedient, denying all that the devil offers and accepting all the God has called him to be. The point being that Jesus is the true son who is the true minister of the Kingdom of God.
And might not this sequence say something important about you and to me? Baptism – our baptisms – connects us to God. Baptism does not make our lives carefree nor does it promise a life of riches and ease. Our baptism, like Jesus’, is a new beginning, an empowerment of God’s Spirit, which descends upon us to bring grace rather than judgment, engagement rather than indifference, and forgiveness rather than revenge.
If you would rather think that you are not capable of building that kind of life, a life modeled on Jesus’ own ministry beginnings – a life filled with intentional, meaningful, and purposeful Good News – then maybe you need to hear the words spoken by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘The Drum Major Instinct’ delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, February 4, 1968
That’s right, our baptisms enable us to join in Jesus’ mission and ministry – to bring good news, to proclaim release and recovery, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The Spirit has descended on us just as it did on Jesus.
Now note what happened to Jesus after the desert. “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…” (Luke 4:14). When that trial in the desert had ended, where did Jesus go? He went back to Galilee. He went home.
While the commission is to go into all the world, it is a necessary reminder that we can and must live into the Gospel where we are, in the moment where we happen to be. And it matters not whether our worlds are big or small, how many people you may know, or how important people think that you are, the way Jesus lived should cause us to proclaim the gospel, using few words (fewer is better so we keep it simple and straightforward) and lots of love….right where we are!
We don’t know what Jesus may have said if he had been asked to describe people who are poor and blind, in captivity and oppressed. We do know, however, what Isaiah meant when he spoke that word, prophetically, to Israel. He was proclaiming God’s intent that God’s servant will pay particular attention to people who are afflicted and bound and blind.
The simple truth that stands at the heart of the gospel is that God loves everyone…not just the privileged few and not just the folks with whom we are already connected. We too often have an “us/them” response, viewing view people as right or wrong, good or bad, in or out. We become impoverished by our lack of vision and held captive by behaviors that demean and devalue others. We are blinded by attitudes that divide rather than unite. We treat folks of different color or culture or gender or sexual orientation or political persuasion as less than children of the living God. We fail to accept the Spirit of the Lord that is upon us and to live into our anointing.
I was asked once about what I’ve learned about the Gospel as priest and pastor. While it is a complex answer, the long-and-short of it is this: The Gospel really is simple and straight forward – love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. The Gospel really is simple and straight forward but it is not easy. I say it is not easy because the love and grace of Jesus does not allow us to stay where we are but rather prompts us to value people we would sometimes rather ignore and love people we might rather not. It is not easy because it demands that the Church – our Church – must be daring and bold, stepping beyond traditional boundaries to encounter God in radically new ways.
In Revelation 7, the apostle John envisioned the reign of God,
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!'”Revelation 7:9-10
Dare we commit ourselves fully to John’s vision? Dare we choose to live into the truth which is at the very heart of the gospel? Dare we to proclaim the same truth proclaimed by Jesus when when he opened the book of the prophet Isaiah? Dare we proclaim to the world, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”