Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘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.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Jesus' Mission Statement: Luke 4: 14-21
The last few weeks have been pretty busy. It might help if we took a moment to remind ourselves where we are in Jesus' story. First, we had two miraculous babies born, John and Jesus. Both of their parents sang songs of great joy at their birth, reminding us of God's goodness, loyalty, and protection of the poor and oppressed. John would grow up to be a fierce prophet who lived in the wilderness. Jesus would grow into his calling as the Messiah. We know he's the Messiah very pretty early on. Gabriel said that he would be called Son of God and Son of the Most High. Angels also told some shepherds that he would be the Messiah. They sang joyful songs, too. The shepherds traveled to see the baby and became the first ones to testify to the glory of God that they saw in him. They also became the second evidence, after Mary, that God entrusted the poor and lowly to witness and do great things.
Then, two more people, prophets Simeon and Anna, confirmed that Jesus was indeed anointed for great things. We then heard about a young boy Jesus, precocious and confident enough to hide away at the temple to hear and debate with the scholars while the rest of the family went home to Nazareth. We were reminded about how lucky he was to have adults who cared for him until his parents returned. The next story we heard about Jesus was his baptism. He followed his cousin John into the wilderness. John had been there for some time, and had quite the following as a preacher and prophet. He was quite clear that while he was not the Messiah, someone else was. And, that someone was coming soon. The king got offended, worried that the Messiah would bring his winnowing fork down on him. He jailed John, hoping that by imprisoning his critic, he wouldn't have to think about all the evil that he had done.
It seems clear that Jesus is the one that John has been talking about. That is confirmed when, after he is baptized, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove descended upon him and said, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Jesus was changed by the water, and was finally empowered to undertake his calling as Messiah. It says that he was 30 years old when he began his work. First, after being led into the wilderness, he was tempted to abuse the power given him at his baptism. Three times he was given the opportunity to use his power for his own gain. Three times he said no. This seems to prove that he was ready to begin teaching in earnest. He left the wilderness and went back out into Galilee and taught. His teaching was so compelling that news about him spread through the countryside. We don't know what he said in these first lessons in far-flung synagogues. But, we do know that it really mattered to people.
Today's Gospel story is not Jesus' first sermon. But, Luke seemed to think it is the first really important one. Jesu had finally traveled back to Nazareth, his hometown. It was the Sabbath and he went to the synagogue, the synagogue where he was raised, for services. According to scholars, the synagogue was the central institution for everyday Jewish life. While the temple still existed, all Jews would have been expected to visit it for specific sacrificial rituals. It was the center of national Jewish religious identity. The synagogue arose during the time when Jews were in exile, as a way to gather together, though they didn't have the altar or a priest. Synagogues were lay-led, with Pharisees present as the most prominent lay experts in the law. All adult men were invited to read scripture and to comment on it. Scholars tell us that the services were simple: usually reading and teaching, praying, and gathering of offerings for the poor. According to one scholar, the synagogue was a school, an assembly for worship, a community center, and a place for administering justice.
Luke understood this particular bit of teaching to be very important, even though Jesus had taught in many other places. Maybe it was because it was in his hometown. This is the place where he was nurtured into adulthood. Now that he had been empowered by the Spirit, nurtured into his Messiahship, maybe he needed to go home to really start his ministry. But, going home wasn't easy. In the verses just after this reading, Jesus was accosted and nearly thrown off a cliff when he reminded people that the prophets Elijah and Elisha spent most of their time ministering to non-Jews, an act Jesus mirrored by first preaching in predominantly Gentile Capernaum. He reminded his neighbors, cousins, and friends that God would care for all people, not just their people. They were not ready to be schooled about the Bible from one who's diapers they helped change. They knew who he was and they knew that he had no right to tell them what God would and would not do. They nearly killed him to protect their own egos.
Maybe the reason Jesus went home was not because he expected a kind welcome and a gentle start to his ministry. I think he knew scripture too well to think that would happen. Maybe he went home because he knew if he could tell the truth about his mission to the people who had known him the longest... had seen him as a smart-mouthed kid, an awkward teen anger, as a self-serious young man... he knew that he could tell the truth to anyone. If he could be brave with these people, he could face anyone. So, he went home. He went to synagogue, and he told them his mission.
When handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he specifically sought out these words: "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." He offered this commentary, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." He told them that this scripture from Isaiah is why he was there. He told them that when he heard these words from Isaiah's Servant Song that he knew what he was called to do. While all of God's people are called into this service, he knew that he had come to share this message in a new, special way. Justice and mercy were not new to the Jewish faith. In some ways, his ministry was to be a great renewal of a rich, compassionate part of Jewish tradition. But, his ministry was new, too. Divinity lived and breathed in him in a way people had not seen. In one man, we have deep tradition, rich renewal, and a completely new incarnation of God. He was going to hold them accountable for the justice and mercy that God had called all of them to live out. No wonder people were frightened and amazed.
When Jesus spoke of his mission, it seems as though he was describing his ministry as the beginning of a time of Jubilee. Scholar Ruth Anne Reese reminds us that, according to the book of Leviticus, every 50th year was to be set aside as a time of liberation and restoration. While justice was demanded at all times, the Jubilee was the particular time in which slaves were freed and captives restored to their own communities. Jesus reoriented Jubilee so it wasn't just observed every 50 years. It was to be observed on that very day, and every day that followed. Jesus said that today is the day when scripture has been fulfilled. I say that, today, it is our call to keep Jubilee going because Jesus never once called for a stop to this time of Jubilee. He never once said, we'll Jubilee for three years and then return to our mediocre justice as normal. No. He said Jubilee is today. Jubilee is his legacy that we as his followers are called to live out every day. Jubilee is his mission statement.
What would it mean for us a faith community to really commit to Christ's Jubilee mission? What do these words of good news for the oppressed mean for those of us who feel poor and those of us who feel privileged? I think these words show us a vision of the reign of God where even the lowly can be leaders (remember the shepherds who were the first witnesses) and where the privileged use what we have to serve with and for others. What would our witness in the larger community look like if this church really committed to the advocacy and mercy that this Jubilee mission calls for? Today is our annual meeting. We will make some plans for the next year of our ministry together. I think we have a really great start on this whole Jubilee thing with our own mission to be a Christ-centered community of prayer and worship, of welcome and care, of learning and growing, of witness and service in the worldwide church of Jesus Christ, and with the work we do with Church World Service, the domestic violence shelter, and the food pantry. But, just like Jesus who brought something new with his mission, we need to bring something new to ours.
I'm going to hand out our new community involvement surveys right now. We'll gather them after the annual meeting. We know that there are needs in our community and we know that God has given us gifts to help meet them. This can be the beginning of a Jubilee year for us, where we rededicate our lives to the mission that Jesus began. We can remind ourselves that the salvation that Christ offers is, in part, a freedom to care for one another as much as we care for ourselves. It is a freedom from the worries and sins that turn us inward, and calls us outward to serve our neighbors. Salvation is a Jubilee. Let us be in Jubilee with Christ. Let us help build the freedom to which he has called us.
Resources Pastor Chrissy used in writing this sermon:
Ruth Anne Reese- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2741
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4248
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.