January 28, 2007

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:14-21

Jesus, filled with the power of the Holy 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.

Our Gospel story for today, in which Jesus reads scripture and teaches in the synagogue of his hometown, comes at the beginning of his ministry. Two things have happened so far: First, Jesus has been baptized by John with the Holy Spirit coming down onto him and the voice from heaven announcing his identity as God’s beloved son. Second, Jesus has been led by the Spirit out into the wilderness where he fasted, prayed, and grappled with his identity and purpose. While he was out there in the wilderness, he resisted the temptation to exploit his power and authority for his own personal gain. He resisted the “Bruce Almighty” kind of response to God’s blessing, and he returned to Galilee to begin the ministry to which he had been called.

In the next story, which we heard read today, Jesus stands up in the synagogue to read from the prophet Isaiah and to interpret the reading. I imagine that Jesus probably did a lot of reading in synagogue worship and that he probably shared his interpretation of the scriptures regularly as well. We heard that even as a 12 year old boy, Jesus was interested in religious questions. He was talking and discussing and questioning with the religious leaders in the temple even at that young age. By adulthood, he was likely an accomplished reader of the Hebrew text and he was able to translate and explain the text in the local language of Aramaic.

But the author of Luke’s Gospel doesn’t include this story as just another day on which Jesus read and preached in the local synagogue. It wasn’t a randomly chosen text and sermon that are recorded here. First century Jewish worship always included reading from the Hebrew scriptures. There would be a designated reading from the Torah (that’s the same as the 1st five books of our Old Testament — the books of the Law). The Torah readings were set according to a three year cycle — very similar to our lectionary readings which are assigned based on a three year cycle.

Each Sabbath when the community gathered to worship there would also be a reading from the prophets. But in the first century, these readings did not yet follow a set cycle. Instead, the prophetic texts would be chosen based on a linguistic or substantial connection with the reading from the Law.

We don’t know what the Torah reading was on this particular day, but Luke’s Gospel gives the impression that Jesus carefully chose the text that he would read and speak about from the prophet Isaiah.

Jesus read:
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 then Jesus basically said, “That prophecy is about me. I’m the one who was anointed by the Holy Spirit. It happened at my baptism by John in the Jordan River. I’m the one who has the task of bringing good news to the poor. I’m the one that the prophets spoke about, that you were waiting for, and I’m here, and it’s happening!”

We don’t really know whether Jesus actually gave this particular sermon in his hometown synagogue at the beginning of his ministry, but Luke’s Gospel includes this story and this interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy — not as a random selection from among Jesus’ sermons — but in order to help his readers to understand Jesus’ identity and Jesus’ mission in the world.

What Jesus says in this passage will help us to understand everything that he does after this point. The four priorities that shape Jesus’ ministry throughout the Gospel of Luke are introduced here, and we are reminded that as Jesus goes about fulfilling them, it is by the power of God’s Spirit. He was anointed, called, sent to do these things.

First, Jesus’ work and message will be good news for the poor. Through him, the poor will be blessed and lifted up. Those who have the least will receive the most. The last will be first. Jesus turns the social and economic hierarchy on its head.

Next, Jesus proclaims release for the captives. We see, as the Gospel stories unfold, that this includes freedom for those held captive by physical ailments — the lame, the crippled.

It includes those held captive to demonic or spiritual forces. It also includes those who are held captive by the power of sin. The Greek word, here translated as “release”, also refers to forgiveness of sin. When we are forgiven, we are freed to begin anew. We are free to make new choices about how to live in the world with one another. One of Jesus’ goals was to bring this type of release from captivity.

He also sought to restore sight to the blind. Certainly, there are many stories of Jesus restoring the physical sight of those who were blind, but he also came to help us to see figuratively — to help us to know and understand God — to help us to see our purpose in life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as the “light of the world.” He is the light that restores our sight — that shows us the way to life — that ends our stumbling around in the dark.

Finally, Jesus proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favour.” It sounds at first, as if he’s saying “this is the year that God likes you” or “this is the year that God is going to be nice to you.” And that’s kind of what it means. It means that this is the year that God is going to show favour for those who are poor, or weak, or oppressed, or indebted. God is going to favour those who are least and lift them up.

“The year of the Lord’s favour” refers to the year of Jubilee — a concept found in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. According to Leviticus 25, every 50th year was to be a time when you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. The Jewish Law required that every 50 years there was a Jubilee year. Debts were canceled. Slaves and prisoners were released. Property was returned to the families that originally owned it. Wealth that had been accumulated was redistributed.

Every 50 years, everybody started over again with a clean slate. All were forgiven and received into the community of faith on an equal footing. Back in the year 2000, you may have heard about the concept of Jubilee. The churches were talking about Jubilee ideas quite a bit, and there was a strong campaign encouraging our government to forgive the debts of third world countries that were drowning in interest payments. In a Jubilee year, those who are least are lifted up. Those who are enslaved to debt or who have lost everything are given a chance to begin again.

When Jesus begins his ministry, according to Luke, he proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour. We don’t know whether it was actually time for a Jubilee year when he read the text. Chances are, it wasn’t. But what he was really doing was announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God — the new era — the new way of being and living in the world that began with him. And he was saying that this new kingdom is like a Jubilee year. People are forgiven. The poor are lifted up. Those who are in debt, or stuck, or enslaved are given freedom.

Things are evened out again. You know… that phrase we hear so much at Christmas… every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain made low.

The kingdom of God is like a Jubilee. It doesn’t matter if it’s the fiftieth year or not! Jesus is living Jubilee-style, and he’s inviting all those who will follow him to do the same.

Today’s Gospel story — today’s sermon from Jesus — contains both a message of good news and a challenge for us who would try to follow in Jesus’ way. The good news is that when we are sad or depressed, when we are oppressed or abused, when we are poor or in debt, when we are stuck in our sin and looking for a new start… God, in Jesus Christ, is for us. Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection are for us.

Jesus’ purpose and goal was to offer help, hope, freedom, and forgiveness to those who were most weighed down by the troubles of this world. He did not use his power and authority to raise himself up, but he humbled himself and lived and died for others — for us.

The challenge for us goes hand-in-hand with the good news. Just as Jesus has loved us, so we must love one another. Just as Jesus lived for others and lifted up those who were bowed down, we are called to offer our lives in love and service as well.

We are called to scary and challenging missions, like Jeremiah the young prophet. We are called to acts of unconditional love, like Paul explained to the Corinthian Christians. We are called not only to gratefully accept God’s undeserved favour, but we are called to offer it to our friends, and our neighbours, and to the stranger in our midst. We are called to live as if the Kingdom of God has come and it is a Jubilee for all people. Amen.