*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church on 1/24/16 and at Portland Mennonite Church on 1/31/16. Audio of the sermon can be found at: http://zionmennoniteoregon.org/worship-services/worship-recordings/
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.
It was just another normal Sabbath day in Nazareth when ol’ Joe’s boy stood up to read scripture in his home congregation. It was like any simple Sunday at church when the reader grabs a Bible, thumbs through the pages and finds the assigned text to read for that day. There were no angels flitting about willy nilly. No bright star in the sky. No heavenly visions. No devil offering rocks for bread. No crackling of straightening limbs. No matted-hair-camel-hide-Jordan-drenched wild man screaming across a muddy river. Just a bunch of regular church-goin’ folks, like you and me, sitting in their pews waiting for the scripture to be read. That’s all they were expecting to hear. The plain, unadorned reading of their Bible. No big whoop.
If, as a young man, I had heard in my home congregation what was read on that routine Sabbath, my ears probably would have tingled. It seems to me that back in my younger years the kind of text that Jesus read must have been cut out of our Bible, or at least the Bible I heard in church. You see, my home congregation was deep fried in the Southern evangelical tradition. We knew the Bible from “civer to civer,” could quote chapter and verse. But strangely enough, rarely, if ever, was anyone assigned to stand on a Sunday morning and read the text for the day. And the texts that were read and preached upon were usually chosen randomly by the pastor, that is, if they were of the John 3:16 or Roman Road variety. And our response to the word was consistently a long, drawn out plea for sinners to come forward, with every head bowed and every eye closed and just one more excruciating verse of Just As I Am. You could expect to hear about how to get to heaven and avoid the scorching heat, and I’m not talking California desert, on any given Sunday. So, to have heard about good news for the poor, liberation for the captives, and freedom for the oppressed, would have probably sounded like Chinese at Pentecost! I mean, it would have been as foreign and as scary as that ol’ boogey man we called “the social gospel.”
But, these weren’t Southern evangelicals in Jesus’ home congregation. They were traditional kosher Jews. But like the evangelicals of my upbringing, they knew their scripture. And like those evangelicals they considered the scripture holy, sacred, God’s very word, to be heard and followed. Difference is that most people in Jesus’ day were part of oral cultures where only a few could read. They had to learn and remember their sacred scripture by heart, through word of mouth. And from our story today, it appears that Jesus was one of the few in his home congregation who could read the text on that Sabbath day.
The synagogue attendant hands Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. In our Christian imaginations we might picture Jesus with a glowing gold halo behind his head as he semi-floats to the podium to read from the scroll. We would like to imagine that he had a deep, commanding James Earl Jones voice with a British accent. But, when he starts reading he sounds like he has a plain ol’ Nazareth twang like e’rybody else. Most likely what he read was an assigned text in a cycle of readings for that particular Sabbath, like our lectionary reading for today.
With prayer shawl over his head and every eye glued upon him, Jesus begins reading:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
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.
There were no social-gospel gasps, no ears burning at Isaiah’s prophetic message of social justice. The reading was as welcome as it would be at a progressive Mennonite Church listening to one of their own preaching on the same text. There was no noise of protest at such a liberating message. Just the sound of the scroll being rolled up and Jesus handing it back to the hazzan or synagogue attendant and sitting down. No big whoop.
I could expound on how Jesus cut off his reading right before the verse that speaks of the “vengeance of our God.” And I could further elucidate on how Jesus creatively interpreted scripture through a lens of nonviolence, but I would only digress. Instead, I will turn to the longing eyes that are fixed on Jesus. These eyes are wet with the hopes of release from their captivity to the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. These eyes blink bewildered by their own bigotry. These eyes search for signs of freedom from the impoverishment and sickness of an oppressed people. These eyes weep for that day when God’s grace and favor will pour down like rain on parched land. These eyes are fixed upon Jesus as he takes his seat.
Now, this was no ordinary sitting, like a 60s “sit in” was no ordinary sitting. In Jesus’ context sitting was the position that the teacher took in the synagogue. Scripture was read standing. Exposition or explanation was done seated. Their eyes are fixed upon Jesus because they’re eagerly waiting for him to exegete, expound upon, and interpret the scripture for them and their day, like a Rabbi or teacher. Jesus has no long speech. His commentary is short and sweet. He simply says: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Hmmm. Now, what in heaven’s name does that mean?
Well, we know what it means for us. We have the advantage of 2000 years of hind sight. We know that Luke placed this story at the opening of his gospel as a way of encapsulating the whole of Jesus’ ministry. So, we need not resist the truth that the “social gospel” of justice and human liberation are at the very heart of Jesus’ mission. We know Luke will focus his gospel and its sequel, the book of Acts, on the poor, women, outsiders, and the goyim, Gentiles or non-Jews. We know that this story fits into the larger picture of Luke’s gospel in which the message and mission of Christ begins among his own people but ends up spreading out across the whole world among all peoples.
We also know that Jesus is taking on the role of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, as he reads “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Isn’t it obvious to us that Jesus is speaking about himself? Well, at least to us. The text is no longer about the Spirit anointed prophet during the days of Israel’s exile or some obscure figure who will eventually come to enact these signs of God’s coming reign. For us, Isaiah’s words are about Jesus. And we, unlike those who are hearing these words from Jesus’s lips for the first time, recognize that he is applying Isaiah’s words to himself. Jesus dares to take the words of scripture and make them about his life, his mission, his day and time. What a wild and daring idea Jesus enacts! Taking these ancient words of scripture and applying them to himself and his mission in his contemporary world. What a revolutionary thought! I wonder what that would mean for us to do the same. I wonder.
Through his baptism Jesus has been anointed as God’s prophet. The Spirit is upon him to bring good news to the anawim, the poor, up to 90% of agrarian peasant societies; proclaim liberation to the captives, in Isaiah’s day those bound in debtor’s prison; sight to the blind, both physically and spiritually; freedom for the oppressed, economically and politically; and to proclaim the time of God’s favor, rather than God’s vengeance. God’s new age begins at that very moment. Jesus’ presence on that day in the synagogue inaugurates the coming kingdom of liberation for all God’s people! In response to the words of Jesus we might expect those in the synagogue to shout, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” Hallelujah!
But, there are no shouts of “Hallelujah!” or “preach it, brother!” not even a “Thank you, Jesus…for reading the scripture this morning.” The words that describe the response to Jesus are as plain as an Amish meeting on a Sunday morning: All spoke well of him. Don’t they fathom the depth of the words that Jesus just spoke? Not only does God bring liberation and justice for their ancestors in exile, but for them starting right here and right now! Doesn’t his revolutionary message register?
I imagine their response was kind of like the compliments a typical preacher hears on a Sunday morning after the sermon as church people file out of the building and give the preacher that obligatory handshake: “Sir, that was a rather interesting interpretation of scripture, very articulate.” “Pastor, that’s one of my favorite Bible verses. I could listen to it all day long.” “Nice sermon, preacher. I heard every word. Boy, you sure know how to stick it to those people!” And they were all amazed at his gracious words.
There was no “Finally, the Messiah has come!” or “Justice and liberation are at our doorstep!” or “God’s reign has now begun!” They simply said…. “Ain’t that ol’ Joe’s boy?” He’s just one of us local yokels. Why, his pappy done built a crib for my eldest daughter. He went to school with Ezra’s boy, didn’t he? Ahh, he’s no big whoop!
Jesus must have intuited what was on the people’s minds and hearts when he responded: I suspect you will quote to me that old folk saying, “Doc, cure yourself.” Jesus, why not perform some miracles among your own people. It’s like they didn’t get a word Jesus said. My mission is about justice and God’s reign, beginning here and now. And you ask for signs, miracles? My mission is not about turning stones into bread or being able to leap off tall buildings with a single bound.
Doctor heal yourself. Do some miraculous razzle dazzle among your own people, Jesus, like you did in Capernaum. Jesus perceives that their concern is more about healing and signs for themselves, than it is about the reign of God for all people here and now. They don’t catch what his presence implies or the broader meaning of God’s reign.
But, Jesus doesn’t break out into a fiery, John the Baptist rant against his own people. Jesus speaks as a prophet, but in a rather oblique way, at an angle. What Jesus does seems rather innocuous on the surface. And yet, he’s about to explode all their narrow-minded, parochial views to kingdom come by telling stories. Hidden inside his storytelling is a Trojan horse, as dangerous and explosive as a stick of dynamite in a nursery rhyme. He basically tells them treacherous stories, volatile stories from their own sacred scripture, God’s holy Word, to be heard and followed.
Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you…” Better watch out when Jesus uses those words. I first heard those words in good old inspired King James English: Verily, verily, I say unto thee… That meant something significant was about to be said by Jesus, so listen up, people! Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. Jesus’ friends, neighbors, community, his own people seem to take him for granted and end up rejecting him, especially when he speaks as a prophet of God’s inclusive, liberating reign right here and now.
Then, Jesus grabs hold of a couple of tough-as-leather stories from their own holy scriptures, like two boxing gloves. These were stories they knew by heart, or should I rather say, stories they knew by head. These stories were like a one-two punch in the gut! Ding. Ding. Round One. Jesus floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee! He winds up. There were many in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine in the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. Holy Jesus, what did you just say? While God’s own people are hungry, the prophet Elijah shows God’s grace to a woman, a widow, a foreigner, a non-Jew who lived among the worshippers of Baal? Pow! I imagine the heads of Jesus’ listeners were reeling, wobbling, and spinning, as they hung on the ropes about to hit the mat. And our heads are spinning trying to think of what this possibly might mean for us today.
Without hesitation, Jesus goes in for the knockout punch. Ding. Ding. Round 2. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. What did you say, Jesus? Did you say Syrian? Jesus, are you serious? Is this just some odd coincidence or do you mean Syrian as in (gulp) Syrian refugees? O Lord, show us, what in the world this scripture might possibly mean for us today?
Let me chew on this for a minute. Does this mean God’s message may not be welcomed even by God’s own people? Could people, like me, who call themselves “Christians” not really get what Jesus is saying, like when he says, “Love your enemies and bless those who persecute you”? That’s not fair, Lord. I’m on your side. I just want to see you give those right wing bigots what’s comin’ to them! It’s time for God’s vengeance! Are we unable to recognize the face of Jesus in the poor and the prisoner, the unwelcomed and the undocumented? Jesus, are you implying that you may need to take your healing grace to people who are not your own people?
Lord, I’m still searching for what this might mean for us right here and right now. Do you mean God may favor people from another country over the U.S.? God forbid! Lord, haven’t you heard that we are exceptional, a Christian nation? Jesus, do you mean God’s favor might sometimes fall upon another faith other than Christian? No way! Becoming a Christian is the only way to receive God’s favor. And how about me, Lord, your servant? I didn’t spend all these many years in Christian ministry with all its struggles for you to just turn around and say you’re showing your favor to someone else! That’s not fair! Lord, could this word mean that today God might be acting for the benefit of another race other than us white folks? Surely, not! All Lives Matter! And how could that be since it’s mostly us white folks who are here in this congregation on any given Sunday listening to Jesus’ message? All the while, do those of us listening to Jesus’ words fully comprehend their meaning for ourselves and our own context?
What is the reaction of God’s people to Jesus’ words? Nice sermon, preacher. That’s a rather interesting take on that scripture, sir. No. No. No. When they heard, all in the synagogue were filled with red, hot, boiling, rage! Why were his people so enraged? Was it simply because Jesus implied that his own people aren’t really grasping the full import of his message and not welcoming him? Yes, but I think it was more than that. Jesus was proclaiming that God is graciously working in healing ways that transcend God’s own people by bringing good news, liberation, freedom, grace and favor to others, like the Canaanite widow and Naaman the Syrian. Or we could add from Luke’s continuing story, the Ethiopian eunuch (possibly a gay, black man) or Cornelius the centurian (a Roman military soldier) or Lydia the business woman (probably a leader of a local synagogue of women). God only knows where divine healing grace and transforming favor will end up.
How did Jesus’ home congregation react to this message? They reacted like a mob of “radicalized Christians” at a rally of a certain politician when they saw a Muslim woman wearing a hijab silently standing with this message printed like words of Jesus on her t-shirt “Salam. I come in peace.” They reacted like the crowd that encountered a black man at their rally who openly proclaimed the message, “Black Lives Matter!” They got up and drove Jesus out of town. They took him on a loooooong walk off a short cliff, a cliff that oddly enough looked like the shadow of a cross, or should I say, a foreshadow…of the cross that was to come.
The difference for us well-mannered, peace-loving Christians today is that we probably wouldn’t become enraged and try to shove Jesus off a cliff. If you’re like me, you don’t want to openly offend anyone. So, we might simply clench our teeth, give him a limp handshake and with a smirk on our face say, “Nice sermon, Jesus,” and go on our mad and merry way. No crucifixion; at least for this moment. Somehow Jesus passes through the midst of the angry mob and goes on his way.
And when he went on his way, where did he end up? Christ ended up on an old rugged cross, the emblem of….state torture and terrorism. Christ ended up in a dark Saturday tomb. Christ ended up on a bright Sunday triumphing over the oppressive forces that snuffed out the candle of his life. Christ ended up bringing light and life to people of all races, gender identities, sexual orientations, national origins, political persuasions, and economic circumstances. Christ ended up within the sacred scriptures of his own people which beckon us to truly hear and follow his word. Christ ended up inspiring movements of liberation, freedom, justice, peace, and equality across the globe. Christ ended up transforming hearers and believers into followers and advocates engaged in the ways of God’s reign in their own lives. Christ ended up embodied in his forgiven people, followers of Jesus’ way, who seek to live out his life-giving, liberating word in the world in which they find themselves. They, like Jesus, dare to take upon themselves his words for their own time and context with whatever risk and danger may come their way.
We are these very followers of the Risen Christ, baptized by water and Spirit. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because we have been anointed to bring good news to the poor! Here and now! The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, to proclaim liberation to the captives! Here and now! The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, to give insight into God’s healing work in the world! Here and now! The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, to free the oppressed! Here and now! The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because we have been anointed to proclaim that now is the time of God’s favor for all of God’s children. Here and now! Truly, truly I say unto you, my people, the Spirit of the Lord is upon us! Here…. and….now!
There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s holy Word.