a sermon based on Luke 4:14-32
This morning’s Bible text finds Jesus returning to his hometown synagogue where he was invited to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah -- about the Spirit of God anointing him to preach good news to the poor, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to declare the Jubilee, that is “the acceptable year of the Lord”.
He then closed the book, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. Luke tells us that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began by saying to them: ‘This day this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”
Just last Sunday (on Father’s Day) I took us back into Jesus’ childhood, when he was 12-years old. We pointed out that Jesus’ earthly father Joseph would have had a significant impact on raising the boy to young adulthood, and Jesus returned the compliment by referring to God by the familial (relational) word: “Abba”, Father.
Jesus is now 30 years old, and his hometown congregation remembered old Joseph, the carpenter, and how proud he was of his first-born son, Jesus… How Jesus had spent three days with the Rabbis and Teachers in the Jerusalem Temple, impressing them with his questions & answers when he was just a youngster of 12. (Wow.)
The congregation in Nazareth spoke well of Jesus and remarked upon the “grace-filled” words that came from his mouth. They were waiting to hear how Jesus would interpret the passage from Isaiah. He started with a bang: saying "on this day (today, right now! Right here!, in your very ears) this Scripture was being fulfilled!" The Jubilee Year was happening, and his hometown was first to hear it!
I’ve been thinking… With all the current turmoil about race relations -- protests in the streets, injustice & violence for all to see on the hightly news (and the relentless 24 hour-7 days a week news commentaries) on top of the economic shut-down & massive high unemployment… not to mention the continuing coronavirus crisis…(!) -- the poor could probably use some good news about now, don’t you think? (Wouldn’t we all like that for ourselves?)
Maybe the slogan “no justice, no peace” is a grass-roots way of demanding that the oppressed be set free? Isn’t the effort to “defund police” a back-door way of (possibly) getting some captives released? I wonder: is white America ready to declare “the Jubilee” -- forgiving debts and restoring a level playing field? If we do, that would make 2020 “the acceptable year of the Lord”. I’d be dancing in the streets!! But it sure doesn’t feel like it right now!
This is June 28, which means that this year “2020” is only six-months old! We are at the halfway point between the end of 2019 and the start of year 2021.
Cameron Trimble wrote on her daily blog (June 15): Yesterday in a meeting, my collegue said: “I wish 2020 would just be over! Let’s get to 2021, because it has to be better.” I suspect we can all relate to that sentiment.
The economy was shut down by order of the state governors in mid-March. (You all know that.) As a consequence of those “emergency orders”, 30 million Americans lost their jobs by mid-April. Of course, the poor who had no savings, and the homeless, were already hurting before the “stay home” orders were given.
Adding another 30 million jobless and furloughed families to the welfare lines has swamped an already tightly stretched “safety net” in every state. … I think it’s about time the poor had some good news preached to them!
By May, of course, most adult Americans had received tax-rebate checks from the U.S. Treasury for $1,200 per person… intended to “stimulate” the economy while it was still “shut-down”. In addition to those “stimulus” payments, unemployment benefits were supplemented by $600 bonus pay… I suppose a politician could say that such extravagant spending of tax-payer’s money over the last two months was “good news” for the poor… The problem is, they won’t ever tell you how they intend to pay the tab for it. (Don’t ask, they won’t tell!)
In that same legislation, many self-employed contractors and part-time laborers (who had formerly not been eligible for unemploy-ment pay) were granted eligibility so that they, too, could receive benefits. It was refreshning to see both parties in both houses of Congress working together (for the first time in years!) to pull three trillion more dollars up from the deep pockets of federal debt in an effort to keep the economy afloat in the midst of the mandated lock-down. The Federal Reserve is pumping out credit to buy back its own U.S. Treasury notes and, for the first time in history, “the Fed” is buying corporate bonds as well, in order to boost Wall Street stock market confidence. All that federal loot (which ultimately will come out of the American tax-payer’s pocket) is greasing the skids for a grand “re-opening” of the economy… maybe… after the election.
Cameron Trimble says: “The economy was shut down… what if this gives us the chance to create a more just & sustainable economy going forward? What becomes possible (if we declare a Jubilee)?
“We are in lockdown… [Children had to stay home from school, and their parents were told to work from home, if possible. The “stay home, stay safe” orders, together with the closing of sports events and other entertainments, forced families to hang out together!]
“What if we rediscover the value of our families and communities?” asks Cameron Trimble.
“People can’t go to their places of worship for the foreseeable future [and when they do, it will be a strange place of keeping physical distance between people, wearing face-masks, no choirs, no group singing indoors, no loud preaching or verbal responding by the congregation.]… What if this frees us from our [habitual ritual in our] buildings and sets us loose in the world? What becomes possible?
“George Floyd’s murder seems to be waking white people up,” she writes. “What if we will finally take meaningful steps to protect and honor black & brown lives? What becomes possible?”
She concludes her blog with a poem by Leslie Dwight:
“What if 2020 isn’t canceled?
What if 2020 is the year we have been waiting for?
A year so uncomfortable, so painful, so scary, so raw –
that it finally forces us to grow.
A year that screams so loud,
finally awakening us from our ignorant slumber.
A year we finally accept the need for change.
Declare change. Work for change. Become the change.
A year we finally band together,
instead of pushing each other further apart.
2020 isn’t canceled, but rather
it’s the most important year of them all.”
I say, let’s make this year be, as Jesus said to his hometown congregation, “The acceptable year of the Lord!” Can we do that? I think we can… and we should! 2020, the acceptable year for God!
Well, I probably ought to stop right now, with those hopeful and challenging words ringing in our ears… a nine-minute sermon! (Wow!) But the fact is… a lot of American Christians just don’t find Jesus’ Gospel agenda (as he articulated it so clearly in that sermon) all that persuasive.
His vision -- to preach good news to the poor, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and all the rest—is not considered all that practical… And his home congregation really didn't see it, either.
What Luke calls “the acceptable year of the Lord” was popularly understood in Judaism to mean the “Jubilee” year – the fiftieth year, in which all contracts and mortgages became null-&void, when all outstanding debts were forgiven, and all slaves were returned to their families of origin. I suppose the Nazarenes would have been very happy to think that the blessings of the Jubilee (release from poverty, from oppression, from foreign domination, and all the rest – healing their blindness, and setting them “at liberty”) would benefit them! So, when Jesus said that the text was being fulfilled that very day, he bolstered their hope! They all spoke well of him… at first. (!)
They understood God as the great Redeemer of Israel. They understood that God's purpose (in sending the prophet Isaiah) to be a messenger of good news to the Jewish people (while they were in exile in Babylon in captivity, while they were “prisoners of war”) was intended to give renewed hope to the people – defeated people who were enduring a plight comparable to that of being slaves in Egypt back when God sent Moses to release them from Pharaoh's Land.
So, the Nazarenes -- knowing this text from Isaiah (and knowing the historical context in which it arose) -- the Nazarenes would have expected a “pep-talk” from Jesus -- a nationalist rallying cry, a message of liberation from the heavy-handed oppressors. They are itching for Jesus to say: “No justice, no peace.” (yeah!) “Jewish lives matter!” (yeah!) “Breathe free or die!”
But Jesus did not lead a campaign rally, or a protest march in his hometown. He preached a sermon that got everyone riled up!
If Jesus had just read the text from Isiah, and had then sat down (Period!)... Or if he'd read the text, and offered only that one sentence of application (when he said: "Today this text has been fulfilled!"), he might have gotten out of there with folks still speaking well of him.
But Jesus didn’t do that! He went on with a 3-point sermon: first, the remark about prophets being “unacceptable” in their own homeland, followed by two examples of God assisting foreigners.
You heard when Lynn Borke read the whole story that it ended badly for Jesus. (!) His three point sermon filled the congregation with “wrath”! And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong! Jesus’ words stoked their anger such that they were ready to lynch him! (!) Fortunately, he got away. He went down to Capernaum, on the sea of Galilee, and never returned to Nazareth.
When Jesus taught in the synagogue in Capernaum, Luke tells us they were astonished at his teaching, because his word was with authority. Now, I’ll bet Jesus was preaching the same sermon, but a different audience was hearing it… and they got it. But that’s getting ahead of the story… So, let’s get back home to Nazareth… to Jesus’ surprising “three point” sermon.
First: "Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country." Why did Jesus say that? It seems to me that (in fact) he had been very well accepted up to that point. (!) Remember, someone had even said: "Isn't this Joseph's son?" That would be like you saying about me: “Isn’t he Dodi’s son?” It is his home town!
Was that the problem? -- That everyone knew Jesus, and up until then they liked him? Was he going to get grief for the simple fact that he had come home? I don’t think so. Where else should a prophet speak? To strangers on the street? (That’s not effective!)
All the great prophets in the Bible, in fact, had been home-grown.
The only exception was Jonah – who was sent to Nineveh (which was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the sworn enemies of Israel) to do his preaching. All other prophets (so far as I can tell in the Bible) preached within the “covenant community” where they lived… just like Jesus was doing here! The prophet’s message is intended for their own people! It’s a corrective they need to hear.
The reason the prophets throughout the Bible were “un-accept-able” in their home-towns, was not because they were foreigners or strangers (out-of-towners), but because of the particular message they brought to the people -- their people! The prophets’ point of view is what made them unpopular…as it does to Jesus in this story!
The prophets exposed the secrets & motivations in their own people's hearts (“us” not “them”!) -- exposing their own corruption as a community, not pointing out other people's sins. (In our day it would be as if the Republicans would point out the ineffectiveness of their own Senators & Congressmen & President, and not just point across the aisle at the Democrats… and vice versa!) The prophets in the Bible all got into trouble because they applied some element of precious story (with all the authority of God's Name attached to that tradition) in such a way as to challenge the thinking of the people… their own people.
The prophets exposed the corruption of their own people’s views in the hope that they would “change” in some way. To “repent” simply means to “change.” To think a new thought; to turn around and go in a different direction; to “repent” means to “re-consider”. (!)
Jesus had said that this year was going to be "acceptable" to God.
Apparently, people in Nazareth had gotten “off track” by thinking that God was shackled to Israel; that Torah Law was an exclusive covenant -- only for the “chosen” people, the faithful few, the pure. (“Make Israel great again!” “Our lives matter!”) They had forgotten that God was not only Israel's redeemer (which God is), but God was the Creator/ Redeemer and Judge of all people... of all nations!
I am reminded of our UCC motto… Jesus’ prayer in John’s Gospel: “That they all may be one.” Isaiah knew (and Jesus knew, too!) that God is the God of all people, and that the God of the Bible "sides" with justice against injustice (whichever side it is on)! God was neither Democrat nor Republican -- God sides with those who bring release, not with the captors!
God sides with those who bring relief & good news to the poor, not their oppressors and denigrators. God advocates and works for the recovery of sight – insight, vsion, clarity, truth – and would not have us follow those “blind guides” who intentionally obfuscate, distract, mislead and lie – those who glory in their ignorance! – their blindness toward the good of anyone other than themselves.
So the Jubilee Year (if it is acceptable to God) will release all prisoners; release all debts, all slaves, all who are oppressed, all who are blind! Not just for US (for ours), but also for THEM! And if we don't get our minds and our hearts around that kind of a God (a God of justice -- the God of all people in all times & places), we may find ourselves left out of the salvation that is possible this year, right now.
That’s why the prophetic voice (whether it came from Isaiah of old, or Amos & Jeremiah, or John the Baptist & Jesus in the New Testament… or from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany or Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, or any of the many more modern American prophets like Jim Wallis, who attempt to “speak truth to power”) … the prophet is rarely accepted in his or her hometown. Their banners will be slashed, their writings will be banned, speaking engagements will be picketed. Most “insiders” don’t want outsiders included in their party.
Jesus raised a prophetic voice that critiqued, questioned, and confronted the status quo. Is it any wonder that Jesus -- knowing the resistance that the earlier prophets had endured from the civic leaders in their day -- and knowing the radical social changes he would be proposing for the people of his own day -- would conclude: “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.”?
Jesus then gave two examples of prophets in the Bible that under-score the thought that God is God of all the people, even the ones we think are strangers, foreigners, unworthy, even our enemies!
First, Jesus pointed to the prophet Elijah. For all the great efforts he had made, Elijah found no faith in Israel in his day, some 800 years before Jesus; no support for his agenda (which was actually God's agenda for Israel). King Ahab & Queen Jezebel had things their way! Even the priests sided with them. (Of course, if they didn’t they’s be fired… literally!) It was a terrible time in Israel’s history!
As the land suffered a drought, Elijah needed sustenance (and he had a blessing to bestow, one of the rare Old Testament miracles), but no one in Israel sided with the prophet Elijah, so God sent him to a Phoenician Widow & blessed her with unending supplies of grain & oil… The Bible story is not unlike the Brothers Grimm fairy tale about a magic pouch that refilled itself every night with flour, and a magic cruse that never ran out of oil.
Jesus’ second example featured Elijah’s successor, the prophet Elisha. He, too, had a blessing to bestow, but none in Israel would accept his message, either. As a result, the only leper that was healed in Elisha’s day was a man from their worst enemy -- a General who served in their enemy’s army! -- the Syrian Commander Naaman.
Jesus shocked the good people of Nazareth by suggesting that God was free to bestow grace & salvation, healing & blessings, on other people than just those who felt sure they were among the chosen people. Both the prophet Elijah & the prophet Elisha showed Israel that “others” beyond the confines of their group (their narrow, little, self-defined holiness group) could know God's love and power.
In today’s churches, I’m afraid that some folks are still shocked when they discover the all-inclusive Gospel of Jesus, and they want to draw defining lines of their own... who’s in and who’s out! “Us” and “them”! (It's hard for some folks to accept the fact that God is able and willing to bestow favors on people who are outside our in-group of true believers.)
In his sermon, Jesus indicated that God was not “exclusively” Jewish. That would be comparable to me telling you that God is not exclusively Christian!
Of course, since we believe that there's only one God, it must mean that God is God of all people: our friends & our foes; those who we count as “us” and those we dismniss as “them”!
Whenever a people -- a culture or a social class, a race or a denomination -- feel that they have God all “boxed up” and domesticated, it is then a prophet must appear to expose their self-serving theology.
Whenever we feel that we have a corner on the Truth (that we know better than God what God wants, what God intends, what God would forbid or allow), a prophet must arise to shock us into realizing that God is God! God is not just our God -- our Redeemer, our Savior -- but God is the Creator of all, the Savior & lover of all! … Black lives matter, brown lives matter, white people matter; rich or poor, female or male or transgendered in-between… Unemployed tax-payers or political free-spenders of other people’s money… Democrat or Republican… God is the God of all people bar none!
We have no right to exclude from the table those people who differ from us, because God made them, too! God loves them. We’ve got to get over or pious partisan divides! We are all in this thing together!
Jesus wanted his hometown friends & family to know (right up front!) that what is acceptable to God may not always be acceptable to them (because of their history of partisan division). What happened there (in Nazareth) could easily happen here (in Alpena), because our divides are as deep and hurtful (and often hateful) as theirs had been.
But Jesus was sure then (and I am sure now) that God's agenda for the world will go forward, even if they resisted it… even if we resist it. This story suggests that we, the faithful, are always tempted to “tame” God… to reduce God to a player on our team. But know this: God's agenda does not have to follow our agenda. God is in the freedom business, the forgiveness business, the release business, even if we aren't!
So, in this election year, let’s make it “an acceptable year of the Lord” 2020! Let's get on board with God's agenda, as Jesus defines it, okay? Amen.