Holy God, open our eyes to your presence. Open our ears to your call. Open our hearts to your love. Amen.
“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”.
Each generation must face its own challenges and struggles, triumphs, and joys. Each in their own time must engage the costly work, to confront the societal issues of freedom, truth, oppression, compassion, equality, and justice. This fact is as true for our times as it was for those in Jesus’ day. And for the intervening centuries. Today’s gospel presents us with Jesus’ first recorded words of his public ministry. Following his baptism and his wilderness fast and temptation, Jesus returns to his home country and Luke tells us that Jesus returned to the region of Galilee in the power of the spirit. Reports about him have been spreading throughout the population, likely resulting from his healing miracles and his synagogue teaching. And while Matthew and Mark both include this hometown visit, only Luke gives us this detailed and dramatic account of the encounter that profoundly shapes the character and trajectory of Jesus mission.
Jesus stood up to read in the scroll, and 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 favor”. As Jesus draws upon the opening words of Isaiah 61, we know that the audience was immediately acquainted and intimately acquainted with the broken heartedness of captivity, even after that captivity was technically over. Isaiah preached comfort to the God’s people and they responded with eagerness to that message.
When Jesus chooses this particular passage to read to the people of Nazareth, it was a reminder to all of them to hope again. They were living under Roman oppression just as their ancestors had lived under the oppression of the Babylonians and the Syrians. They were ready for some good news. As Jesus begins to read Isaiah 61, the congregation probably expected him to announce vengeance on their enemies, especially the Romans. Instead, when Jesus reads from the scroll, he reads only up to the first half of those two – to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, omitting “and the day of vengeance of our God”. In doing so, Jesus not only omits any reference to judgment on Israel’s enemies, but also remind his listeners of God’s compassion on those enemies.
As Jesus identifies himself as the Anointed One of God, to be wholly different from what is expected, we are given insight into Jesus understanding of true justice. There is a reordering of social structures that is taking place with an emphasis on the poor and other social outcasts. The norms of society are being disrupted. Through the text, Jesus is describing the character of his ministry. He is establishing his priorities and the direction of his work. He’s casting his vision for the reordering of relationships: good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free and declaring God’s favor.
In other words, this is the year of Jubilee as outlined in Leviticus 25. Jubilee was the year when all debts were to be forgiven and ancestral lands lost due to economic hardships were to be returned to their rightful family owners. The year of Jubilee was to be a giant economic and social reset to ensure that the poor, in all senses of the word, did not remain in that state forever. Justice and righteousness would prevail. Jesus himself is the year of the Lord’s favor. And after returning the scroll, he said to those gathered, “today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
He takes the well-known words out of the past and gives them new life in the here and now today. Jesus did not interpret the prophecy of Isaiah, but rather fulfilled it. Jesus comes to the people in the very circumstances of their lives. That is what he did that day in Nazareth. And it is what he does for each one of us.
Jesus comes to us today here and now. He is not lost in our past or hidden in an unknown future. He has a simple message, the same one he had for those in the synagogue congregation that he has for you and me. Admittedly, it is hard for most of us to think of ourselves as poor, blind, captive, and oppressed. I would rather take those verses and go out and find someone else to place in those categories.
Jesus comes to change our circumstances. But there is more. Just as Jesus offers us hope with these words, he also calls us to be the ones to bring that good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken hearted, who proclaimed freedom and release. And who announced the Lord’s favor with grace that is available to all. Not just in the future, but now. It means that everyone who heard these words of truth were going to have to do something about them. After all, we cannot, we dare not, be confronted with the truth and go on living as though the truth doesn’t make a difference.
The text relays that the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Jesus. Imagine what it might be like to fix not just our eyes, but our hearts, on Jesus. We would see the ways our lives impact others with greater clarity. We would understand the inclusiveness of God’s saving plan. We would see Jesus’ compassion for groups of people who live on the margins of society. And when our eyes are fixed on Jesus, we can recognize our part in the systems that send out the false message, that some people have more value than others, that some people deserve more than others. And we can start to do something to change those systems.
That is why Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is so important to hear today. Ethnic heritage and societal standing are not barriers to inclusion in the community. Because it takes all of us with our varied gifts, experiences, and differences to do this work. We, like Jesus, need to be filled with the Holy Spirit in order to face and embrace the extraordinary nature of the work ahead of us. And there is something else about being filled with the power of the spirit. It means being filled with God’s courage, particularly as we experience widening economic, political and social divides. The gospel asks us to make a choice, to take a stand that will more often than not inconvenience us, be contrary to our self-interest, or put us in conflict and maybe opposition with friends, neighbors, and family. Not everyone was ready to hear the message that Jesus brought home to Nazareth. Many found it unsettling. So much so that in the verses, after our reading day, they sought to hurl him off a cliff.
And on the heels of the Martin Luther King holiday, we remember that Dr. King’s message of beloved community proved unsettling to many of his listeners. King proposed a society where poverty, hunger, and homelessness would not be tolerated. Where racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice would be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. A message that brought hope to the lives of those pushed to the margins. History has taught us that struggle for equality for the poor, the captive blind, the oppressed, is a never-ending process.
Last Tuesday from this pulpit where her grandfather delivered his last Sunday sermon, Yolanda Renee King addressed young people from the schools on this close, for what she called a Monday Morning Call to Action. A call to the rising generation of leaders. Ms. King recalled the sentiments of her grandmother, Coretta Scott King, who stated, quote, freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation. End quote.
My friends, it is our time to answer the call of Jesus: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim released to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. Jesus is still speaking these same words to us, and yes, today this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. Amen.