Sunday 24 January, 2016.
Last Monday morning I read something that deeply shocked me. It wasn’t something about the most recent atrocity in the Middle East or Africa. It wasn’t related to any individual’s behaviour or about a scandal in sport or politics. It wasn’t about the stock market or how much some mansion had sold for. We have become used to such things. It did relate to money. It was a headline above a short article in the Sydney Morning Herald which said “62 people as wealthy as half the world”. Just 62 people own as much wealth as the poorer half of the global population. I am not sure what words to use to describe that. If the opposite to a “superlative” is an “expletive” then this would be a good place to use some of those. I won’t. That goes alongside another statistic I read not so long ago, that the US spends 5 times more on defence than the next 8 nations combined. And here’s another: the US has 5% of the world’s population and almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Now I don’t know where Australia would fit in those statistics. I do know that in 2012 26% of the prison population here was indigenous, whereas they make up only 2.6% of the population as a whole.
Now I have probably bemused you with statistics. I really set out to say how shocked I was by that first fact but got carried away. There are indeed times when we may wonder what kind of a world this is and what direction we are heading in. It is very easy to feel that we are sliding down a slippery slope that ends in some dark place. But here we are, in church, proclaiming Good News. It can feel as if the odds are stacked against us and we may be tempted to wonder “what’s the point?” Last week we thought about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness and about that phrase “God is enough. We are enough”. The week before I asked what we might be expecting. It seems that these thoughts have been leading us to today. Do we expect that God is enough and that we are enough for us to be able to speak the Good News in our world today? While we ponder these things, let us remember that one of the overarching themes of Luke’s gospel relates to the “upside down” nature of God’s kingdom.
Looking at the text, we have noted how Jesus’ baptism marked the ending of Luke’s introduction to Jesus in the birth narrative and the little episode of the visit to the Temple. After his baptism the Holy Spirit came to him. This then was a new beginning. In a time of that was a transition from one part of his life to the next, Jesus was led by that same spirit into the wilderness, as we heard last week. We should note Luke’s statements about the Spirit. Now the focus changes. It narrows down. Luke deliberately invites us in as spectators. Jesus, he says, in the power of the Spirit, returns to Galilee where he teaches in their synagogues around the countryside, goes to Nazareth and then to the synagogue there. It seems that he had not been there for some time because the tense of the verb tells us that that was where he had been brought up. We are slowed right down as we observe what happens. Listen to the verbs, to the description. Jesus stands to read. He is handed the scroll. He unrolls it. He finds the place and then he reads the words from Isaiah. He rolls up the scroll again and sits down. The eyes of everyone are on him. There seems to be almost a pause as Luke tells us he begins saying to them “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. It is a rich description. It is very important.
It is hard for us to remember how much the Jewish people were steeped in the prophecies and in the expectation of their fulfilment in the coming of the Messiah. They would know the words from Isaiah. What is interesting as that the words Jesus reads are not from one passage. Mostly the quotation is from Isaiah 61, though some words are omitted, namely “the day of vengeance of our God”. Inserted are words from Isaiah 58: 6 – “to set the oppressed free”.
This is a statement about Jesus and what we call the Good News, the gospel. Luke places this, quite deliberately, differently from the equivalent in Matthew and Mark. For them, the equivalent passage comes later on, after Jesus has been teaching about the good news of the Kingdom and after he has called some of his disciples. Luke wants us to hear that it is there, in the person of Jesus, that the moment of revelation has come, that God’s Kingdom is announced.
What do you think it was like for those people in Nazareth to hear this? We need to remember that we, Luke’s readers, have been told the story of his birth. We have heard the songs that connect him to the prophesied Messiah: the Magnificat, the song of Zechariah, the song of the angels as they appeared to the shepherds, Simeon’s praise to God and the words of Anna the prophetess. There is no mistaking the way in which Jesus is seen as the fulfilment of prophesy, but maybe not understood as the one who will give birth to an understanding of God’s intention to turn our human expectations upside down which we can glimpse in these songs. We know also that Jesus has been anointed, as it were, by the Holy Spirit. We have that advantage over the people of Nazareth gathered there in the synagogue as they were every week. Here they were, listening to the man they recognised as Joseph’s son. They were impressed, as far as this week’s reading takes us. There is a second instalment to the story which we will hear next week. But, from what we hear today, this was an exciting moment, a hopeful moment as they listened to this great preacher and teacher.
Here and now, in Lindfield, we are hearing these same words from Luke’s gospel. They cross over all the years in between because they are indeed at the core of our faith. In a real sense these words are why we are here today. When I was training for ministry many years ago now, we were studying mission and evangelism, words that carry quite a heavy loading. Churches are often divided by labels like “evangelical”. Somehow that term can become associated with more Pentecostal churches. It can be a term that can become almost divisive. Of course there are many different kinds of churches, just as there are many different kinds of people. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians tells us clearly that while we are different, we are all part of the body of Christ and so there is to be no talk about any one being better than other.
If Jesus is telling us that he is fulfilling the Scriptures by proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, setting the oppressed free and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour, turning the usual order on its head, then this is the mandate of all Christians everywhere. It is a message that includes all people. How we live that out will be different according to where we are and who we are, but it is fundamental to how we see ourselves. Back there, at the college when I was studying, we were asked to write a description of what we meant by the term “evangelism”. It was to this passage in Luke that I turned. We need nothing more because it is says a lot.
Indeed we may wonder how we are to do all that. What does it mean for us here today? How shall we live it? I don’t think any of us would be here today if we did not think that it is because of Jesus we have hope; if it were not for this message that he proclaimed, that he fulfilled, we would not have discovered a truth in which we know our lives to be grounded. We often talk about loving our neighbour. These words are about what that love means. In a world where there is so much that seems so contrary to this good news, we are given hope that God’s way is the way of life, of healing, forgiveness and wholeness – which is the meaning of salvation.
So how do we use this message today? We may not feel we are in a position to act in the ways that Jesus words seem to describe. But the point is that the way of life that is indicated is such a hope for the world. What we are asked is if we believe in it, to live in that hope, not to succumb to despair about what we see around us. In Jesus’ time, even those who were around him then and knew about him, were hard pressed to believe that this was God’s way of doing things. John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was “the one”. Jesus told them to look around and see how the blind were given sight, the lame healed and so on. The proof was there for them.
What about for us? Do we still see this proof in our times? Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear? Do we even think that this is how God’s kingdom may look after all this time? And if we do, how then shall we live? Back then, as we have observed before, many people thought that Jesus’ life and ministry, his message, had proved a failure because of how it seemed to have ended. Crucifixion, ignominy, suffering. His close friends had to recall all that Jesus had taught them, all that he had proclaimed - the things that exemplified the words that we have read this morning. Could it be that they were now to continue to believe in this, to live in this hope and to declare it for the world around them? We know the answer was yes. We know that they also expected Jesus to return imminently. When he didn’t, they had to regroup and to keep on regrouping. We also have to do this as we claim the good news for our times. The world certainly is needs it.
Luke so often emphasizes how Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is a distinctive feature of his gospel. The Spirit is not held back within history. The Spirit is ever active. We know it in our own lives. I am sure we can all look back on our different journeys and see how we too have been led, freed, known its healing touch. If I had been better organised in advanced I might have asked some people to share such a time in their lives. Instead I want to share with you an illustration of how the proclamation of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth, that the words of Isaiah were now fulfilled in his coming remain true.
A pastor in The US went to visit a man who had been convicted of murdering a teenage girl. He had been on death row for 21 years. The pastor says that in their conversation, the man spoke of grace incessantly. Eventually the pastor asked the man if his sense of grace had overwhelmed his sense of guilt. The man replied “The gospel requires us not simply to be sorry but to be transformed by our sorrow. For me, this is a daily transformation.” For this prisoner, guilt and grace stood in tension. Forgiveness had not erased the memory of his sin, yet he insisted, over and over again, that Christ had feed him from it. He said “I will never forget my crime. But there has to come a point where you receive forgiveness and then forgive yourself. Not to justify your actions, but to accept God’s love…It doesn’t matter where you are. It is who you are that matters. I am a person who is loved and forgiven by God.” Then, the pastor recounts, he rattles the chains that tied his wrists together dismissively, as if they did not count.
The pastor continues “I jumped back from the table. Our conversation was over. Not because this killer had done something violent, or said something awful, but because he had claimed the love of God for his own. He claimed that Jesus had already set him free. I could not stand it. I had stepped into that prison with my heart in my throat, anticipating the worst of the worst. Instead I found a broken sinner, redeemed and pieced back together by the love of God. Instead of a monster I found grace, a power strong enough to transform monsters into gentle men. I could not tolerate it.”
He concludes, “What does it mean to believe in a God who opposes imprisonment, be it behind bars of iron or bars of guilt? It is good news to the captives, but those of us who are free tend to receive it as the opposite”.
What does it mean for us here today as we listen again to what Luke tells us about Jesus in that synagogue? Can we receive the good news? You will answer that for yourselves in your own way, but as we look at the world around us, with those great divides between the rich and the poor, between advantage and disadvantage, it means that we believe that we are called to live in a way of freedom for the sake of all those whose lives touch ours and whom we are called to love.