A Sermon on Luke 4:14-21
News about Jesus came back to his hometown, Nazareth. He was traveling around Galilee, teaching in the synagogues. His popularity grew quickly. Everybody in the surrounding country was talking about the new rabbi.
One Sabbath day, Jesus was home in Nazareth, and he went to the synagogue for worship as he did every Sabbath, wherever he happened to be. But it was special to visit his home synagogue. This place held a lot of memories. It was the local school and community center as well as the worship place. Jesus had spent many hours here, bent over his studies, discussing scripture with the men of the congregation, and worshiping in the company of family and friends.
They couldn’t keep their eyes off Jesus that day. What would he say to them? Surely he was going to make them very, very proud. Jesus’ sermon that day is the very first one Luke records, and it is very much like a presidential inaugural address. Just as a new president sets the tone for his administration in his address, Jesus told his hometown what he and his ministry were all about.
Luke allows us to watch every movement along with the congregation. Jesus stood up to read from the scriptures, and the clerk handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus unrolled the scroll to the lesson he had chosen, and he read as follows:
“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 read, some of the poor were among the congregation, and surely also people needing healing. And speaking of the oppressed going free, the whole nation was oppressed. Everybody’s mind automatically went to Rome. And taxes. And terror.
“If only things really were this way,” people sighed in their hearts as Jesus read. When was God ever going to bring in the year of Jubilee, the year of his favor, and set things right? Well, maybe someday. And surely at the end of time.
You could hear a pin drop when Jesus finished reading. He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the clerk, and sat down. In those days people sat down to preach. Now the congregation’s eyes were riveted on Jesus. What kind of sermon would he draw out of the text?
Without hurry, deliberately, Jesus began to speak. But what he said was not, “Persevere, people of God, these promises will come true someday.” What he said was, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and he fell silent.
The people murmured. Did he mean, “Today the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me, and today, I proclaim good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind, and release to the captives”? “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they murmured.
That is just what Jesus meant. A new day is dawning—today! Salvation is dawning—today! The Jubilee starts—today! Jesus fulfills God’s promises—today! Today is not a hazy someday far off in the future. Today means now, and from now on.
Luke stresses that word “today:” “For unto you is born today a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord,” declared God’s messenger at Jesus’ birth. “Today, Zacchaeus,” declared Jesus, to the tiny tax collector who hadn’t done right by the people. “Today I must come and eat with you at your house. Today, Zacchaeus, salvation has come to your house. Today,” declared Jesus to the criminal next to him on the cross, “today you shall be with me in paradise.” Not someday. Today!
God’s promises of uplift and liberation and healing and mercy are fulfilled in Christ. The gospel of Luke in particular is full of the many things Jesus had to say about the use of money, the lifting up of the poor, and the claim of God on everyone’s pocketbook. Remember the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus set people free from sickness, as when he straightened a woman who had not been able to stand up for eighteen years. “Shouldn’t she be set free on the Sabbath?” he asked. By forgiveness he set people free from sin, as he did Zacchaeus and many others. And he even set people free from death. Remember the widow’s son that he raised to new life. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus announced in Nazareth.
In Jesus’ name, I announce that today this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. Yet how hard it is to see that light. The darkness is still everywhere, and when the terrible news coming at us from everywhere grinds us down, it’s hard to believe there’s any light. Violence, poverty, hunger, hopelessness are a blight on the earth and a blight on the United States. It’s everywhere; much of it is hidden. Recovery of sight to the blind? We’ve come a long way in medical care, but have so far to go, and the cost is outrageous. Well over 40 million people in the United States with no health care coverage at all, doctors and hospitals that won’t treat people on Medicaid, and nightmare insurance companies for many of the rest of us. Good news to the poor? Release to the captives? Locking them up seems to be the only way to deal with some people. Let the oppressed go free? Look at the absolutely awful governments that are crushing people in other parts of the world. Did Jesus really mean, “Today the scripture is fulfilled”?
Some of us have been deeply stung by pain, sickness, death. It takes little stretch of the imagination to understand why some people give up and choose to end their lives, when all they can see ahead is more darkness and pain. Really, Lord? Really today? We can see fulfillment coming someday maybe, but today? We can see fulfillment when you come again, but today?
Friends, we’re Christians. Doesn’t that mean we believe Jesus is alive? Don’t we believe he’s with us, here and now by the Holy Spirit, active here and now, doing the work of salvation here and now? Don’t we trust him? Don’t we believe Jesus is great and powerful?
Then why do we rivet our eyes to the darkness instead of to the light that we say is among us? Why do we act as though the bad news is more powerful than Christ is?
For Christ is fulfilling his promises today, for individuals and for communities and for nations. Now Christ didn’t make a big show and call a lot of attention to himself when the Berlin Wall fell, for example. But he surely was quietly there. The Prince of Peace is at work. The great liberator is at work. He shines in all that is good and just.
Who else but the Spirit of Christ Jesus is calling attention to the poor and the oppressed today? Who else is urging humanity to better ways?
Who else is behind all the healing that there is? Many of us read Guideposts magazine, and it is aptly named because its purpose is to point people to the light and the hope. Guideposts is full of stories of ordinary people like us, people of prayer, wrestling with all kinds of darkness, and how God comes to them with new hope.
Stories of people experiencing healing in the situation of disability especially grip me. That is an issue of great concern to me. One story told of a child named Marshall who was born with profound disabilities. Marshall was about nine or ten years old. You might as well say he was locked inside his body. He had almost no muscle control, he was plagued by grand mal seizures, and he couldn’t talk. “Lord,” his mother prayed, “I want Marshall to look at me, to know that I am his mother, and I love him.” He couldn’t talk to his parents, but he seemed to be listening to them as they did their best to nurture him, and bring him up to know God loves him.
When Marshall was three and a half, his parents discovered that though he couldn’t lift his arm, he could move his hand and point, and he could indicate that he understood what people were saying. With a great deal of help from family and therapists, Marshall gained the ability to use an alphabet board and communicate by tapping out letters.
At five and a half, Marshall began composing poetry, and this was his first poem:
God is good and merciful, because he is also bright and intelligent. Seeing, feeling all that is true. Clearly he feels and listens to all our desires. Clearly he has everybody’s dreams in mind. I see a God altogether lovely . (Troylyn Ball, “The Mystery of Marshall,” Guideposts Magazine (Vol. LV, issue 11, January 2001), pp. 56-60.)
There truly was a person inside his body, and God let him out! Today Christ Jesus proclaims release to the captives and lets the oppressed go free.
Today the living Lord Jesus Christ is among us. I ask you today: do we believe it? What’s got the upper hand with us: fear or faith? Despair or hope? Dark or light? Death or life?
I ask you today: do we trust the Lord Jesus Christ? Do we trust him to liberate us from sin and lift us up, body and soul? Will we throw our lot in with his, and accept his work as our very own? Will we do everything we can to work with him for healing and liberation?
I ask you today: will we exercise the power of prayer, or will we sit on it? Will we put ourselves and our church at risk to do the work of Jesus Christ, or will we wring our hands with fear? Will we keep turning to the light, or will we keep staring at the darkness, loathing it?
I ask you today: will we lament how small we are as a church and complain that God can’t do much with us, or will we put ourselves totally in his strong, loving hands, no holding back?
I ask you today: will we rivet our eyes to the darkness, or will we rivet them to the Savior? For he is looking each and every one of us in the eye. And simply, deliberately he declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Thanks be to God!