Sermon for Epiphany 3 January 27, 2019
When I was in seminary my hometown pastor invited me to preach one Sunday morning. The congregation had two services plus one of them was broadcast on the local radio station. Although I was in seminary studying to be a pastor, as of yet I never preached a sermon before a real live congregation. I was petrified, mortified and de-stabilized—or to put in simply, I was scared. I have no recollection of anything I said, but I do remember the title of the sermon: “The cost of discipleship is love: can you afford it?”. Thankfully I stood behind a nice, large pulpit, which hid my shaking knees. I don’t recall any reaction from the hometown crowd. But I do remember the pastor and what he did. As he led the service, he made reference to points in the sermon. It was encouraging to me that the pastor had listened and was positive before the congregation.
We heard in today’s gospel that Jesus was invited to speak before the hometown congregation in the synagogue in Nazareth. Although the gospel of Luke wrote of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, Jesus was brought up in the village of Nazareth. Do you have memories of the village, town, or city where you were brought up? You may remember your friends and the fun you had, the mischief you got into, and your activities at school. What about the church you attended? We know that Jesus had an important custom: he went to synagogue on the Sabbath which would be Saturday. Synagogue simply means “assembly or gathering together”. The fundamentals of our Christian worship are based on the synagogue. A main feature would be the reading of Scripture and interpretation. We heard of an example in the first reading today: the priest Ezra stood before the people and read from the Torah of the first five books of the Old Testament. As you heard, he read along with interpretation so the people would understand.
When Jesus got up to speak he did not share any nostalgia with stories of when he was in boy, and the time he and his friends snitched apples from a neighbor’s tree, got caught and ended up doing chores for that neighbor. No stories from the boyhood to amuse the congregation. At his baptism Jesus received the Holy Spirit guiding him to preach and teach in area synagogues. Jesus got right to the point. Unrolling the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus chose his text carefully: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” The Spirit of the Lord would empower Jesus for his mission: “The Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to bring 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.” He then rolled up the scroll and sat down, the traditional posture of a teacher. With every eye in the place focused on him Jesus said “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It was a short sermon or lesson, but Jesus had just summarized his mission: that passage from the prophet Isaiah was his mission statement. The words of the prophet Isaiah are now fulfilled with Jesus. Jesus received the Holy Spirit at his baptism for an important purpose: to bring good news to the poor. In today’s news we have heard a great deal of the difficulties encountered by government workers because of the partial government shut-down. Many are working without pay. While politicians dither and delay down-to-earth people are facing hardship. Jesus’ good news to the poor does not mean he comes with cash to hand out. He comes with the word and promise that God will not shut-down. When I bring a meal to Frederick Place sometimes people will sit down next to me and talk. I have heard of troubles that sound overwhelming. I have no easy solutions to offer but I can share faith, which is the faithfulness of God who will not abandon them. Whatever Jesus did with his words and actions, he was anointed by the Spirit to share the compassion of God.
The prophets of ancient Israel would ask the people “why do you worship idols which cannot speak.” Of course a great idol of all time is money and we are tempted to worship in the Temple of the market or Wall Street. You know what they say “money talks”. An interesting thought, what is money saying? What words are we giving money….we can be like ventriloquists with money appearing to speak, but we are the speakers. But Jesus speaks good news to the poor…later in the gospel of Luke Jesus will say “Have no fear little flock for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The kingdom is God’s rule in our hearts. This rule means the good news of ‘release to the captives.’ The word ‘release’ is also the word used for ‘forgiveness’. Whatever the guilt or regrets that imprison us, Jesus comes with God’s verdict of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a need we all have. In the Psalm today we heard the prayer, “Who can detect one’s own offenses? Cleanse me from my secret faults. Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound and innocent of a great offense.” Do we not have secret faults we don’t want anyone to know? And above all is the greatest offense: presumptuous sin or sins. We don’t carry the love of God in our hearts and words do not honor God. But there is forgiveness from God, forgiveness important for overall health, as the Psalm said that we be whole and sound. Jesus gave this message of release to those usually denied forgiveness by the self-righteous, the tax-collectors and others labeled as undesirable and hopelessly lost. Jesus message was ‘repent’ or turn toward God who does not will to condemn you, but forgive and save you. And Jesus tirelessly taught the super religious who far too often were judgmental; Jesus would teach: “God desires mercy.”
Jesus came to give recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus literally did that, he was able to heal and give sight to the blind. But there can be a spiritual blindness in all of us. Again the Psalm offers insight, the teaching and testimony of God’s word is more to be desired than gold, great wealth. For by God’s word is your servant enlightened. The world can proclaim and teach values that are completely unbiblical: teaching hate instead of love; teaching intolerance instead of compassion; teaching arrogance instead of humility. But through the Word of God the Holy Spirit works to enlighten our hearts and minds. Just think of the reading from 1 Corinthians today. The apostle Paul patiently reminded the church “But God so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members have the same care for one another.” We are sinful human beings and we can bring dissension in the church. We can have unkind thoughts of others and mean-spirited words. But the church is more than an imperfect human institution. It is the Body of Christ. So the values of Jesus are the mission of the church. No wonder the Psalm taught us to pray “May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”
Jesus also declared it was his mission “to let the oppressed go free.” The word translated ‘oppressed’ literally meant ‘shattered’ or ‘broken’. What shatters and breaks people today? It can be political power that ignores your need. It can be financial pressure. It can be the power of addiction, opioids or alcohol which ruin health, and meaningful life. How can any be released from any of these burdens? Release must be related to the word Redeemer; in scripture redeemer refers to one who takes responsibility for your rescue, who comes to be at your side. The cross of Jesus reveals we have a Savior who knows the full weight of human suffering and the fear of hopelessness, as if the evil forces of this world have won. But Jesus rose from the dead not just as a personal triumph, but to raise us up as well. Resurrection brings new life to us today; that whatever we have to battle nothing can separate us from the love of God made known in Jesus, and this love gives hope.
Years ago I recall a woman who came to church. I was glad to see her for I have been inviting her to church for some time. But afterward she told me the church service made her feel worse. I guess I must have failed as a preacher with my interpretation. In the first lesson Ezra told the people not to weep when they heard the words of God’s law, but to celebrate. Prepare food and rejoice, prepare food for the poor who have none. Rejoice, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Rejoice and be glad and come to the banquet of Holy Communion, for there the words of forgiveness, release of captives, and good news for the poor and fulfilled: Jesus with you and for you, it is the good news of God’s favor.