SERMON: January 27, 2019
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of 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.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
My sister Barbara attends a small church in far northern Wisconsin. The pastor of this church has, shall we say, limited skills for ministry. His preaching often leaves the congregation puzzled and confused about the topic. They think it is probably from somewhere in the Bible, but then again, they could be wrong about that. One Sunday as she was leaving the sanctuary after worship, Barb overheard a man say to his wife, “Well, if you had religion when you walked in, you won’t have it walking out.”
To be fair, preaching isn’t exactly easy. The universal temptation for new ministers is to tell your listeners everything you learned in seminary…in one sermon. As if you somehow owe it to the congregation. Let me tell you, squeezing every ounce of the Gospel into a fifteen-minute sermon is tough work…trust me, I’ve tried it.
In our scripture reading this morning, Luke records Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown synagogue. Jesus certainly does not try to say it all. In fact, he keeps his remarks to one line, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Boy, I wish I could pack that much meaning in a one-sentence sermon – and I imagine you would like it just fine, too.
Jesus returns home to Nazareth and heads to the synagogue. Not only is Jesus a hometown boy, Luke says he is making a fine name for himself all over the neighboring countryside. Jesus is a hometown boy made good! Perhaps word has gotten around that he will be in the synagogue that day, and the place is packed. When Jesus stands up, indicating he wants to read scripture, there is murmur of anticipation. This should be good!
Jesus is given a scroll containing the words of Isaiah. Did Jesus ask for Isaiah specifically, or did someone simply hand him the text currently under study? Luke doesn’t tell us, but we do know Jesus takes his time to find just the passage he wants to read. Isaiah’s words were as familiar and beloved back then as they are to us today:
“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.”
Jesus finishes reading, gives the scroll back to the attendant and sits down. Everyone in the synagogue recognizes the gesture: sitting down means Jesus is getting ready to preach. But instead of a twenty-minute sermon featuring three points and a joke, the listeners just get that one line: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Today…this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. When Jesus sits down to preach, he doesn’t say, “this Scripture will be fulfilled in your hearing,” but “Today it has been fulfilled…”
Allow me to go a bit geeky on you. In the original Greek, the verb “has been fulfilled” is in the perfect tense. The tense of Jesus’ announcement is not the one and done present tense or the singular past tense, but rather the ongoing, re-occurring perfect tense. So Jesus is saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled and continues to be fulfilled and will keep being fulfilled and therefore will keep needing to be fulfilled in your presence.”
Perhaps Jesus is simply announcing that in his very person Isaiah’s prophecy has come true. Isaiah’s message of liberty and grace and healing is now manifest, and the Word of God has come to cast his lot with others. Look everyone – the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy is standing right in front of you – you are looking at him, right now. Or maybe “today” is a bit more complicated than that. Perhaps Jesus meant the word to be dynamic and active, as in “today is just the beginning!”
Jesus might have spoken nostalgically about the wisdom of Isaiah. “In the past, our ancestors envisioned a world of justice, freedom and healing. God made a covenant with Moses for abundant life in the land of milk and honey.” He could have elaborated on the world to come: “Along with Isaiah we await God’s glorious promise! Oh, how we long for that! How hard we pray!”
Jesus might also have appealed to his listeners for patience, “The kingdom of God will come! Don’t lose sight of that!” Yet, he did not do any of that, instead, he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
If we think about it, we should be just as shocked as the people who first heard those words. What do you mean the Spirit of the Lord is here today? Right now? Jesus tells us the poor hear good news, the blind see, and the prisoners are set free. Seriously? Haven’t you paid attention to the news, Jesus? You must be crazy not to be aware of just how awful things are today. Inequality is becoming worse and worse. More people are unjustly imprisoned. There is more violence and terrorism today than our ancestors could ever imagine.
Jesus’ “today” expresses a difficult spiritual reality because it insists we fully embrace the moment of now. We can’t romanticize the past and we can’t continue believing our descendants will clean everything up for us. Jesus places us in the challenging middle – reminding us that we are agents in God’s plans for the world. If we locate ourselves in only the past or the future, we lose today. Today insists we embrace the now.
Jesus wants us to open our eyes and take a good look at the burning bush; to become more attentive to God’s promises, the promises God is keeping no matter how terrible the outward circumstances. It is a call to see past immediate sin and injustice to the profound reality of God’s love and grace. In the worst life has to offer God is with us. In the worst delusions of power, God is there.
God will continue to take the side of the vulnerable, and we are called to this same work of showing Jesus’ declaration and God’s promise. So what would happen if we simply treated every day as the “today” we hear about in Jesus’ words? Would this create change – not only for ourselves – but for the world around us if – one day at a time – our personal and collective energies were directed to what Jesus considered worthy of his death?
Here is what cost Jesus his life:
Bringing good news to the poor.
Proclaiming release to the captives
Bringing sight and renewed vision where darkness has prevailed for far too long.
Letting the oppressed go free.
Having compassion for those whose redemption never before seemed possible.
I wonder what our lives would be like if we started every day with those things on our minds and hearts? Here is a thought; maybe we should consider adding Jesus’ today to the beginning of our mission statement, or vision statement, or even our tag line. Like, “Today we love God. Today we love others. Today we serve all.”
Luke says the Holy Spirit was upon Jesus. But it was also upon everyone in the synagogue – Jesus’ friends and neighbors – because he was one of them. We are one with Jesus in our baptisms, so the Holy Spirit is upon us, as well. Isaiah’s words are a powerful invitation to us and to the whole community to act on behalf of God’s justice.
My friends, the Spirit of the Lord is upon us – and upon everyone God loves, because God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor. God sends us to tell captives they are free, the oppressed they are no longer subject to the powerful, and to proclaim that the blind will recover their sight. Today.