Good news to the poor! (A sermon on Luke 4:16-21
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“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day.” (Luke 4:16)

We are at the beginning of a new year and at the beginning of a new cycle of Bible readings that takes us back to the beginnings of the ministry of Jesus, and so we find ourselves back at the Synagogue in Nazareth, and there is a real sense of déjà vu about all this for me.

We have been to this Synagogue in Nazareth before. We have followed the earthly ministry of Jesus from its humble beginnings to its bloody end before. And indeed, if you’ve been attending this church (or any number of other churches) for any length of time you will know that we schedule our Bible readings according to a three-year cycle (or ‘lectionary’) which means that we focused on this exact same reading three years ago, and three years before that, and three years before that, etc., which means that this is the ninth time I’ve had the opportunity to preach on this passage since I’ve been here!

Moreover, the sense of déjà vu is heightened for me by the fact that I chose this passage as the text for my exit sermon from Seminary (Moore College) some years before I reached this church! That was in 1988, and was my first sermon on this passage. Little did I know then how often I would return to it!

What really clicked with me as I read through the passage again this time, is that it depicts Jesus as also working from the lectionary! Jesus returns to Nazareth. He returns to the Synagogue that he had attended as a child, and it seems, as might have been expected, that this local-boy-made-good had been invited to be the preacher that day. And so ‘there was given to him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah’ (Luke 4:17), presumably because a reading from the book of Isaiah was the set lectionary reading for that day.

As I understand it, Synagogue services, like church services, centered around three readings from the Scriptures. In the case of Synagogue services, the three readings were taken from the law, the prophets and the writings, with the reading from the prophets coming last and generally functioning as the key passage upon which the sermon that followed would be based.

Jesus is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (which was quite possibly the second of two scrolls, as Isaiah is a particularly long book). Either way, Jesus would have unrolled the scroll down to near the very end, to what we have as the sixty-first chapter of the sixty-six chapters of the book, and he read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
(Luke 4:18-19)

Having read the passage, Jesus sits down to preach, as was the custom back then, and “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” we are told (Luke 4:20). And Jesus says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21). End of sermon!

I’ve often said that if there are two things I’ve learnt in life it’s that you can’t show too much respect and that you can’t make your sermons too short!  Even so, I don’t think I would ever be game to preach a sermon quite as short as this one given by Jesus!

One could suggest that we shouldn’t expect too much content from Jesus’ first foray into preaching. My experience though was the opposite! In my first sermons I droned on and on and didn’t know when to stop!

More to the point, if this was Jesus’ first Synagogue sermon on this passage, He never did a second! If, as I understand it, the first-century Jews were working from a three-year lectionary cycle just like us, by the time this reading came round again Jesus had been killed!

More to the point, it seems that it was preaching like this that got Jesus killed! If you read on in the passage and see what happened, it seems that no sooner had the sermon finished than the Synagogue erupted into violence! Instead of the regular Sabbath routine of all sharing in a cup of tea and a biscuit after the service, worship concludes with the core of the Synagogue community laying hold of Jesus and dragging to the edge of the city with a view to throwing him off a cliff!

As I say, I’ve preached on this passage quite a few times now but I’ve never had a reaction like this! My original exit sermon from Seminary concluded with me being faced down by a sermon-review committee, and I remember that as an unpleasant experience but it was hardly a lynch mob! The most unpleasant reaction I’ve had to sermons on this passage since then has been having one or two parishioners fall to sleep! What am I doing wrong?

I’m not just trying to be funny here. This is something that is worth taking time to consider. When Jesus preached in Nazareth and elsewhere His sermons regularly concluded with people wanting to kill Him! When us modern-day preachers preach, the biggest problem we have is keeping people awake!  We’re working from the same Biblical passages! What are we doing wrong?

Commentators on this sermon in Nazareth generally say that the problem was that Jesus was being presumptuous. By claiming to fulfil the prophesy from Isaiah, Jesus was assuming the role of God’s anointed Messiah, which must have seemed very presumptuous to people he grew up with!

That is undoubtedly true, and in the brief discussion that follows the sermon, the Synagogue community looks to Jesus to perform some kind of miracle in order to prove his credentials. Who did Jesus think He was to claim that He was the one to fulfil this prophecy? How arrogant! Even so, when your local boy acts presumptuously or arrogantly, you don’t generally respond by trying to kill him! You tell him to pull his head in. You don’t normally try to cave it in!

Evidently the people of Nazareth did take exception to Jesus’ presumption in claiming to fulfill the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, but it was surely not just His presumption that turned that congregation of worshippers into an angry lynch mob! It had to be something about the prophecy itself – the prophecy that Jesus was being presumptuous enough to think He could fulfill – that so upset them! And so we need to probe a little more deeply into the passage from the book of Isaiah that Jesus was reading from, and that He said ‘was fulfilled in their hearing’ if we want to understand why they all got so murderously angry.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
(Luke 4:18-19)

We don’t have any independent record, so far as I know, as to what the scheduled lectionary reading from ‘the Prophets’ actually was for that day. Presumably the scheduled reading was from the latter part of the book of the prophet Isaiah, as that was the scroll that was handed to Jesus. It is possible though, of course, that Jesus read from a part of that scroll that was not specifically scheduled for that day.

Perhaps Jesus specifically chose this passage when it was actually one of the neighboring passages from the Book of Isaiah that was the appointed reading, or perhaps Isaiah 61 was the designated reading. We can’t be sure. What we can be more confident about though is that, whatever the appointed reading, Jesus didn’t read it, or at least He didn’t read all of it!

To my understanding, the practice in those days was to read a minimum of three verses and a maximum of twenty-one verses from the set passage for the day. Jesus reads only one and a half verses!

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
(Luke 4:18-19)

The ‘proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’ quote is only the first half of the second verse of Isaiah 61. Read it sometime and you’ll see that the passage goes on to speak of the ‘day of vengeance’ (Isaiah 61:2) and a variety of other promises targeting the people of Israel as they return to their homeland after their years of captivity in Babylon. Jesus not only leaves most of this material out; He breaks the quote from the prophet mid-sentence! Jesus proclaims the acceptable year of the Lord and leaves the prophesy at that point, presumably because that is His point. He is proclaiming the ‘acceptable year of the Lord’, which is almost certainly a reference to the Jubilee year of Leviticus 25.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Jubilee Year as outlined in the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus, I’m afraid there isn’t time now to read through it all and to work through each of the stipulations of this ancient law. Suffice it to say that from a spiritual point of view the Jubilee Year was the ultimate Sabbath – a true time of rest, recreation and worship! Just as the Torah invoked a Sabbath Day every seven days and a Sabbath Year ever seven years, so after a Sabbath of Sabbath years (after 49 years) a special ‘Jubilee Year’ would be consecrated as a great year of worship and celebration.

From a spiritual point of view, the Jubilee Year was the ultimate Sabbath, but from a secular point of view it was fundamentally a process of land reform where all the wealth of the country – namely, the land – would be divided up equally between the families that composed the nation!

Read through the 25th chapter of Leviticus if you’ve never done so before. It’s a unique piece of legislation! So far as I know, no other society outside of ancient Israel has ever had legislation like this on their books, such that every fifty years all capital accumulation is divided up again and shared out equally!

The basic idea is that the land really belongs to God, and that through God it belongs to everyone. Therefore, that land can never be sold in perpetuity – that is, forever (Leviticus 25:23). Of course it was recognised that even if everyone starts out with the same amount of land, over time some ingenious persons will do well and others less fortunate will end up in debt and might even have to sell themselves as indentured slaves to those who made it. Even so, every fifty years, so the law of Jubilee states, a trumpet will sound, all debts will be cancelled and all slaves will be freed, and the land will be divided up evenly once again between all the people!

That’s why the proclamation of the Jubilee year is good news to the poor, release to the captives, and liberty to those who are oppressed. In its original legislative form, these promises were never simply words of spiritual encouragement. They were intended as radical economic realities!

The day of the proclamation of the acceptable year of the Lord was the day of the great redistribution where the lowly were lifted up and the high and mighty were brought down from their thrones! All the countries millionaires disappeared in a single trumpet blast, and every hobo, tramp and addict suddenly found themselves with land, and hence on an equal footing with everyone else in the nation, at least for a little while! Perhaps this helps explain why the people of Nazareth got so upset?

Did they take Jesus literally that morning in Nazareth? Was that the problem? Was it the eminent people of Nazareth who were so offended by Jesus because they saw Him directly confronting them in their positions of power?

Even a provincial backwater like Nazareth would have had its aristocrats – prominent families who owned the town and who held all the important municipal offices. Was it the relatively rich and powerful who were gathered in the Synagogue that morning who got so murderously angry when Jesus took it upon Himself to proclaim their day of reckoning? Did they take Him literally and, if they did, were they correct in doing so?

The problem with Jesus and his preaching was that He kept threatening to turn the whole world upside-down – to bring down the mighty from their thrones, to lift up the lowly, and to put the first last and the last first – and the problem with us modern-day preachers I suspect is that we don’t.

And this is an indictment on the church as a whole, I think – at least in this country. We don’t threaten the status quo – not seriously. We don’t bring down the mighty from their thrones and we do little to lift up the lowly. We are not good news to the poor – not at large we are NOT.

So I return to this passage for the ninth time, recognizing that if I preached like Jesus I would have had myself crucified nine times over by now. It hasn’t happened yet, but there’s still time. There’s still time for all of us! And the time to start is NOW, as we listen to the proclamation of Jesus the spirit-filled Messiah who turns everything upside-down – bringing good news to the poor, and liberty to the oppressed – who proclaims the acceptable year of the Lord.

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 17th of January, 2016.

Click here for the video.

Click here for the audio.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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