“Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
I have a question: what makes “news” “good”?
I remember receiving some good news. I used to work at a store called REI that sold things like hiking and climbing gear. I started to work there while I worked as a youth director at a Presbyterian Church in Atlanta to make extra money. Youth Directors didn’t make much money…back then, and certainly not now!
One day, while working at REI, Debbie contacted me to tell me some news that I didn’t quite know how to respond as it was early in our marriage…about a year in…she was about a month or so pregnant with our daughter Debbie.
At first I was stunned, then happy, then I had to sit down and let it sink in…I couldn’t go back to work, I couldn’t focus, it was overwhelming…it had to sink in that I was going to be a father! It wasn’t what I expected. Yet, when the reality of this news sank in, it was truly good news…and I still am amazed to watch my daughter grow into adulthood and my son, Brennan, as well.
Our gospel lesson from the lectionary this morning is another story about unexpected Good News and release in the Bible.
Jesus had just returned from being tempted by the devil for several days in the desert. He resisted the temptation to become powerful or relevant by the world’s measure and stayed true to who he was. Which, says a lot to us today as we strive for worldly wealth and relevance, God says that he has something better for us if we remember our identity lies in Jesus and live in self, others, and God awareness.
As was Jesus’ custom, he preached in the synagogue. Yet, this was different, Jesus was teaching in his hometown. The folks gathered that day had heard great things about Jesus. They had heard about the miracles he had performed and the words he had spoken, as well as the large crowds that were following him.
Jesus was handed a scroll with the words of Isaiah. Jesus knew what he wanted to read and began to read the prophecy about the Messiah. There is an emphasis in this passage of “me”, three times in verses 18 and 19 alone. In other words, Jesus is quoting this passage, saying that this prophecy is about him.
Jesus even makes this dramatic, yet subtle and very powerful statement at the end of this particular passage that we are looking at today. He rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, and sits down. At first glance, that may seem odd, but in Jewish custom during that time, you would stand to read Scripture, then sit down to teach. Jesus was doing just that. But, when he starts to teach, he begins with the statement: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is saying, I am the fulfillment of God’s promise that he would be our God and we would be his people. Jesus is God present with us.
The Greek word in this passage for proclaiming good news is one word. It is also where we get the world “evangelize”. Now, in our polarizing times, that word “evangelize” triggers a lot within folks…we think of sharing a belief or a dogma, or we go to the word “evangelical”, which, in our context today, means more to folks as a political stance than a religious one…
Yet, Jesus was saying that had come to proclaim good news to the poor and release to all of those held captive. Who are the poor? It means to bring something, and in this context, it means that the ones that will hear and receive this message are the poor. So, who are the poor? Well, it certainly means those who are economically poor, but poor has a deeper meaning in this context as it does throughout Scripture. The “Poor” are those who are miserable, oppressed, lonely…those who are marginalized. The “poor” are those who had been ostracized by society in that day, persons such as tax collectors (who were quite wealthy actually), prostitutes, lepers, widows, immigrants, foreigners…you name it, those who weren’t “in”, but felt left out. To be poor means more than simply not having material wealth, it means not being in community with others. Poor has much more to do with status in society, it means much more than what your income is.
Jesus was saying, if you feel marginalized because of others, then I have come to restore you in relationship with others and with God. I have come to show you how to live into your “true self”, the person you’ve always wanted to be…and that the power to live that way has always been inside of you. If you are poor or have ever felt marginalized or left out, if you have ever felt like you were on the outside looking in, then you know what it’s like to be in a desperate place, a place that is miserable…a place where you are hungering for good news of being included.
On a mission trip to Los Angeles with students and adult leaders from a previous church, Northminster, experienced this first hand. Many of us thought that homelessness was a choice, especially in the wealthiest country that the world has ever known. For some, it is, but for many, it wasn’t. Our pre-conceived ideas, even our prejudices were confronted. We found out that the homeless in this country have a higher percentage of high school degrees, and even college degrees, than the general public that have homes. We began to understand that if you are homeless you are often spit upon, looked down upon, and forgotten as we worked in homeless shelters on Skid Row. We also saw firsthand that if you go for several nights without much sleep, worrying about what may happen to you on the street, without the comfort of a true friend or community, that you may go a bit crazy as well and begin to talk nonsense to yourself. Of course, many of us do that with a good night’s rest! We also realized that there are only a couple of degrees of separation from us to the homeless and that they too are a part of our community that cannot be forgotten.
Jesus goes on to say in this morning’s text that he has come to proclaim freedom to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the prisoners, the captives free, released! He was proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. He was saying in effect, God is on your side! When you look at the life of Jesus, he backed this up. What does he do with the prostitute, but forgives her and restores her to community. What about the tax collector, the leper, the blind? He forgives them and heals them, and always restores them to community with others and with God. Not only does Jesus do that for them, but he does it for us. All of us at one time have felt left out because of the actions of others or our own actions. We have been marginalized, we have been captive to the desire for worldly status and wealth, we have been held prisoner to the desire to put ourselves first, above others, yet, Jesus has come to release us. We are the oppressed that God has set free, and, through Jesus, has forgiven us, has cancelled our sins and the sins of the world and wants us to know that we have been released to live lives filled with meaning.
Friends, the church is called to be the body of Christ and to participate in Christ’s mission. We are called to live out and do what Jesus is proclaiming in this passage. As the body of Christ, many of us are praying and asking questions about how we can be advocates against human trafficking and other injustices, much of my early work with the group Oasis was centered on the issue of human trafficking. We are also asking how we can build up the communities around us that are fragmented, and how we can share Jesus through relationships, bringing good news to those who feel left out. We are praying for how we can listen and even minister to those who live within our neighborhoods by simply being friends with them, while modeling the alternative community that we are called to be as a church.
Identifying with Christ can be messy and uncomfortable. When you look at the rest of this chapter in Luke 4, you see that the meaning of Jesus’ words didn’t bring a whole lot of good feelings in the crowd that was gathered. The crowd wanted Jesus to tell them that they were favored, they wanted him to affirm their “way of life”, they wanted to see some of the miracles that he had performed in other places. They were looking for a performance and not the community that Jesus was envisioning and Scripture and prophesied. They wanted their version of “good news” to be good for them only. They got frustrated and wanted to scapegoat Jesus and looked for ways to cause him harm. Yet, Jesus’ message and life still went out and continues to this day working in and on us. Jesus says that in order for news to be good, it has to be good for everyone. Friends, may we be the body of Christ, bearing news that is truly good to a lost and lonely world. We have been given the power to proclaim release to all of those held captive to a narrative of darkness as we model the light, the love of Christ. In so doing, not only will the world see hope and experience release, but we will as well.
May it be so.