1/27/19 - Today - Luke 4:14-21


Luke 4: 14-21

January 27, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley


A Baptist scholar named Robert Parham wrote this about our text for today.  “Luke 4:18-19 is one of the most ignored, watered down, spiritualized or glossed-over texts in many Baptist pulpits, evading or emptying Jesus’ first statement of his moral agenda.”[1]

That cautionary note jumped off the page at me. I certainly don’t want this pulpit to be one which waters down or ignores or evades anything Jesus said.  These two verses are at the heart of today’s sermon, but next Sunday, we get the second half of this story.  So if you think that we don’t do justice to these words today, please come back next Sunday when we host the FOCUS winter worship, and I will take another crack at it.

This is Jesus’ first recorded sermon.  Many people understand this to be Jesus’ personal mission statement.  In a few minutes, I want to invite you into some conversation about our mission statement.  This is one of those Sundays when you and I will do the out-loud work of the sermon together.  But first, let us see what we can notice about this text.

In the synagogue, he stands up to read and someone hands him the scroll of Isaiah.  It is a short reading. “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.” 

These would have been familiar verses to his listeners.  I wonder if they would have heard the very slight changes between the version that Luke records and verses in Isaiah that Jesus was reading.    Scholars who compare Isaiah 61 and Luke side-by-side,  notice a few nuances in language, but what seems most significant to me is where he ends his reading. He seems to be reading two verses of Isaiah, but he actually only reads one and a half verses.  He stops before the words “the day of  vengeance of our God” which takes away the tone of judgment from the reading.

Jesus’ agenda is one of healing and restoration and compassion.  Robert Parham says, “Jesus was announcing that he came to liberate from real oppressive structures the marginalized – the impoverished, the war captives, the poor in health, the political prisoners. Jesus came to turn the economic structures upside down, instituting the year of Jubilee when crushing debts were forgiven and slaves were freed.”[2]

This is a dramatic announcement in his hometown.  He is claiming his life’s work, and it is not going to be carpentry!

It is a radical change and requires courage from Jesus, but I want us to notice something else.  It does not come out of nowhere.  It comes from within his faith tradition. Luke has been careful to tell us about his Jewish upbringing, about how his parents took him to the Temple to be circumcised and then again when he was 12 years old.  He makes this statement within his hometown synagogue and it starts as a quote from the prophets of old.  Jesus doesn’t come back home to preach a new message that offends ancient traditions. His mission is consistent with the covenant and relationship that God established with Israel generations earlier. 

The text was familiar, but even so, they waited expectantly to hear what he would say – every eye was fixed on him, it says.   How would he approach the text?  Would he compare the hard times his listeners were experiencing under the Roman empire to the hard times of their great-grandparents under the Babylonian empire?  Or maybe instead of looking backward, he would look forward to better times. He might say, “I dream about that day when good news will come for the poor and the captives will be freed and the blind will see. I have a dream that one day, one year, the Lord’s favor will come.”

Jesus the preacher, doesn’t choose either of those.  Instead, he says Today. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.”  “Today this comes true.”  If he was bold before, this is even more so.

Diana Butler Bass says, “Today is a deeply dangerous spiritual reality – because today insists that we lay aside both our memories and our dreams to embrace fully the moment of now.  The past romanticizes the work of our ancestors; the future scans the horizons of our descendants and depends upon them to fix everything.  But today places us in the midst of the sacred drama, reminding us that we are actors and agents in God’s desire for the world.”[3]

We might remember Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail which was addressed primarily to white clergy who supported the cause of racial justice, but not with his sense of urgency. They wanted him to give it more time.  To them he wrote, “ For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never.” . . . . We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied.” And then later in the letter, he wrote “I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour” [4]

Diana Butler Bass claims that “Today is the most radical thing Jesus ever said.”[5] and I think she might be right.

If we are honest, we look around and know that Jesus’ good news for the poor and release to the oppressed has not been fully realized. We see that Dr. King’s dream is not accomplished.  We may even  feel that the year of the Lord’s favor has completely passed us by . . .

But friends, hear the good news:

We are here, committed to Christ’s mission in this time and place.  We are here,  boldly stepping out into this year of experimentation.  We are here, ready to act in ways that might be simultaneously new directions and also thoroughly consistent with who we have been as God’s people. We are here, a still vital congregation, praying for the Spirit of the Lord to fall afresh on us,  . . . beginning today.

.We have looked at Jesus’ mission statement, his agenda.  Now for a few minutes,  let us consider our own mission statement. Would you read this out loud with me please?

Emmanuel is a diverse and growing tapestry of faith, woven together in our common commitment to follow Christ. We are God’s many-hued children, gathering to celebrate, to struggle, to serve, and to tell the good news of God’s love in the Capital District and around the world.

Some say this is an identity statement because it describes who we are.  That’s true enough, but it also describes who are becoming and hints at what we are doing to get there.  So, for the time being, I am content to consider this a mission statement.  And I would like for us to do so together for just a few minutes. 

The first sentence says “Emmanuel is a diverse and growing tapestry of faith, woven together in our common commitment to follow Christ.”   I wonder about the different ways we each might understand those words.  I wonder how we perceive the beauty of this tapestry.  I wonder how this sentence is true now and how it is not yet as true as we would like.  Please turn to your neighbor and share your first thoughts on one of those questions.  We are only going to take 3 minutes,  so don’t try to answer all of the questions, just share what is most important to you.  And listen to what your neighbor shares.

.The second sentence has these strong verbs:  gathering to celebrate, to struggle,  to serve and to tell the good news.  Which of these verbs is most important or meaningful to you?  Is there another verb that you would add to our mission? 

Again, please turn to your neighbors and share your thoughts on just one of these questions.  And switch the order of speaking in your groups this time. Let the person who spoke last go first.

 Thank you friends. “The implication of this passage is that whatever we find to be the heart of  the gospel will be the central shaping force in our life of faith.”[6]  It will be our mission, our purpose, our agenda.  As we move forward today, let us trust that God’s spirit is upon us to bring good news.  Amen.

[1] Robert Parham, The Agenda:  8 Lessons from Luke 4: Students Guide, (Nashville;  Baptist Center for Ethcis, 2007, accessible through www.ethicsdaily.com), p 3-4

[2] Robert Parham, The Agenda:  8 Lessons from Luke 4: Students Guide, (Nashville;  Baptist Center for Ethcis, 2007, accessible through www.ethicsdaily.com), p 3-4

[3] Diana Butler Bass in her sermon The Power of Today . http://day1.org/7044-the_power_of_today

[4] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Letter From Birmingham Jail,  August 1963, accessed here https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

[5] The Power of Today http://day1.org/7044-the_power_of_today

[6] Carol Lakey Hess, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1 David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009), p. 286.