This was my first attempt at teaching in a church – ever! I think it actually turned out quite well. Since it was an oral address to my church two think are different than anything else I’ve written: I address my audience very frequently and I mention our church’s mission. Our church is Common Ground and I have a permalink to it on the front page.
Here at Common Ground we have a mission; a mission tht is defined by growing in Christ, in the Kingdom (that is the work of God’s will into the world) and community. Our strategy to achieve that mission is to nurture worship, relationship (which we’ve also called edification) and service (which we’ve also called outreach). Please keep that in mind because I’d like to talk about Jesus’ mission – and how our mission at Common Ground reflects this.
What are your favorite teachings of Jesus? A parable or sermon? Something that would have taken with you, something that has marked you. What are they? As we go through this passage keep that favorite teaching in mind. You just might see it in a very new light.
I am talking about this passage in Luke 4 today because this particular passage has had a profound impact on my faith. When I first realized the impact of this proclamation, it changed the way I perceived all of Luke’s gospel. Why? We’ll get to that. First, let’s first look at the passage:
14Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17The 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 preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20Then 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, 2 1and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
How does this impact our study of Luke? First let us look at some background:
Here we find Jesus is reading Isaiah 61:1-2. In that passage Isaiah is speaking of the coming Messiah and the restoration of Israel. He speaks of renewing the covenant and raising the true followers of God as God’s emissaries to the entire world. This Jesus claims that this has now been fulfilled.
In this passage we have see Jesus state that his mission is: to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. One Robert Tannehill pointed out that all of these aspects of Jesus’ mission flow out of his being the Christ – the anointed one – and each subsequent line is an expansion and elaboration on the same root idea: preaching or proclaiming should bring about release to the marginalized. These terms can be taken literally, of course, but there is also certainly a metaphorical and poetic latitude to them as well. Let’s look at these elements in a little more detail.
- Preach good news to the poor: Who are the poor? Well, certainly the poor are the financially destitute and hungry in the world. But they can also be generalized to be the outcasts of a community. They are defined by their exclusion from the norm. They can be outcast because of destitution, physical ailment. They can be outcasts because they live what their community considers a sinful life (prostitutes, tax collectors). So what does it mean to preach the good news to them? It can mean that Jesus must focus on overturning previous measures of acceptance. Regardless of what societal constraints there are that label these people as outcasts those constraints are no longer a valid reason for excluding people from God’s community or the communities of God’s people.
- Proclaim freedom to the prisoners: This is not only advocating grace and mercy to the imprisoned but it can mean freedom from enslavement to sin.
- Recovery of sight for the blind: Not only is the mission about the healing of physical ailments, which can help people overcome poverty by helping them reintegrate into society, it can also mean receiving divine revelation. As Jesus was a light for his people, so his followers shall become light for all the blind nations – the city on the hill.
- Release the oppressed: Not only will Jesus advocate justice for the marginalized, excluded and oppressed, but this can also mean release from demonic forces.
Let me reiterate. All of these aspects of Jesus’ mission flow out of his being the Christ and each subsequent action is an expansion and elaboration on the same root idea: preaching or proclaiming should bring about release to the marginalized. So now we’ve looked at Jesus’ mission and here is the point I’m trying to make this morning:
This is Jesus’ mission and we, at Common Ground, are called to take up this mission, too.
So, again, how does this mission proclamation impact out study of the gospel of Luke? This passage is the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in Luke; the very first thing he does that Luke recorded. It is a backdrop that informs his entire ministry. When we examine this backdrop, we come across some profound questions. What is the point of Jesus ministry? Is it to get people into heaven? Is it something else?
We are dealing with some of the most profound questions in Christian theology when we wrestle with this. This passage sheds light on what Jesus believed his mission to be, it sheds light on what God’s kingdom is and what the definition of “gospel” is. It even sheds light on what we could call ‘the point of Christianity’.
If you hadn’t thought about this passage in these terms before, consider: what if this passage is the point of Jesus’ ministry? What if that is the real focus? If you take away one thing, take away this:
When you consider those meaningful teachings of Jesus you were thinking on a moment ago, consider how the backdrop of Jesus’ mission you subscribe to informs the meaning of those teachings.
Let me give you an example. Let’s look at the Lord’s prayer. Many of us have come from a background where we think Jesus mission may simply have been that he came to get people to believe he died for their sins so they could go to Heaven when they die. Nothing more. He came that they might adopt a simple intellectual acknowledgement that will admit them to paradise once this life is over. If that is Jesus’ mission, how would we read the prayer he taught us? “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” could be read to simply be a call for abstract goodness to enter the world. Or it could be a call for more people to simply believe and identify themselves as Christians. Perhaps the will of God is just a numbers game?
But what if we consider the backdrop of Jesus’ ministry to be: good news to the poor, freedom to the captives and sight to the blind? When we say “Our Father, Your Kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”, what exactly is the will of God that we are calling in our lives? What is God’s kingdom that is to come? When we consider the mission of Jesus, God’s Kingdom appears to be God’s work in this world – and we are proclaiming allegiance to it! What if God’s will and Kingdom are in fact: good news to the poor, freedom to the captives and sight to the blind? That is the gospel. And it is something that we are committing ourselves to. As Jesus is God’s reconciliation to us, we are the means of bringing that reconciliation, that freedom, that sight, that comfort, that love to a hurting world.
Now take a moment and reflect on what you were thinking on earlier. What was your favorite teaching of Jesus? Think about that carefully. Take a minute to think about that teaching, but consider what if the foundation, the motive, the backdrop of that teaching is this mission Jesus declared:
“… good news to the poor, freedom to the captives, sight to the blind, release to the oppressed”.
I hope some of you take that time of reflection and realize something you’ve not considered before. For those of you that did, now you have experienced the beginning of how this passage impacted my faith. But it doesn’t stop with these few teachings we’ve discussed. As we go through Luke over the next few months consider how the heart and foundation of Jesus’ ministry informs each section we look at
We have looked his proclamation, his mission. Let us move on to the next section as this has some very interesting implications and it is part of this narrative. Keep in mind what we have talked about and then, after covering the next section, I will tie this all together.
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ “
24 “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
Some quick clarifications are in order here. We’ve been focused on Jesus announcing his ministry. But now he brings up Elijah and Elisha; two of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history. Let’s take some time to remember the OT narratives so we can better understand Jesus’ point. First: Elijah in Zarephath: this was a town between Tyre and Sidon, and many believe this area was the source of the Baal worship influence in Israel that Elijah spoke against. During the three and a half year famine God sent Elijah to a widow in Zarephath. When Elijah arrived he found a widow gathering wood to bake what she considered her family’s last meal before they starved to death. Elijah asked the woman to first bake him a cake of bread, then make the remainder for the family. He said God would not let her flour and cooking oil run out. She did as he instructed and, as Elijah said, her food never ran out. Elijah lived with the family during the drought and, because of the widow’s faithfulness, she and her family ate. This was a great blessing from God to this pagan widow, who would later come to know the God of Israel as the one true God; but no such blessing was given to an Israelite widow.
Next let’s talk about Elisha and Naaman’s leprosy. Naaman, commander of the army of Aram, came to Israel to seek healing for his disease. Eventually he found his way to Elisha’s house, knowing that he claimed to be a prophet. Elisha instructed Naaman to wash himself in the Jordan river seven times and he would be healed. Although he was initially upset at the mundane nature of the command, he eventually was convinced to obey. He washed and was healed. From that time on Naaman declared that there was no God in the world except Israel’s’ God and he returned home with Israelite soil so he could offer sacrifices to the Lord only. One of Elisha’s servants, Gehazi, intercepted Naaman on his way home. He tricked Naaman into giving him 75 pounds of silver in payment for the healing. Once Elisha learned of this he cursed Gehazi. Gehazi was then stricken with Naaman’s disease. So here again, not only are no Israelites helped, but one is actually diseased through the life of a great servant of God.
We started with Jesus proclaiming his mission and the good news of the restoration of humanity with God. The people listening in that synagogue in Nazareth were pleased at that. Yet when they want to see him do the signs that have preceded him he quotes these two stories where God’s favor is bestowed to Gentiles, not Israel. This infuriates them and they want to kill him on the spot. Why? Possibly they believed that the favor and restoration they desired should be given to Israel only, not the Gentiles.
Specifics can be debated but in general terms we can say they had certain expectations, assumptions or presuppositions regarding God’s reconciliation to people in general, and Israel in particular and Jesus violated those expectations. Likewise, Christians today can have expectations regarding God’s work in this world. Just like these first century Jews did; Christians have expectations and preconceived ideas about how God should interact with humans and how God’s people should look and behave. Just like the Jews we may hold to pet theologies that we consider non-negotiable. And just like them, we can be infuriated when our preconceptions are violated.
What we see here is that preconceptions can be dangerous. They can lead to a sanctimonious blindness towards the will of God. What can we learn from Jesus? First, we learn that we can land ourselves in hot water by violating other people’s preconceptions. Second, we can defend against being ensnared by our own preconceptions and expectations. How?
Before I offer an idea I’d like to take a moment for us to pause and think. Think carefully about the preconceptions or assumptions we make regarding our faith or how we think God interacts with humanity or how we think humans should respond to God. Let us pause and reflect on those things that may give us a smug certainty in our faith. Let us think about what we hold on to that may drive people away from us, the very people that need a relationship with God the most. Let us take a moment and contemplate these things.
These are the pitfalls of our faith. How can we avoid being ensnared by them? Here is where the two sections in this passage tie back together. We can avoid this ensnarement by taking up Jesus’ mission anew. “… good news to the poor, freedom to the captives and sight to the blind… “. By following the path he followed; by being agents of comfort, healing, freedom and love. By serving those Jesus sought to serve: the marginalized, the oppressed, the unloved. Just as Jesus served the first of those who inherited the new covenant, those of us now in the new covenant must serve the rest of our brothers and sisters in humanity.
When we look at the mission Jesus declared, doing God’s will is not putting a Jesus fish on the back of your car, voting a certain way or trying to pass out “get-out-of-hell-free” cards. Doing God’s will is contained Jesus’ words: bring good news to the poor, freedom to the captives and sight to the blind, release to the oppressed. This is the gospel; not just that God cares about fellowship with people in the next life, but that God is deeply concerned with the life we are living right now. In John 10: 10 Jesus says “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”. Life is full of pain. Jesus came and partook of that pain. God has experienced that which crushes us – now God is saying: “You’re not alone!” God is saying “there is a better life out there for you today”. God is saying “follow me” not just so that we may have a party after we die but “follow me and I will bless you, even in pain, and with that blessing I will fill you to where you will become my blessing to others”.
At Common Ground our mission is Christ, Kingdom and Community. As we have said, that mission is defined by worship, relationship and service. Here we see Christ launching his mission. A mission that would bring the outcasts into relationship with him because he served the outcasts. Our calling is to do the same: to serve the outcasts, those some Christians might consider outsiders, and bring them into a relationship with us, that we may help them find a relationship with God. This work is an act of worship. This work brings the Kingdom of God into the world, one person at a time.