Luke 4:14-21 CEB
Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
If you had to spell it out, what would you say best sums up the good news of Jesus Christ? When we say that we are going to spread the gospel, which comes from the Greek word euangelion meaning good news, we need to ask what news are we giving to others? Our scripture from the gospel of Luke tells us of when Jesus went back to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth to attend worship. In our story this morning, Jesus not only identifies himself as the Messiah, but he says his coming will bring “the year of the Lord’s favor” or Jubilee to people. He announces a time of Jubilee, a time of deliverance, by reading from a prophecy from the book of Isaiah, and this prophecy will set the tone of Christ’s ministry. Jesus’ Jubilee, his promise of deliverance, sets the tone for Luke’s good news, and perhaps, it should set the tone of the very good news that we should be bringing to this world. This morning then, how are we fulfilling the Lord’s promise of Jubilee in our very lives and in the very world we find ourselves in?
For Luke, the most important part of Jesus’ ministry is this moment in Nazareth where he goes into the synagogue, reads from the prophet Isaiah, and declares himself to be the Messiah who will be ushering in this year of Jubilee. This is the crux upon which everything else that Jesus does hangs. The gospel’s own narrative tells us this, as this scene from early in Luke happens just after Jesus, filled with the Spirit, has returned from the desert where he has been tempted by Satan, and it is just before he goes out to gather disciples and begin his ministry. By placing this event between these other two events, it points to Christ’s ministry bringing deliverance to those on the margins of this world. He will heal the brokenhearted, release prisoners, restore sight to the blind, care for the poor, and bring about a time of the Lord’s presence and favor for all people. The rest of the gospel of Luke will look to unpack and explore how Jesus’ ministry and life and death and resurrection fulfill these promises. If any of you would like, you may read any part of Luke’s gospel and return to this story, only to find it reflected in what Jesus is doing at that other point. It is the lens, the key to this gospel for how Jesus and we ourselves should carry out the good news for the world. Luke grounds it all in Christ delivering this reading from Isaiah where the prophet shares about the time of Jubilee.
How many of us today are familiar with this word, jubilee? What does this word mean in relation to Jesus’ ministry so long ago? Now, a jubilee usually signifies a special anniversary of an event, and in fact, many groups and even monarchs will have a jubilee celebration to mark their twenty-fifth or fiftieth anniversary. In the days of Jesus and in the days of early Israel, jubilee had a different meaning. Back in the book of Leviticus, the Lord outlined that every fiftieth year would mark a sabbath year for the people of Israel. Since seven is a special number to God, after forty-nine years (seven times seven), you would need to mark a sabbath, just as you would at the end of a seven-day week to honor God. During this special year, debts were forgiven and slaves were released. During this time, land that had been bought or sold between the Israelite people would be returned to ensure that no one would be without a place of their own to call home. Finally, the people would not sow or harvest that year, instead, relying upon God for their care and sustenance. When Jesus stands up and reads from Isaiah, he connects Isaiah’s pronouncement about a jubilee year with his own person and ministry. He promises deliverance with his emergence as the Messiah.
In fact, he goes further than Leviticus and Isaiah in pronouncing this deliverance. You see the jubilee year was just for Israel, and in Isaiah, this care for the poor and the oppressed and the hurt applies just to the people of Israel. Isaiah delivers a prophecy where they will be restored by Lord’s favor and Israel will then serve as a priest to the whole world. However, Jesus says that this deliverance does not just belong to the people of Israel, but instead, this jubilee will extend to all peoples across the entire face of the earth. Jesus will care for the poor and marginalized no matter if they are Jewish or Gentile. It is this last bit that gets Jesus in trouble, and the folks in his own hometown seek to hurt him. He escapes and begins his ministry. He begins his work of bringing deliverance to all.
This is the good news of Jesus Christ! Luke offers us a glimpse at the center of the gospel, the crux of the good news of Jesus. Christ’s announcement pronounces that all the years prior to the start of his ministry, debt and oppression and captivity and brokenness and poverty and all kinds of ailments had been allowed to build up. No longer, as it is now the time of jubilee! Now, we are to turn to God, we are to lean upon the Lord’s good care and undo all these things. The practice of jubilee in forgiving debts and restoring land was to help ensure that God’s people would not be impoverished and enslaved to one another. God brought the Israelite people out of slavery and out of poverty, so it makes sense that our God would not desire to see these things be the norm in the people the Lord has claimed. Jesus claims this work as his own and claims it as the purpose of his ministry. By extension, we should be claiming this as our own purpose as followers of Christ.
Last week, I shared about how we all have gifts from the Spirit for the common good, and this text from Luke about the start of Christ’s ministry defines what that good should be. This text defines what common good we should be working to achieve with our gifts and with the Spirit. This common good is the good news for the poor, the liberation of the oppressed and captive, it should be binding up the hearts of the wounded, and it should be declaring God’s presence in our world. This scripture is a lot like a rubric. I know there are many former and current teachers in our congregation, so this word might ring some bells for you! For the rest of us, when there is a homework assignment, project, or paper there is often a rubric. It is the standard by which a teacher determines how well a student has met the requirements of an assignment. This scripture does the same for you and me. How well are we meeting the rubric of the good news? How well are we liberating, freeing, healing, lifting up, and restoring? We can return time and time again to this rubric, not to worry ourselves about whether we are failing it or not, but instead drawing inspiration from it to go out again and deliver the good news.
Gospel can be a funny thing. When we think we have found the heart of the gospel, it changes how we approach our faith lives. If we think that Jesus came to bring judgment and damnation, we will look to judge and damn others and ourselves. If we think Jesus only came to save certain people, we will hold back the gospel from those we think are undeserving. You see, whatever we hold as the truth, the central heart of the gospel, that is the lens by which we will view the rest of scripture and the rest of the world. Gospel is not just in words it is in how we live our lives. People can look at our lives to see what kind of gospel we are bringing. We can in turn look to Christ to see what kind of gospel his life tells, and to be honest, it looks very much like this prophecy from Isaiah. A prophecy about a Messiah who would usher in a time of the Lord’s favor when not only Israel but the whole world would be restored.
We see this good news from Luke being preached and spread across the world by Jesus and by his faithful. We can see it in the ways that Christians stood up to oppose the violent gladiatorial games of ancient Rome. We can see it in the ways that Christians would arrive to care and tend to plague victims, disregarding their own well-being for the sake of another. It is echoed in the ways that Christians sought to end slavery, here in the states and around the world. The earliest schools in our own country were started by churches. You will find Christians alongside those fighting for suffrage, education, the basic protections of human rights, and on the margins speaking boldly for the poor and the oppressed. My friends, I do not know if you have looked around, but sadly, despite all this work, there are still prisoners. There are still slaves. There are still people held captive by situations and powers beyond their control. There are still many who hang onto the edges of our society. The margins are still there, and we are here to determine whether we are still spreading the good news of Christ Jesus.
Our Messiah kicked things off long ago in his hometown synagogue, he pronounced the start of his ministry and the Lord’s active presence in this world. Here we are two thousand years after the fact, still living in this time of jubilee. We are the followers of Christ, and we are his body. It only makes sense that the body of Christ through the power of God’s Spirit would continue to proclaim liberation, end oppression, bind up wounds, bring healing, and carry deliverance to the poor and marginalized. Right here and now this morning, can we still say we are bringing jubilee to the people of this world? Are we still saying this scripture, this promise, is being fulfilled in the world’s presence today? We have the measure of our gospel, so are we applying it to our lives and to our ministry? Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman