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From Oppression to Liberation

Luke 4:14-30
David A. Davis
March 8, 2020
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Every parent of young children must go through it at some point:  watching the young friends at play. 2 or 3 years old, maybe 4, 5, 15, 20, 50. 70 for that matter. Who knows? The toys come out: balls, trucks, blocks, dolls, puzzles, anything at all. And a parent, every parent watches, waits, hopes, maybe prays. “Please, please, please…don’t make me have to say it. I hope I don’t have to say it this time. Let another parent have to say it today. Am I going to have to say it my child’s entire life? No, no, no, uh, uh….oh, not again…. “Remember, Remember. Sweetie. You have to share!”  It starts so soon.

I was headed into New York City this week for a denominational meeting. As everyone exited the train in Penn Station I was in one of those crowds that was moving slowly, silently, and surprisingly orderly to a narrow door and staircase up from the platform. One person with a phone to the ear so as not to pay attention to anyone else, bypassed the crowd, did an end around on the wide right, right to the front like a driver at rush hour jumping the line at the exit ramp. Me first, I guess. The person next to me said under the breath and without malice, “Front of line people”, like it was anthropological axiom.

News reports and video this week from Boston showed a mother and her 15-year-old daughter being physical and verbally assaulted by two others because they were speaking Spanish to each other. The attackers yelled “This is America! Speak English!” The two now charged in the attack told police they thought the mother and daughter were making fun of them because they were laughing and speaking Spanish. With all that is troubling and yet not surprising in the news report, it probably could have mentioned for information that English was certainly not the first language spoken in this land. Us and them can so quickly become hatred and violence.

I met a rabbi a few months ago who transitioned in his life from serving a congregation in the upper Midwest to living and working in Jerusalem. It is very difficult for an American rabbi to serve in a religious capacity in Israel. His career is now working with and leading high school groups from Jewish Day Schools in the US when they spend a semester in Israel. He is expanding his tour guide business and within the last year had his first experience leading a pastor and his conservative evangelical congregation. “Can you help me understand?”, he said to me. He said everyone was so polite and attentive along the way and their knowledge of the various biblical sites was refreshing. It was the passing questions along the way that he found troubling. One day, a woman came up and sat next to him in the front of the bus. The conversation took a sudden turn when she asked, “You do believe Jesus is the Messiah, right?” He said to me, “I came up with the appropriate answer and question back to her long after that tour was over. In Judaism, we are raised to understand and practice our faith while learning and respecting that others understand and practice in different ways. What is it about American Christians who have to believe they are right and everyone else is wrong?” At every age and in all sorts of ways, it is the developmental, anthropological, political, sociological, theological oppressive and oppressing power of mine, me, me first, us, I am right, and I deserve it.

It can be argued that this synagogue scene taking place in Nazareth is a signature text for Luke. Jesus’ visit to his hometown takes place early in Luke. In Matthew and Mark, the visit happens later. Neither Matthew nor Mark include the reading from Isaiah. The text from Isaiah seems to set the stage, define, and foreshadow the ministry of Jesus all through Luke. It’s like the opening piece played by the orchestra in a musical where the themes and melodies of all the songs to follow are woven together in one piece.

“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.”

 

Jesus singing Isaiah. It is the gospel’s overture.

In Matthew and Mark, when that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” business unfolds, the tone from the crowd is much more one of cynicism and doubt. “Isn’t he just the carpenter’s son. His brothers are James and Joseph and Simon and Judas. We know his sisters too! Where does he get all this? Who does he think he is? In Matthew and Mark they were “offended.” Jesus said to them “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.”  They were offended.

There is a whole lot more going on among the crowd in Luke; a whole lot more than offense taken. No, in Luke Jesus confronts the utterly human and persistent response to him and his gospel. When Jesus returns to Galilee from the wilderness temptation at the hands of the devil a first stop would have been along the lake shore at Capernaum. Word spread, he taught in the synagogues, and was praised by everyone. He traveled a ways up into the hills surrounding Galilee to Nazareth where he had been raised, where he attended shabbat services each week. He stood up, read from the scroll of Isaiah, and sat down. That would have been the practice then. Stand up to read, sit down to teach. Luke describes how the eyes of all in the synagogue were “fixed” on the hometown carpenter’s boy. The King James says their eyes were “fastened” on him. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” According to Luke, that’s when they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son.” They say it not with doubt, or cynicism, or offense. They say it with amazement. They say it with awe They are blown away by his “gracious words.”

But it doesn’t take long, does it? To go from amazement to being filled with rage. To getting up and driving him out of town, to leading him to the brow of a hill to hurl him off the cliff. No it doesn’t take long at all; four verse for goodness sake. It didn’t even take a sermon from Jesus to enrage the congregation. He did it in a few sentences. He did it with a few references. And they were ready to kill him. Remember Luke expects that his reader, his audience already knows how this whole gospel story is going to end. Jesus passing through the now riotous, enraged mob is less miracle and more a direct foreshadowing of his walk through the crowds with a cross upon his back, more a literary kind of reference to his walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and walking through the tomb of death itself. Jesus passing though the midst of death itself and all the forces working to kill him and crush his gospel. Jesus passing through and going on his resurrection way. Neither death, nor humanity’s rage will hold him down.  Today. Today. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It all turned so incredibly quickly. First Jesus tells them they are going to quote an ancient proverb to him; “Doctor, cure yourself!” “Doctor, cure yourself!” was just an older version of “charity begins at home.” Years and years ago I was trying to convince the Session in my prior congregation to increase the mission and outreach budget. The church treasure announced to the table that it says right in the bible that “charity begins at home”. “No, no actually it doesn’t, the bible doesn’t say that”, the 20 something old pastor had to say. “Doctor, cure and take care of yourself, and your family, and your hometown neighbors first! “Do here in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum!” Jesus tells them what they are already thinking. All that teaching, that healing, those miracles. Why Capernaum first and not here? We watched you grow up. You are one of us. How about a little something for all that effort, all that “it takes a village” effort Jesus?

Only after calling out the congregation for what they were all thinking but what no one was saying, did Jesus drop the line about a prophet and the hometown. Then Jesus reminds them that there were a whole lot of widows in Israel during a long drought and famine in the land but Elijah cared for the widow at Zarephath in Sidon. She was a “them” not an “us”. There were also a lot of lepers in Israel and Elisha chose to cleanse Naaman the Syrian, a might man of valor, but he was a “them” not an “us.” The widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. That’s all it took to launch the rage. Elijah and Elisha certainly carried the promise of God and the prophetic word to the people of Israel. Elijah and Elisha never turned their backs on the people of Israel. It is certainly not the message of I and II Kings that the promise of God was for “them and not us”. No. But Jesus gave examples to the congregation that day of the reach of God’s promise and power and grace. The bold, boundary crossing reach of God. He gave them examples that made it clear he was not just for them, or even them first. And they didn’t like it one bit. That was all it took to unleash the rage that forever foreshadows a profound and ever present yet sinful human response to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One commentator puts it this way in interpreting the hometown reaction to Jesus and his gospel: “The popular [initial] reaction became increasingly hostile as the magnitude of Jesus’ message sank home.” But it wasn’t just the magnitude. It was the height and breadth and width and depth of God’s love. It was the reach of God’s promise.  It was the stretch of the gospel. It was the eye-opening, mouth dropping news that as the Apostle Paul puts in Ephesians, “Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both group into one and has broken the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (2:14) Yes it was the magnitude, but it was also the lack of favor directed to the hometown crowd, and the absence of preference for the rich, and challenge to the religious at the front of the line, and the hard to fathom truth that God’s grace and love and promise and hope actually knows no bounds and blows where God wills and can never be defined as just for “us”, or even “us first”. Jesus, God’s Son, the Savior of the world, and his challenge and indictment of the oppressive and oppressing power of mine, me, me first, us, I am right, and I deserve it. Yes, he unleashed the rage. That rage that is the ever present yet sinful human response to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The disturbingly timeless, self-centered, selfish, xenophobic, nationalism of God’s people and the followers of Jesus.

And yet, and now, and still, the gospel’s overture still plays. We can still hear it. The song of liberation, the gospel hymn still washes over us, and fills us with hope and assurance and conviction.

“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.”

 

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus and his song of liberation. His song of assurance. Singing of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, a kingdom that belongs to those who are poor, where those who are hungry now are blessed, and blessed are those who weep now, for they shall laugh. Jesus and his gospel overture. Foreshadowing the kingdom of God. Where the proud are scattered in the thoughts of their hearts, and the powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. Where the sick are healed, and the storms of creation are calmed, and the power of death is conquered once and for all. The reign of God. Sins are forgiven. There is no hurt or destruction. His sacrifice is once and for all. The Lord makes all things new. Death has no sting. God wipes away every tear. Jesus and the reign of God. Where the stranger is always welcomed. The nations learn war no more.  And the prodigal always comes home to a warm and tear-filled embrace.

Jesus, Isaiah, and the signature text of Luke’s gospel. But don’t forget the most profound statement of hope and assurance and victory here. Yes, in good news to the poor. Yes, in release to the captives. Yes, in sight to the blind. Yes, in the oppressed go free. Yes, in the year of the Lord’s favor. Yes in “Today”. Today this scripture has been fulfilled. Yes. Yes, but don’t forget. Don’t miss. Jesus passing through. Jesus passing through the riotous, enraged mob. Jesus passing through the crowds with a cross upon his back. Jesus passing through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus passing through the tomb of death itself. Jesus passing though the midst of death itself and all the forces working to kill him and crush his gospel. Jesus passing through and going on his resurrection way. Neither death, nor humanity’s rage, or the oppressive and oppressing power of mine, me, me first, us, I am right, and I deserve it will hold him down.

He passed through.