Luke 4:14-21 – The Shortest & Longest Sermon Ever
a reflection by Dan Spragg
How about that for the shortest sermon, ever! Jesus reads the scripture, says one sentence, and he’s done! Apologies that ours aren’t ever as concise as that… It’s fascinating though because their eyes were transfixed on him. They couldn’t stop looking at him. There was something in the way that he read those words… A conviction in his voice… “The spirit of the Lord is upon ME, he has anointed ME… He has sent ME…” ME… who is Jesus, from that very place… Hi Mum… Hi Dad… Hi Uncle Jo, Auntie Sue, cousins, friends, brothers, sisters, a hometown scene at the local synagogue. It is quite amazing that he stood and sat there amongst his own, and declared these words…
“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 favour.”
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Their eyes were fixed upon him… Just what was so compelling, so significant in this moment? Who is this Jesus, and what is he really saying? This text from the scroll of Isaiah that Jesus read from, was quite a well-known text, it was well in circulation by this point in time. This text came from a time after the exile in Babylon, when the Israelites were wrestling with the ongoing rule of the Persian Empire. This text was written as another sign of hope amongst the ongoing oppression that the Israelites had been subjected to. They were out of exile, but they were kind of still in exile, except they were back in their own land. The earlier visions in Isaiah of freedom and hope and prosperity had failed to yet be realised. The Israelites had simply been passed from under one regime to another. You can imagine that in a time like this, in a time of physical, religious, political, and economic oppression; promises of good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed; were not only what they deeply desired, but these were literally what they desired. What they wanted was transformation. Transformation of their economic, physical, religious, and political situation. One can imagine, when ones basic needs of survival, health, and safety are a real struggle, a metaphorical promise isn’t quite the same as a literal one. What’s significant about this is Jesus use of the word ‘today’. At the time of Jesus it has been estimated that 90% of their population could be considered to be living in poverty. 90%! There have also been some estimates that the tax rates imposed were also at around 90%. 90%! It would be safe to say, the military superpower that was the Roman Empire weren’t doing a great job of looking after the well-being of all who lived in their domain. It doesn’t seem like they even cared. There’s a large chance that most, if not all of the people who were listening to Jesus that day, not only knew this text from Isaiah and the hope filled promises that it made, but also that they were the poor, getting locked up in a Roman prison was a frequent occurrence, and all sorts of health issues, including blindness would have been rampant. They were the oppressed that Isaiah’s text was talking to and Jesus says ‘today’ this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing…
Today is the time for good news to the poor, today is the time for release from captivity, today is the time the recovery of sight, today is the time for freedom from oppression. Jesus made a bold statement. The Messiah they had been waiting for, the saviour they had been longing for, the one who was to be sent from God, into their midst, to free them from all injustice, was here. Today, was the day. And all eyes were fixed on him.
There are other things going on that made this significant too. The series of events that Luke describes leading up to this moment go like this: Jesus is baptised, in the Jordan river, by John, and the Spirit of God descends on him – “this is my son, with whom I am well pleased” He is then led, by the Spirit, into the wilderness, where in the loneliness, in the hunger, in the thirst, in the testing of body and mind and spirit, he undergoes the temptations of quick fixes, shortcuts, and of ego boosting pathways. Resolutely he refuses to engage these temptations. Then, out of the wilderness he comes, and filled with the power of the Spirit, he begins teaching in the synagogues, then he comes home and we have today’s text. It is as if the narrative in the book of Luke up to this point has been identifying Jesus as God’s agent. Son, Saviour, descendant of David, Messiah, Lord. And the Spirit of God is established as the source and power of his activity. The Spirit descends on him. The Spirit leads him. The Spirit fills him. The Spirit anoints him. So now the question is, ‘well what kind of agent of God will he be?’ The significance of this event lies in the sense that yes this scripture is literally about the material, physical, economic, and political transformation of the people, but it also contains a much larger umbrella, the fulfillment of this text is about Jesus fulfilling the role God’s agent, the one who has been chosen and anointed to enact God’s will. Not only is today the day when transformation draws near, but the one who is to kick-start its reality, is this Jesus.
This event is in a way a ‘second’ reading of this original text from Isaiah. The original was spoken and written down all those years before, and today before their eyes, as was the custom in the synagogue, it was interpreted but in a fresh and new, life giving way. This text is one of the ones that is more familiar to us. We encounter it at least every three years as the schedule of readings rolls around. And it is used as a pivotal text in understanding Jesus ministry. I wonder how we interpret it today. How do we hear this text as it comes to us some 2000 years later? In a way, this sermon that Jesus gave, as short as it was, is also the longest sermon in the world too, for in our hearing, and in our interpreting, in our understanding, it still exists, these words, still spoken and heard, and chewed over. How do we hear them?
The significance of this for us I believe has to be understood in a similar flow to the one described by Luke. Baptism, trials, proclamation. We in our baptism, are found raised to a new life in Christ. Christ travels in us and with us as we encounter our lives, all of them, the ups and the downs, the celebrations, and the sadness and despair. And we, in the power of the Spirit of God who travels with us, are stirred to proclaim the truth of God’s grace and love where we find ourselves. As Jesus was fulfilled as the agent of God’s transformation, we as his followers, in our baptism participate in the ongoing proclamation that today, and every day, this vision of a transformed world is here. We participate in the ongoing fulfillment of Jesus as the agent of God’s transforming love, power and grace.
As a wee note, how we interpret these words as they come to us today is important. We always, without fail, interpret things that come our way through our own bias, through our own way of seeing the world, whether we are aware of it or not! Jesus declaration of these words from Isaiah has been described as his manifesto of sorts. So much so that the more progressive churches of the western world have tended to use this as their unstated mission statement. This is what we are here to do in other words. The problem with aligning oneself to one statement, is that you miss the other ones. This unstated mission statement of progressive Christianity has often been highlighted at the expense of other important statements he made. His Great Commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew for example. The command to go and make disciples. That one has usually been more emphasised by more conservative Christians. If the bias we interpret the world through, easily aligns with something we hear, often we discount the other opinion without a second thought. So, today, how do we interpret what we hear? Do we agree with one interpretation over and above the other? When we hold today’s text up alongside the great commission for example, what do we do? Is it, social service – for want of a better term, or, making disciples of Jesus? I was having a conversation with someone earlier this week and I got called a liberal… I wasn’t quite sure what to say at first, am I? I don’t know, potentially I guess, but probably not in the classic sense. If I’m honest, I was surprised to be called this, because I just don’t think in those categories. Liberal or Evangelical. I just kind of think, we’re past that these days aren’t we? Do we really still need to prop ourselves up, make ourselves feel better, and justify what we think by adding labels, and categories to ourselves? Certainly we don’t need to put other people in boxes any more do we? Surely we’re past that ‘today’ aren’t we? Isn’t there richness and benefit in being open to all? Isn’t there good to be found in both places? Isn’t there a sense in which we need both if we are to continue to grow and share the love of God with all we encounter? Isn’t what we have an incomplete picture without one or the other? Isn’t God to be found in both? It seems to me that these two statements made by Jesus are an integral part of one another. Imagine a church community where people were growing both in their faith and learning from Jesus, and in their service to the community in the name of justice. That to me sounds like a pretty good synergy… kind of like, loving God and loving neighbour…that’s been said somewhere else I believe…
So, today, as we hear this proclamation from Jesus, Let us truly ‘hear’ these words as coming from the mouth of Jesus in all of who he is. Son, Saviour, Messiah, Lord. The agent of God’s fulfillment, led and empowered by the Spirit. Today. Because Jesus said, ‘today’ and we are here, ‘today’ and ‘today’ seems, whenever today is, like a good time to work to resolve injustice. And let us continue to let the Spirit lead us in the life of faith, living out our baptism and empower us today and even tomorrow as we seek to follow Jesus the Christ, in the ongoing proclamation of the fulfillment of God’s justice in our world.