January 27, 2013 “Going By the Book” Luke 4:14-21, 28

Luke’s Gospel, like the other three, rapidly moves through the life of Jesus often leaving out details about which we might wonder. We learn of Christ’s birth, the day Jesus is named and presented in the temple, and there is a brief mention that the family – Mary, Joseph and the baby returned to Galilee to live in the town of Nazareth. Beyond these bare details, the only other reference to Christ’s growing up years is an account of the 12-year old Jesus on a family trip staying behind in Jerusalem to sit with the temple elders, scaring his parents half to death. Nothing else is known about the child, the teenager, or the young man until we meet up with him, now 30 years old, stepping into the river Jordan to be baptized by John the Baptist. To say the least, this is a whirlwind biography of a man who would change the world.

And, the pace never seems to slow down much. Following his baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be alone. There, he faces temptations, a dark night of the soul experience. He emerges from the wilderness victoriously returning to Nazareth where he was brought up…to the hometown synagogue where he is invited to read the day’s scripture lesson. Now, we’re up to speed. At the conclusion of the reading from Isaiah, Jesus rolls up the scroll and gives it back to the attendant and he sits down. For a moment there is silence, than he looks around the room, and very quietly he says, ”Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s it! It was a very short sermon! But, in its on way, it was a fist lifted in defiance to the establishment and the response was electric and volatile.

In a book by Tim Hansel entitled ”Holy Sweat” the author tells the story of a guest preacher, who having been invited to speak in a rather large church, begins by saying, ”There are three points to my sermon.” There’s an audible groan in the congregation and many of the people yawn when they hear this, because they’d heard those words many times before. Undaunted by the bored looks, restless movement in the pews and the distinctly non-listening body language, the preacher continued. ”My first point is this. At this time there are approximately two billion people starving to death in the world.” The reaction throughout the congregation was about the same; they’d heard that sort of statement many times before, too.

And then the guest preacher said, ”My second point … ” Everybody sat up. Only 10 or 15 seconds had passed and the man was already on his second point? Not bad! He paused, then said, ”My second point is that most of you don’t give a damn!” He paused again. Gasps and rumblings flowed across the congregation. And then the preacher said: “And my third point is that the real tragedy among Christians today is that many of you are now more concerned that I said ‘damn’ than you are that I said ‘two billion people are starving to death’.” And he sat down.

Short, to the point, and powerful, but the people who heard this sermon were as offended by the content as those who heard Jesus speak the words, “’Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Then as now, Jesus is reminding us, through the proclaimed and interpreted Word of God, what we are called to be and do as believing Christians. It is a call to action where empty words find no place and where a true, genuine and moral response to the world’s need is the best and only defining characteristic of a life lived with integrity.

Jesus took the words of the most sacred book of writings from his time and read them, something anyone in the temple might be called upon to do but he went one step further. After he read the words from Isaiah and sat down he ended with a powerful statement of truth – the scripture was fulfilled in his presence and would be lived out in his life and ministry. ”Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He clearly denoted the kind of ministry he had come into the world to pursue…a ministry to the poor. A ministry to the outcast. A ministry to the blind and the infirm. Jesus made a bold claim that day and it angered those who heard him. I am the Christ! Salvation has become real and visible today among you. Those listening to his words, people who known him as a child, as the carpenter’s son, as Mary’s boy were as shocked and upset as the ones who heard the word “damn” from the pulpit in Hansel’s story. This was not what they expected to hear in the place where the Word of God is spoken. We are told, a bit later in Luke, after expounding on his intentional ministry to the poor; Jesus was confronted by the outrage and anger of those in his hometown: “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city.” This good news was bad news to those who had had it so good for so long.

When it comes to the good news of salvation all of us are charity cases in need of God’s gift of grace. Martin Luther’s last written words were: ”Weare all beggars.” Here was a man who had changed the world with his words and with his vision of the Christian message of good news yet he put himself in the category of the needy. Without God, there was nothing … no hope, no salvation, no love, no grace … nothing.

Jesus saves … but saves whom? The answer to that profound question is simple yet, it is not always easy for us to hear it. Jesus saves you and me, yes, but Jesus also saves the neighbor we can’t get along with, the teenage unwed mother, the guy holding the sign who is looking for work so he can eat. Jesus can even save the fellow in jail who’s been committing crimes since he was 10 years old. If we want to be saved than Jesus will save us. If we want to be forgiven than we can be forgiven. If we are in need of God’s grace than Christ came to offer it to us.

We are the ones who need to be freed from captivity – it is after all a question of being held prisoner to what is immoral and unspiritual. Is it true we’re slaves? Can we be slaves, we who of all people are so much our own masters? And the answer, of course, is that we’re slaves precisely because we are our own masters. We rely heavily on the grace of God and Christ’s saving presence and life given for us. How hard that is for us to accept? We don’t want to depend that heavily on anyone even when we must.

The blind were not those for whom physical eyes were sightless.  We know that the kind of blindness for which Jesus spoke was a moral and spiritual blindness. At our better moments we are appalled by the culture we have created. Imagine archaeologists, some 1,000 years hence, unearthing the movies and plays and television we watched, pouring over the books we wrote or read, hearing the music we listened to, music that is sexually or violently explicit with no redeeming value at all.

Now, of course, these same archeologists and future sociologists would discover we’ve had our good times too, our times of blessing, when our better, more divinely inspired natures have been the most prominent, when God’s grace has become our grace too.  There have been moments when we’ve been brave and wise and kind. Every once in a while, a word was spoken that gave us back our lives again. Maybe we even spoke such a word ourselves to another person. Now and then we’ve had our vision of the people we might be. 
Ralph Waldo Emerson made the observation: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” Take that thought and broadened out for our purposes and it might read, the institutional church is the lengthened shadow of one Man — Jesus Christ. We Christians owe it to ourselves and to the world to resurrect this
message of Christ from the debris of history.

Colin Wilson, a provocative writer, wrote: “Human beings seem to have an extraordinary capacity for being deluded by their emotions, so their ‘convictions’ are usually a mass of unexamined prejudices.”  In Christ hangs the destiny of us all. “Come to me,” is how Christ put it but he did not offer us a way to escape the world; rather he offered us a way to love it into something better. A final thought from Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision. Throughout his life, Pierce tried to live by the motto: “May my heart break with the things that break the heart of God.”

That’s the gospel. Jesus is the good news of salvation, the promise of hope for a broken world. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, not because we can make it happen on our own but because in Christ we can accomplish the impossible. Our world needs that and we need God to hold us accountable to Christ’s ministry.  Our prayer begins with the claim that in the power of the Holy Spirit our hearts and our will belong to Christ. In Christ, we can be receptive to God’s grace receiving the freedom and the healing offered to us daily! Amen.