About Me

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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Lk 04 14-21

'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."

Generation after generation had read these scriptures in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was their custom. Generation after generation had endured foreign occupation, forced resettlement, slavery, and wandering lost without a home. Generation after generation had prayed for the Messiah to come and restore what had been taken. And generation after generation had died with their hopes unfulfilled. It’s hard for us to understand the breathtaking importance of the one, short little sentence Jesus adds at the end of the prophesy: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Did the people honestly believe it? Or were they just amazed that their little boy, Joseph and Mary’s son, had the guts to stand up and say something like this in public? For us who don’t know occupation, resettlement, slavery, homelessness and worse, it’s really impossible to even guess what those people in Nazareth were thinking, what they were feeling. To us, it sounds like a nice story about Jesus coming home and impressing his elders. (“Did you hear how well he read the scripture? What a good boy he’s grown up to be!”) What did you think as you heard these words of scripture? Did it stir your heart to ecstatic praise? If so, you were mighty quiet about it. I didn’t hear any “Amens,” even from the choir. I didn’t see anyone jumping up on the pew like Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch. This scripture is a singular, pivotal point in all of history. This was Jesus’ first sermon. This was his inaugural address. He has been waiting all his life for this – God had been waiting centuries for this – to speak these very words on this very day in that very town of Nazareth.

The poor, the captives, the oppressed. This, says Jesus, is who he has come to save. What do we do with scripture where Jesus declares what he’s going to do and for whom he’s going to do it … when we aren’t included? Do we say that Jesus came and preached solely to the people of Nazareth of his own time? Who among us is truly poor, truly captive, truly oppressed? Compared to the people of Jesus’ Nazareth, compared right now to the people of Sudan, compared with the people of North Korea – we’re about as opposite as we can possibly be. A foreign immigrant to the United States was asked why he came to America; he said, “I wanted to live in a country where the poor people are fat.” That’s a terrible overstatement, but compared to a huge percentage of the rest of the world, we’re rich. Maybe not rich beyond our dreams, but definitely rich beyond theirs. We may have people who are poor and hungry, but we’ve never known famine and mass starvation. Compared to so many oppressed countries, we’re free beyond imagination. Occupation, resettlement, slavery, homelessness are part of this church’s vocabulary, yes – but only when we’re talking about other people. So, what do we do with Jesus’ inaugural address, his “mission statement,” his personal Great Commission? How can we hear his message as if he’s preaching it directly to each of us? How can Jesus’ words lift our souls to new heights of ecstatic joy? Can we live as followers of Christ without trivializing his purpose?

What didn’t Jesus say in his first recorded scripture and sermon? There’s so much scripture Jesus could have read that day in the synagogue in Nazareth. He chose the words of the prophet, Isaiah. But he could have chosen a thousand other words of prophesy, law, or poetry. For instance, Jesus very easily could have picked up the scroll of Psalms and turned to Psalm 101, which says,

I will sing of loyalty and of justice; to you, O LORD, I will sing.

I will study the way that is blameless. When shall I attain it?

I will walk with integrity of heart within my house;

I will not set before my eyes anything that is base.

I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me.

Perverseness of heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil.

One who secretly slanders a neighbor I will destroy.

A haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not tolerate.

I will look with favor on the faithful in the land, so that they may live with me;

whoever walks in the way that is blameless shall minister to me.

No one who practices deceit shall remain in my house;

no one who utters lies shall continue in my presence.

Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land,

cutting off all evildoers from the city of the LORD.

How would Jesus have been different if he had based himself on that scripture? Do you know churches or people who act as if they base their lives more on Psalm 101, instead of the scripture Jesus chose? Maybe there are times when purging the wicked is more important than bringing good news to the poor. But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, spent a lot more of his time on earth saving the lost sheep than whipping the bad ones. Jesus came to save, not condemn; he says so himself. When we’re trying to figure out what to do with Jesus’ inaugural address, it helps to remember what he DIDN’T say.

Jesus proclaimed that he was the fulfillment of God’s anointing to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. If we don’t fall into any or all of those categories, we could legitimately wonder: did Jesus really come for us? Or are we just affluent bystanders, eavesdropping on a conversation with someone else? Are you speaking directly to Jesus? Or do you have him holding on the other line? When you say Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior, are you thinking of yourself in another life? Or in this one? Because another thing Jesus didn’t say was, “This scripture will be fulfilled when you get to heaven”; he said, it’s fulfilled, “…in your hearing.” Which means the fulfillment of prophesy starts the moment you hear his words. Heaven is starts now, right now, while we’re living, not only after we die. The word of Jesus, the Word that IS Jesus, is intended to make us soar like angels; not yawn and check our watches.

Being affluent, well-fed, and free is nothing if it’s not shared. Being rich is boring, if we don’t put our riches to work. Jesus himself said we can never buy enough stuff to save our souls. He told the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor – not because it’s bad to be rich, but because faith is more than counting your money and keeping the rules. I don’t think we have to divest ourselves to really hear Jesus, but we do have to in-vest ourselves in some sacrificial ways. For instance, I’m really excited that this church is going to host a refugee from a foreign country. It’s going to cost us some time, convenience, and money. I’m glad that we can literally be good news for the poor. But I also have a feeling the refugee family is going to teach us some things about the importance of really living out Jesus’ first sermon. You see, until Jesus’ sermon becomes a way of life, then the scripture is just a nice little story about Jesus coming home and impressing his elders. But when Jesus’ commission becomes our great commission, when his words become our fulfilling daily bread, we change – maybe without even knowing it. The question, then, isn’t so much, “What are WE going to do with Jesus’ sermon?” – instead it’s, “What is his sermon doing to US?” How is our decision to follow Jesus changing us? Maybe reading scripture, maybe hearing Jesus makes you want to jump up on the pew and shout, “Hallelujah!” or maybe we Presbyterians are more like his mother, Mary, who quietly “pondered these things in her heart.” You don’t have to make a lot of noise to be a Christian; but you do have to let scripture make some noise in your heart.


In New York Harbor, Lady Liberty stands over a plaque that reads,

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore;

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me….”

Unless you’re Cherokee, everyone around here was once from somewhere else. The main ingredient in this melting pot of a nation was people yearning to breathe free. Our ancestors were all people who needed some good news. Maybe none of us has ever personally known foreign occupation, resettlement, slavery, or homelessness. The point is that we remember there are people who do. Those people are part of us. Jesus is always bigger than whatever town he’s preaching in. The followers of Jesus are supposed to be bigger than their little corner of the world, too. Because the dark corners of the world have gone into making us who we are. Jesus is our light, Jesus is our leader. Jesus leads us back into those dark corners so we can be their light. From his very first words, Jesus charts out not only his path, but our path.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because Jesus has appointed you to be good news. Who do you know that needs good news? Who do you know that doesn’t? The first recorded sermon of Jesus does very much apply to all of us who claim to be Christian. What ARE we going to do with that?