A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 27, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 4:14-21
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Tim Hansel tells[1] the story of a guest preacher who came to a rather large church.  This preacher began his sermon, “There are three points to my sermon.”  Most people yawned at the point.  Three points; ho hum; how many times have we heard that before.  He went on.   “My first point is this.  Today, almost 16,000 children will die from hunger-related causes.”[2]  The reaction through the congregation was about the same; they’d heard that sort of statement many times before, too.

Then he said, “My second point …”  Everybody sat up.  Only 10 seconds into the sermon and he was already on his second point.  “My second point is that most of you don’t give a damn!”

He paused again as gasps and rumblings flowed across the congregation.

“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 that 16,000 children will die today because of hunger.”

Then he sat down.

I start today’s sermon with this story to avoid what I was considering saying:  Since Jesus’ sermon was only one sentence in today’s gospel lesson, mine will only be one sentence as well.  And then I thought I’d sit down.

I think the guest preacher’s five-sentence sermon is a bit more effective.

I’ve found myself amused by some of the things commentators have said about today’s reading.  Some have commented on Jesus sermon appearing to be only one sentence.  Only one sentence is recorded by Luke, but it was probably longer.  Luke says, “Jesus began to stay to them …”  We can assume he had more to say.

Some have called this his “first” sermon.  It’s not.  Luke says that Jesus has been teaching in synagogues throughout the Galilee, so we can assume he’s preached before.  In fact, he’s preached well enough that he’s developed a pretty good reputation.

The comment that gets me the most is the one that tries to brush off the political significance of the section of the prophet Isaiah Jesus read.  They say that Jesus is proclaiming release to the spiritually captive and recovery of sight to the spiritually blind.  Sorry, but no.  Isaiah is saying something significantly more concrete.  But I’ll get to that in a bit.

The verses immediately preceding today’s gospel lesson are about Jesus in the wilderness.  At the end of Chapter 3, Jesus is baptized, and full of the Holy Spirit, he goes out in the desert where he faces a series of temptations.  One way of understanding what’s going on in the wilderness is that Jesus is wrestling with the implications of words he heard from God:  “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  And by the time he returns from the wilderness to Galilee, he’s found his answer and he starts teaching in the synagogues.

Then he comes back to Nazareth, to his childhood congregation, the one in which he was raised, where everyone knows him and he knows all of them.  “Small town” hardly begins to describe Nazareth, since the entire village was maybe two to four hundred people.  We’re talking about a small town – so small that the place where Jesus’ childhood neighbors gathered with him on this Sabbath, may not have been an actual building but a “gathering” of faithful Jewish people.

Jesus comes up to read.  He’s handed the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah.  He finds a particular passage.  He reads the passage we know as Isaiah 61:1-2, and he sits down.  Sitting down was the position for teaching, so we know that Jesus was going to offer an interpretation or explanation of the scripture he just read.  It’s not unlike our practice today of following scripture with a sermon.

I can’t help but wonder about the one sentence of Jesus’ sermon that Luke records:  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Did he read the Isaiah passage and have an epiphany?  Did he remember as he read it, as Isaiah’s words came out of his own mouth, that God’s Spirit was indeed on him – just as it was after his baptism and just as it was as he went into the wilderness to figure things out.  Did he come, in that moment, to realize that the Spirit of God was empowering him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind?

Or did he go hunting for this passage because this was his stump speech, what he’d been teaching all around Galilee, the words that were giving him his reputation?

Or had he been saving this passage for his hometown congregation, sharing this revelation with the people he knew so well the way a candidate returns to her hometown to announce her candidacy for some elected office?

We don’t know which of these Luke is trying to tell us happened.  What we do know – and perhaps as much by intuition as by scriptural exegesis – that we’re listening to an important teaching.  This is an inaugural addresses that is outlining the plan for the days ahead.

Last Monday, we heard another inaugural address.  I read through it a few times, looking for the kernel, the central message President Obama was going for.  I think it is these words:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began.  For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.  Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.  Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.   Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

“That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American.”[3]

With these words, President Obama called us to the ideals and ideas that bind together American and set for a political agenda.  Jesus does the same thing in his reading from Isaiah and his short sermon.  The heart of the message and the big picture, even a strategic plan, are all there.

In his inaugural address, Jesus lays down the main themes of his entire ministry in an elegant and powerful continuity with his Jewish prophetic ancestors.  One commentator wrote, “Jesus sings Isaiah’s song of good news for the poor, in the key of his mother Mary of Nazareth,”[4] a poetic description that is fitting for a reading from the Gospel of Luke which starts with Mary’s song, the Magnificat.

Jesus’ inaugural address does have a political undercurrent to it.  Jesus isn’t just appointed by God to bring good news to the poor, the oppressed, and the blind.  He is appointed, at a time when his country is occupied by a foreign army, when money and power are being concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of people, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Most scholars agree that Isaiah and Jesus are making reference to the Jubilee year.  According to Leviticus (chapters 25 and 27 have the details), every fiftieth year is supposed to be a Jubilee year.  The practice – or at least the vision of the practice – is of restoring, every fifty years, the land and possessions to people who had lost them.  Debts were supposed to be forgiven and ancestral land was to be returned to the clan to whom it was given when the Hebrews first settled the Promised Land.

Now, this may sound offensive to our capitalist ears.  But remember, the Hebrews had wandered a long time before making their way into the Promised Land.  When they arrived, they understood that the land wasn’t really theirs.  It was God’s and they lived on it as God’s guests, as God’s stewards.

As significant as what Jesus chose to read is what Jesus omitted.  Jesus dropped Isaiah’s line about “the day of vengeance of our God.”  “N.T. Wright suggests that this omission would have offended those first-century Jews who understandably hungered for God’s vengeance on a whole host of enemies and oppressors – a wholly human longing, it seems.  So it wasn’t his eloquence, Wright says, that ‘astonished’ the people who came to hear him that day, but his ‘speaking about God’s grace – grace for everybody, including the nations – instead of grace for Israel and fierce judgment for everyone else.’  Wright sees Jesus drawing on ‘the larger picture in Isaiah … of Israel being called to be the light of the nations,’ and presenting a Messiah who ‘has not come to inflict punishment on the nations, but to bring God’s love and mercy to them.’”[5]  If we kept reading, we’d spend more time on the crowd’s violent reaction, but Wright finds reason for their response in today’s passage.

This jubilee that Jesus is announcing and establishing is much more inclusive and grace-filled than was expected.

“Jubilee is a wonderful acknowledgement of, and response to, the way we humans get things all out of whack, and before you know it, somebody has way too much, and others not nearly enough.  Jubilee is the vision that makes things right again, God’s way of restoring, Richard Swanson writes, ‘the original balance and connectedness’ among the people.  While scholars debate whether Jubilee was ever actually practiced, it still ‘may have functioned as a critical fulcrum to allow a critique of what was seen as an unjust society,’ Swanson writes.  It became a vision of what Swanson has often described as ‘the right-side-uping of the creation that Jews demand of God at the culmination of all things.’  Jesus isn’t coming back home to preach a new message that offends ancient traditions, like some sort of trouble-making radical enamored of ‘current thinking’ that he learned out there, in the wider world – quite the opposite, in fact:  ‘Jesus has just rung a bell that echoes back to the first entry into the land,’ Swanson writes.”[6]

This is hard stuff for us to hear with our capitalist ears.  At the heart of the gospel, the good news that Jesus brings, is a demand about our attitude toward possessions.  The Jubilee doesn’t just protect the poor from their two greatest threats:  the loss of land and the loss of freedom.  It challenges the very notion of private ownership rights with its affirmation that God owns the land and that God’s economy supersedes human economies.[7]

But that is a core component of Jesus’ mission statement.  And this reading from Isaiah is Jesus’ mission statement.  This scripture has made me think about our church’s mission statement.

You can read our official mission statement in your bulletins, but I was wondering, what might be our scriptural mission statement.  If we were going to open the scriptures and turn to a page to read a passage to announce our understanding of who we are and how we are to live to fulfill God’s mission in the world, what passage would we read?

Would we turn to the prophet Micah and read the eighth verse of the sixth chapter?  “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Would we turn to Matthew 25:40?  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Would we turn to Mark 12:29-31?  “‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Would we turn to Amos 5:24?  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Would we turn to Romans 8:38-39?  “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Perhaps we’d turn to something else.  I don’t have an answer to my question.  So, I’ll conclude my sermon with the question unanswered and invite you to think about how you would answer it.

Jesus chose Isaiah 61:1-2 as his mission statement.  What would we choose as ours?


[1] Tim Hansel, in Holy Sweat, as cited by James T. Garrett in “God’s Gift,” quoted in an email from sermons.com, dated 22 January 2013.  I changed the number of people starving in the story for current accuracy.

[2] Bread for the World, http://www.bread.org/hunger/global/ (26 January 2013).

[4] Kim Beckmann, Feasting on the Word, quoted in “Sermon Seeds” on the United Church of Christ’s website, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-24-2010.html (23 January 2010).

[5] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-27-2013.html (20 January 2013).

[6] Quoting “Sermon Seeds,” op cit., which in turn quotes Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke (23 January 2010).

[7] Ann M. Svennungsen, New Proclamation 2007, quoted and cited in “Sermon Seeds,” op cit. (23 January 2010).