>The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, January 24, 2010. The text for this week’s message is Luke 4:14-21.

Today is going to be the first of a two part series on Luke 4. We are going to look at the first half of this story where Jesus arrives at his hometown and see what we can learn from what is going on here. And next week, we’ll look at the reaction to Jesus’ first sermon in the gospel of Luke. I think there are some really important things that we have to learn from this chapter of Luke. To start off, let’s get a broader view of what is going on when this part of the text.
First off, it comes at the tail end of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Luke tells us that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days and during this time, he ate nothing. This figure of 40 days is pretty significant. It would bring to mind the 40 day fasts of Moses, when he was writing the words of the covenant on the tablets in Exodus 34, and the prophet Elijah, shortly after the dramatic story of the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 19.
According to how Luke sets up his gospel, this is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In verses 14-15 we read that Jesus was teaching around the area surrounding Galilee. What is important to remember when it comes to the gospels is that they are not a strictly chronological account of Jesus’ life. The gospel writers orchestrate their stories in such a way that where the stories are located is important.
For example, last week we looked at how Jesus’ ministry begins in the Gospel of John. His first public act of ministry is changing the water into wine at a wedding in Cana, and we looked at the implications of that action through the lens of a first century Jewish person. In Mark, we see that Jesus’ first public act of ministry is to preach to the people that the kingdom of God was at hand. In Matthew, Jesus begins by preaching a message similar to the one found in Mark. But in Luke, Jesus’ public ministry begins in this section. We are told that Jesus teaches in the synagogues of the surrounding area, and the first bit of content that we hear is from Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth, his hometown. And the themes that we will see in this chapter of Luke are themes that we will be visiting over and over again as we continue to read through the gospel.
Before we get into the real meat of this passage, I want to stop and ask you a question. If someone were to write the story of your life, what things would be in there? What are the important things in your life that would be a natural part of your biography? Is it your family? Friends? Job? Accomplishments? Pets? Mastery of board games? What is it that is so much a part of your life that your biography would be incomplete without it? What is it that guides your life?
At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, we see something that was important to Jesus’ life, something that was probably a major part of his upbringing, and was most definitely a part of his adult life. In verse 16, Luke makes a small statement that gives us a clue as to what is important to Jesus. He writes, “And as was his (Jesus’) custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day…” Did you catch that? “As was his custom.” Going to the synagogue was something that Jesus did frequently; it was customary; it was a significant and regular part of his life.
Just before we get to this passage, Jesus is in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. And in the face of all these temptations, Jesus leans on Scripture. Every challenge and temptation that Satan throws down before him is met with the word of God, and more specifically, from the book of Deuteronomy. Now, where do you think Jesus learned this? He didn’t learn and memorize Scripture on accident. He learned and memorized it because he read it. He spent time in it. Yes, it certainly helps that, as the Son of God, Jesus had a hand in authoring it. But don’t forget, to paraphrase from Philippians 2, Jesus poured out himself, and he took the form of a servant in his humanity. At his baptism, we see that he was empowered by the Holy Spirit. And everything that Jesus does in his ministry is not strictly because he is the Son of God, but because he is empowered by the Holy Spirit.
In the midst of his ministry, we also see how important the power of prayer is. Jesus is constantly praying. There are places where Jesus goes off by himself just to spend time with the Father in prayer. Right before his arrest and crucifixion, what was Jesus doing? Not getting a good night’s sleep to rest up for what was to come. He was in the garden praying that God’s will be done.
So, we already know that Jesus spent a good amount of time reading, studying and memorizing the Word. And now, we see that Jesus also spent a significant amount of time worshiping in the synagogue as well. When you look at your biography, could somebody say the same about you? Could somebody recount a story about your life and begin it in the same way that Luke begins this story?
I’m a big believer that church is important, and, no, it’s not just because I like to see a full sanctuary. I believe that church is important because it gives us the foundation of faith that is so crucial to make it through a difficult day. I believe it gives us the opportunity to fellowship with people who believe in a God that is bigger than anything that we will face in this world. I believe it gives us a chance to reevaluate where we are spiritually and to grow into the person that we are called to be. Is worship customary, or do you just come when you feel like it? Worship in the synagogue was so important to Jesus that it was a habit. And it was significant enough that Luke mentions Jesus’ habit of worshiping at the synagogue.
Now, in the Jewish synagogue, there was no professional clergy. There was a president of the synagogue who would invite someone to read the Scripture and comment on it. Typically, the comments were lessons that they memorized in synagogue school, followed by corrections by the elders if the commentator managed to mess something up. On this particular day, Jesus was asked to be the one who read and commented on the Scripture.
Jesus was given the scroll of Isaiah, because they didn’t have books, they had scrolls; big difference from what we have. And another difference between Jesus’ Scriptures and ours – he didn’t have chapters and verses. Jesus isn’t thumbing through the pages looking for big numbers to help him find this passage like we usually do, he is twisting his was through a scroll to find this passage.
He stops on what we call Isaiah 61, and reads from the scroll. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He rolls up the scroll and sits down. At this point, everyone in the synagogue is looking at him, waiting to hear what he has to say. Put yourself in this position for a minute. Some kid that grew up here has been teaching all over the state, and he has come home. He is asked to read the Scripture and comment on it during worship at the synagogue. Everyone in the crowd is waiting to hear what he has to say.
Some, no doubt, are expecting him to recite the lesson on this passage that he learned in school. Some of his schoolmates may have even been in the crowd. Some of the people are bored out of their minds, but they are they because that’s what they are supposed to do on Sabbath. Some of the people are half asleep because they stayed up late at Bobby’s bar mitzvah the night before. Some are really excited to hear what he has to say. Some are still upset about having to sing that one song again, and aren’t really paying attention in the first place. Some are thinking about whether or not they left the fire burning back home. With all of this going on in the background, Jesus says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Wait, what? That wasn’t in the lesson at synagogue school. What is he talking about? They never talked about how things were fulfilled. They talked about how they were going to be fulfilled, but Jesus here is talking about something being fulfilled right then and there. His classmates are wondering if they fell asleep on that day at school. This isn’t what Jesus is supposed to do at this point in the worship service. He’s messing it up big time. But is that what was really going on? Is Jesus just making stuff up because he forgot his synagogue school lesson? I don’t think so. I seriously doubt that Jesus is just making it up as he goes along. What Jesus is talking about is something bigger than plain memorization. It is something bigger than the lessons they learned in synagogue school. Jesus is talking about what God is doing right now, in their midst, and it is huge.
As with so much of the writing of the prophet Isaiah, this particular passage has the restoration of the people of Israel in mind. And in Isaiah there is a figure that is referred to as the Servant of the Lord, who plays a major role in this restoration. In the same way that Jesus is empowered and filled with the Holy Spirit in his ministry, the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah is anointed by the Spirit to proclaim this message. And just what is that message? It is good news to the poor, recovery of sight for the blind, liberty for the oppressed. It is the year of the Lord’s favor.
In Isaiah, the good news was that the people no longer had to live in exile. But realistically, this is much more than a simple change in governmental circumstance. The exile wasn’t just about their physical and political situations. The exile was about the spiritual state that the people of Israel found themselves in. Even after the people had been back in the land for quite some time, there was still a sense of spiritual exile, of distance from God. Political restoration had taken place, but if we read Scripture carefully, we see that spiritual restoration hadn’t taken place yet.
Originally, this Isaiah passage was understood to be solely about their physical return from Babylon. But when the people returned, they came to realize that it was about so much more. And in proclaiming the good news to the poor, Jesus is letting them know that circumstances have changed. The true fulfillment of this passage in Isaiah was taking place right before their eyes.
They are no longer in exile, but now the time of restoration is occurring. And this is a restoration that wasn’t initiated when the Persians took over Babylon and allowed the Jewish people to return to their homeland. It is restoration that was initiated by the Servant of the Lord, Jesus the Christ, the anointed one of God. In Jesus’ ministry, through his life, death and resurrection, this restoration takes place, and this passage serves as a guiding vision for what happens in Jesus’ ministry. It is his call, his mission, and his purpose. The good news is that the people were no longer in spiritual exile, but now there was a path of restoration that was being laid out before them.
The second part of the passage is the recovery of sight for the blind. You may know that Jesus healed people of their physical blindness during his ministry, but more importantly, he opened their eyes to what God was doing all around them. Again, there is more going on here than just the physical. The people were stuck in a spiritual blindness as well. They couldn’t see what God was up to, and until Jesus came along, they weren’t going to see what God was doing. Jesus opened their eyes to a whole new perspective on life. Spiritual blindness is a problem that we all face if we are not intentional about following Jesus. Jesus is the one who helps us see. Apart from him, we are truly blind.
Perhaps the most important part of the passage that Jesus turns to in Isaiah is the proclamation of liberty, or release, for the captives. And this is so important because of the word that is translated as “release”, or “liberty,” is the same word that is used in other places of the New Testament and translated as “forgiveness.” Forgiveness from our sins and freedom for the captives are not all that different from each other. In a sense, we are captives of our sin. We are trapped in them, and without Jesus, there is no freedom.
This passage also mentions the year of the Lord’s favor. It means something far more significant than we realize. In the background of this part of the text is Leviticus 25:10, which talks about a time when everything is to go back to the way it was supposed to be. In Israel, every 50 years, there was supposed to be a time when all the land was returned to its original landowners. Everybody got to start back at square one. This was really so that the people would remember that the land was not theirs to own, but it was theirs because God gave it to them. It was to be a year that was consecrated for the Lord. It was supposed to be a celebration. But there is no record of this ever actually happening in Israel. But Isaiah comes along and says that the year of the Lord’s favor is coming. And now, in the synagogue of his hometown, Jesus is saying that time is now.
When Jesus says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he is proclaiming that liberty. He is giving sight to the blind. He is proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. He is saying that the wait is over. Remember, in Luke’s gospel, this is the opening of Jesus’ ministry. It is the scene that sets the stage for the rest of the gospel. Next week, we’ll get into the rest of what Jesus has to say as well as the people’s reaction, but for this week, I want to ask you a question.
What is your mission statement? What is your purpose? What would sum up the direction of your life? One of the things that I hope to accomplish this year is to figure out the direction and call on us as a congregation, but I also hope and pray that you would come to know your life purpose. This is something that I can’t do for you. You have to make the commitment to open yourself up to what God is doing in your life and in the community around you. Jesus came to proclaim the good news and to set the captives free. What are you here for?