Release to the Captives!
Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on January 27, 2013, the Third Sunday after Epiphany. The sermon text is Luke 4:14-21.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Have you ever stood before a group of people and given a message that was wasn’t received well? In fact, made the folks mad at you? In the gospel reading today we heard Jesus deliver a message in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, but the reading ends before we hear the rest of the account, especially the part where Jesus made folks mad. Let me tell you how the worship service ended that day…
(This is from the 4th chapter in Luke’s gospel) The people were so furious when they heard what Jesus said that they drove him out of the synagogue and to the edge of town and were on the verge of pushing him over the side of the hill to his death. Now just think about it. That must have been some sermon! Luke ends his account by telling us that Jesus escaped by simply walking through the crowd and going on to the town of Capernaum.
What did Jesus say on that occasion that made folks who knew him from childhood so mad that they were willing to kill him? As I tell you what he said on that occasion, I am aware that some here today may also be highly offended and may become angry with me. I say that because the political rhetoric in our nation today is inflaming us in ways that are scary.
Jesus had read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. He then said simply, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.”
If he had stopped there, everything that day would have been just fine. He hadn’t yet offended anyone. It was reading scripture from olden times. It sounded sacred and it didn’t call upon the people to do anything in particular. It simply was affirming that the Jews were a special people that God had freed from their slavery many years ago and would free these special people again in good time.
But then Jesus started applying this scripture to the men before him (and the women listening from the sides). He acknowledges that he has a hard task before him when he says, “I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” Then he goes on to recount how the prophet of Elijah was sent by God in a time of famine to help someone who was not Jewish. She was a widow and lived in a region next to Israel. God could have helped Jewish people, but he chose not to at that time. Jesus then reminded them that God had the prophet Elisha help a non-Jew by the name of Naaman to be cured of his leprosy. Many in Israel had leprosy, but God cured a non-Jew. This is what the people thought they heard that day from Jesus in his message: You are not as special as you think you are! God wants a people who want to honor him, love him, worship him, and serve him. You are not doing it the way God has asked. Therefore, God has no qualms about going to non-Jewish people and helping them. You are a prejudiced people. You look down on the foreigners, the immigrants. You use every excuse to not help them, and deprive them of their dignity. God does not like what is going on in this land! Right now you are an occupied nation by the Romans, because God wants you to start living according to his precepts and not your own prejudices!
Dear Friends in Christ, what would Jesus say to us today at Resurrection? Are we living according to his precepts or according to our own prejudices? Do we see ourselves as special and others as not so special? How do we continue the message of God, proclaimed by Isaiah and Jesus, “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free?” I heard President Obama present some ideas in his inauguration speech this past Monday. Whether you agree with his thoughts or not, I encourage you to re-read the words of Isaiah and of Jesus for your own understanding.
The artwork on the front of today’s bulletin illustrates today’s scripture. You see the chains that are now broken. The hands are now free. Those hands could be the hands of anyone freed from darkness and oppression, including us here today.
One of the most noticeable chains that many of us bear is the chain of fear. I’ve seen the fear in some of your eyes. The fear that comes from not knowing the future, and from feeling that you can’t control even the present. A number of folks in our congregation have lost jobs or have experienced major decreases in income. That’s very humbling and very scary. The members of our congregation council, the staff, the finance and stewardship teams, are faced with an unknown future when we consider our ministry needs and look at the bottom line of our finances. I’ve seen the fear in some eyes.
Last week I attended a meeting of our Virginia Synod Council. They were meeting in the face of Pastor Chip Gunsten’s death and in light of news from our synod treasurer that gifts from congregations were down over $100,000 from what is needed. I was asked to share thinking that comes from our shared experience at Resurrection these past 3 years. It has something to do with the future, God’s plans, and our trust. I shared with them some of the guiding principles that we strive to apply in every situation: We trust in the Lord – through God all things are possible; We call on God; We invite and welcome all people; We share God’s blessings generously as we are generously blessed; and we proclaim the Good News of the love of Christ in word and deed at all times and in all places. What this has meant in the life of this congregation is this: We strive to plan and act as if God really is in charge of our past, present and future, that God really does have a plan for this congregation, and that our limitations are not God’s limitations. We are not defined by our deficits and surpluses, but by our praise and worship of the God in whom we trust. We don’t let fear be the deciding factor, but we do proceed with proper thought, with prayer and with conviction. Here is the new-found and liberating conviction of this congregation: God is not going to let us down…even if we suffer losses and setbacks, that is not the final word…You know what? They have asked me back to share more about our experience and what we’ve learned. They even asked if they could meet at our church in the near future for one of their regular meetings…
Yes, that day in the synagogue, Jesus pushed his listeners to see the world from God’s perspective and not be blinded by their own limited sight. Some folks became mad, and I suspect a number of others simply thought he didn’t know what he was talking about. Today you have heard a message about opening the door to a new way of thinking and not giving into fear. How do you react?