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In Our Hearing
January 24, 2016
Luke 4: 14-21
A reading from the Gospel of Luke:
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘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 favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
When we read this text of Jesus reading a text from Isaiah, we might think our best approach to understanding its meaning is to look at the circumstances in which Isaiah wrote of sight and liberty, the conditions which produced in his hearers a need for good news and release.
Isaiah was a prophet of an exiled people. The Israelites had been conquered by foreigners, taken from their homes and livelihoods, and marched to a far country in which they no longer controlled their days or their destiny. They were indeed “the poor,” not only in economic terms, but in every aspect of their lives. Into that reality of powerlessness, Isaiah speaks words which reassure the exiles that God still controls history. Their current reality is not the final reality, for the Spirit of the Lord is at work in the world.
Or we might think we should place the text squarely in the first century context of Jesus, consider the circumstances which made his listeners yearn for good news. When Jesus stood up in the synagogue to read Isaiah’s words of hope, he spoke to people whose lives had been disrupted not by exile but by occupation. Israel had come under the dominion of Rome; the Israelites were again a conquered nation, subject once again to foreigners who did not know or fear Israel’s God. While the details were different from Isaiah’s time, the powerlessness was not. The worshipers in the Nazareth synagogue, like the Israelites of the exile, knew poverty and captivity, and stood in need of release from economic, political and cultural oppression. Jesus reminds them that God has promised their salvation, and assures them that, in him, their salvation is at hand, for the Spirit of the Lord is at work in the world.
Or perhaps we want to come at this text from the perspective of God’s word to us today. Where in our own lives do we experience poverty, captivity, blindness? What good news of release do we yearn to hear?
For many of us in this sanctuary, those tend to be spiritual questions rather than physical ones. We are not in any economic sense “the poor” or “the captive” – we know where our next meal is coming from, and we know that every meal after that one will come along in sequence. We have a high level of control over how our time, money and energy are spent. We have spaces in which to live, tools with which to work, resources which provide us countless options for interactions with and impact upon the world.
And those are all good things – our economic wealth, our professional opportunities, our social connections are gifts for which we should feel gratitude, never guilt, for they position and equip us to bring blessing into the lives of others.
So, given the realities of the comfort in which we live, it’s tempting to spiritualize this passage for ourselves. To read these verses as a promise that Jesus proclaims release from the poverty and blindness and oppression of sin.
Jesus does indeed do that. And such release is indeed good news. In Jesus Christ, we are freed from sin to live in the fullness of grace in ways that bring spiritual joy, emotional and intellectual satisfaction and relational harmony. But Jesus also cares about the physical health and well being of all God’s beloved children. Luke makes that abundantly clear by recounting in his Gospel story after story upon story of Jesus healing the sick, restoring the dispossessed, reaching out to the marginalized.
The promises of this text were not meant – in the time of Isaiah, in the time of Jesus or today — to be merely spiritual abstractions, irrelevant to physical lives. The promises of this text have everything to do with bringing human lives – body and soul – out of darkness and difficulty and into freedom and fulfillment. Brethren theologian William Hayes writes:
“When the message of Jesus is spiritualized, the promises to the poor and oppressed are so diluted that the end result is the maintenance of the status quo. Religion functions like a placebo, making no particular difference in the life of society.”
There is nothing about the life or the teachings or – most pointedly – the resurrection of Jesus which suggests our business as his followers is to protect and preserve the status quo.
And thank heavens for that, because the status quo is terrible and cruel and damaging the lives of God’s beloved children. A few examples of the status quo:
- The Council on Foreign Relations lists 26 armed conflicts around the world which pose some level of threat to US interests, to say nothing of the threats each of those conflicts poses locally.
- The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates there are 60 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world today.
- Additionally, tens of millions of people are currently enslaved, most in the developing world, but thousands in Europe and the U.S.
- News outlets reported recently that the richest one percent of the world’s population now holds more wealth than the other 99 percent combined.
- Citizens of Flint, Michigan, who have known for over a year that their water was unsafe, have finally gotten the attention of the public, but not before thousands of them, particularly the youngest, have suffered irreversible damage to their health.
I could go on, but that litany is more than enough to convince us that our fallen world is captive to the forces of greed, to the impulses of fear, to the patterns of competition and exploitation. Clearly the world stands today in as much need of good news and release as it did when Isaiah wrote and when Jesus read. Our response to this scripture must include both spiritual and physical dimensions; must recognize that our release from the captivity of sin equips and summons us to work to release those who remain captive in any sense.
J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Age of Iron, tells the story of Mrs. Curren, a retired classics professor in apartheid South Africa who has intellectually opposed her country’s practice while remaining largely isolated from its true depravity. Late in her life, she is inescapably confronted with the harsh truth of apartheid when the son of her housekeeper is killed by government troops. As she leaves the scene of this young man’s murder, Mrs. Curren says to her companion:
“You think I am upset but will get over it. Cheap tears, you think, tears of sentiment, here today, gone tomorrow. Well, it is true. I have been upset in the past. I have imagined there could be no worse, and then the worse has arrived, as it does without fail, and I have gotten over it, or seemed to. But that is the trouble! In order not to be paralyzed with shame, I have had to live a life of getting over the worse. What I cannot get over any more is that getting over. If I get over it this time, I will never have another chance not to get over it. For the sake of my own resurrection, I cannot get over it this time.”
Mrs. Curren finally, finally recognizes that alongside those oppressed by apartheid, she has been oppressed by her detachment; she knows her own captivity and admits her need for release. She finally sees that in protecting herself from the troubles of others, she has denied herself a full life and has failed to participate in offering full life to those others. Finally, in this moment of deepest distress, of unbearable anguish, of emotional poverty beyond any she has ever known, she has ears to hear that the Spirit of the Lord is at work in the world, even when all human strength is gone. And so she reaches out for resurrection, no longer by fleeing pain and danger but by turning toward them.
Like Mrs. Curren, we must recognize that we have reached the point where we can no longer with impunity get over the troubles, tragedy and injustice that our brothers and sisters face. For the sake of our own resurrection, we must identify the areas in our lives where we protect ourselves from the world’s harsh realities and excuse ourselves from other people’s struggles and needs, and we must turn toward those realities and those struggles rather than away. We must, in today’s urban parlance, become “woke” – aware of what goes on in our community and our world. And we must remain faithful by using that awareness to discern how God is calling us to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and release to the captives.
Isaiah proclaims good news to an exiled people. Jesus proclaims good news to an occupied people. We read their words and give thanks that the Spirit of the Lord was at work in the world during their day and remains so in ours. We read their words and realize that these blessings are promised both to us and through us. We are to be agents of liberty in God’s world in this day.
While we cannot solve or even ease the multitude of problems which surround us, we can, each of us, find small ways to be channels of God’s grace.
You may buy your coffee or honey or candy bars from the Fair Trade cart in the courtyard because it’s good coffee and honey and candy, but your purchase is also a statement in support of the workers who have produced those goods.
If you can afford to make financial contributions, there are any number of wonderful organizations providing services here in Austin and throughout the world. By supporting Presbyterian Disaster Assistance or Charter for Compassion or Save the Children or Texas Impact or whatever service organization we choose, we join our gifts with the gifts of others to move the arc of history towards economic justice and peace.
If you have time at your disposal, there are elementary schools in need of tutors to read with students, homeless shelters in need of volunteers to serve meals, the transportation ministry right here at UPC in need of drivers. We have many opportunities to be present to those who yearn for good news.
Each of us has areas of particular interest or personal investment – whether it be marriage equality or gun rights or school funding or any one of countless other social, economic, political and cultural issues. Identify the concerns which are dear to you, and put some energy into that issue. How and where might you open up the conversation and the situation? How and where might you help to create space for the Spirit of the Lord to bring new light and hope and life?
Jesus reads the words of Isaiah which promise good news and liberty, and says to the congregation in Nazareth:
‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Jesus says to us:
‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
The earth is indeed full of danger and damage and need. The earth is also – and foremost – full of the glory of the God who became flesh to dwell with us. The God whose Word to us is good news, sight, liberty, and infinite, eternal grace.
The good news which Jesus proclaims in our hearing is this: It is our privilege and our purpose to carry God’s glory and bear God’s grace into God’s world.