Sunday, July 07, 2019

Hard truth—a sermon on Luke 4

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Hard Truth
Luke 4.16-30
7 July 2019, spiritual gifts 4 (prophecy and justice)

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.
Jesus said to them, ‘Surely you will quote this proverb to me: “Physician, heal yourself!” And you will tell me, “Do here in your home town what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.”’
‘Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his home town. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian.’
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.


You might recall that a few months ago, at our annual meeting, I asked you all to talk about what scripture feels like it might be our core story—what in the great story of God seems to speak most particularly to us as a church right now, and might shape the way we live out our faith as a community. Well, this story of Jesus visiting his hometown is what I sometimes call Jesus’ mission statement—when he reads his own core story, and then explains what that is going to mean for his life and ministry.

It’s fitting that Jesus is in his hometown when he offers his mission statement to the public for the first time. He is surrounded by the places and people he knows best. The buildings feel like home, and he knows his way around the streets and countryside, all the back alleys and hidden doorways, whose roof ladders are creaky and who always stays up too late and who is the village busybody. Probably everyone in the synagogue is sitting in the same place they’ve been sitting for his whole life. His neighbours, aunts and uncles, cousins, and old school friends would all be there. On the surface, it should be a friendly crowd, full of people who want him to succeed and will be rooting for him. If ever there was a moment to take a risk in public speaking, this was it, because these are the people whose love and pride will overcome any faults.

So he unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he read out a portion that contains many of the same themes as the song his mother sang when she was pregnant with him: “he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” 

The prophet describes God’s justice as involving three layers: an immediate practical needs layer, lifting up the lowly and healing those with ailments; a liberation from all kinds of oppression so that all people can flourish together; and a change to the socio-economic system as a whole. That last bit is less obvious to us in English, but the “year of the Lord’s favour” is a reference to the Old Testament command for jubilee, a year of economic re-set, when debts are wiped out, slaves are set free, and land reverts to its original owners so that no one is without the means to provide for themselves and their families. It’s a command to level the playing field, so that no one has more than anyone else, and all can start from a clean slate.

All three of these aspects of justice are part of the Spirit’s working gift. This isn’t just charity, meeting needs without changing systems. And it isn’t just big picture, forgetting that there are real people who are living in poverty and oppression right now who need help. It’s a combination of working in tangible and political ways for the flourishing of all people, trying to change the world for the better, so that it looks more like the kingdom of God, here and now.

After reading the passage, Jesus sat down, signalling he had become the teacher, and he said “today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Which doesn’t sound like much, but is in some ways the perfect example of the gift of prophecy. Prophecy isn’t about fortune telling or seeing the future, it is about seeing as God sees and proclaiming that truth. When Jesus uttered these words, he was saying that God’s blessing is right here, right now. 

And this hometown crowd ate it up. They loved him, and whispered to each other with pride...and maybe with some prideful hope, too, that because he was one of them, his glory would also reflect on them. He was a credit to his parents and his village...surely that meant now they would get the benefits of being the ones who raised him? They’d heard about what he’d done in other places. Since they were his people, then he would do even more here, and their star would rise with his. 

But Jesus wasn’t done preaching yet. 

He reminded them that the prophets of old crossed boundaries, saving foreigners rather than their own people. Elijah and Elisha were surrounded by people who thought their special connection should get them priority prophet service, but it was the people on the margins, who spoke the wrong languages, had the wrong skin colour, worshipped the wrong gods, and even fought for the wrong army who ended up being healed.

With the gift of prophecy, Jesus proclaimed God’s truth: that blessing has never been confined to just one people, and special consideration doesn’t depend on where you live or who you know. Instead, as he had just read, God’s concern is for the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the marginalised. That’s where he’ll be, not serving the selfish ambition of those who believe the accidents of their birth make them better than others, more worthy of healing or feeding or safety.

Then, as now, this was not a popular message.

It’s hard to understand how two thousand years after Jesus preached this message, showing us who he was and who he called us to be, we still live in a time when our leaders lament that there are people who live in this country whose first language is something other than English, and claim that those people are the root of whatever problems we might have, or when the news is filled with stories of people hurling racist or homophobic abuse at other human beings who happen to be in the same space, or when we have people profiting off the increasing polarisation of society, or when there are boats of desperate people being turned away from the possibility of safety, or when charities are being enlisted to help deport people who can’t get a foothold in our unfair economy.

Too often, fear of the other combines with selfish superiority to create a toxic atmosphere, a hostile environment...the kind where we would rather throw the Son of God off a cliff than admit that God doesn’t love us more just because of our nationality...or our religion, or our language, or our class, or who we know, or because we were in the right place at the right time. 

Jesus proclaimed the truth that day in Nazareth: God’s blessing is indeed here...and it is unfettered by our rules. God’s justice is for all, because it is the natural outworking of love, and God’s love is for all. 

Sometimes that will be a hard message for those who want to maintain the status quo, or for those who see an opportunity to use their connection to God as a way to get ahead. It will always be a hard message for those who want to be able to live more than comfortably at the expense of others and the environment. But ultimately, God’s justice sets us all free from all kinds of oppression—whether that is freedom from slavery, from prison, from broken relationships, or from self-centred individualism or personal possessions and wealth or inflated self-importance or closed minds. And that freedom makes it possible for us to join in God’s kingdom life, here and now, to be a part of the blessing that is already happening, the fulfilment of God’s vision of abundant life for all.

It feels a little bit like cheating to use Jesus as an example of spiritual gifts, because of course as God incarnate, he was One with the Spirit! It also feels a little bit dangerous, because I don’t want to give anyone the excuse of saying “well, that’s not my gift” as a way to get out of growing in Christlikeness. We’re meant to follow Jesus, meaning that we do our best to do what he did, to become more like him all the time—even knowing we can never be him, in the sense of being God and having every spiritual gift imaginable, shouldn’t stop us from putting our faith into action in some of these ways. Those who have the gifts of justice or prophecy will be the ones who guide us in that endeavour, revealing God’s perspective on our current reality and showing us how to look past the superficial issues to work toward the deeper change that God desires. 

Desmond Tutu wrote that “the sheer act of making the truth public is a form of justice.” That kind of truth-telling is something all of us, whether we have the gifts of justice or prophecy, are capable of doing, in one way or another. All we require is the willingness to see what God is constantly showing us—the belovedness of this world and all its people—and the courage to say what is true: that even now, God’s blessing is here, and is for us...all of us.

May it be so. Amen.

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