Rev. Michelle L. Wahila
Please read: Luke 4:14-20
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 favor.”
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.”
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
In seminary I had a professor who asserted that sermons should not be titled because it distracts from the gospel message. So, like any stubborn graduate, out of seminary for “years,” I am going to do the exact opposite. I offer you a title as a way to help frame the today’s gospel narrative. I suppose I should give you my professor’s email address. Nevertheless, today’s message is entitled: I Am Released to Hope.
The “I” of today’s passage begins with Jesus – he is teaching in the synagogue, presumably at the “sermon” part of the service. He cites two passages from the prophet Isaiah. In the context of these writings, the remarks foresee a prophetic figure who declares the arrival of divine salvation. Jesus identifies himself as this prophetic figure.
Even more, Jesus claims that he is anointed by God to bring this message. If you more literally translate the word “anointed,” the text could read, “the Spirit of the Lord is on me because the Spirit has made me the Christ.” The “I” is Jesus who brings the prophetic message to hearers. He is the Messiah who will bring about God’s program.
But who can claim this message? Who can say to Jesus, “I hear you?” The message that Jesus brings is for the poor, but not only the poor in “things.” Jesus’ message is for those who are poor in spirit. Luke writes elsewhere that anyone who is humble, God will exalt. Perhaps the poor in spirit are open to God and His ways because they are the first to recognize their need. Here then, we can assume that the term “poor” covers poverty of every kind – physical, moral, spiritual. The message embraces any and all who are suffering deep poverties and who are open to hearing.
Jesus was anointed by the Spirit at his baptism to bring this good news; we are grafted into His message and His work by our own baptisms. If we are fearful that we cannot do the work, we must remember Jeremiah’s call. “‘I don’t know anything. I’m only a boy.’ God told me, Don’t say, ‘I’m only a boy.’ ‘I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there. I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it. Don’t be afraid of a soul. I’ll be right there, looking after you. ’”
All people are invited to embody the “I” of this message. While it begins with the fundamental “I” who is Jesus, it continues with those who claim it.
Jesus concludes his remarks by telling his audience they are experiencing the fulfillment Isaiah’s words. Those gathered at the synagogue would have known the prophet Isaiah’s words were associated with the end-time salvation. As Jesus rolls up the scroll, he says… “Today.”
This is the first word (apart from the reading of Scripture) that the adult Jesus utters in Luke’s gospel. “Today” the time has come. The time is now. Grace is given through the Messiah who is Jesus, the “I Am.”
In Jesus the prophetic promises of God break into human history, and God says, “I am working; I am with you.” The idea that the time of God is now is demonstrated throughout the Luke-Acts narrative. Today is “never allowed to become ‘yesterday’ or to slip again into a vague ‘someday.’”
Put simply, Jesus is put into “present tense” throughout Luke and Acts -
“Today is born for you in the city of David a savior, Christ the Lord.”
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
“Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”
“Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
To those who are poor, Jesus proclaims: today release has come. The Old Testament background of this imagery of “release” is the Year of Jubilee, when all debts were declared null. Indebtedness and even poverty were “forgiven.” Land was returned to owners, servants redeemed, and families were reunited. Just as the year of Jubilee initiated a new start, Jesus proclaims a new start through his radical offer of forgiveness.
Jesus’ message is more than a prophetic one because Jesus both proclaims release and delivers it. Unlike Israel who never properly upheld the Year of Jubilee, Jesus actually brings liberty. Jesus will do what Israel failed to do: He will bring about salvation. The Year of the Lord’s favor begins in Him.
With the year of the Lord’s favor comes changes – changes for the poor, the wronged and the oppressed, maybe even for all people. The text points to the excitement of the crowd at this message. The crowd is amazed at Jesus gracious words. “Wow,” they say, “Isn’t that Joseph’s son?”
They were excited by the good news that God was going to fulfill the covenant, thinking that the hometown boy would reserve them a special promise. Maybe they assumed privileges for themselves because they had a hometown hero who had been working miracles in Capernaum.
Quickly though, the crowd’s excitement shifts to anger. The assumption of special grace by the hometown crowd was paired with a larger error – resentment that Jesus has taken God’s favor beyond Nazareth, especially to Capernaum with that heavily un-Jewish crowd.
Israel knew of God’s grace toward all people as early as the covenant with Abraham. So, resentment, perhaps… but I think it was more than resentment. The crowd turned mob when they feared. The mob realized they weren’t getting the hometown boy to give a special blessing and they feared they weren’t going to receive enough blessing. The crowd at Nazareth had subscribed to a principle of scarcity that did not allow them to see that God’s blessings could be abundant enough to reach them, to reach all of Israel, and to reach the ends of the earth.
Jesus’ tells the story of Elijah and the widow. When the widow met Elijah she hadn’t ever seen him before, and the demand that he placed on her was outrageous! She only had a handful of meal left, but Elijah insisted that she make him a cake with what remained. He added, of course, that after that her supply would be miraculously maintained.
Had the widow been like the people of Nazareth, she would have kept the meal all for herself, and she would have died, hungry when her meal ran out. It was the widow’s fatal lack of resources that allowed her to be released from a principle (and her reality) of scarcity for the promise and hope of abundance.
The irony is that in the widow’s utter despair she was released to hope. She was no longer captive to the scarcity of her situation. Maybe it was the realization of her poverty that allowed her to trust Elijah in the first place.
It is in our most extreme places of poverty where we most long to be released! It is in our financial poverty (that makes us wonder if we will have enough to live) from which we need to be released. It is our relational poverty (that won’t allow for mistakes from our spouses and children) from which we need to be released. It is our poverty of heart (that puts us at the top of the list just to ensure that there’s enough for “me”) from which we need to be released. It is in these places that we need hope to believe in the miracle of God’s abundance for us.
If we believe Christ’s message of forgiveness, we are released. When we are released from our poverty we are given the freedom to trust in God’s abundance for all of us. Indeed, there is enough of God’s grace that all may have hope in Him.
I met Pastor Duress when I was in Haiti. I was there to observe his work – to see his “tree-planting project” in the hills outside Léogâne. Pastor took us up the mountainside to see his “test forest.” He described how he had hope in a vision of abundance for his desolate community for years.
After hours of hiking toward one small emerald spot, our group realized we were standing before a self-sustaining forest. As we stepped into this ecosystem, the temperature dropped, we could hear birds and see running water. Pastor said, “Today you are entering paradise.”
He told us of times of less “abundance.” Every seedling that went in the ground had to be protected and counted because it was a liquid asset. The ease of producing charcoal for a quick buck or a single tropical storm could quickly blot out a young forest. And yet, Pastor Duress chose to leave behind a mentality of scarcity and he unequivocally chose to claim Jesus’ message: I Am Released to Hope.
He believed that God could turn nothing into something. After years of tending seedlings, planting and walking with water up the rocky mountainside, Pastor will tell you that God sustains. It is a place where the hungry are fed with mangoes, cherries, avocado. Over 900,000 trees later the forest stands as a sign of release for an entire community: people are employed, fresh water flows and there is abundant hope for the future…
Pastor’s story changed my life. He changed my notion of what it means to live for the Kingdom; he showed me what it means to be released from a principle of scarcity in order to claim one of abundance in every aspect of life. Christ is present in every one of our “poverties” today! Because he is already there, we are called to hope. I Am Released to Hope. Thanks be to God! Amen.