Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 27, 2019
Luke 4:14-21 Commentary
Suspense! If you stop at verse 21 as the Lectionary would have you to do and hold off on what happens in verses 22 and following next week, then a sermon on this text ends in some suspense as we wait to see how the people will react to what Jesus has just said and claimed.
Of course, most of us know what happens next. Initially, the people spoke well of Jesus. That in and of itself is a bit surprising since what Jesus seems to be claiming is rather remarkable. At first glance Jesus’ claim that this clarion prophecy from Isaiah 61 was being fulfilled in the hearing of those people seems startling, if not flat out over-blown. After all, that particular chapter in Isaiah is loaded with transformative imagery. If even half of the salvation and restoration Isaiah talked about there were to come to fulfillment, no one could possibly miss seeing it! This would be “Breaking News” for sure.
Imagine a similar prophecy applying to today: suppose someone wrote up a lyric poem or other treatise in which it was predicted that the day would come when every person in the country would have healthcare provided free and at no cost to them, when every unemployed person would find meaningful and fulfilling work, when every opioid addict would recover from his addiction and when every broken down inner-city tenement would get an “extreme makeover” such that every such hovel would shine and gleam like some multi-million-dollar New York City penthouse overlooking Central Park.
Now those are the kind of grand promises that, if ever they were fulfilled, no one could miss seeing it. If that prophecy were fulfilled, there would be no missing it.
Probably people had similar views of Isaiah 61. So how could Jesus sit down quietly and make the wild claim that it was fulfilled? Right then. Right there. Fulfilled. Really, Jesus? How? Where?
It’s a fair question. But maybe we need to look a little more closely at the verses Jesus actually quoted that day. Because what he quoted did not say that every prisoner was released or every blind person was healed. Instead what he said was that the coming of all that was being proclaimed to these people along with the message that the year of the Lord’s favor was upon them. They were seen by God. The lowest of the low, the ones so marginalized as to scarcely register on our human awareness were seen by and loved by God himself.
The kingdom Jesus was proclaiming and ushering in was not going to be flashy. That much had been proven in the first part of Luke 4 when Jesus again and again refused the devil’s temptations to do showy, big, flashy things. Jesus was not interested in parlor tricks and miracles-on-demand. He wasn’t interested in worldly authority and being hailed as the new Caesar. He wasn’t interested in making angels appear out of thin air. He was interested in the Word of God, in serving God quietly, in letting God’s slow-kingdom-coming remain a hidden phenomenon (but that kingdom was not for that reason any less real).
The hidden hand of God. It’s been God’s way of operating ever since he chose an obscure and childless couple of senior citizens to found a mighty nation way back in Genesis 12. For whatever the reason, the kingdom of God comes within us long before it comes into view under the spotlights and klieg lights of the wider world. It takes faith to believe that the quiet little man who sat down in the Nazareth synagogue that day was very God of very God, Light from Light and all that. It takes faith to believe that “Joseph’s son” was the cosmic Creator of all creatures great and small. And it takes faith to believe him when he says that something as soaring as Isaiah 61 is being fulfilled somehow in that outback region of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago.
In fact, if it was hard for those people to believe Isaiah 61 was being fulfilled, we today now have a couple millennia more of hard data to deal with, most of which is more than enough to cause us to doubt the kingdom’s presence in the world. We’ve seen way too many wars, way too much persecution, way too much genocide, way too much corruption to believe easily that the kingdom has come in Christ Jesus or that the world is, even now, being ruled by the one who is King of kings and Lord of lords.
Yet the words of Jesus hang in there: it is all being fulfilled. It’s the agony, perhaps, of “the already and the not yet.” It’s that most startling of all theological developments that God inaugurates a hidden kingdom instead of a grandly visible one but that we get to participate in that kingdom’s renewal of all things even when the world around us seems calculated to knock the stuffing out of our hopes for that kingdom.
Give the people of Nazareth credit for knowing that it’s hard to believe all this. But thanks be to God we have the Holy Spirit to keep us close to the bosom of the Father even so, keeping alive in us all the hope that just is the gospel of Christ Jesus our Lord.
I noted at the outset that stopping this reading at verse 21 creates some suspense. This story doesn’t end there in verse 21. The ultimate reaction of the crowd is yet to come. But in another sense, there is also spiritual suspense at the end of verse 21: we are suspended between hearing Jesus’ promise that this goodness was going to be fulfilled and experiencing that fullness. It’s coming, Jesus says, the kingdom is near, you can proclaim it to those longing and thirsting the most to hear it. But it’s not quite here yet. Not completely. Still, in this suspenseful state, we keep looking for glimmers of the kingdom even as we do our best to let the Holy Spirit work in us to show forth the kingdom and its grace-laden ways.
We may be in a state of suspense. But it’s a good suspense, bristling as it is with the coming of so very many good things!
Luke tells us in verse 14 that Jesus returned to the region of Galilee “in the power of the Spirit.” Not long after that we will hear Jesus read the words of Isaiah 61:1 in which he claims “The Spirit of the Lord is on me.” And indeed it is—we were told that already. Having come through his wilderness encounter with the Devil, Jesus is feeling the presence of his fellow member of the Trinity in new ways. Of course, that doesn’t mean everything will be easy. Things do go a bit sour, after all, before this part of Luke 4 is finished. But maybe that is a reminder to also us that even when we know we are doing the Pentecostal work of God’s Holy Spirit, there may still be outward events that can discourage us. But if Luke 4 is any indication, then we can take comfort in knowing that outside discouragements are by no means an indication we’re not cooperating with the Spirit after all!
Some years ago Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, began to have a lot of connections to Angola Prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Angola Prison transformed from the bloodiest prison in America to one of the safest after the New Orleans Baptist Seminary opened up a satellite campus inside the prison and began to graduate fully credentialed and then ordained pastors inside Angola. Those pastors and the presence of Jesus within them transformed the whole prison. They now hold 400 worship services per month. So folks at Calvin Seminary got the idea to try the same thing in Michigan.
Eventually the Seminary partnered with Calvin College and now Calvin College has its first-ever satellite campus inside the Handlon Correctional Facility near Ionia, Michigan. And this program that is graduating inmates with degrees in Ministry Leadership is already transforming Handlon Prison, as the warden will tell anyone who asks.
At one point these Calvin students behind bars decided they wanted to plant a big vegetable garden in the prison and they were given permission to do so. It’s a good garden. It generates a lot of produce. So the inmate students put their heads together and tried to decide what to do with all the cucumbers and beans and squash and such they were growing. As they talked, they hit on a common theme: almost every one of them, before they heard Jesus calling their name to follow him and become ministry leaders, almost every one of them had been guilty of abusing the women in their lives. Girlfriends, sometimes sisters, sometimes wives: they had verbally and very often physically abused women in ways they are now heartfelt sorry about.
Then they heard of this ministry in Grand Rapids called Safe Haven. It’s a shelter for battered and abused women and their children. It’s a safe house, a place to be protected, a place to heal, and place to begin to put shattered lives back together. So since these inmate Calvin students had once been guilty of abusing women, they decided to donate all their vegetables to Safe Haven Ministries as a concrete way to express their repentance and to quite literally show off the fruits of their newfound faith in Jesus.
Jesus read Isaiah 61 and claimed those words had been fulfilled. It reminds you also of all those times when Jesus proclaimed “The kingdom of God is at hand.” And you wonder: fulfilled? At hand? How? Where? But then you hear a story like this and you say, “Well what do you know: these words really ARE being fulfilled in our hearing; the kingdom of God really is at hand. Indeed, it has come upon us!”
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