Good News, Bad News – Sermon on Luke 4:14-21 for Epiphany 3C

January 27, 2019

We like to remember that the word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news.’ But the sad truth is that hearing good news doesn’t always mean receiving the gospel. Hearing is not necessarily accepting. Seeing doesn’t always mean believing.

Our scripture passage for this third Sunday after Epiphany comes from the gospel of Luke. The evangelist places the story immediately after Christ’s baptism and temptation in the desert, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has already been teaching and performing miracles in other towns nearby, and his reputation has returned to his hometown of Nazareth.

This was one of those “hometown kid makes good” stories. You know the kind.

Promising young man heads off to college and comes back a multi-millionaire because he invented something called Facebook while he was in school. Or, kid goes off to study engineering and a routine homework assignment becomes a cottage industry to employ homeless people in the manufacture of pop up shelters. That cute girl with the dimples and long hair who played second violin in your high school string quartet becomes chair of the FDIC. It’s that sort of thing.

The neighbors and relatives who knew Jesus as a boy are eager to see him now, a grown man who has achieved some fame for doing remarkable things, especially in nearby Capernaum. So, on the Sabbath, everyone flocks to the synagogue, to hear this young preacher and to see if maybe he might perform one of those healing miracles they’ve heard about.

And, as was his custom on the Sabbath day, Jesus also goes to the synagogue to worship. The local religious leaders approach him the minute he comes through the door. Would he be willing to read from a book of the Prophets, and perhaps share some insight into those words with the people?

Sure, he says. And they bring him a large scroll, which he carefully places on the reading desk. As he starts to unroll the scroll, all eyes are on him. Mary is trying hard not to show any emotion, but this is her boy up there in front of everyone. It’s a long scroll, and it takes a while for Jesus to find the passage he has in mind, near the very end.

Ah, here it is.

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.”

This is the season after Epiphany. Epiphany is when we celebrate how God has been revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who came in human form and lived among us, Emmanuel.

We have used familiar symbols during this season such as water, to remember our own baptism, as we remember how John baptized Jesus. On Epiphany Sunday, we lit only the Christ candle, recalling that Jesus is the Light of the World. We hear once again Christ’s call to carry that light into the world around us.

But symbols can sometimes distract us from the very things of which they are supposed to remind us. Our focus during this season after Epiphany needs to move from flame and water to what they represent: God revealed as present among us, and the evidence of that presence through the living power of the Holy Spirit.

Luke liked to talk about the Holy Spirit, In fact, Luke referred to the third person of the Trinity more than all the other evangelists combined. The name “Holy Spirit” appears 13 times in Luke’s gospel, and 41 times in Acts. Compare that to 5 occurrences in Matthew’s gospel, 4 in Mark’s, and only three in the Gospel of John.

In this chapter alone, we see Jesus: 

  • being filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism,
  • led by the Spirit into the wilderness,
  • returning to Galilee in the power of the Spirit,
  • and proclaiming the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “the Spirit of the Lord” was upon him.

Clearly, the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of Jesus was something Luke wanted to be sure his readers would notice.

So why didn’t the good people of Nazareth, Jesus’ own neighbors, see it?

They were obviously looking for some evidence of God’s Spirit. They’d heard the rumors from other towns in the area, especially up in Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee. This Jesus they thought they knew so well, had already gained quite a reputation as a teacher, so it isn’t surprising that they give him the scroll to read when he enters the local synagogue.

It was common practice for the teacher of the day to stand while reading the Scripture, then sit down to teach from it, and no one seems surprised when Jesus does this. In fact, they all seem to be eagerly listening to what Jesus might have to say about this ancient prophecy, which most people at that time thought probably referred to the year of Jubilee. The description of Jubilee back in Leviticus 25 sounded very much like “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

But let’s go back to Isaiah for a moment. The original audience for this prophetic scripture was a group of people who had returned to Jerusalem after many years in exile. Rather than trusting and obeying God, the nations of Judah and Israel had become entangled in political struggles for power, and they had paid the price.

First Babylon, then Assyria, and finally Persia had overtaken them. Their cities had been destroyed, their temple had been demolished, and their people had been carried away into captivity. Generations had come and gone. Many of them had given up hope of ever seeing the land of Israel.

The remnant that had been left behind represented the poorest of the poor. Eventually, some of the Jewish exiles had been allowed to return to Israel, but those who had come to Jerusalem over the last hundred years or so weren’t much better off than the ones who had stayed behind.

The Persian King had ordered the work of rebuilding to begin again, but not much had been accomplished. The temple was still in ruins, and the walls of the once-great city of Jerusalem were piles of broken stone.

Those who traveled from what was now Persia to what had once been Jerusalem were the descendants of Jews who had been taken into captivity centuries before. They had no real memory of the Temple, or of the city itself. All they had to go on were the stories that had been handed down to them. What they found when they arrived in Jerusalem must have been a shock. It didn’t match their expectations, by any means.

But then, this prophet Isaiah started proclaiming the word of the Lord, and hope began to rise. Isaiah preached comfort to God’s people, and they responded with eagerness to that message. When Jesus chooses this particular passage to read to the people of Nazareth, it was a reminder to all of them to hope again. They were living under Roman oppression, just as their ancestors had lived under oppression from the Babylonians and the Assyrians. They were ready for some good news.

These words have meaning for us now, just as they did for those exiles returning to Jerusalem, and for the people of Nazareth who heard Jesus say, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And just as Christ offers us hope with these words, he also calls us to be the ones who bring good news to the oppressed, who bind up the broken-hearted, who proclaim liberty and release, and who announce the Lord’s favor and grace, available to all. Not just in the future, but now. Today.

Good news for some can mean bad news for others, especially in our current culture, where the gulf between those who have much and those who have little continues to grow. When it comes down to it, all the rhetoric we hear from politicians, all the arguments we see on social media, amount to nothing more than questions of justice. And justice almost always has to do with who has how much of what – whether it’s wealth, or property, or power, or acceptance.

So, good news for the poor may mean bad news for the rich. Going back to the “year of the Lord’s favor,” jubilee sounds great if it means you get your land back that was taken from you 40 years ago, but if you are the one accumulating wealth by buying up that land, not so much. This brings the gospel, the good news, to a whole new level. Good news for the oppressed almost always means bad news for the oppressor.[1]

The hard part for most of us, is realizing that we actually participate in much of the oppression happening around the world today – by the things we buy, the privileges we enjoy, and the way we ignore suffering. Ouch.

But Luke shows us how to face this dilemma. Luke tells us in verse 20 that the people of Nazareth were listening intently as Jesus sat down to teach. “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him,” Luke writes.

Imagine what it might be like to fix our eyes on Jesus! Because when we focus our attention completely on Him, we can also see our place in the world more clearly. Instead of letting our gaze settle on those things that irritate us, anger us, or cause us pain when we ponder them, we would see only Jesus, and the disagreements that divide us would lose their importance.

We would see the ways our lives impact others with greater clarity. When our eyes are fixed on Jesus, we can recognize our part in the systems that send out the false message that some people have more value than others, that some people deserve more than others – and we can start to do something to change those systems.

We can demonstrate in real and powerful ways that every human being has value and worth to God. As Dominique Gilliard reminded me this week, “There are no disposable people in the kingdom of God.”

When our eyes are fixed on Jesus, good news is good news. We engage with Christ in the work of making what’s wrong with the world right. Issues of mercy and justice are no longer just issues we talk about – mercy and justice become real in the person of Jesus Christ, working through us.

Next week, we will hear how the people of Nazareth responded to this good news. We will hear them say, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” and it’s hard to tell if they are patting each other on the back for raising up such a fine kid in their village, or … something else.

This is the season after Epiphany, when Christ is revealed as God among us. As we recognize the Savior’s presence, and fix our eyes and hearts on Him, may we point others toward Jesus and say to them, not ’Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” but rather, “Look, let me show you God’s Son. Believe the good news.”

[1] David Schnasa Jacobsen, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3950

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