Sunday, January 27, 2019

What's it all about?

Epiphany 3
Readings: Nehemiah 8:1-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 27 2019

I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only person here who likes to browse around bookshops. It's hard to say what attracts you to a particular book. It can be the cover. It can be because you've read other books by the same author. It can be that you've heard the title is on the best-seller list and you’re interested to see whether it’s all the critics make it out to be.

I always take the time to read the back cover, where there is usually a summary of the book’s content. You know the kind of thing; "Detective Dan Dare takes on a new challenge in 'The case of the Missing Sermon' the first of a new series of mind boggling adventures." If that's what I'm looking for, then I might go ahead and buy it.

"What's it all about?" That's what you want to know when you’re going to be investing your precious time in reading something. "What's it all about?" is also a question that confronts us when we think about our faith. Luke, right near the start of his gospel, gives us an account of Jesus going to the synagogue, at the beginning of His public ministry, and outlining what the gospel He will preach is going to be all about.

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are downtrodden,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord"
(Luke 4:18-19)

This quotation from the prophet Isaiah is sometimes described as the “Nazareth Manifesto.” Through these words Jesus outlines where He's coming from and what He intends to do. If we want to know what the gospel is all about, this passage offers a great starting point. Join me in looking at these words a bit deeper.

Firstly, notice that Jesus describes His mission as the work of God's Holy Spirit who has anointed Him for the task. The work of the church is a Holy Spirit anointed work. Christian life is a work of grace, not an undertaking of mere human effort. If we attempt to live the Christian life without maintaining a prayerful attitude and without seeking to apply God's Word to our life, we will dry up.

Right through the gospels you see Jesus consistently working within the framework provided by the Old Testament and consistently taking time out to pray and keep His relationship with God fresh. That's the pattern He calls us to adopt if we wish to be disciples. Life in the Spirit, guided by the Word! That's where Jesus was coming from. But what did He intend to do?

The first task He speaks of is; Preaching the gospel to the poor.

Poverty takes different forms. One is economic poverty. Jesus was born into a family whom at the time of purification could only afford to make the 'poor persons' offering of two young pigeons or doves (See Luke 2:24). Many times in His parables He spoke of God's Kingdom as being a place where a reversal of fortunes would take place. Everything would be turned upside down and inside out.

Think of His parable of the rich man and Lazarus, or His encounter with a rich nobleman whom He informed needed to sell everything he had and give to the poor if he was to be saved. His comment that it was easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom, all show a definite bias towards those who were economically disadvantaged.

Through New Testament injunctions to care for the widows and orphans, to the many charitable options that the different denominations today pursue, this is a bias the Church has continued to pursue. But poverty is not just an economic crisis. There also exists spiritual poverty. His message is good news to those who are lacking direction or purpose, for the Gospel offers riches of grace that cannot be found elsewhere. The gospel is good news to be preached to the poor, be they poor economically or spiritually.

Next Jesus speaks of Proclaiming release to the Captives. Elsewhere the word used for 'release' is a Greek Word, 'aphesis', that particularly relates to the forgiveness of sins. Sin is described by Paul as the crippling disease, which holds all creation captive. (See Romans 8:22).

The Good News of Jesus offers a remedy for the condition of sin that holds us back from living the way God intended. He went to the Cross and prayed for us, "Forgive them Father, for they don't know what they are doing." One of the tremendous affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed is that we believe in 'the forgiveness of sins,' made possible through Jesus Christ who was 'crucified, dead and buried' and 'rose again from the dead.'

The “New Way” Christ comes to offer is one where the past, where guilt and shame, where failures and regrets no longer haunt us, but become opportunities for Grace. We are to learn from our failings, not dwell upon them or be held back by them. Though time and time again we may fall, God's love never declares us to be failures or hopeless cases. Because He died and rose again the door to forgiveness and New Life is always open. He came to proclaim release to the captives, which means to all of us, for we are all held captive by sin.

Recovery of sight to the blind.
A new vision. A vision that perceives new possibilities where before nothing could be seen at all. The gospel can do that for us. Help us see things in a way we had never seen them before. All the time Jesus encourages us to do just that.

To see probable enemies as potential friends. To see problems as opportunities. To see broken lives as things to put back together. To see setbacks as challenges through which we grow stronger. To see others and ourselves as those who are greatly loved by a God we can call “Our Father.” To see all of life as a wonder to be cherished and even death as a doorway to glories yet to be revealed.

The wisdom of the Book of Proverbs declares that without a vision the people perish. (Proverbs 29:18). Jesus declares that He has come to bring about a restoration of vision.

As well as lifting up the poor, offering forgiveness and giving sight, the vision has to do with setting free the downtrodden. During His ministry time and time again Jesus encountered people trodden down by physical circumstances, by political circumstances, even by demonic forces. And time and time again He spoke the Word and they were set free.

There’s a song based on Martin Luther King Jr’s. words that says,

Free at Last, Free at last,
Thank God Almighty that we are free at last,
Gone are the chains of the past,
Thank God almighty we are free at last.

The gospel message has shown itself on countless occasions
to be a message that sets people free.

In the final part of the verse Jesus proclaims He has come; To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.

In Isaiah Chapter 61 proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor is connected with the Jubilee year legislation of Leviticus 25. Following a series of seven sevens, the fiftieth year was to be a year ‘When you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 25:10). Slaves were set free to return to their families. Debts were cancelled out. Jubilee was a time of new beginnings when the field was leveled and all had an equal chance of starting afresh.

Isn’t that what the grace of God can do for us? Christ’s forgiveness offers the chance to start over again. No matter how much debt we have incurred, (be it materially or spiritually), no matter how enslaved to habits or lifestyles we have become, Jesus says to us, “It’s jubilee time! I believe in you. I see your potential. Let’s pick up the pieces and make something beautiful out of this mess! C’mon. It’s jubilee time!!!”

What’s it all about, this gospel we seek to follow?

It’s about Jesus whose Holy Spirit enriches our lives, forgives our sins, grants to us new vision and sets us free to serve. It’s about Jubilee and new beginnings and enjoying the favor of God. It’s about the relationships we have with each other and about how we treat those less fortunate than ourselves. It’s spiritual and social and political and a whole lot more. It’s about our private lives and our public lives, how we live when everybody is watching us and how we live when nobody’s watching.

Above all it is GOOD NEWS! 

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are downtrodden,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord"

GOOD NEWS – that God isn’t through with us yet.
GOOD NEWS – that God cares about the things we are going through.
GOOD NEWS – that God is on the side of those for whom life is hard.
GOOD NEWS – for those who make a mess of their lives, for God offers forgiveness.
GOOD NEWS – for those who are seeking direction and purpose because God brings us vision.
GOOD NEWS – for those who feel trodden down, because He has the power to lift you up, the Holy Spirit power that turns death into resurrections.
GOOD NEWS – that the day of the Lord’s Jubilee is here and now.
Now is the time to set things right.

Our passage closed with Jesus saying these words,
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
Many years before Moses had told the Israelites,
Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” (See Hebrews 3:15)

Today then...
let us hear afresh Jesus in the synagaogue,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.”
Today... let us allow ourselves to be embraced by God’s awesome love.
And to God be all glory.
Amen and Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

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