“Jesus in Nazareth: Preaching from His Call Document” (Luke 4:16-30)

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 24, 2010

“Jesus in Nazareth: Preaching from His Call Document” (Luke 4:16-30)

When a man is called and ordained into the preaching office, in his first service, in his first sermon, he is likely to make reference to his call document, the document that describes the ministry he is called to carry out. Also in his first sermon, out of the various lessons that are assigned for that day, the new preacher will select a text that will set the tone for his ministry, as he and the people look ahead to the work he will be doing among them. Referring to the call document, selecting a text that sets the tone for his ministry–this is typical and quite appropriate for a new preacher to do in his first sermon, in his first service.

And so that is what we see going on in the Holy Gospel for today, the story of a new preacher’s first service and first sermon at the start of his public ministry. Today we are in Nazareth, and we’re going to church there at the synagogue. The service is underway, and the preacher is getting ready to speak to us. The new preacher’s name is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth. Today it’s “Jesus in Nazareth,” and for his first service he’s “Preaching from His Call Document.” This preacher has marvelous words of grace to speak to us today, so let’s listen.

The situation is this: Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan, and now it’s some weeks later. He’s come back to Galilee, his home region, and he’s going around to the various synagogues there to teach. On this occasion, he goes to his home congregation, and this is the first service we have recorded in his public ministry.

“[Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.” Like we do, the Jews had a lectionary series, with certain texts set to be read on certain days. On this day, one of the readings seems to be from the prophet Isaiah, for that is the scroll the attendant hands to Jesus. Jesus unrolls the scroll and finds the place where the text is written that he’s going to speak on. It comes from Isaiah 61, and this is what Jesus reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

My friends, this is Jesus’ call document. This text from Isaiah describes perfectly the ministry of Jesus Christ, the great office he was called to carry out. This is what he was anointed to do, what he was sent to do, for you. Your very salvation is described in the words of this text.

This prophecy from Isaiah 61 is written as coming from the mouth of the Messiah, the Servant of the Lord whom Isaiah has written about in the chapters preceding. That it is the Messiah, the Christ, is clear from the opening lines, where it says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.” In Old Testament Israel, kings and priests and prophets were anointed, which means they literally had oil poured over their heads–that’s what it is to “anoint.” This act of anointing marked them out, set them apart, as God’s man for the job. God was pouring his blessing and power out upon them. The Lord was pouring out his Spirit on them to empower them to carry out their divine office. Remember how young David was anointed for his office as king.

Well, the Lord God had promised King David that one day one of his sons, his descendants, would sit on his throne to be the great once-and-for-all king for God’s people, to reign over an eternal kingdom of blessing. This promised son of David, the end-time king who would usher in an age of blessing, the undoing of all the woes and miseries that we suffer–this promised deliverer that God’s people looked forward to became known as the Messiah, the Christ, literally, the Anointed One. The question was, who would he be and when would he come?

Now in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus is reading one of the great messianic prophecies: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.” Okay, the people in the synagogue are thinking, you’re going to tell us about the Messiah to come. Fine. But the amazing thing is, when Jesus finishes reading the text and rolls up the scroll and begins his sermon, he says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” What can Jesus mean by that? “Fulfilled in your hearing”? “Today”? Yes, that’s what Jesus said. But how can that be? How can Jesus be saying that the messianic age has arrived here today in Nazareth, in this synagogue, as Jesus begins to preach? Why, that must mean that Jesus is saying that he is the. . . .

Yes, Jesus is the Messiah! That’s the point. That’s exactly what Jesus is saying by quoting this Scripture and saying it is fulfilled in him. As astonishing as that must have sounded, it is absolutely true. Remember what happened when Jesus was baptized just a few weeks earlier. The heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove, and the Father’s voice came saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” You see, Jesus’ baptism was his ordination into his messianic office. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me”–just like in Isaiah. And the Father was sending his Son forth to do his will, to be the divine deliverer sent to rescue us from our misery. That is why Jesus can say, in Nazareth, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

So Jesus is declaring that he is the Messiah. But he is not anointed and empowered to hold an office just to hold an office. Jesus is the Christ not for his own sake but for yours. The anointing has a purpose. It’s stated right there in Jesus’ call document: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” “To proclaim good news to the poor”–that says it all right there. That’s what Jesus came to do. Jesus has good news, glad tidings–he has a gospel to proclaim. And the people he comes to proclaim it to are the poor.

What does it mean to be “poor” in this sense? It’s not necessarily talking about your bank account. But the poor that Jesus comes to preach good news to are those who realize their poverty before God. The poor are those who have no resources of their own to rely on when it comes to their standing before God and their eternal salvation. The commentator Lenski puts it like this: “It is an attitude of the soul toward God, that attitude that grows out of the profound realization of utter helplessness and beggary as far as any ability or possession of self are concerned. These wretched beggars bring absolutely nothing to God but their complete emptiness and need, and stoop in the dust for pure grace and mercy only.”

Are you poor? Do you realize and feel your lack? Do you sense your need, a need that only God can supply? That you have no righteousness of your own, no goodness to claim or trumpet before him? Is there an emptiness in your soul that only God can fill? The gas tank is on empty, the bank account shows a negative balance–that’s what it means to be poor before God.

Is that you? Then I have good news for you today, and that is, that Jesus of Nazareth has good news for you today! Jesus has been anointed precisely to proclaim good news to the poor, and that’s you! Jesus has a beatitude, a blessing, to confer upon you today. He is proclaiming, in your hearing, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” That’s what Jesus came to do; it’s right there in his call document. Then the text goes on from there to say the same thing in several different ways: “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This too is saying what God has sent Jesus to do.

“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives.” Think back to the Babylonian Captivity. God’s people of Judah were defeated by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and taken captive, hauled off to live as exiles in a foreign land. And they stayed there for decades, dislocated from their homeland. Then finally Babylon itself was defeated by another empire, and that king, King Cyrus, issued an edict saying that the captives were now free to go back home. Back to Judah, back to Jerusalem, back to the Promised Land! What a joy and a relief that Edict of Cyrus must have been! “To proclaim liberty to the captives”! Hooray, we’re going home!

Well, in an even greater way, that is what King Jesus came to do. He has an edict of his own to issue, because he, Jesus, has defeated the powers that held us captive–sin, Satan, death, and hell. Jesus won the victory over our enemies by his death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. Our Babylonian Captivity is over! Jesus proclaims liberty to the captives, and now we are on the way home, heading for the Promised Land of heaven.

“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” All this is the good news Jesus is proclaiming to the poor, all ways of expressing the same wonderful reality, each with its own shade of meaning. To proclaim “recovering of sight to the blind”: When Jesus opens our eyes, now we see straight. Our sight is recovered with the result that now we can view God aright, to see that he is our merciful Father, and even to see our neighbor as God sees him, that is, as someone to love. “To set at liberty those who are oppressed”: Are you broken and crushed by all the grief and misery we experience in this sin-fallen world? Sickness and sorrow, conflict and confusion, death and dysfunction press down hard upon us. Jesus comes to set us free from that oppression, all the misery we endure in this vale of tears. God’s mercy meets our misery in the person of Jesus Christ. There is refreshment now, and healing and wholeness and complete restoration on the way, on the day when Christ returns.

Jesus concludes this job description from his call document by saying he was sent “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Here is language recalling the “Year of Jubilee” in ancient Israel, the year every fifty years when all debts were canceled, all slaves were released, and everyone got a clean slate, a fresh start. It was the year of the Lord’s favor, the time when his grace set everything right. It was pointing ahead to what Jesus would fulfill, when he brings in the year–the unending years–of God’s grace and favor. Dear friends, here is cause for jubilation: All your debts are canceled, your slate is wiped clean, because of the forgiveness of sins won for you by Christ on the cross.

Today we have heard Jesus’ job description, straight from his call document. Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus in Nazareth, tells us what he came to do: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” These are marvelous words of grace that are coming from his mouth today, through the mouth of the preacher he sends to you this morning. And what makes them so marvelous is that Jesus actually accomplished the things he came to do, and now he delivers them to you for you to receive and rejoice in. Therefore I can say to you today, with full confidence: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

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Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 12:14 am  Leave a Comment  
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