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The Coming Favorable Year

Sermon - 1/28/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 4:14-21

The scripture this morning comes from Luke 4, that I think is a very familiar text.  It comes immediately after the baptism of Jesus and the temptation in the wilderness (you can read along in your pew Bible):

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 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, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18‘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,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

20And 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. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

There are many signs, I think, that 2007 will be a favorable year here at First Christian Church in the heart of Eugene.

First of all, thanks to some conservative spending and liberal giving, we ended the year well in the black and began the year in the best financial condition that we have ever been, at least in the last 16 years of my ministry [applause from the congregation].

Secondly, this is the first year when we will have the benefit of a full year of earnings off of the estate of Jessie Bork.  That will enable us to do many creative things in our ministry.  One of those things that we plan to do this year, that will be at the top of the agenda in our annual meeting after this service, is the hiring of Dick Hamm, the previous General Minister and President of our denomination, to be our consultant to lead us in a visioning process unlike any other than we have ever done before.  Very thorough, it will take a number of months.  I'm very excited about that possibility to work with Dick, and I know that you will thoroughly enjoy him.  We'll be hearing more about that later.

Third, First Christian Church has appeared in the newspaper three times last week, and then again yesterday.  Three times we appeared last week -- the Heart to Heart column that Glen Campbell wrote the previous Saturday.  A letter that Peter Stratton wrote.  And then the op-ed that I wrote that appeared on Martin Luther King day.  And then during the month of December, and also in November, we had several community events that filled this sanctuary with folk.  Such things as the Oregon Mozart Players, University of Oregon's ELAW conference with nationally known speaker David Korten.  Events like that, you just can't purchase that kind of publicity.

Pacific Continental Bank, during the month of December, featured our Helping Hand Ministry, and had barrels placed in each of their branch office to receive clothing and other gifts for those in need in our community.  And so on and so forth -- the events and activities and the people of this church have made us very visible in our community, and I truly celebrate that.

And then fourth, and last, the Oregon Ducks are 19-2, and 7th in the nation J.  Does it get any better than this, after last night's incredible come-from-behind win in overtime?

We have a winning team here, we have a great staff and superb volunteers.  We have an outstanding program.  So on this annual meeting Sunday I think I can say with confidence:  a favorable year is in the future of First Christian Church in the heart of Eugene.

Now, that's all well and good, but that is not the favorable year of which Jesus speaks here in this text.  Now, each of the four gospels introduces the teachings of Jesus differently.  And each of them do so in a way that reveals a central concern, a key theme of that gospel.  A summation of what the gospel message is all about.

For instance, Mark's is the shortest of these summations.  The very first time Jesus speaks in the gospel of Mark, he says:  "The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the good news".  That one sentence succinctly summarizes the message of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.  The time has come for the reign of God to be realized here and now.  Therefore, turn your lives around and be a part of the good news.  That's what the gospel of Mark is all about.

The gospel of Matthew takes another turn, does almost the opposite of Mark.  Where Mark is very succinct and brief, the gospel of Matthew is very verbose, the summation of Jesus' ministry is the longest of the four, is very well known to you, we call it. . . what?  The Sermon on the Mount.  That is the summation of Jesus' teaching in the gospel of Matthew, that's the first teaching of Jesus.  It's three chapters - 5, 6, and 7.  It presents Jesus, in essence, as the new Moses.  Hence, the sermon on the mount.  The one who brings the law from the mountain of God.  Scholars have recognized for many years that Matthew has 5 major sections in it.  We believe that this is very intentional on Matthew's part, to present his gospel as the new Torah -- the 5 books of Moses.  This is the new representation/presentation of that.

And then in place of the teachings, John begins his gospel with 2 signs done by Jesus.  What are they?  The wedding at Cana, where he turns water into wine, and the cleansing of the temple.  These both point to a greater reality that goes beyond the teachings of Jesus, that says to us:  here is the Lord of earth and temple.  The one who makes the transforming presence of God visible and accessible to all.

Now, Luke is no different than Matthew, Mark, and John, in that we see here in this first teaching of Jesus the very essence of Jesus' message that runs throughout the gospel of Luke.  The concern for the poor and the oppressed.  The changing of their fortunes in the realm of God is a central theme in Luke, more so than any of the other three gospels.  

I am convinced, therefore, that Luke tells us this story here not to reveal that this is what the ministry of Jesus was about, but to convince us that this is what the mission of the church is about.  Why?  Couple reasons:

First of all, Luke takes an account of Jesus in his hometown synagogue that is told later in the story in Matthew and Mark (appears in the 6th chapter in Mark's gospel, and the 13th chapter in Matthew's gospel), and he moves it to a more prominent location in his telling of the gospel story.  So it's first and foremost very prominent.  That it is the same account, and not a separate incident, is evident in that all three of these accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke report the astonishment or amazement of the people who hear Jesus.  And if you read the rest of the story in Luke's gospel (and the other two gospels), you will see that all three of them record the saying that a 'prophet is without honor in his hometown'.  And all three of them ask this question:  Is this not Joseph's son, the carpenter's son?  And all three of them end with the rejection of Jesus -- in this account, Jesus tells the story of the foreign widow who receives the grace of God, and is a sign of God's presence, and not the Israelites, and they get angry and his hometown folk, the people who knew him best, who watched him grow up, try to throw him off a cliff.   Can you imagine?

Secondly, Luke then adds to this story the quotation from Isaiah.  Matthew and Mark don't tell us a whole lot about the content of the teaching in the synagogue.  And what is striking about this quotation is that it is actually a compilation of three texts from Isaiah.  First of all, there is Isaiah 42, which reads:

I have given you as a covenant to the people,
   a light to the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness.
   

Now obviously I'm calling your attention to that one phrase in the red. 

And then Isaiah 58:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
  
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?

And then the more familiar Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

 

Now watch what Jesus, in Luke's gospel, does with this text.  Those two black phrases?  They disappear.  The one phrase -- to proclaim liberty -- that moves up, and then, inserted, is the phrase from Isaiah 42, and the phrase from Isaiah 58, to give us then the final version as it appears in Luke with a little bit of other editing in Isaiah 61:

‘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, [Isa 42]
     to let the oppressed go free,  [Isa 58]

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

 

Now, if you were paying attention, Jesus is reading from what?  A scroll.  Have you ever seen those scrolls?  Unrolled?  Can you imagine Jesus sitting there, unrolling the scroll, rolling it back again, going back and forth?  I don't think so.  What is happening here?  Does Jesus or Luke just think they can insert a couple other verses from other places and no one would notice throughout all of history?  Not at all, I don't think that is the case.

Without question, Jesus often quoted from Hebrew scripture freely, as he does in response to the question "Which law is the greatest?"  Remember his response?  What are they?  Number 1:  love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.  And where does that come from?  Deuteronomy 6.  And then the second part:  love your neighbor as yourself.  Where does that come from?  Leviticus 19:18.

Two different versus, two different sections of the Torah, Jesus combines to say 'this is the greatest commandment of all'.  So that's a very familiar tactic, a way of interpreting and reading scripture, used by Jesus and others in that time.

But here Jesus is not quoting off the top of his head.  Luke presents him as reading from the scroll.  And then augments this verse from Isaiah 61 with the two other phrases, elsewhere from Isaiah.  Why?  Because it summarizes for Luke not just what the ministry of Jesus was about, but also what the mission of the church is about.  The favorable year of the Lord, also known as the year of Jubilee that was to occur every 50 years, was a means to make God's grace a transforming reality throughout society.  Debts were to be forgiven, land was to be redistributed equally among all people, and slaves were to be set free.  Luke adds to that, the healing of the blind as a powerful way of saying that the good news of Jesus is everything that the Jubilee year is, and more.  That the Jubilee year is not the end goal of the realm of God, it's the beginning point.  It's the foundation.  It's the minimum.  And add to that the healing and everything else of which Jesus spoke.

The spirit, visibly and audibly upon Jesus at his baptism, is also visibly and audibly upon his followers in the opening chapters of Acts, just as in the opening chapters of Luke.  And as you remember, Luke is also the author of Acts.  What was the ministry of Jesus now becomes the mission of the church.

Jim Wallis, speaking to Bethel University, that is especially known for its attraction of Christians from evangelical churches, said that it was clear from the response in the chapel (where he delivered his message) that a new generation of evangelical Christians want to be, like Jesus, good news to the poor.  This is our calling.  Certainly central to it.

As far as I can tell, there is nothing in this text, or anywhere else in the gospels, that says Jesus wants us to build beautiful, fine, wonderful edifices.  There's nothing in the text, nothing in the gospels, that says Jesus wants to create bureaucratic structures with lots of committees and officers.  There's nothing in the gospels, nothing in the text, that says Jesus wants us to hold a lot of meetings to make us feel good.  Now, we're good at all those things, right?  But that's not the calling of the gospel.

The favorable year of God is about good news for the poor and the oppressed.  It's not about putting more people in prison, it's about getting more people out of prison and into productive lives.  It's not about maiming women and children and innocent civilians in wars of or against terror, it's about healing the blind and the lame, in today's world the victims of war and terror.  It's not about the developing world producing all kinds of goods and services at slave wages to benefit the powerful in the North, it's about freeing any and all who are economically, socially, and politically oppressed.  [Amen from the congregation].  I recently heard a report from Mexico that Mexicans are having difficulty buying corn and making tortillas.  Why?  Because their corn is being shipped to North America to make ethanol.  Now there's an ethical problem -- as we seek to free ourselves from oil, and the poor in the Southern Hemisphere suffer as a result.

Now this is an awfully tall order.  Surely an unrealistic mission for any local church.  On the other hand, would we expect the reign of God to be anything less?

Glen Campbell summed it up well in that article I mentioned that appeared last Saturday:

I love the phrase "On Earth as it is in heaven".  Well, how exactly is it in heaven?

I wonder if some souls in heaven are rich, and others poor?  Or do all souls have equal economic standing and security in heaven?

I wonder if souls retain skin color in heaven?  Are there souls that appear black in appearance, and others white?  What about sexual orientation?  Do these divisions we see on Earth persist in heaven?  If not, why do they persist on Earth?

Are there countries in heaven?  Do souls clump together by nationality?  Are there American souls, as distinct from souls identified with North Korea, Israel, Iraq, or China?  If these distinctions mean nothing in heaven, why do they mean so much on Earth?

Is there any justification for a child in El Salvador to be born into poverty, while children elsewhere are born into riches?

And then his conclusion:

The two most important questions are these:  what exactly is our vision of heaven?  Can we help bring it to Earth?

[Amen from the congregation].  Amen.  Thank you, Glen.

 

There's an apocryphal story told by Abraham Lincoln which rings true, even if it's not historical.  After visiting a large church with a gifted preacher (a church something like this one J), he was asked what he thought about the sermon.  And he said "I thought it was eloquent, well conceived, powerfully delivered".  And the aide said to him: "So, you liked it".  And Lincoln said "No, it was a failure".  And the aide asked "Why?"  Lincoln said:  "It did not ask anything of us great".

At our annual meeting this afternoon, you will be asked to commit to a process of discernment over the next 10-12 months, which will determine how we are going to live out this mission given to us by Christ.  Now, it's a business meeting, so I suppose we will use a diplomatic process to make that critical decision.  But be forewarned:  Dick Hamm will tell us, discernment is not to be confused with democracy.  Democracy is about determining the will of a majority.  Discernment is about determining the will of the preacher J.  Sorry, I misspoke:  discernment is about determining the will of God.

And God does not ask of us trivial things.  God asks that we give our lives to the reign of God, to proclaim this year, 2007, the year of the Lord's favor. 

When we can say that we have done that, then we can also say, today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.  May it be.

 


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