Psalm 19:1-6, Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21
The gospel story we’ve heard today from Luke – telling us about Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth which leads to his rejection by the people there - is also told in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. But Luke’s much fuller account is distinctive in how it places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry immediately following his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, and in how it gives more details of what Jesus read and said in the synagogue.
So, while it may be inviting to preach a sermon on the perennial story of a young man who has grown beyond the community that raised him, and is therefore rejected by those most familiar with him who cannot value what he has become, I think that would miss the more significant and challenging meaning of this gospel. The challenge for us all comes from the content of the scripture that Jesus chooses to read when he is handed the scroll – the text from the prophet Isaiah chapter 61 - and from his comment “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” What he reads from the scroll could be called Jesus’ mission statement. I would like to focus on this challenging statement, the urgency and immediacy in which Jesus frames it, and the central involvement of the Holy Spirit, to see what all this might mean to us today.
In Luke’s Gospel, the Baptism of Christ which we heard about a couple of weeks ago, his temptations in the wilderness, and this story of Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, are all linked and that is why Luke places them together - all three episodes are Holy Spirit stories as the Spirit claims, tests, and empowers Jesus for the ministry that lies before him. Throughout his Gospel Luke is reminding us that even Jesus is not self-sufficient. He is dependent upon God and the Holy Spirit for life, faith, and mission. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove while he is praying after his baptism as we hear the words of affirmation from God. Then the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness for a time of testing as Jesus refuses the pathways that are the wrong choices for his servant ministry. Now as Jesus returns to Galilee, the Holy Spirit will fill him with power for ministry as he reads a text that is his mission statement as Messiah.
This mission statement tells us a lot about Jesus and his ministry, and thus the mission of the church today. When Jesus reads this passage from Isaiah, he is declaring that his ministry calls him to be an agent of mercy to the downtrodden of the world: he will bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, give sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and new beginnings for all who feel they have ever failed in life. Importantly, this mission statement tells us that helping the impoverished and oppressed was of paramount importance to Jesus’ ministry.
Each of us make a choice about what is for us the heart of the gospel, and whatever we decide will be a central shaping force in our life as Christians. Here Luke is suggesting that this text is central to Jesus’ teaching, and should be considered to be at the heart of the gospel. For Luke this mission statement to help the poor and destitute is what Jesus came from heaven to earth to do. If we too take it as the heart of the gospel, we follow in Jesus’ ministry by measuring our lives against it. In other words, if we are going to study, interpret and follow the gospel, we should keep coming back to this text.
There is a sense of urgency in Jesus’ mission which is clear in this passage. He finished reading the scripture, rolled up the scroll, gave it to the attendant, sat down, and with all eyes upon him said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The urgency is here for us too. It is not about tomorrow or sometime in the future when we have a spare minute. The time of God’s Holy Spirit is today, right now. As Walter Burghardt once put it, it is the Holy Spirit speaking when you hear God whisper to you: “Child of God, live this day as if it were your first day, as if it were your last day, as if it were your only day.”
The question that tends to be asked today is, “How are we doing as a church?” But I think the real question should be, “As a church, what are we doing for God?” During the week of prayer for Christian Unity, surely this is something we can pray for all Christian churches around the world – to discern through prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit what God wants us to be as a church and a clear sense of God’s mission for us. The Holy Spirit is a mysterious thing, discerned through prayer and without pop up notifications or reminder emails. But it comes when we have something to do for God and a time to do it. What would change in our lives and in our churches if we stood in our pews today and declared to God and to one another, “God gives us no other day than today to bring good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, and new beginnings to all who feel they have failed in life”? What could we step out of this church and do today for those in need, if we only had this one day to do it? We often lead busy and stressful lives when there are so many other things that demand urgency and immediate response, and so it’s so easy to put things off until next week, next month, 2023 maybe. But if we accept Luke’s message of what lies at the heart of the Gospel message and what God has given us to do, we too must listen out for the urgency of this message and think about how we might measure ourselves against Jesus’ mission statement. What difference could we make today if we are alert to that whisper from God to live today as our first, last and only day.
Rev Melanie Harrington
Cover picture courtesy of www.LumoProject.com