[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
This Epiphany season, as we said last week, is a time when we look at many incidents from Jesus’ time on earth that unscramble our picture of Him, helping us to understand that in Jesus Christ, we meet more than just a human being; He’s also God and the world’s long-promised Messiah, Savior, and King.
But the first sign of Jesus does in the lesson and the others we're told about are very different from a voice shouting God the Father’s pleasure with God the Son on the banks of the Jordan or from Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding, which are the signs we attended to over the past two Sunday. The signs in today’s lesson are simpler.
The first one narrated by Luke here comes in a visit home, the reading of a Bible lesson during worship, and a plain, yet forceful statement Jesus makes about Himself.
After being baptized and then propelled by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, Jesus had done some teaching and healing. His hometown was already abuzz with word about Him. When it reached Nazareth that Jesus was on His way, the hometown crowd was excited. Luke tells us: “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day…He stood up [and read from the scroll]: ‘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 then, Luke says that Jesus “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.” In what must have been a moment of high and silent, drama, Jesus then told His townspeople--and us--"Today, right at this moment, in your hearing, all foretold centuries ago has taken place.”
The words that Jesus read in worship that day were from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. You can read them today, in chapters 58 and 61 of Isaiah’s book. Jesus claims that He is the anointed king (that’s what the word Messiah in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the word Christ in the Greek of the New Testament, mean, Anointed One) come to usher in the reign of God. And to prove it, Jesus asks the Nazarenes to consider the signs they’ve heard reports of Him doing: He proclaims good news to the poor; sets captives free; lets the blind see; and He springs the oppressed from their imprisonments. All of these things, Jesus says, are signs of Who He is and Who He came into the world to be for all of us.
These signs should be especially interesting to us because Jesus, later in His ministry, made the stunning claim that in His Name, His Church—you and I--would do the works that He does and, He said, even greater works.
In the list of signs Jesus gives today, there are no miracles of loaves and fishes, no thunderstrikes from heaven, just the tough, healing love of God meeting real people in their everyday lives.
These are signs that Christ wants to perform through you and me. Through simple signs lile these, people see the God we meet in Jesus Christ and come to believe in Him. Jesus wants to empower you and me to do the signs about which He spoke at Nazareth in order to point the whole world to the hope and life that only Jesus gives.
Jesus, for example, wants to set captives free through us. The word that Jesus uses for free here, aphesis, in the original Greek of the text is the same word He uses for forgiveness. It literally means release. In Christ, we are released from the debt we owe for our sin. Followers of Jesus are meant to show others that Christ can release them from their bondage to sin, to fear, and to needless guilt.
True story. “Carl Coleman was driving to work one morning when he bumped fenders with another motorist. Both cars stopped, and the woman driving the other car got out to survey the damage. She was distraught. It was her fault, she admitted, and hers was a new car, less than two days from the showroom. She dreaded facing her husband. Coleman was sympathetic, but he had to pursue the exchange of license and registration data. [The woman] reached into her glove compartment to retrieve the documents, which were in an envelope. On the first paper to tumble out, written in her husband's distinctive hand, were these words: 'In case of accident, remember, Honey, it's you I love, not the car.'”
Every Sunday, you and I pray the prayer our Lord taught us, including the petition, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches us that, “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” For you and me, sharing with others the freedom from captivity to sin that Jesus brings also sets us free from the paralyzing, gut-wrenching resentments and grudges that can rob us of life and joy when we fail to forgive. Jesus wants to free us from captivity to sin. And through us, Jesus proclaims release to other captives.
Jesus also wants us to bring good news to the poor. The poor were certainly a priority for Jesus and, as you read both the Old and New Testaments, God's revealed Word, you see that the poor has always been a priority for God.
And it's interesting to notice that when Jesus was born, He wasn’t entrusted to parents who were wealthy people. Instead, He was born into poverty. Mary, the mother of Jesus, saw this as especially fitting. Remember how, in the words she spoke to her relative, Elizabeth, Mary said, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”?
Jesus’ people, grateful for the free gifts of forgiveness and everlasting life, are called to share their blessings and to make the poor a priority. That’s what we do in our servanthood events and it’s what I hope will also be reflected in our generous midweek Lenten offerings for relief to the impoverished and beleaguered people of Haiti, starting on February 17.
Tomorrow night, our servanthood team meets again to plan our next outreach event. You’re invited to participate in the planning, as well as the actual outreach events themselves. Last year, when we collected food for distribution by Hocking County Job and Family Services and later, infant formula and diapers for distribution by the health department and by the agency for Developmental Disabilities, your response and involvement were fantastic! The team meets at 6:00 tomorrow here in the fellowship hall. I hope you can make it.
Through us, Jesus also wants, in the words He quotes from Isaiah, to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
What does that mean?
The Old Testament book of Leviticus said that every fifty years in Israel, all debts were to be forgiven, all land restored to its original owners or their heirs, and all slaves were to be set free. It was called the Jubilee year.
Fifteen centuries after the laws in Leviticus were given to God’s people, Jesus proclaims a kind of permanent Jubilee! He says that He’s come to forgive all debts and all sins for all eternity. This is a free gift for all who turn from sin and who entrust their whole lives to Jesus Christ.
I find that this message of new life for all who believe in Jesus is news of which the world never tires and for which its need never lessens. A few years ago, in my former community, I met with a professional man on community business. I’d known this man for years. He was someone I had long suspected was dealing with unresolved guilt and questions about his relationship with God that he didn’t have the courage to face. As we were wrapping up our meeting, I put my arm on his shoulder and told him, “You know, the welcome mat is always out for you at our church.” He smiled and said, “I like your style.”
I don’t know if I have any style. But I do know that what I wanted to convey to that man was God’s favor, that God was for him, that God wanted to deepen His relationship with him through the fellowship of a caring church family, and that whatever secret guilt he may have harbored could never be big enough or awful enough to keep the forgiveness of Jesus from him if he wanted that forgiveness.
And that’s true for you and me as well. Every time we come to God in repentance, He declares a jubilee. Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty in full for all of our sins, no exceptions. When we confess our sins and ask God to help us walk away from them, forgiveness is total.
Our friends, neighbors, and coworkers need to know that just as much as you and I do. Whatever your style, whether you’re shy or bold, old or young, you can convey that message to the people in your life. You can declare an everlasting Jubilee free of the weight of guilt to everyone you know!
When Jesus went to worship with the people of His hometown, He told them that they could know He was their Messiah because He set people free through His love, He made the poor His priority, and He showed them that God was for them.
In His Name, you and I can do the same things today, showing people who might feel distant from God and isolated from others that their loving God and His Church are here for them always.
In ways as simple as those used by our Savior, we can be signs of Who Jesus is and of all that He wants to be for everyone for all eternity. Amen