Read: Luke 4:14-21, 24-28
At the beginning of his public ministry Jesus explained the work he had come to do using words from the prophet Isaiah. That work was all about deliverance, restoration, good news!
In the United States a new presidential administration begins with an impressive ceremony called the Inauguration. Custom dictates many of the rituals and traditions that accompany this formal beginning of the new president’s work. Jesus’ ministry also had a kind of public ceremony to mark its beginning, though it was not accompanied with all the pomp and circumstances of a modern state occasion. Jesus’ “inauguration” took place during a Sabbath day service in the synagogue of Nazareth, his home town. It is described for us in the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke.
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. . . .” All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. (Luke 4:14-21, 24-28, NIV)
A Comprehensive Ministry
When Jesus returned to Galilee following his baptism in the Jordan River and temptation by Satan in the wilderness, Luke says simply that he “taught in their synagogues.” Matthew’s account offers a more detailed picture of these wonderful opening days of Jesus’ ministry:
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness” (Matthew 9:35).
The one word that springs to my mind when I read that description is “comprehensive.” Jesus’ ministry was comprehensive in every way. It was comprehensive in its content, involving preaching, teaching, and healing to meet every kind of human need, physical as well as spiritual. It was comprehensive in its extent, covering the whole region, even down to small, out of the way villages and hamlets.
I remember several years ago being invited to preach in a little place called Tyre, in upstate New York. When I found the town I discovered it wasn’t actually a town at all, just a small white church at a crossroads with a parsonage next door. In fact, since one of the roads didn’t go through, technically it wasn’t even a crossroads! But I met there with thirty or forty faithful people, and we had a good time worshiping and praising God. Well, that was the sort of out-of-the-way place where Jesus often visited and ministered. Apparently no place was too small or insignificant to qualify for his attention. Jesus obviously didn’t have an efficiency expert on his staff telling him that his time was too valuable for him to waste it in an obscure village somewhere. He lacked qualified advisors pollsters and political strategists who would have urged him just to concentrate on the big cites and ignore the insignificant rural areas.
A Hometown Sermon
Now in the course of that initial ministry tour through Galilee Jesus has come back home to Nazareth. There, on the Sabbath day, he went to worship at the local synagogue, “as was his custom.” That little phrase can slip past quite easily, but stop for just a moment and reflect on what it means. It means that Jesus was invariably to be found among the congregation of the faithful when it was time for public worship. Not a Sabbath day passed that did not see him sitting in God’s house with God’s people. Apparently Jesus did not think that pious habits like attending worship every week were beneath him, or that devout religious practices could be ignored by those who didn’t feel the need for them. If Jesus so obviously believed that faithfulness in attending public worship was important, what about us?
On this particular Sabbath, the elders of the Nazareth synagogue invited Jesus to read the scripture lesson and then to preach. So he opened the scroll and read the lesson from Isaiah 61, then he sat down and began to speak. The people were astonished by what they heard. They were “amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips,” Luke reports (v. 22). On another occasion he says that Jesus’ listeners “were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority” (v. 32).
Jesus had a style of teaching to which people were not accustomed. The time- honored method of the rabbis was to interpret the Torah according to ancient tradition. A synagogue preacher didn’t speak with authority; he cited authorities, quoting other interpreters, offering the various opinions of learned scribes down through the ages as to the meaning of the Divine Law. But Jesus was different. He read from the Old Testament, and then calmly announced that what it actually referred to was himself! He was the fulfillment of the Law; he was the reality to which all the prophets looked forward. Recall his characteristic refrain in the Sermon on the Mount “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you.” Such claims to absolute personal authority by any ordinary human would be extremely offensive, to say the least. But when Jesus says things like this it somehow seems appropriate. No wonder people sat up and took notice whenever he spoke.
The wonderful passage from Isaiah that served as Jesus’ sermon text was filled with promises. Jesus had been anointed by the Holy Spirit he was, after all, the Messiah or Christ, the “Anointed One.” The anointing took place at his baptism in the River Jordan, and it consecrated, or set Jesus apart, for the special work which God the Father had sent him into the world to accomplish.
Now Jesus uses the prophet Isaiah’s words to explain the nature of this work. He has come to release the oppressed, free the prisoner, open the eyes of the blind, offer the good news of hope to the poor. Jesus was anointed so that he could bring redemption, salvation, deliverance, not only in a spiritual but also in a physical sense. Jesus’ gospel, his message, is good news for poor people everywhere, for all who are marginalized or who suffer as outcasts in society. In the kingdom of God the prejudice that defines someone’s importance by status, wealth, possessions or power is overthrown, turned upside down. In God’s order the rule that Jesus is establishing the first will be last and the last first. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. It is the poor in spirit who possess the kingdom, and the meek will inherit the earth. That’s how it is in the kingdom of God.
Now all of that is not only one of the prominent themes of Jesus’ own teaching, it also comes straight out of the Bible that Jesus read and treasured, namely, the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament. God revealed himself there in his word as a God who cares especially for the poor and the dispossessed. He does not judge the value of people the way the world judges by how big a house they live in or by how much money they earn in a year. God, in fact, tends to have a preference for the lowly: for people who are humble because they don’t own very much, for those who trust and depend on him because they have little strength or power in themselves. Those are the kinds of folks God loves to rescue. The God of the Bible is a God who lifts up and honors the lowly. Listen to these testimonies from the Psalms, for example:
Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of their people. (Psalm 113:5-8)
He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down . . . the Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow. (Psalm 146:7-9)
These are the characteristic actions of the God of the Bible; it’s how you can identify him. He is a God who is on the side of the weak, the powerless, the defenseless. John the Baptist was one of the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. He pointed toward Jesus, drawing everyone else’s attention to him when Jesus first appeared in public. But then later John was thrown into prison. Facing torture and death, he found himself wondering. Could he have been mistaken? Could it be that Jesus was not the promised One? So he sent some friends to ask, and in reply Jesus told them this: Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of me. (Luke 7:22-23)
Wherever sick people are being made well, broken people are being made whole, powerless people are being protected, despised people are being restored to dignity, lost people are being saved, sinful people are being forgiven wherever those things are happening, there the Lord is at work. And that is gospel work, good news for the poor of every sort.
A Prophet Without Honor
Why would anyone object to this? How could someone “fall away” on account of this work of Jesus’ reaching out to poor and lost people? But many do object, and many fall away. Jesus’ own friends and neighbors in Nazareth turned hostile towards him almost before the echo of his sermon’s words had died away. “I tell you the truth,” said Jesus, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown” (v. 24). A prophet is not without honor save in his own country. It’s become a proverbial expression.
One of the important ideas in the gospels is the need to recognize the truth about Jesus. Many people who should don’t: the scribes and Pharisees, for example, or this hometown crowd from Nazareth. But many others, people who have far less theological training or even in some cases knowledge of God, do come to recognize and accept Jesus as the Messiah in the gospel story. They include humble people like Mary and Joseph, that poor young couple from Nazareth, forgotten folks like old Simeon in the temple praising God for allowing him to live to the day when he could see the Messiah, simple workers like the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem. In the same way today many comfortable, sophisticated, well-educated Europeans and North Americans nominally Christian have no interest in the gospel, while hundreds of millions of poor people across Africa, Latin America and Asia are eagerly coming to Christ.
So the big question for us is whether we will recognize and accept Jesus as Savior and Lord. Do we understand his message as good news for us? Do we realize that we too are poor, that no matter what our bank balance, in spiritual terms we are utterly destitute? Or do we think we’re well enough off without him? It’s a question you and only you must answer for yourself.