Jesus in the Synagogue

(sermon 1/24/16)

jesus in nazareth synagouge
Jesus preaching in the Nazareth synagogue, detail of 14th-century fresco in a monastery in Kosovo


Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 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, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “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 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. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4:14-21

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The gospels place this story of Jesus teaching in the Nazareth synagogue in different places in their narratives. But Luke places it at the beginning of his story, because to him, this event is the lens through which everything Jesus did could be seen and understood. Jesus explained that God’s Spirit had descended upon him, and sent him into the world to do the things in this reading from the prophet Isaiah. Bringing good news to the poor, release for those held captive in whatever way, healing for those with physical ailments, freeing the oppressed, eliminating debt – which is what Jesus is talking about when he talks about proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor; that phrase refers to the Jewish “Year of Jubilee,” the year that comes along every 50 years when all debts are erased. I imagine that, if nothing else, would be good news to the poor. Doing this was how Jesus defined God’s “good news” – what our Old English-speaking ancestors would translate as the word “gospel” – and what it meant to proclaim it to others. This was Jesus’ mission statement.

It was the mission statement for the earliest church, and the way they understood the “good news” too. They didn’t have any big institutional structure, or real estate, or budgets to speak of; and yet, with God’s Spirit and this mission, they turned the world upside down.

I think that over time, we lost a large degree of this understanding. We gradually picked up a lot of the things the early church had very little of, and these things had a crowding-out effect on our understanding of what Jesus called the “good news” here. We’ve allowed so much other meaningless nonsense to cloud our vision and distort our priorities, and in the process, we, the church universal, have damaged the gospel, and damaged countless millions of people, the very people Jesus called us to help, in the process.

It’s certainly no secret that we’re in a time now of overall church decline in this country. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for it, but I suggest that a big part of it is because of the way we’ve missed this simple explanation from Jesus himself of what his meaning and mission is, and therefore, what ours is. We haven’t totally forgotten our original mission statement, but we’ve focused far too much on things that, relatively speaking, are meaningless nonsense at best. We’ve hurt way too many people by focusing on the wrong people, and wrong things.

In the book Blue Like Jazz, author Don Miller tells about attending an extremely secular, extremely liberal college where the attitudes toward the Christian faith ran anywhere from disengaged neutrality to outright hostility. Every year, he said, the students would hold a campus-wide blowout where law enforcement was held at bay, and everyone sort of looked the other way as the students engaged in an alcohol- and drug-induced, almost completely no-holds-barred funfest. It wasn’t the kind of event where you’d expect to see a religious presence, but Miller and his handful of friends, who as far as he could tell were the full extent of any Christian presence on campus, decided to set up a confession booth on the quad, right in the middle of things, where confessions could be heard. But the catch was, whenever a student actually stepped into the booth, it was the Christian on the other side of the partition who would confess for all the terrible and hurtful things the church had done over the years, and how too many current-day Christians were smug and self-righteous, and judgmental, and not at all a fitting face for the Jesus who explained what he was really all about in this passage from Luke. Miller said that it was an amazing experience that ended up speaking to the hearts of the students who actually went inside, as well for himself and his Christian friends who were doing the confessing and asking for forgiveness.

I wonder if the church needs more of that, something along the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was established in South Africa after abolishing the system of apartheid – a forum that brought together former oppressors and former victims who somehow had to find a way to peaceful move forward; a way to air grievances, to ask for forgiveness, and hopefully, to find the reconciliation that could only follow after such an exercise in honesty on both sides.

A big, and important part of the church recognizing its past wrongs today is the adoption of Welcoming Statements, where we tell people that contrary to times past, people of any and all types are welcome to be part of our church congregation. The more I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to wonder if Welcoming Statements, as incredibly important as they are, are really just a first step. In all honesty, welcoming statements seem to arise from a viewpoint that there’s a large number of people out there who desperately want to come to come in and be part of the church, but the church has kept them out, and they’re just standing around holding their breath waiting for us to tell them they can come in. There are certainly some people who were pushed out of the church who are seeking reentry, but I think the larger reality is that our having for so long distorted Jesus’ message, as seen in today’s gospel text, have pushed people away to the point that they’re getting along perfectly well without the church at all, thank you very much, and when they see churches that are offering up Welcome Statements to say that they’re allowed to come in, their thought is “Why do you think we’d want to?”

The more I think of it, I think that right after adopting a Welcome Statement, we, the church, need to consider something more meaningful. We need to consider setting up our own version of Don Miller’s confessional; of Truth and Reconciliation dialogues. More important, maybe, than a Welcome Statement is a Statement of Confession and Repentance – honestly outlining our past and current sins against all those we’ve let down and hurt, and humbly asking their forgiveness. Maybe take out a full-page ad in the paper; I don’t know. But definitely doing it in more concrete ways – like intentionally going to those groups of people we’ve not been Christ to, humbly asking their forgiveness, and how we can help to achieve the good in their lives that Jesus outlines in today’s text, in the ways that they themselves see as the most direct and most effective way to do it. Hearing what those things are, and then humbly getting in line with them in the lead in order to make it happen. If we do that, then maybe – just maybe – the people that Jesus called us to bring good news to will see that we’re serious, and worthy of their trust.

Well, all of this can seem like a bit of a wet blanket thrown onto the church – more sackcloth and ashes, and condemnation that we’re not doing enough, and so on. But most sermons are supposed to bring us a message of grace, and hope, and not just bash us over the shoulders about another way we’re blowing things in God’s eyes. Where’s the grace in this sermon?

To be honest, I find a lot of grace in this particular passage, but it’s abundant, overflowing grace for the kind of people Jesus mentions in his reading – all these kinds of people that I suppose some modern politicians would write off as “losers.” But you see, here’s the thing: we’re all “losers” – because I promise you, at one time or another, we’ve all been in one or more of those categories Jesus mentions, past or present. I guarantee you that there are plenty of people here this morning who, contrary to all outward appearances, are poor, or being held captive by something, or suffering physically, or who are being oppressed, maybe not least of all by crushing levels of debt. So many of us are precisely the people Jesus had said in this story from Luke he’d come into the world for, to offer hope to, and to help. And because of that, we can all find grace; we can all say

Thanks be to God.

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