A sermon on Luke 4:14-21
[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here]
There was a common theme running through most of the commentaries I read this week. In different ways each of these sources described today’s gospel reading as giving us a summary of Jesus’s “mission statement”
According to Lutheran pastor David Lose, “Luke reports Jesus first sermon as a kind of mission statement, an identity statement. You want to know what Jesus is all about? Luke almost asks. Then listen up. Here it is.”
Then there’s my former preaching professor Cleo LaRue. He explains “in preaching this kind of sermon at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is notifying all interested parties of the type of ministry he intends to have and the types of people who will be drawn to it or driven from it.”
And Lukan scholar Robert Tannehill describes this text as “a scene in which Jesus announces his mission…” and further argues that “the rest of the Lukan story … should be read in light of this scene.”
“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.” (Luke 4:18-19).
That’s Jesus’s mission statement. The description of what he and his ministry are about. Everything we hear from the gospel of Luke from here on out should be read in light of this statement.
I wonder. Is that how any of us would have written Jesus’ mission statement? Or, perhaps more importantly, is that how we - as a community that seeks to follow Christ - define our mission statement?
At the close of worship today, we will be moving directly into our annual congregational meeting. We’ll be doing a lot of business and decision-making as a part of that meeting, but it is the hope of the church Council and I that all of the “business” of our meeting is grounded in an awareness of, and a commitment to our mission. That’s why my report, and that of our Council President, is organized according to the five core mission activities of the congregation:
Making Christ known
Welcoming all people
Creating a supportive and accepting place
Growing in faith and community, and
Serving the Lord and our neighbor.
I like our mission statement. I think it is both an accurate description of what we are about as a Christian community, and also an aspirational goal for which we can strive.
But thinking about our congregational mission on THIS Sunday, in the context of Jesus’ mission statement, I can’t help but think God’s Spirit might be nudging us a bit. [For the record, I am not organized enough to look ahead in the lectionary and plan for the congregational meeting to coincide with this scripture. God gets all the credit for that.]
But because of this coincidence, I can’t help but wonder where Jesus’ mission statement might be an important challenge for us to consider as we plan our congregation’s work for the next year.
How well does our mission, our way of living out the call to be followers of Christ, reflect Christ’s own mission statement?
To begin to think about that question, of course, we need to reflect carefully on the verses that Jesus borrows from the prophet Isaiah as his mission statement.
It’s important to start by recognizing where Jesus starts: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”This affirmation echoes the beginning of our reading, which frames the opening of Jesus’ Galilean ministry by stating that Jesus returned to Galilee “filled with the power of the Spirit.”
He was returning from his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, in which Jesus depended on God’s Spirit to strengthen him in refusing the temptations of the devil –
temptations to focus on his own needs, to seek dominion over the nations, and to demonstrate his special status as uniquely worthy of protection. He rejects those temptations, and he does so through the power of the Spirit. The Spirit of God that descended on him at his baptism – the moment in which he was anointed for his mission.
And so this recognition of anointing, and of God’s direct involvement in his mission, is in-frame when Jesus unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and proclaims “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Jesus is claiming authority – the authority that his work is ordained by God’s plan – and he is also claiming dependence – the recognition that his mission depends on the working of God’s Spirit through him.
But what is that mission? What is he anointed for?
Jesus names five core mission activities – cutting and pasting from three different chapters of the book of Isaiah to come up with his list.
The first mission is to bring good news to the poor.
Now, in the history of the Christian church much over-spiritualizing has been done to Jesus’s teaching about poverty, but the rest of Luke’s gospel makes it quite plain that Jesus is not talking here about those who are merely “poor in spirit.”
As Robert Tannehill writes, “in Luke, the ‘poor’ means first of all those at the bottom of the economic scale, who may lack even the basics for survival.” Jesus’s good news for the poor addresses their very real and immediate physical needs: through feeding them, healing them, and perhaps most importantly through restoring them to the community as valued members, deserving of the care and support of the whole.
That leads naturally to Jesus’s second and third mission elements: to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.
In Jesus’ time many captives were imprisoned or enslaved because of debts, so this work is a continuation of the good news for the poor. Others were metaphorically captive to illnesses (including blindness). Jesus’s mission of release was to free people from the conditions that enslaved them – the conditions that held them apart and excluded them from community and from the ability to meet their basic needs. It was to proclaim that God’s Spirit did not will for any people to be in bondage – whether legally or physically.
And his mission was also for the recovery of sight. Of course, this means healing from physical blindness, but it can also mean restoration of the ability to see what God is doing.
Just two chapters later Jesus tells a parable about the blind leading the blind, followed by his famous exhortation about taking the beam out of our own eyes. (Luke 6: 39-42). Jesus’s mission is about opening eyes to see and recognize the work of God’s Spirit, a work of healing and restoration.
This is perhaps why Jesus grabs a phrase from an earlier chapter of Isaiah to describe his fourth mission element: to let the oppressed go free.
The word for oppressed in the original Isaiah text is רָצַץ râtsats. It can also be translated as broken, crushed, discouraged, or even those who struggle together. It evokes the image of people to whom something has been done; people whose oppression has been imposed from the outside. There is an understanding of systemic evil.
And in response, Jesus’ mission is freedom; a permanent restoration.
That is even more clear from the final element of Jesus' mission: to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
His original audience would have understood what this “year of the Lord’s favor” meant. It meant Jubilee – the ancient command that all systemic inequalities in the Hebrew society were to be erased every 50 years. Land that had been lost to debts was to be restored to the original family; people indentured into slavery were to be released; wealth amassed by those advantaged by the system was to be redistributed, and financial equality was to be restored.
It sounds absurd and alarming in our 21st Century capitalist context, but this understanding of social restoration is at the heart of Jesus’s mission statement:
The understanding that oppressive systems need to be broken.
That people come before possessions.
That everybody matters.
That freedom looks like every person being free, and whole, and able to see the goodness of the news that Jesus brings.
Of course, that goodness is probably hard to see if we don’t feel captive, or blind, or poor, or oppressed. The good news sounds like bad news if the current system of inequality is working for us, because Jesus’s mission doesn’t leave any room for our privilege.
But Jesus also promises recovery of sight – restoration of the vision that let’s us see how God’s Spirit works in the world, and how we can be part of it. And I think that’s good news for everyone who wants to follow Jesus.
One more point about Jesus’ mission statement. It’s full of plural nouns. The beneficiaries of the good news are collective, not individual, and I think that has implications for us. Jesus’s mission is collective, and so we don’t engage it as isolated individuals.
That’s why I haven’t tried to offer my own, individual, assessment of how well the mission statement of Abiding Peace lines up with the Mission Statement of Jesus. That work is collective. We have to engage in it together, as a community. We have to ask whether we are bringing good news to the poor; proclaiming release from bondage and healing from blindness; whether we are working for freedom from systems of oppression, and proclaiming Jubilee – the radical equalizing of society.
We have to ask whether our mission looks like Jesus’ mission?
And as we wrestle with that question, let us remember that we have this unparalleled hope: The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.
Thanks be to God.
 Robert C. Tannehill, Luke, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 91.
 Isaiah 61:1; 42:7; 58:6; 61:2
 Tannehill, p. 91-92.
 See Tannehill, p. 92.
 This observation is borrowed from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3950.