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Mission Impossible?

A sermon on Luke 4:14-21

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash]

It is always a little bit intimidating to preach a sermon on one of Jesus’s sermons.

As the reading from Nehemiah makes plain, the purpose of words of interpretation after the reading of scripture is to “give the sense, so that the people understand the reading.”

But, by offering such an interpretation, am I saying that Jesus wasn’t clear enough? He needs my help to make sure you understand? That’s uncomfortable!

The stakes are even higher for this sermon because this is Jesus’ mission statement; his elevator speech summary that can get his point across in the 30 seconds it takes to ride down to the lobby.

By putting this declaration at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, Luke is telling us to interpret Jesus’s words as the key for the rest of the story:

“The sweeping Jubilee promises about good news, and release, and recovery… that’s what Jesus’ mission is all about.”

Now, considering that this is “congregational meeting Sunday,” so we want to move along as quick as we can, I suppose I could just declare that Jesus already said it all and I can’t improve on it, so I might as well just sit down.

Of course, I’m not going to do that because this being “congregational meeting Sunday” also means that Jesus’s mission statement is incredibly relevant to what we are doing today.

When we look back at the last year of our ministry together and look ahead to what we hope to do this year, and it’s worth asking how closely our work and life together reflects the mission Jesus describes.

· Is there evidence that our community is blessed and guided by the anointing of God’s Spirit?

· Is the gospel we preach good new to the poor – to those who are economically and socially marginalized or excluded?

· Do our ministries actually have the impact of setting people free? Restoring the clarity of their vision? Liberating them from situations of oppression?

· Do we live and talk like we actually want the day of the Lord to be here and now; for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, the way we pray every week?

These are the questions implied in Jesus’ declaration that these scriptures have been fulfilled in him. This is the standard for his mission.

And – if I’m completely honest – these questions make me feel overwhelmed and exhausted before I even try to start answering them.

I haven’t always felt that way about this passage of scripture. For a long time, it was one of my favorite gospel readings… such a simple and clear summary of what Jesus is really about, the transformation that the gospel is supposed to accomplish.

But that was before I felt responsible for leading a faith community in this work.

And it was definitely before a years-long global pandemic drained all of my energy and left me emotionally, mentally, and spiritually depleted.

From conversations with other faith leaders, I know that I am far from alone in wondering if our congregational reports should just say “we didn’t close!” and take that as a win.

In THIS context, a mission of profound social, economic, and religious transformation feels utterly out of reach… a goal whose only function is to make us feel like failures.

Because, much as I am, truly, proud of the work we have done together this year…I know we haven’t profoundly changed the world.

So, what do we do with this mission statement? How do we hear in it “good news” that can inspire us and call us into the task of sharing Christ’s work in the world?

I propose that we look at Jesus’s context for this Nazareth sermon.

When we do, I think we will find some points for comparison with our own that might help us to hear his declaration less as judgment, and more as hope.

The first thing we will notice is where he chooses to start the reading from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”

Now, this is not a surprising place to start a prophetic reading. The Spirit is the source of prophetic authority.

But in the context of the gospel, we can’t help but call to mind Jesus’ anointing at his baptism: the image of God’s Spirit descending on Jesus in bodily form like a dove (Luke 3: 22).

The baptism comes before this sermon in Narazeth. Which means that even for Jesus, God in human flesh, the anointing of the Spirit came BEFORE the start of his ministry.

And he deliberately claimed that anointing as the basis for all that he was setting out to do.

This matters for us because we have been anointed too.

We might not have seen the heavens open in a divine act of blessing, but we have seen the evidence of anointing.

We have seen healing and hope in our community. We have heard the stories of faith renewed and lives made new. We have experienced the touch of God in our own hearts, and the voice of God calling us beloved.

Even without a dove alighting on our shoulders, we can be confident in our anointing, which reminds us that we have never been asked to do God’s work alone, in our own strength.

The second encouragement we can take from Jesus’s context is the immediate precursor to today’s story.

When we read that Jesus “returned to Galilee,” the place he was returning from was the wilderness, and his 40 days of being tested.

Trivia fact for you: Did you know that the word “quarantine” actually comes from the Italian for 40 days? In the Middle Ages, during the ravages of the plague, the port of Venice instituted a practice of having ships from infected ports wait in the harbor before unloading for 40 days. “Quaranta Giorni”… Quarantine.[1]

If you think about it, Jesus’s time in the wilderness could be described as an experience of “quarantine.”

He was isolated and cut-off from all his normal sources of comfort and support.

He was stuck in a waiting time that tested his endurance and his commitment.

And the temptations he faced were calls to break his “quarantine” – to put his own needs above his responsibilities.

There are plenty of differences, of course, between his wilderness temptation and our trials from pandemic, but there are also parallels.

And, most important, we know that Jesus is not coming to his mission statement declaration from a place of strength and preparation… he is depleted and worn down just like us.

But the point that offers me the most hope in this reading is the final line of the quotation from the prophet: the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Scholars are fairly unanimous in agreeing that this is a reference to the Levitical command to practice a year of Jubilee every half century – a sort of societal-level reset button where land and freedom are restored, debts are forgiven, and society is radically re-balanced.

Scholars also agree that this clear command in scripture was never practiced in the history of Israel.

Instead, it was projected into the future as the hope of what God would do at the end of time… not what WE are actually expected to do in real life!

And Jesus would have known this. He would have known that the Jubilee was never practiced, despite God’s command.

He also would have known that his own earthly ministry would not succeed in instituting Jubilee in fallen human communities that resist the kind of change he came to bring.

And nevertheless, Jesus’s one-sentence mission-statement sermon was that this prophecy “has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Not that it was being initiated. That it was fulfilled.

Obviously, on a purely factual basis, this statement was laughable. He hadn’t done anything yet, much less completed the total reorientation of society.

But Jesus still claimed this mission as an accomplished fact.

And if we reject the temptation to laugh at his audacity, them we can also reject the temptation to slump off in defeat in the face of a mission that is so far beyond our capacity.

Because we can recognize the profound statement that Jesus is making by declaring the prophecy fulfilled.

He is claiming that his commitment to the mission is enough to declare it to be real.

And this is our model as we seek to live faithfully as the church of Christ in this time and place.

Our ministry last year was not perfect, and we don’t expect to change the world in the next year. But we can declare our work to be real – to be the living out of the kingdom work that Christ has given us.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because God has anointed

us to bring good news to the poor. God has sent us 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.”

Thanks be to God


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