Jubilee! – A sermon for Life in the City

Posted on June 20, 2016

Luke 4:16-30

16 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, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.


 

 

Have you heard of the Hatfields and McCoys? They have gone down in American folklore for the terrible feud between the two families. It was the 1800s shortly after the civil war in Appalachia. They lived close to each other and should have been friends. But each of them prioritized their family’s honor over everything else.

Hat:Mc

There’s a dinner show in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, with singing, dancing, stunts, and comedy that pokes fun at the feud and the way they “settled their differences mountain style”.

pigeon

But it’s a deadly story of families that stuck up for their own to the exclusion of others. It’s the kind of story sprinkled throughout history because people tend to protect their own, people tend to harbor feelings and belief that their home/family/country is more important than others.

 

But Jesus is different. Jesus is weird.

 

Jesus’ kingdom is all about helping the lowly, and his good favor extends to all people, especially outsiders.

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Today’s text from Luke 4 encapsulates the entire ministry of Jesus and people’s reaction to him. Jesus’ mission was to bring good news to those who need it. And people’s reaction to him was negative. This story here, at the beginning, foreshadows what is to come.

 

Let’s first talk about what happened. It’s near the beginning of his adult ministry. Jesus is in his hometown. And he goes to the synagogue. The service was proceeding as usual with recitations, prayers, and blessings. But then it was Jesus’ turn. He picked a passage from Isaiah and read it.

“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.”

Picture2

Then he sat down – as was customary for the teacher to do – and he spoke one line of teaching: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Picture3

Luke records that the word “Today” was the first public word of Jesus as an adult. The age of God’s reign is here! It’s arrived! The kingdom of God is here! Those changes for the poor and wronged and oppressed will begin occurring today. If you were to summarize this inaugural speech that Jesus makes, it would be one word: Jubilee!

Picture4

Do you know what Jubilee meant for the Jews? Jesus was reading from the prophet Isaiah who was referencing an old Jewish law.  So if we go all the way back to Leviticus 25, we read about the rule of Jubilee. Every 50 years the Israelites were to push a kind of “reset button” on their economic system. During this year anyone who had debts would be forgiven those debts, anyone who had sold themselves into slavery because of debt (which is something they did!) would be freed, agriculturally the land would get a year’s break, and anyone who had sold their family’s land would get it returned to them. In those days – and in much of the world today – selling one’s family lands was a desperate move of economic necessity, and without the resource of the land in order to farm, the pardoned debtor would plunge immediately back into debt. It was a difficult downward spiral. So this Jubilee year was meant to ethically redistribute the land so that there would not be an ever-widening disparity between the rich and the poor. It was meant to bring about equality and fairness.

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Seven hundred years before Jesus, Isaiah prophesied with these words about the Israelites returning to their home country. Now we see it as a prediction – one which Jesus says he is the fulfillment. Jesus coming to earth opens the year of Jubilee. The time of the Lord’s favor began with him. Jesus meant to bring about Jubilee in his own way. But his intention was to turn the world upside down. He wanted to spiritually restore people, morally transform them, rescue people from demonic oppression, and release people from illness and disability.  This was all very good news, and the people were happy.

 

But Jesus didn’t end this teaching on a high note. Jesus did the unpopular thing. Jesus is weird. With an awareness of what goes on in people’s minds and hearts, he went on to quote two proverbs to them about their lack of faith along with a quote about prophets not being accepted in their hometown. Then he reminded them of two stories from the Old Testament Scripture.

Picture6

In a story about the prophet Elijah, there was a drought for three and a half years, and people were suffering. Elijah went to the rescue of a particular widow … one who was not an Israelite. She was a poor, self-described sinner from an enemy country – an outsider. (see 1 Kings 17)

Picture7

In the second story – the one about the prophet Elisha – Jesus points out there were plenty of Israelite people suffering from leprosy disease, but the one Elisha healed was not an Israelite. He was a captain of the enemy army, an outsider. (See 2 Kings 5) Jesus was reminding them that prophets in Israel took God’s favor to non-Jews. In the same manner, his plan was to spread the good news to all, even those who were not Jews.

 

Not knowing Israelite history well, it’s difficult for us to understand how serious these statements were. For example, in Jesus’ time, poverty and oppression of the Jewish people was the result of Roman rule. The Romans controlled large portions of their land. They needed that land to be economically stable. Taxes and tributes drove the people of Israel deep into debt, which resulted in widespread poverty.

 

So referencing those stories from the Scriptures was akin to telling them that their God would help the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed of their enemies, those who had caused them pain.

 

Those listening quickly shifted from admiration to indignation. They liked it when Jesus gave a positive message, and they expected to be recipients of God’s favor – because they were Israelites – God’s chosen people, and especially because they were from Jesus’ home town. But they hated it when Jesus implied that his activity would have better results among those who were not his townspeople.

 

I’m from Granbury, Texas. It’s not a well-known town. So when I was in high school and a girl in my graduating class won a gold medal swimming on the U.S. Olympic relay team, breaking a world record, well – it was a big deal!

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She put us on the map! We threw a parade for her. It’s fun to have celebrities come from where you come from … because you feel kinda special by association.

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So the people from Nazareth – the “can anything good come from Nazareth?” town – were excited to have this prophet rise up from among them … until he started telling them they needed to bust out of their exclusivity bubble.

Picture11

The news put them into a murderous rage. They became an angry mob, meaning to kill him. Most Jews at that time read the Scriptures as promises of God’s exclusive covenant with them, a covenant that involved promises of deliverance from their oppressors. Jesus came announcing deliverance, but it was not a deliverance for their nation. It was a liberation for all the poor and oppressed regardless of nationality, gender, or race. One commentator has written that “when the radical inclusiveness of Jesus’ announcement became clear to those gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth, their commitment to their own community boundaries took precedence over their joy that God had sent a prophet among them.”

 

Jesus could have stopped while on a high. But being the weird person he is … being one who bucked the system on all fronts – who was contrary to what anyone expected in a Savior … he tells them the good news is for ALL, not just the Jewish “favored” ones. In fact, Jesus told them it’s likely they wouldn’t end up with favor at all.

 

When people get possessive to the extreme, they would rather no one have the object of their desire if they cannot have it. I read an article about a woman and a man who were together but then broke up. She moved away to try to get rid of him, but he started sleeping on her doorstep each night to prevent any boyfriends from coming to her house. He was so jealous that even though their relationship was over, his thought was along the lines of, ‘If I can’t have her, no one can have her.’

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It’s not that the Jewish hometown folks couldn’t receive the favor of God. It’s that they wouldn’t accept it – they wouldn’t accept it if it was a grace that extended past their boundaries. When it comes to extending God’s love for all people – God takes us further than we want to go. Even as Christians … there are certain boundaries many of us have. Who are the people you’d rather exclude? Ignore? Get mad at?

Exclusion

When we step into a relationship with Jesus, he radically redefines who we are. Human nature is to look out for #1. Society says we should make sure our own interests are met. But then we meet Jesus and he says it’s more blessed to give than receive. He says we are to be servants. He teaches that to live an abundant life we are to lay it down.

 

Jesus reminded his hometown folks of what they should have already known. God made a covenant long ago with Abraham – their founding father – that through his offspring ALL nations would be blessed.

Picture14

They were blessed to be a blessing. The point was to extend the blessing to the world. But they instead wanted to lay special claim on God’s goodness. They thought it was exclusive. But Jesus is weird. He said they were called to be inclusive. Jesus told them Jubilee was to be practiced among and for the poor and broken of the world. Love those vicious Romans who pillaged their land? Include non-Jewish poor and outsiders in their communities? It sounded wrong and impossible.

 

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you … mad. When there is conflict over greater inclusivity, it often turns ugly. African Americans, Women’s rights, LGBT, Muslims… God is ever pushing us to open up our circles, and we are ever pushing back.

 

Why are we so resistant? Is it because we humans believe in scarcity versus abundance? We think there is a limited amount of … whatever. Of jobs, of friends, of finances, of respect. We think that if we share it with others then we won’t get enough of it. And if there’s anyone we don’t want to share it with, it’s people who are different than us. It’s people that we have no relationship with. But God’s love is not limited. God’s love is not a candy bar – that, once eaten, cannot be enjoyed by anyone else. God’s love multiplies.

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So what does this story mean for us? The Church does not line up with Jesus when the Church wants to end with the happy stuff. He pushes us further. It means God wants us to actually live out our mission at Life in the City: to each of us be a person who offers the radically inclusive love of God in Christ. Even when it is hard.

 

The people in our congregation – being founded as a progressive church that cares about social problems – typically do not have issues when it comes to showing Christ’s love to those of varying economic class, race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. So we are on the right track there. BUT – We are more likely to get mad or unloving for other reasons.

 

We let annoyance, gossip, and contempt grow for …

  • The mean neighbor who lets his dog poop in our yards
  • The annoying coworker who says embarrassing things
  • The person who disrespected us and spit on our car
  • The boss who undervalues us
  • The people who call themselves Christians but spread hate on facebook and elsewhere
  • The people from our childhood churches who were condemning and not Christ-like at all

These are the people that Jesus is pushing us to love.

 

When Jesus looks at us at Life in the City, I think he is proud of our inclusivity. Just look around – we’ve got people of various flavors from a variety of backgrounds – even some covered in fur. But Jesus is also telling us – each of us – we must extend our boundaries further. Love when it’s hard. The year of the Lord’s favor is for everyone.

 

To God, we are all special. And to God, none of us are special. We are special because Jesus loves us. We have souls and a purpose and are made in the image of God. But we are not special in that Jesus loves us no more and no less than any other person on earth. I used to kind of have a problem with that. As a teenager I’d compare myself – someone who loved God with all my heart and did the best I could to follow him – with people who denied Jesus and lived sinfully … and I’d say to God, how could you love them just as much as you love me? I love you more, so you should love me more back!

 

The people of Nazareth expected God to love them more, too. But God’s grace is so big and so freely given and so unlimited that is kind of a scandal! The gospel has always been more radically inclusive than any church – even than our radically inclusive church – so we continually struggle to embody a breadth of love and acceptance that more nearly approximates the breadth of God’s love. It’s a high calling. It will not be easy. But it is our calling and is worth it. We have a Jubilee to spread around. Let’s transcend some boundaries together and be known as Jesus’ disciples …

who bring good news to the poor,
who proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
who let the oppressed go free –  

Because it is the year of the Lord’s favor. Amen.

 

 

 

 


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