January 24th, 2016 “Mission Statements” Rev. Heather Jepsen
In the circles I travel in, we spend a lot of time wondering about the question “Who is Jesus?” Brown Bag has been deep in discussion on this matter. It doesn’t take much digging around to find ourselves on shifting sands in the historical Jesus debate. Today’s reading though may offer us some insight on the person and nature of Jesus Christ . . . at least so far as the writer of the gospel of Luke envisions him.
This morning’s reading takes place early on in Jesus’ ministry. Following our reading from two Sundays ago, Jesus had come to the river Jordan to be baptized with the crowds. In that moment the Spirit descend upon him, anointing him to begin his ministry. Following his baptism, the Spirit immediately sends Jesus out into the wilderness for a period of trial and temptation. We will look more closely at that text during the season of Lent. It is immediately after the devil leaves Jesus that our reading for today begins.
Once again, the first thing we notice is the role of the Spirit. Jesus is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and he begins his ministry. It is interesting to note that it is a ministry not of healing or prophecy, but rather a ministry of teaching. Remember last Sunday when John envisioned Jesus’ first acts of ministry as that of a miracle worker. Luke takes a different approach. He describes Jesus as a teacher, regularly teaching in the synagogues. His fame spreads throughout the region, not due to any miracles he has performed, but due to his skills as a teacher in Sabbath worship.
Our reading takes place in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. He has stopped in there on his travels through the countryside. On the Sabbath he heads to the synagogue, as was his custom, and waits to be asked to teach. When he is called forward, he requests the scroll of Isaiah and reads from what we have come to know as Isaiah 61. You can turn to the passage in your pew Bibles if you are curious, it is on page 603.
Jesus reads from the scroll, and then he just goes and sits back down among the people without any comment. It is no wonder that the people are staring at him as he does so. Now was the time for the teacher to expound on the lesson, much like I do every Sunday, but Jesus simply reads the passage and sits down. Even you would stare at me if I dared to do such a thing on Sunday morning. After some time he speaks again, one sentence, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is a totally loaded sentence and as we will find out next week, very problematic.
The reading that Jesus presents is interesting both for the verses he reads from the scroll, and those he leaves out. Jesus seems to be reading from verse 1. You will notice from the pew Bible that his words are a bit different, which makes sense since we have a much later translation. The idea is basically the same though; Jesus has come to take on these tasks: bring good news to the poor, proclaim the release of captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.
It is not odd to have read this text in worship since it was a very popular reading. What is odd is the commentary that Jesus offers. This text was commonly thought to be about the Messiah that was to come and save Israel. The Messiah is the one who was anointed by God to go and do these things. When Jesus states that the reading is fulfilled, he is calling himself the Messiah. He is saying that he is the one who has been anointed by God to do these things. Generally, that’s not a claim that people are going to readily accept, and we will see next week how this leads to great trouble for Jesus.
I mentioned also that Jesus’ reading is interesting for what he leaves out. We can find that in verse two. Jesus reads the first part of the verse, “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” and leaves out the second half, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” On the surface it doesn’t appear to be much. Jesus is simply leaving out a phrase. But I think there may be more going on behind the scenes here.
You see, Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah, and so folks are looking for him to do the things that the Messiah would do. That is all good stuff about releasing captives, healing blindness, and caring for the poor. No one has a problem with that. Even the year of Jubilee is good news, the time when debts are forgiven and slaves are freed. But the Messiah was also supposed to usher in the reign of the nation of Israel. The Messiah was supposed to take over in a political way, using the vengeance of the Lord, the wrath of God, as a weapon for that takeover.
Think about it a bit; try to put yourself in the shoes of the people of Nazareth that day. You have been living under the Roman occupation, suffering oppression through both extreme taxation and violence. You do not dare to rise up against the Romans for you have seen others try and be killed in the process. Your only hope is in the Messiah, the one who is bringing the vengeance of God, the one who is bringing the promise to make things right. It is only through that power of God that the people can be saved. That is the whole point of the Messiah; that is the whole point of your hope. Good news for the poor is OK, but you want to be freed from the oppression of the Roman government. You want the Messiah that was promised by the prophet Isaiah.
Jesus reads a bit of the scroll and sits down, and the people just stare at him wondering what he is getting at. He says that the text has been fulfilled today, declaring himself to be the Messiah, but not the Messiah the people have been waiting for. The listeners are torn between joy that the Messiah has come, and he is a home town boy; and frustration that Jesus claims to be the Messiah, but not the Messiah people want him to be. It’s complicated, and as we will find out next week, the people’s reaction to Jesus’ teaching is complicated as well.
So, what does this reading hold for us this morning? Well, to answer the question that we have been rolling around on Tuesdays, it’s clear to the author of Luke that Jesus thought he was the Messiah. In fact, he thought it very early on in his ministry. It is also clear from Luke that Jesus had a clear idea of who the Messiah was and what his job would be.
Jesus’ is on a mission to the poor and outcast of the world. His focus will be on good news to the poor, release of those held captive, freedom from debt and oppression, and new vision for all people. It will not be a ministry of violence or vengeance. It will be a ministry of healing. This focus on the poor is a prominent theme for the author of Luke and we will find as we read from this book throughout the year that Luke focuses a lot on the rich and the poor. In fact, many scholars have come to the conclusion that Luke believes God gives preferential treatment to the poor. We will explore that theme later this year.
As I was studying the text this week I was thinking that what we have here is Jesus’ mission statement. Jesus is clearly stating who he is and what his mission is. If we are reading Luke, and we want to find answers about Jesus, we need to go no further than this text. This is Jesus in a nutshell.
If we are to be followers of Jesus, if we are to mold our lives and ministry after him, then this should be our mission statement as well. This should be the ministry that we aspire to; forgiveness of debts, good news to the poor, release of those held captive, and new vision for everyone.
Today we are having our annual meeting which is one of the times we consider our ministry as a congregation. This is a great opportunity to ask ourselves if our church’s mission and ministry are modeled after Jesus Christ or not. We have our own mission statement, printed in the bulletin, that clearly states who we are and who we are striving to be. Are we currently doing a good job of “sharing the love of God through Christ by the exploration of our faith, through Christian education, worship, and fellowship, by community service, and in local leadership in social justice issues”? Is our ministry modeled after that of Jesus Christ? Are there areas where we could be improving as a congregation? These are great questions to ask ourselves today as we celebrate our achievements from last year and look forward to the year ahead.
Here in the gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by laying out his mission statement. He is the Messiah, come to bring good news. But he is not necessarily the Messiah the people are waiting for. He makes bold statements in the hometown synagogue and everyone just stares. We don’t often have cliff hangers in worship but this Sunday we certainly do, come back next week to find out what happens to Jesus in Nazareth. And stay after worship today, to celebrate the ministry of our church and to consider what might be on the horizon for us. Amen.