Monday, January 28, 2019

The Lukan Messiah

January 27th, 2019        “The Lukan Messiah”        Rev. Heather Jepsen

Luke 4:14-21 with 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

         If you were here last week, you might remember that I told you that this year we would be looking at Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of John and the gospel of Luke.  Last week, we read about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John’s gospel.  In that gospel, Jesus’ ministry begins at a wedding and it begins with a miracle.  Because he is able to turn water into wine, people begin to believe in him.  His miracle is called a sign, pointing to who he is as one who brings the abundant generosity of God to life.  Our reading for this morning is from Luke’s gospel and in this gospel, Jesus begins his ministry in an entirely different manner.  This is our first glimpse of the Lukan Messiah, or the Messiah according to the gospel of Luke.

         (Read Luke 4:14-21)

         We can see the contrast right away.  Instead of becoming famous for miracles and signs, in the gospel of Luke, Jesus is famous for being a good teacher.  When Jesus’ adult life begins in Luke’s gospel we have the story of his baptism, which we read a few Sundays ago, followed by the story of his period of temptation in the wilderness, which we will read in March as we begin the season of Lent.  Following these events, Luke tells us that Jesus was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and he began to teach.  Everyone loved his teaching, and praised him, and before long, news about him began to spread across the land.

         Eventually Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and he does there what he has done elsewhere, preaching in the synagogue.  He gathers with the community for Sabbath worship and volunteers to read from the scroll of Isaiah.  He reads about the coming Messiah, and all that he was promised to do, and then he sits down to teach.  As the eyes of all look on to see what he will say, Jesus claims that “today this scripture has been fulfilled.”  Jesus claims that he is the Messiah, and it is pretty shocking.

         We will have to wait until next week to find out how the hometown crowd reacts, but this week we can look at who the Messiah is in Luke.  Remember last week, in the gospel of John, Jesus’ actions showed who the Messiah was.  He was one who celebrated with the people, who was the sign of a new religion, who was the embodiment of Old Testament promises fulfilled, and who gave with abundant generosity.  We concluded last week that our response to the Messiah of John’s gospel was to share the abundance we have with the world.

         This week we see who the Messiah is in Luke.  Pulling from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus tells us that he has been anointed by the Holy Spirit, and he has come for a specific purpose: “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” or the Jubilee year.  Luke makes is really clear who Jesus is and what he has come to do.  So what is our response to this Messiah?

         The tasks of the Messiah become the tasks of the church and throughout history the church has interpreted this in several ways.  The easiest way to read this is to spiritualize the text.  If these tasks of good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight are spiritual then they are easy to understand and act upon.  Jesus gives good news to us, releases us from being captives to sin, and opens our eyes to the truth of God.  The year of the Lord’s favor or Jubilee year is a forgiveness of debts and to spiritualize this implies the forgiveness of the debt of sin we owe to our Lord.  It’s easy to take this spiritualized Messiah as a model for the church because it doesn’t ask anything of us.  Jesus has come to forgive us of our sins, the end.

The problem is, a spiritualized interpretation of this text does not line up with the rest of Luke’s gospel.  Luke isn’t preaching a spiritualized Messiah, instead he is preaching a socio/political Messiah.  He is talking about a Messiah who literally brings good news to poor people, who literally releases people who are in bondage, who literally opens the eyes of blind people, who literally frees those who are oppressed, and who literally forgives all monetary debts and slavery.  Luke is preaching a Messiah who bucks the power system and changes the world.  The Messiah Luke is preaching is a threat to those in power, a threat to the traditional church structure, and a threat to us.  Luke is telling us that if we are not working on behalf of the poor in real ways, if we are not working for freedom in real ways, if we are not working to end oppression and debt in real ways then we are not the real church.  It’s that simple.

A few months ago, the Brown Bag Book Group read “Convictions” by Marcus Borg and in that book Borg discusses several ways that American Christianity has gone off the rails or become diverted from the truth of the Bible’s call upon our lives.  One example of this is just what I am talking about, how we have spiritualized who Jesus is rather than look at what he literally is doing and what he literally asks of his followers.  Borg thinks this is caused by our ideology of individualism.  He writes:

“The United States has the greatest income inequality in the developed world and it is the product of the political ideology of individualism – the belief that how our lives turn out is largely the result of our efforts as individuals.  Individualism emphasizes what used to be called the “self-made man.”  If our lives have turned out well, it is because we have worked hard and deserve to keep what we have made.  It favors “the gifted” – whether gifted by a genetic inheritance of good health and intelligence, family values that emphasize education and hard work, the economic class into which we are born, inherited wealth, and so forth.  It has a cruel corollary: if our lives have not turned out well, it is largely our own fault because we failed to make use of our opportunities.  Many Americans embrace the ideology of individualism and studies indicate we are the most individualist country in the world.”

I would argue, this embrace of individualism, leads us to reject the Messiah in the gospel of Luke.  I don’t need to care about the poor if being poor is their own fault.  I don’t need to care about the oppressed because I myself am not oppressed.  I don’t need to care about those crushed under the weight of debt because I am managing my personal finances just fine on my own.  I don’t need a Messiah who does these things in an ideology of individualism; I just need a Messiah who forgives my sin. 

While the spiritual significance of the Messiah and the forgiveness of sins is important, it is not the only message, or even the dominant message of Luke’s gospel.  In Luke’s gospel the call for social justice, for actions of faith, and for the common good, outweighs the writings about personal salvation. 

Over and over again, the Biblical texts tell us that what happens to the poor should matter to us even if we aren’t poor.  In our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth we find his famous argument about the church as the body of Christ.  Just as the body is one and has many members, so too, we though many are a part of the one body of Christ.  I think this metaphor for wholeness extends beyond the church and into our society and the world at large.  Just as Paul argues the eye, the head, and the foot are all essential parts of the body, so too, all individuals on this planet are essential members of the body of Christ.  Be they poor, blind, captive, or oppressed they are all of value to God.  Paul writes, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”  This should be true of all of us and all of those we meet in our world this day.

Again, Marcus Borg writes:

“The alternative – or necessary compliment – to the ideology of individualism is a politics that takes seriously “the common good.”  It is grounded in a number of realizations.  None of us is self-made, however disciplined and responsible we may have been.  We benefited from what previous generations did for “the common good” including universal education, civil rights, gender equality, government-created infrastructure, and so forth.  Moreover, the common good should concern all of us, not only for moral but also for pragmatic self-interested reasons.  Countries that take seriously the well-being of all are safer and healthier: they experience less crime and mental illness, lower infant mortality, longer life expectancy, less desperation, and so forth.  In all of these categories, the United States lags behind most of the developed nations of the world.”

The Messiah we find in Luke’s gospel calls us to turn away from the American ideology of individualism and embrace instead the common good.  Jesus in the gospel of Luke cares deeply about the poor and the oppressed and calls us to do the same.  And Paul reminds us that if these members of the body of Christ suffer, than we should suffer with them. 

What happens to other people matters.  It matters to me and it should matter to you.  If we are going to embrace the Messiah in Luke’s gospel than we need to embrace his mission and make it our mission as well.  We are called to bring good news to those who are poor and have little, by sharing the abundance we have and encouraging others to do the same.  We are called to open people’s eyes to Jesus’ work and ministry and the call to justice.  We are called to release those who are being held prisoner by unjust systems or social structures.  We are called to labor to end oppression in any form.  And we are called to create a community of forgiveness.  These things are the marks of those who follow Jesus and they are the marks of the true church. 

Today is our annual meeting, and the time when we reflect on the good work we have done this past year and on who God is calling us to be in the year ahead.  This is a perfect time to consider who we are as a church and how we are fulfilling the call of the Lukan Messiah to bring good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed.  If we are going to embrace the common good of our brothers and sisters then that needs to be a common goal of this church family.

The message that Jesus brought to the hometown synagogue was a challenging one.  He clearly stated who he was, the Messiah, and what his mission was, justice, freedom, forgiveness, and abundance.  Those who would follow this Messiah can see their mission here as well.  As the church of Christ, we are called to do these things in our world.  This is the measure of our faith.  May God help us embrace the Lukan Messiah and share his mission and ministry in our world.  Amen.

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