Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Nazareth was a small town struggling through lean times. So, people there were eager to hear about Jesus’ success at Capernaum. For his homecoming, they would have packed the synagogue. ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22a) “Is not this Joseph’s son? (Luke 4:22b), they proudly ask one another.
In the synagogue of Nazareth, among friends and kinsfolk, Jesus announced his mission statement. “I have come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of jubilee” (Luke 4:18-19). Jubilee came once every 50 years. It was a tradition in ancient Israel when debts were forgiven, and the land reverted to its original owner.
Modern Christians are startled to realize Jesus’ mission statement doesn’t say anything about getting to heaven. These are revolutionary words for oppressed people. They are words of a liberator. These words focus on today, and not some future day. Today, God comes to unlock, release, heal and proclaim. Today, the kingdom of God is at hand and within reach (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ mission reveals he is focused on the here and now—not the great bye-and-bye.
Ancient listeners were startled too, but for different reasons. Jesus’ kinsfolk heard to be part of his inner circle included standing with people on the outside of life, the wrong side of the tracks, the other side of the border (Luke 4:21-30). Jesus challenged them to switch sides. Did they stand for people of Nazareth, or with people in need, including even their enemies?
Their hostility in reply would seem predictable (more about that next Sunday when we read the rest of the story). Yet it would be hard for us to understate the outrage Jesus’ message provoked. Being a local boy from the hill country of ancient Palestine carried important social obligations, including unquestioned preference and priority for one’s own. It’s how the people of Nazareth had survived. They had eked out a subsistence through generations of hard-scrabble living by scrupulously stockpiling and sharing resources exclusively among themselves. Loyalty to insiders brought security, opportunity, and authority. In this system, social standing was as good as gold. It could be spent like shekels or Roman coins. The people of Nazareth thought they were insiders with Jesus. His fame, power, and standing boosted their own—but Jesus called them to share these gifts and everything else they owned with the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed.
Both ancient and modern readers of today’s gospel are startled by the realization: The captives Jesus is intent upon freeing are all of us. Jesus unrolled the scroll of Isaiah to announce that he intends to unlock hearts and minds captive to the idea that peace comes through domination, legalized violence, and/or the elimination of enemies. The drive to dominance has led the great powers of this world to destruction. It is killing us along with the planet. Instead, Jesus’ mission, as Mary sings in the Magnificat, involves God bringing down the powerful (Luke 1:52-53) and lifting up the lowly. (Luke 4:18). The Roman empire used crosses to punish rebels and instill fear and submission among the oppressed: Jesus will use a cross to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed. (Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, pp. 123-24)
To be “born again” into “life abundant” means participation in a new Genesis, a new creation, interrupting our captivity to the downward death spiral of violence and counterviolence to join an upward, regenerative movement of the Spirit. Following Jesus means a new Exodus. It means passing through the waters once again (this time, by baptism instead of the Red Sea), eating a new Passover meal (the Eucharist), and helping one another to become liberated from the principalities and powers that oppress and enslave. To enter into the “kingdom of God” means becoming a citizen of a new kingdom, the peaceable kingdom imagined by the prophets and inaugurated in Christ, learning its ways (as a disciple) and demonstrating in word and deed its presence and availability to all (as apostles). (Adapted from Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, p. 140)
The most striking single element of Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom at the synagogue in Nazareth may have been “The time has come!”
“The kingdom of God is not a distant reality to wait for someday, Jesus proclaims; the kingdom is at hand, within reach, near, here, now (Mark 1:15). Everyone agrees the poor and downtrodden should be helped someday, oppression and exploitation should be stopped someday, the planet should be healed someday, we should study war no more someday. But for Jesus, the dream of Isaiah and the other prophets — of a time when good news would come to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and the indebted — was not five hundred or a thousand years in the future: the dream was being fulfilled today(Luke 4:18-21). The time has come today to cancel debts, to forgive, to treat enemies as neighbors, to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to invite the outcasts over for dinner, to confront oppressors not with sharp knives, but with unarmed kindness. No wonder Jesus called people to repent: if the kingdom is at hand, we need to adjust our way of life and join in the joyful, painful mission of reconciliation right now, ASAP!” (McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, p. 140)
Languishing in the valley of the dry bones God asked the prophet Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3) We ask, is such a life possible? Can we be freed from our bondage to racism, materialism, militarism and our captivity to fear and death? Can we become the stories we tell? Can we hope to stand beside Jesus over and against tribe, nation, family, or clan?
In answer, St. Paul offers a vivid description in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth. Sinew and flesh are joined to bone as we come alive together in the body of Christ. Each of us is different, as the nose is to the ear, or as hands are to the feet, yet we find common purpose united by the Spirit with Christ as our head. The new life of liberation and freedom from bondage offered to us now today in Christ will require the death of the old Adam, the old Eve. Yet in this loss, we gain our true self. Through our work together as the body of Christ, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the thirsty are refreshed, wounds are being healed, and old conflicts find balm to remedy them. Yes, these bones can live. We come alive together in Christ, forever. Amen.