Sermon from Sunday January 27th 2013
Hidden in Plain Sight
Luke 4:16-30 (16-19)
Pastor Terry Defoe, Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
Copyright © 2013. Pastor Terry Defoe. All Rights Reserved.
Our sermon text this morning is found in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 4. I’m reading verses 16 to 19:
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and, on the Sabbath day, he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Luke begins his account of Jesus’ ministry with our Lord’s visit to the synagogue in Nazareth. Most people know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Fewer people know that Jesus grew up in northern Israel – in an area called Galilee – in a town called Nazareth. Bible scholars tell us that the population of Nazareth in Jesus’ day was about 500. That means that the people in the Nazareth synagogue would have known Jesus very well. Jesus was a regular visitor there. Jesus lived in Nazareth from earliest childhood until he was 30 years old – the biggest part of His life. In Nazareth, Jesus had buried Joseph, his foster father. In Nazareth, Jesus had supported his mother by working as a carpenter.
The Jews, including the most famous Jew of all – Jesus of Nazareth – worshipped in the synagogue on the Sabbath day – the day we call Saturday. Scholars tell us that there were no professional clergy in the synagogues in those days. The president of the congregation had the authority to invite any appropriate person to read or comment on the Scriptures. Jesus could have been a regular speaker at the synagogue, but this day was going to be different. On this day, the synagogue must have been filled to capacity. That’s because, because Jesus, the famous rabbi, was attending with his band of disciples.
The order of worship was something that Lutherans would be used to. There were two Scripture readings – the first from the law, the other from the prophets. Readings could be done by a competent worshiper or guest, and the reading of the Scripture was often followed by an explanation of the meaning – a “sermon” if you will. As Jesus stood up to speak that day, the synagogue assistant drew back the curtain of the ark in which the Scriptures were kept, and reverently handed him the scroll. It happened to be a reading from the prophet Isaiah. In the synagogue, a person stood up to read, and then sat down to explain what they had read.
With all eyes on Him, Jesus turned in the scroll to Isaiah chapter 61. The words he was about to read had been written 700 years earlier. In that reading, Isaiah had described an individual called “The Servant of the Lord” – the individual we now know as the Messiah. Jesus read the text, and then He sat down. The people were wondering what He would say about the text he had just read. They definitely didn't know what they were in for. “Today,” he said, “this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Excuse me? What was that again? Was Jesus saying that this Scripture referred to Him? Was He saying that this Scripture was been completed in and through him? For Jesus, these words were his personal mission statement – His personal job description, if you will. Jesus performed His entire ministry, every part of it, with these very words in mind. Later on, when John the Baptist wanted to know whether Jesus really was the one whom he had been predicting, Jesus’ used these words to reassure John that he truly was the Messiah. I pray, as I always do, that God would bless our consideration of His holy Word this day!
In today's Gospel, we hear, for the very first time – and from none other than Jesus himself – his own personal testimony. We hear that He really is the promised Messiah. He leaves no doubt. He does that for the people back then. And he does it for us today, as well. The people were very polite. They said that His words were gracious. They knew that Jesus was one of their own townspeople. They’d seen him around. They heard what He said that day, but, based on what they knew of him, they weren't convinced that he was the Messiah. They thought they knew who he was. They had known his father. Jesus Messiahship, it seems, was hidden in plain sight.
Jesus did two things in the synagogue that day. First, He said that He Himself was the fulfillment of the Scripture he had just read. And, as we’ve seen, the people weren’t convinced. Second, after reading the text, Jesus then preached a sermon for the people. And His sermon was based on Old Testament texts the people would have known very well. Jesus first of all spoke about Elijah. He said that there were many widows in Israel at that time, but only one was chosen by God for a special blessing. And that woman – the one chosen for a blessing – wasn’t Jewish! And then, Jesus spoke about Naaman. Many people in Israel at that time had leprosy. But only Naaman, again a non-Jew, was healed.
This morning, we are privileged to hear a sermon directly from the Master – from Jesus Himself! So, let me ask you, what point was Jesus trying to make in these remarks? Just this:
Where God, and His Word, and His love, are NOT ACCEPTED by those to whom it is first given, it is then given to others.
Let me repeat that… As He preached in the synagogue that day, it’s as if Jesus was telling the people of his own hometown:
Take what God is offering you through me. And do that while you have the chance. If you don’t, your opportunity will pass by, and God will give it to others – even to non-Jews.
It’s as if Jesus was telling his townspeople:
“You don’t have a special right to God's blessings. God is not obligated to give them only to you.”
Jesus’ hearers found it comforting to hear one of their own read to them about a Savior, a Messiah, who would come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, to give sight to the blind, and set the downtrodden free. They thought that this would happen some day – some day in the distant future. They were shocked when Jesus put down the scroll and said, “Today, this text is being fulfilled.” They were even more shocked when Jesus gave Scriptural examples of God helping Gentiles – non-Jewish people.
On this day, the crowd did no harm to Jesus – even though they wanted to. His time had not yet come. But, their actions were a foreshadowing of the cross – which was to come three years down the road. Their rejection prepares us for the rejection of the Christ by the Jewish religious leaders. When you think about it, what happened to Jesus wasn’t that unusual for one of God’s prophets. It wasn’t unheard of for a prophet to be run out of town. It happened to God’s prophet Amos. Isaiah himself was teased and chided. The prophet Jeremiah was scorned and tried twice for blasphemy and sedition. Jesus was God’s prophet and, for His troubles, He was treated like one!
Last week, we heard about Jesus’ first miracle – how, at a wedding at Canaa in Galilee, He replaced Jewish purification water with the most wonderful wine. Last week, we saw how God often saves the best for last. That which was incomplete was made complete by Jesus of Nazareth. Chaos was turned to order by the Messiah. Now, this week, we’ve had a chance to hear one of Jesus’ first sermons. This event functions as the dramatic center of Luke's Gospel. In this event, Jesus laid out for the people of his own hometown His Messianic job description. He laid out His priorities and goals. Jesus had been raised among these people, and now it was to them that he first made the pronouncement that He was the Messiah – the bearer of God's good news. He wanted them to be the first to know. In the synagogue that day, God was at work, but the people were blind to it. God’s plan of salvation was hidden in plain sight. When you think about it, that’s very much still true.
Christian writer Philip Yancey says this about our human ability to see – to perceive what’s going on around us. He says:
Every animal on earth has a set of correspondences with the environment around it, and some of those correspondences far exceed ours. Humans can perceive only thirty percent of the range of the sun's light and 1/70th of the spectrum of electromagnetic energy. Many animals exceed our abilities. Bats detect insects by sonar; pigeons navigate by magnetic fields; bloodhounds perceive a world of smell unavailable to us.
… the spiritual or "unseen" world requires an inbuilt set of correspondences activated only through some sort of spiritual quickening. "No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above," said Jesus. "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned," said Paul. Both expressions point to a different level of correspondence available only to a person spiritually alive.
Philip Yancey, "Seeing the Invisible God"
Books and Culture (May/June 2000), p.8. From www.preachingtoday.com
The people of Nazareth couldn’t see what God was doing through His Son that day. They wouldn’t allow the Holy Spirit to open their eyes to the spiritual truth that was staring them in the face. Because of that, Jesus’ true nature was hidden from them, even through He was in plain sight.
The Gospel is good news because it meets the real needs of real people.
- If a person is dying of cancer, the Gospel is God strong word of resurrection and eternal life.
- If a person is permeated with guilt, the Gospel is God's assurance of forgiveness.
- If a person is experiencing extreme suffering, the Gospel says: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble."
So, in His ministry, did Jesus do what he predicted He would do when he gave the people his job description? What do you think?
- Did he preach good news to the poor?
- Did he bind up the brokenhearted and proclaim freedom to the captives?
- Did he release prisoners from dark prison cells?
- Did he proclaim the year of the Lord’s grace and favor?
Consider the people Jesus dealt with during his ministry. Think about the woman at the well. The man born blind. The man in need of healing at the pool of Bethesda. What about the woman caught in adultery. These are the people Isaiah is talking about in chapter 61. These are the people Jesus dealt with during his ministry. And, when you think about it, these are the people he’s dealing with today. We are these people, too, aren’t we? We, too, are the people Christ came to serve. We are the poor, we’re the captives, we’re the blind and the oppressed. Jesus had deliverance for all of us!
For Luke, forgiveness is more than just words. For Luke, forgiveness means being released from that which has captured you, from that which is oppressing you and that means your sin. And the “poverty” that Jesus speaks of here is more than a lack of money. It’s an attitude towards God. It's a feeling of helplessness. It’s the realization of a deep-seated need for God's grace and mercy. The prisoners Jesus describes have been dragged away and enslaved by the power of sin – a power much greater than themselves. But Jesus’ powerful word brings release. His powerful word overcomes oppression. As the Holy Spirit works, His word enables people to see what they couldn’t see before. By the power of His word, the blindness of their heart is removed. He is no longer hidden in plain sight.
At the Nazareth synagogue, using two different Old Testament examples, Jesus described of the healing activity of God outside the boundaries of Israel. Here, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus is indicating that God’s salvation is a universal salvation. It is not just for the Jews. It’s for all humankind, in all generations. God is free to choose whomever he wants. God bestows the gifts of his grace freely, without any merit or worthiness on our part. God does not show favoritism.
So, here at the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus shows us that when He finds open unbelief and arrogant presumption, he turns away. Instead of taking to heart what Jesus had said to them, instead of dropping their presumptions, and allowing themselves to be humbled so that God might bless them, the people of Nazareth, to use a current phrase, “went ballistic” over what Jesus said. But this was nothing new. The people of Israel had not shared God's Word with others as God had wanted them to do. This is the theme of the book of Jonah. Jonah was a reluctant missionary. He represented the whole nation of Israel. You know, God is not a Lutheran. He’s not an Anglican, or a Pentecostal, or a Roman Catholic. God is not a Jew or a Muslim. He’s larger than all our denominations and he’s larger than all our theologies. Jesus’ very first sermon reminds us that God wants all people to enjoy his salvation – including us, here today.
In our text this morning, Jesus used the word “today.” “Today” is an important word in Luke's Gospel. It’s found 12 times in Luke’s Gospel and only nine times in all the other gospels combined. Consider the following passages from Luke:
- "Today, in the house of David, a Savior has been born to you."
- "Today, you will be with me in paradise."
- "Today, salvation has come to this house."
And, of course, in our text this morning, we hear these words:
- "Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
Thanks be to God! Amen.
DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – Bless us with a strong and enduring faith in Your Son. Bless us today. And every day in the future. Deliver us from our spiritual poverty. Release us from spiritual bondage. Shine your light into the darkest recesses of our hearts. Proclaim to us the year of your favor and grace. Enable us to share Jesus message with others, so that they, too, may be blessed. In Jesus’ name. Amen.