Sermon / January 24, 2016 / Luke 4:16-19 / Hidden in Plain Sight / Pastor Terry Defoe
Our sermon text 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.” N.I.V.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
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 back then was probably about 500. So the people in the synagogue would have known about Jesus. He was a regular visitor in the synagogue. Many Christians are also unaware of the fact that Jesus lived in Nazareth for most of His life -- from earliest childhood until he was 30 years of age.
The Jews worshipped in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, the day we call Saturday. Scholars tell us that there were no professional clergy in Jewish synagogues back then. Apparently, the president of the synagogue had the authority to invite anyone to read or comment on the Scriptures. Jesus could have been a regular speaker at the synagogue, but this day was different. On this particular day, there's a good chance that the synagogue was filled to capacity. That’s because, because Jesus was there, and not just Jesus, but he had his band of disciples with him. I pray, as I always do, that God would bless our consideration of His holy Word this day - that he would enable us to hear, to understand, and to apply these words in our daily lives!
The syagogue order of worship was something we Lutherans would be used to. Scholars tell us that there were two Scripture readings in synagogue worship – the first reading was from the law, and the second was from the prophets. Readings could be done by any competent worshiper or guest, and the reading was often followed by an explanation – a “sermon” if you will. As Jesus stood up to read that day, a synagogue assistant would have draw back the curtain of the place where the Scriptures were kept, and reverently handed him the scroll. The appointed reading that day, it turned out, just happened to be from the book of the prophet Isaiah. In the synagogue, a person stood up to read, and then sat down to explain what they had read.
With every eye fastened on Him, Jesus quietly turned to the reading from Isaiah chapter 61. The words were from God's prophet and had been written approximately 700 years earlier. In the reading, Isaiah spoke of “The Servant of the Lord” – the One we now know as the Messiah. Jesus read the text, and sat down to give an explanation.
“Today,” he began, “this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Excuse me? What was that again? Was Jesus actually saying that the Scripture he had just read referred to Himself? Was He actually saying that this Scripture had now been fulfilled, in and through himself? These words were Jesus' personal mission statement. They were His job description. Jesus entire ministry, every part of it, took place with these words in mind. You may remember that, later on, when John the Baptist wanted to know whether Jesus really was the one who was to come, Jesus quoted these very words to reassure John that he was indeed the Messiah.
In today's Gospel, for the very first time, and from none other than Jesus himself, we hear Jesus' own personal testimony. For the first time, we hear that Jesus really is the Messiah. He leaves no doubt. He reassures the people back then. And he reassures us today, as well. The people in the synagogue were very polite. They said that His words were gracious. The people of Nazareth knew that Jesus was one of their own. They’d seen him around. They heard what He said that day, but, based on what they knew of him, they weren't at all convinced that he was the Messiah. They thought they knew who he was. They had known his father, Joseph. Jesus Messiahship, it seems, was hidden in plain sight. And, in some important ways, that remains true today.
Jesus accomplished two important tasks that day. First, He said that He was indeed the fulfillment of the Scripture. And secondly, after reading the text, Jesus then preached a brief sermon to the people gathered in the synagogue. That sermon was based on Old Testament texts that the people would have known very well. Jesus first of all spoke about Elijah. He said that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's day, but only one was chosen by God for a special blessing. And that woman wasn’t even Jewish! Next, Jesus spoke about a man called Naaman. Many people in Israel at the time Naaman lived had leprosy. But only Naaman, again, a non-Jew, was healed.
This morning, we're privileged to hear a sermon directly from the Master, So, let me ask you, what point was He making? What do you think? Just this:
Where God, and His Word, and His love, are NOT ACCEPTED by those to whom they are first given, those blessings will then given to others.
As Jesuspreached in the synagogue that day, it’s as if He was telling the people of his hometown:
I want you to take what God is offering to you through me. And I want you to do that while you still have time. Because, 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 the townspeople:
I want you to know that you don’t have a special right to God's blessings. God is not obligated to give them only to you. He does not show favoritism. He desires to give His blessings to the whole world -- Jew and non-Jew alike.
Jesus’ hearers found it comforting to hear one of their own read about a Savior, a Messiah, One who would bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives, give sight to the blind, and set the downtrodden free. They thought this would happen some day far off in the distant future. They were shocked when Jesus set the scroll down and said,
“Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
That day, the crowd did no harm to Jesus – even though they wanted to. His time had not yet come. But, their actions foreshadowed the cross – which was to come three years down the road. The rejection of Jesus by the people of his hometown prepares us for the coming rejection by the Jewish religious leaders. When you think about it, what happened to Jesus wasn’t that unusual for God’s prophets. It wasn’t unheard of for a prophet to be run out of town. That happened to God’s prophet Amos. Isaiah himself was teased and chided for his words. And Jeremiah was scorned and tried twice for blasphemy and sedition. Jesus was God’s prophet and, for His troubles, He was certainly 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 saves His best for last. That which had previously been incomplete was made complete by none other than Jesus Himself. Chaos was turned into order by the Messiah. Now, this week, we’ve heard one of Jesus’ first sermons. This event in the synagogue at Nazareth functions as the dramatic center of Luke's Gospel. That's because here, in this event, Jesus laid out, for the people of his hometown, His Messianic job description. In this event, He laid out His priorities and goals. Jesus had been raised among these people, and it was to them that he first made the pronouncement that He was indeed the Messiah – the bearer of God's good news. He wanted these people 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, as I say, was hidden in plain sight.
Well-known Christian writer Philip Yancey says this about our ability to see – to perceive what’s going on in the world 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 just couldn’t perceive 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.
The Gospel meets the real needs of real people.
-- If a person is dying of cancer, the Gospel is God's 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, what do you think, during Jesus' three-year ministry, did He actually do what he said He was going do?
-- 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 various people Jesus dealt with. Think about the woman at the well. Think about the man born blind. Or the man in need of healing at the pool of Bethesda. Consider the woman caught in adultery. These are the people that Isaiah is describing in our text this morning. And, when you think about it, these are the very people he’s dealing with today. We are these people! You and I are the people Christ came to serve. We are the poor, we’re the captives, we’re the blind and the oppressed. Jesus has deliverance for all of us no matter who we are and no matter what our situation!
For the Gospel-writer Luke, forgiveness is being released from that which has captured us, that which is oppressing us - and that means our sin. And the “poverty” that Jesus speaks of here is more than a lack of money. This is a spiritual poverty - it's an attitude of the heart. It's a feeling of helplessness. It’s the realization of a deep-seated need for God's grace and mercy. And the prisoners Jesus describes here have been dragged away and enslaved by the power of sin. But His powerful word brings release. His word overcomes oppression. His Holy word enables people to see what they couldn’t see before. By the power of Jesus' word, the blindness of the heart is removed. He's no longer hidden in plain sight.
At the synagogue in Nazareth, using two different Old Testament examples, Jesus spoke of God's healing activity taking place outside the boundaries of Israel. Here, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus indicates that God’s salvation is universal. It's not just for the Jews. It’s for all humankind, in all generations. God bestows his grace freely, without any merit or worthiness on our part. He doesn't show favoritism. 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 who represented the nation of Israel. You know, God's not a Lutheran. He’s not an Anglican, or a Pentecostal, or a Roman Catholic. He's not a Jew or a Muslim. God is larger than all our denominations and he’s larger than all of our theologies. Jesus’ very first sermon reminds us that God wants all people everywhere to enjoy his salvation – without exception!
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 and only nine times in the other three gospels. Consider these references 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 have heard these words:
"Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – Bless us with a strong and enduring faith. Deliver us from spiritual poverty. Release us from spiritual bondage. Shine the light of Christ into the darkest recesses of our hearts. Proclaim the year of your favor and grace. Enable us to share Jesus' message with others, so that they, too, may be blessed. In His most holy and blesssed name we pray. Amen.