A sermon on Luke 4:16-30 by the Rev. Justin Clemente for the fourth Sunday of Epiphany, 2019. New Creation Church, Hagerstown, MD.
Background & Setting the Stage: Good News to the Poor
The season of Epiphany takes us now to Nazareth and Jesus’ sermon there. This is a massive moment filled with all sorts of implications, as it foreshadows both the role and rejection of the Messiah. It follows on the baptism and temptation of Jesus as he comes back to Nazareth. And that is key to consider. Luke is careful to include that this is “where he had been brought up.” As Jesus returns to his hometown, we’re going to see not only the sin of familiarity, but the sin of spiritual pride. The question we will be faced with is, will we receive Jesus’ Gospel, or side with the religiosity of the folks in Nazareth?
Let’s begin with some more background though. At this point, Jesus is gaining notoriety as a teacher and rabbi. As such, in the synagogue, he would be expected to read and comment on the Bible. Now it may be that the passage Jesus read was the passage in the Jewish lectionary for that day, or, Jesus could have unrolled the scroll to the place he wanted to read from. Either way, the reading is totally in Jesus’ hands. The picture here is of the Lord of the Word coming to those gathered on Sabbath to hear his Word – but will they receive him? Will they actually see him for who he is?
Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2, an acknowledged and expressly messianic passage, and the results are electric. Jesus does not, like other teachers, simply refer to what so-and-so said on such-and-such passage. Now certainly, there was more to Jesus’ sermon that morning, but the gist is this – it’s me! This is about me and the time is now. The poor will have good news preached to them, the blind will see, the captives will be released, and the oppressed will find liberty. Sounds like good news to me! That is, if you know yourself to be poor.
What Went Wrong?
And you’d think that’d be about where the story would end – with celebration that Jesus the Messiah is here. But instead it ends with them trying to throw Jesus off a cliff! In verse 22, it seems that everyone likes what Jesus has to say and, as Tim Keller says here, “If you’ve never been offended by the Gospel, you probably haven’t heard it.” And the people of Nazareth hadn’t rightly heard what Jesus was saying to them. They think they are the poor. They are sure they will be the ones to receive God’s blessing if Jesus is right. So Jesus clarifies things for them. As Jesus goes on, he will show them that they have misunderstood the Messiah and misunderstood his Good News.
J.C Ryle says here, “We may well believe that there was a deep meaning in our Lord’s selection of this special passage of Isaiah. He desired to impress on His Jewish hearers, the true character of the Messiah, whom He knew all Israel were then expecting. He well knew that they were looking for a mere temporal king, who would deliver them from Roman dominion, and make them once more, foremost among the nations. Such expectations, He would have them understand, were premature and wrong. Messiah’s kingdom at His first coming was to be a spiritual kingdom over hearts. His victories were not to be over worldly enemies, but over sin. His redemption was not to be from the power of Rome, but from the power of the devil and the world. It was in this way, and in no other way at present, that they must expect to see the words of Isaiah fulfilled.”
When Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61, he does something very intentional – he stops half-way through verse 2. Do you know what follows the place where he stopped? “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” What is he saying? He is saying that is not what I have now come for.
Jesus has come, as Arthur Just puts it, “to release creation from its bondage to sin and restore it to its proper state of harmony with the Creator.” All creation, and, to the shock of Nazareth, all nations. Every word, every healing, every deed will point to this right up to his final rejection – to his cross and resurrection.
The question again is, who can receive it?
Only for the Poor
Keller, insightful as usual, says here, “The Gospel is 1) for only the spiritually poor, 2) the Gospel is for especially the actually poor, and 3) the Gospel comes to the world through those who are willing to be both.
The stories from the ministries of Elijah and Elisha powerfully demonstrate this, and the people of Nazareth know it and do not like it.
Take the story of the widow of Zarephath. Let’s just make sure we get the picture here. In the midst of “good” commandment keeping Jews, Jesus’ highlights a story about a Gentile widow who was blessed and given life by the prophet Elijah. God miraculously sustains her bread and oil supply and then miraculously raises her son from the dead through Elijah’s ministry. As a result, the widow trusts the God of Israel. And this happens while there is a three year drought in Israel. Do you get the meaning? This is utter and sheer grace from a God who is no respecter of persons.
Take again the story of Naaman. Naaman was a Gentile, Syrian army commander. He’s the opposite of the widow – he’s rich. He can buy whatever he wants. But he has a problem. He a horrible disease – leprosy. A servant girl captured from a raid on Israel tells him that the Lord’s prophet is able to heal him (by the way, this means that Naaman probably killed her parents). Naaman comes to the prophet Elisha with 750 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold, plus clothes. He expects his healing to be expensive. He expects to be healed in the king’s palace. He expects to be treated like the special person he is. What happens? Elisha doesn’t even come to see him. He sends a messenger saying, “Go wash in the Jordan and your skin will be restored.” Naaman asks, in essence, “You want me to just wash in the stinky, no-as-great-as-other-rivers, Jordan River? In the end, he obeys, and he is promptly healed. For free. He could not put the God of Israel in his pocket like some household idol. It was the sheer grace of God to one who was spiritually poor. As a result of this, Naaman comes to see that YHWH, the God of Israel, is the true and living God.
Are We Like His Hometown?
The question for us is, are we poor enough to receive the Good News? In order to receive Jesus’ Gospel, we must know ourselves to be nothing less than spiritually bankrupt. Have you come to this place in your life? Until you do, you will never know Jesus and the liberty he brings.
But also, the Church is ever in danger of becoming like Nazareth. Dangerously over familiar with its Lord. Dangerously insular and inward looking to the exclusion of those who do not know Jesus. Every time we gather together under the Word, we are faced with the question: will we become more like Nazareth or more like people who belong to the Messiah? For he is the one who came to preach good news to the poor. Amen.