Unfortunately, due to to technical difficulties, the audio recording of the sermon for Sunday, January 27th did not work, so here are the sermon notes.
During the season following Epiphany, the lectionary Gospel readings in each year focus on Jesus’ early ministry, focused in Galilee. This year’s readings (with one exception- last week’s) come from Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry beginning with his Baptism at the Jordan (Luke 3), and the ministry in Galilee (Luke 4:14-9:50). Beginning at 9:51, Luke’s account focuses on Jesus movement towards Jerusalem and the climactic events we remember in the Triduum. This Sunday, our reading is the launch of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and specifically his first recorded teaching/preaching in Nazareth. I don’t typically follow the traditional “three points and poem” form of sermon, but for this text, I’d like to highlight three specific elements.
At Jesus’ Baptism, the Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove, and then in 4:1-13 we read of Jesus’ time in the Judean wilderness, which begins “Jesus, full of the Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” Now, after the time in Judea, he comes back to Galilee to begin his new ministry there (Luke 4:14-9:50), and does so “in the power of the Spirit.” And when he gets up to read in Nazareth, “he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me’”. We cannot miss the emphasis of the Spirit throughout Luke chapters 1-4. But it’s worth noting that after ch. 4 the Spirit seems to recede quite a bit. It seems like Luke would want us to just assume that the ministry launched by the Spirit continues in the Spirit, so the mentions can be dropped. This means we need to remember that Jesus’ work is the not just Jesus sent to do his thing, but it is the Triune God at work in the world.
Throughout the Old Testament, the Spirit is linked predominantly to prophetic calling and leading, so the ministry which Jesus then begins is an itinerant preaching/prophetic ministry; visiting Galilean villages, teaching in Synagogues- and he is praised. His ministry is not anti-Jewish, but remains in continuity with that story. There is a prophetic critique at times, especially when Jesus goes from Galilee to Judea. However, we have to be very careful about how we understand Jesus’ relationship with Judaism. He doesn’t cast it aside or replace it. Jesus’ Galilean ministry is predominantly popular with the Galilean Jewish population initially (4:15), and only when he returns to his hometown of Nazareth, when he goes to the Synagogue – as was his custom- that he experiences any real opposition (but that’s the text for next week, so we won’t go there yet). But Luke uses the specifics of that Nazareth event as a summary introduction or framing of Jesus’ ministry. This brings us to our our second point;
The words Jesus reads are from Isaiah 61, but slightly altered. He removes the line about binding up the brokenhearted (the reason for that is unclear), and replaces it with a phrase from Isa 58:6, and then cuts off his reading mid sentence so as to not refer to the day of the Lord’s vengeance (Isaiah 61:2). Jesus’ message in Galilee is focused on the outpouring of grace and healing and especially liberation. This may remind us of the words of Mary in Luke 1 which focus on the theme of reversal; good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, liberation for the oppressed. That splicing in of Isa 58:6 appears to be there for added emphasis since it repeats the word free/release which is also in a previous line (“freedom for the prisoners… set the oppressed free”). That Greek word can mean liberate/free/release or forgive. It is the same word used in the Greek translation of Deut 15 when discussing the Year of Jubilee (which is alluded to as “year of the Lord’s favour”) when all debts in Israel were to be cancelled, slaves freed, and a year-long rest given to the people and the land.
This serves as the framing of Jesus mission in the world for Luke. Luke spends more time than the other accounts on this particular theme of reversal and justice for the poor and oppressed, and it ties to the emphasis on the presence of the Spirit. As I noted earlier, the Spirit in the OT is connected to the prophetic ministries, which frequently revolve around calling for justice, compassion, mercy, and announcing the possibility of freedom, forgiveness, release, specifically envisioned in Isaiah as a return from exile, and God coming to dwell in peace with his people. Jesus will bring the true Jubilee, the true liberation from oppression, which we then join him in bringing about. Is our message and ministry in our time and place liberating? “It is for freedom that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1). Our Gospel has to reach to the hard places of our daily lives and have an effect on our social place. The movement known as the “Social Gospel” sometimes gets sneered at by evangelicals because it is alleged that it adopts a “liberal” theology. But early social gospelers simply saw their work as the Gospel working itself out, impacting how we function in our world. This was what one leader in the movement called “a full-orbed Christianity”. If our message is simply aimed at “saving souls” and misses addressing real on the ground justice concerns, it doesn’t reflect the fullness of the ministry of Jesus which is set out in Luke 4.
As I noted last week in reference to the announcement in the turning of water into wine- the messianic age, God’s reign and God’s Kingdom is breaking into the world now. Isaiah’s vision of God’s glorious presence coming to his people begins with the incarnation announced to Mary in Nazareth.
When we think of the Good News of Jesus, do we go right away to the cross? I’ve repeated this a lot, just last week even, but I’m going to say it again; the Gospel, the Good News, focuses not simply on Jesus’ death, but on the arrival of the Kingdom/reign of God on earth. Jesus proclaims Good News to the people of Nazareth as fulfilled “today”. If the sum total of the Gospel is “Jesus died for my sins”, then how does Jesus proclaim Good News prior to his death? (See also Mark 1:14-15) The cross is where God, in Christ, confronts the chief enemy of his Kingdom- death. And when Christ emerges from the tomb, death is shown to be no match for the Living God. But when Jesus is born in Bethlehem and his lungs breathe air for the first time, the Kingdom of God is breaking in. When Mary accepts her call to bear the Son of the Most High, and the Holy Spirit causes her to conceive, that’s the Good News of God’s reign beginning to become a reality on earth as it is in heaven. So when we share our Good News with others, when we reflect on the Gospel in our own lives, it’s not a transaction or exchange which happens on the cross, but an announcement of God present with the poor, bringing sight to the blind, freeing the prisoner, binding the brokenhearted, declaring the year of the Lord’s favour. God has, in Christ, brought his reign near, demonstrating his grace and favour to huamnity on whom his favour rests (Luke 2:14)
I close with a quote from John Carroll’s commentary on Luke (p. 110-111): “The young child Jesus experienced the ‘favor of God’ (charis theou, 2:40)… The favor of God that has rested upon him from the beginning is now to be extended to others in this era of divine favor.”
John T. Carroll. Luke (NTL). Louisville: WJK, 2012.
Nancy Christie & Michael Gauvreau. A Full-Orbed Christianity: The Protestant Churches and Social Welfare in Canada, 1900-1940. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996.
Joseph Fitzmyer. The Gospel of Luke I-IX (AB). New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke (NICNT). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
Luke Timothy Johnson. The Gospel of Luke (SP). Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006.
Ben Witherington III. Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017.