The Year of the Lord’s Favor
Epiphany 3, 2010
January 24, 2010
Today’s lessons are all about great preaching. The lesson from Nehemiah is one we rarely hear; indeed, it comes from a book that is read only rarely in the three-year lectionary cycle. And since this is an Episcopal Church, probably none of you, unless you were raised in a different Christian tradition, could even find it in the bible. Still, it’s a great story, and an important one for the history of Judaism, and for the history of scripture itself.
For scholars think that this story captures one of the key moments in the development of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. As I’ve mentioned before, Babylon conquered the Kingdom of Judah and carried off the political and religious elite of that kingdom to exile in Babylon. Now in the ancient world, when you were conquered by another people, that pretty much proved that not only were they more powerful than you, but their gods were more powerful than yours, too. So most conquered peoples came to accept the religious superiority of their conquerors, along with the military and political superiority.
That didn’t happen to the exiles in Babylon. Instead, they began to rethink their theology, their faith, and sought a way to fit their experience into a new understanding of who God was. Along with that, they compiled and organized texts. Some they wrote in Babylon; others they brought with them. It was in exile in Babylon that most scholars believe much of the Hebrew Bible came to take something of the form we have today.
When they were released from exile, many returned to Jerusalem; among them Ezra and Nehemiah. They brought with them their new theological understanding, and these new scriptures. In today’s lesson from Nehemiah, we hear Ezra reading that text to the assembly of people. It took all morning, and he didn’t just read; he also interpreted the text.
The gospel story relates Luke’s version of Jesus’ first public sermon. Jesus has just been tempted in the wilderness and Luke reports that “filled with the power of the Spirit” Jesus begins his public ministry, a preaching tour through the synagogues of Galilee. Eventually, he finds his way back home in Nazareth. When he gets there, his reputation seems to have preceded him. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke tells us it was his custom, signaling to the reader that yes, Jesus is a good Jewish boy) and as is not unheard of for local boys made good; he is asked to perform. We can imagine that there’s quite a crowd in attendance; people want to know what the fuss is about, they’ve heard about Jesus’ activity in Capernaum and the other towns of Galilee.
So Jesus stands up, reads from the Torah, and sits down to interpret it. The text he reads is itself dramatic: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Now there’s a puzzle here. In the first place, this quotation is a combination of several verses from Isaiah 61 and 58 so we don’t know if the formula as it stands goes back to Luke or to Jesus himself, but it certainly wouldn’t have been a logical reading from scripture in the synagogue. The second thing that’s interesting is what it leaves out. The verse that reads “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” continues in Isaiah, with another phrase, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” So Luke, or Jesus, leaves out a prophecy of gloom, doom, and destruction. Instead, it’s a message full of hope and promise.
Luke puts this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to tell us something very important about Jesus. It’s a summary of the key themes of Jesus ministry. We can see how important it is for Luke by recognizing how he has changed the story from the versions in Mark and Matthew. In both of those gospels, the visit to the synagogue in Nazareth comes after a significant portion of Jesus’ ministry. Both gospels put it after big chunks of Jesus’ teaching and a number of his healings. For them, it is only a story about Jesus’ rejection in his hometown. They don’t tell us anything about what Jesus said. By placing it here, by putting these words in Jesus’ mouth, Luke is telling us to pay attention—this is what Jesus is all about.
So Jesus reads these verses, then he sits down and tells the congregation, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The people are amazed by the power of his words. There are several fascinating things about this text. In the first place, we see Jesus behaving like he’s supposed to do. He’s a good Jewish boy, he goes to synagogue on the Sabbath, he knows his scripture. But then, when he begins to speak, he blows away people’s expectations. Perhaps the congregation was expecting to hear how all this might happen when the Messiah comes. Instead, Jesus tells them, it’s happening right now!
Another key element of the text is the importance of the spirit. It’s something Luke stresses throughout his gospel, and I’m sure we’ll have more to say about it as we go through the gospel this year in the lectionary. Today’s reading begins, and Jesus, filled with the power of the spirit. And of course, the words Jesus reads from Isaiah begin with the phrase, the Spirit of God is upon me…” So, Jesus filled with the spirit, proclaims the year of God’s favor, preaches good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, proclaims release for captives, and freedom for the oppressed.
To put it into contemporary language—this is Jesus’ mission statement according to Luke. He makes this clear later in the gospel when the John the Baptizer, now in prison, has gotten word of Jesus’ activity. He sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the Messiah or if they are to wait for another. Jesus response to them, and to John is “Go tell John what you have seen, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the poor have good news preached to them.”
Jesus’ mission statement, but is it ours? I suspect that, just as in the case of the wedding at Cana, where our usual focus is on the miracle, here, we want to see Jesus’ words as relating only to him, and to his miraculous powers. But we’re not so easily left off the hook. If we follow Luke’s gospel, and then read in the book of Acts, which is the second half of Luke’s story, we see the same emphases being stressed. In Acts, the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, do amazing things, like give sight to the blind and set the oppressed free.
Ezra and Nehemiah came back from exile in Babylon with a vision for what God’s people might become. Jesus came back from the wilderness with a vision for his public ministry.
In the coming weeks and months, we will be talking a great deal about what the future holds for Grace Church. During the vestry retreat last weekend, we spent a lot of time talking about Grace’s present and future. We analyzed our strengths and weaknesses as a parish—what we do well, and what we don’t do so well. We looked at the challenges that face us, and the opportunities that we haven’t fully exploited. We also shared what we hoped Grace might look like in five years. All of this is part of a process that will help us clarify what our ministry and mission is and should be in this place. In the coming weeks, we will begin to share our work with the parish, and invite all of you to reflect on and contribute to this effort.
But however we articulate our own mission and ministry, the standard by which we must judge it is the Gospel. And it’s not inappropriate that we use this passage as our guide. Is this the year of the Lord’s favor? How are we going to bring good news to the poor? Help the blind to see, the lame to walk, the oppressed go free? Do our ministries match up to that job description? If not, why not?
What might it mean to grab hold of Luke’s vision of Jesus’ ministry, for ourselves, for our church and our community? What difference might that make? Oh, I know there are all kinds of things that get in the way. We lack the funds, the time, the commitment, the people, there’s so much else to do.
I know it’s daunting. The needs are so great and we are so few, but my friends, that’s what it’s about. We come to church to be nourished, to be filled, to find spiritual growth and we do, in the fellowship, in the proclamation, and in the celebration of the Eucharist. But we need to remember that we are nourished at the table not only for our sake, but for the sake of the world and for the sake of Christ. We often leave our worship with the dismissal—let us go forth rejoicing in the power of the spirit. Like Jesus, filled with the power of the spirit, let us become a people of vision, empowered to do great things!