Epiphany 3C Sermon (2004)

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Luke 4:14-21;
Neh. 8; 1 Cor. 12:12-31a


 One of the tasks of the Mission Exploration Team has been to sharpen our sense of mission, including the development of a new mission statement. It’s a very simple one, easy to remember: Our mission is to share faith in Jesus Christ through Grace and Outreach. Grace and Outreach are, of course, loaded with meaning for a church that calls itself Grace and that hosts an Urban Outreach Center for ministry. Beyond the theological meanings of grace and of reaching out to others is the down-to-earth facts of where we are. We are in an urban neighborhood surrounded by the very real human needs of 21st century life in the central city. There is poverty, there is racism, and there are the many needs that generally go along with those two realities.

This morning we see that Luke’s Gospel has Jesus begin with a mission statement of sorts. Jesus has just been baptized by John the Baptist and then tempted by Satan to embark on a mission that Satan wants him to go on. Jesus resists and embarks on the mission to which God has called him. Mark and Matthew share these stories with Luke. But it is only Luke who gives us this story of Jesus defining his mission during a visit to his own hometown of Nazareth. He gets up in the synagogue on the Sabbath, recites three verses from the prophet Isaiah, and then concludes, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” In others words, ‘This is what I’m here to do. This is my mission.’

Again, this mission statement is simple and easy to remember. Jesus no doubt knew these words by heart. He opens the scroll to the prophet Isaiah, but then he picks out two-and-a-half verses from two different chapters of Isaiah. Instead of literally reading them, he may have been reciting them. He knew them by heart because this was his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because 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.”

One thing that strikes me about this mission statement is that good news is only good news when it meets the needs of the people. Jesus names certain folks with specific needs: the poor, the blind, those bound in some form of captivity. As preacher Edward Markquart states in [the course] Witnesses for Christ:

God’s story is always related to human need. For example, if a woman is dying of cancer, the gospel is God’s strong word of resurrection. If a person is permeated with guilt, the gospel is God’s assurance of forgiveness. If people experience extreme suffering, the gospel is the prayer: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” For the starving, the gospel may be bread. For a homeless refugee, the gospel may be freedom in a new homeland. For others, the gospel may be freedom from political tyranny. The gospel is always related to human need. It is never truth in a vacuum, a theologically true statement which may or may not relate to one’s life. The gospel is God’s truth, God’s message, God’s action, God’s word to a particular person, to a particular need, to a particular historical situation. You don’t throw a drowning person sandwich. However good the sandwich may be, it just doesn’t meet that person’s need. You throw a drowning person a life jacket or a lifeline, or you dive in for the rescue. So it is with the gospel. The gospel is God’s truth, God’s action, aimed at a particular human need. [p. 69, student book]

There is a lot of truth to Pastor Markquart’s words here.

But I’d also like to use his point in a way that sorts of turns the matter around. If God’s truth is aimed at particular human need, then what does the cross tell us about our human need? In other words, if the cross is our main lifeline that God throws to us, then what are we drowning in? As a horrible instrument of human violence, doesn’t the cross show us that we are drowning in our violence?

You might respond: “Perhaps, but we seem to have so many other needs as human beings, too. Pastor Markquart named things like being freed from hunger, homelessness, or political tyranny. And there are so many more needs we could name.” My response, then, goes something like this: aren’t all those needs related to forms of violence? One of the wisest things that Mohatma Gandhi ever said was, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Poverty is a form of collective violence of those who have against those who don’t have. There is enough in this world to go around, but the very structures of the way we do things leave people out. I’m talking about violence here, of course, in broader terms than just physical violence. Violence, more broadly conceived, are all those things that make for unholy communions vs. Holy Communions. Do you remember how we talked about that last week. Our way of communion, or of community, is to form a unity on the basis of leaving someone out, on expelling someone or even killing them as our enemy.

But Jesus came to give us a new Holy Communion, a new way of coming together not on the basis of leaving folks out but rather on its opposite. Jesus came to help us form community, a Holy Communion, on the basis of serving precisely those people whom we usually leave out: the poor, the blind, the captive.

There’s one other very important way to see what Jesus is about in his mission statement, these very carefully selected two-and-a-half verses from Isaiah. Jesus says volumes, for example, by the words he didn’t read. Let’s conclude this morning by imagining ourselves in Jesus congregation (which shouldn’t be too hard, by the way, since Jesus promises to be here in the midst of our service of Holy Communion).

What is your program, Jesus? (1) We sit in your congregation today. Tell us! Jesus stands to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor … 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.” He ends in the middle of a verse without reading, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Nor does Jesus read more of Isaiah’s oracle concerning comfort for mourners and cloaking the faint of spirit with praise, perhaps because further on Isaiah would repeat the claim that Israel shall have for itself the wealth of the nations, while all those others end up with nothing but God’s vengeance heaped upon them.

Such was — and is — the conventional messianic dream of oppressed people. When we take over, we will be on top. The creeps who have oppressed us will be on the first track out.

Jesus wants no part of that. How, then, would he bring good news to the poor or freedom to the oppressed? He would do it, Luke shows, through persistent befriending of the poor, the outcasts, the little people of his day, including those who seemed his enemies. He listened to them and ate with them. Some he healed of maladies that diminished their lives. He simply kept on like that until he fell victim to the violence of those in power, who themselves were listening to the crowd, to you and I who want our communions in the same old unholy ways since the beginning of time.

Even then Jesus responded not with vengeance, threats or self-interest. Rather, he went calmly toward death, stopping along the way to heal a slave’s ear, to comfort the women who wept for him, to ask forgiveness for his murderers and to encourage his fellow condemned. There we see Jesus’ messianic mission, the epiphany of God’s glory in action.

Jesus’ program continues today. The anointed one still walks the road that leads from Nazareth toward the borderline between time and eternity, working among the poor, the oppressed, the mourners, the murderers and the murdered in the only body he has right now, the one Paul calls the body of Christ.

Do you want to see the messianic rule emerging with its release for captives and freedom for the oppressed? By the power of the Spirit that anoints you and I, we join others who do likewise for poor, lonely, hopeless human beings. Then you and I too shall be messiah, anointed ones. Each of us can boldly share our faith in this neighborhood through grace and outreach. We can say as Jesus did, “The Spirit of God has anointed me. I come to bring good news, to free the oppressed, to give sight to the blind. God’s ancient promises are fulfilled in your presence.” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Kenosha, WI, January 25, 2004

1. Beginning here, the remainder of this sermon is an edited version of Frederick Niedner‘s essay in The Christian Century (Jan. 3, 2001), “Taking the good news home.”

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