You can see all the lectionary readings for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.
I’m preaching this Sunday so what follows is basically my sermon (though it will no doubt change a bit in the moment).
Just imagine something for a moment with me. Father Owen on a Sunday morning reads the Gospel as usual. We are all watching him (or maybe we’re reading along in our bulletin, but hopefully we’re paying attention). Then he just sits down and says “OK, that scripture is fulfilled today” and that’s the end of his sermon. We’d be like, “What? What is happening?” But you’re out of luck this morning, I have a lot more to say—you won’t get off that easy. But keep that in your mind as we move on.
Next let’s bring our imaginations to the time of Jesus. This is a little more difficult since we haven’t been there. Jesus has been baptized and then he has been tempted in the wilderness. He then returns to the area of Galilee where he grew up. Today’s Gospel says he returns “filled with the power of the Spirit.” What does this mean—filled with the power of the Spirit? It’s no small thing—when Luke tells us that Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit, he’s letting us know that now we’re getting down to business. You don’t describe someone filled with the power of the Spirit if they’re just planning to have a snack, take a nap, maybe catch a football game. Being filled with the power of the Spirit means something significant. He begins teaching in the synagogues of various towns, and word begins to spread that he is something special.
Then Jesus’ ministry truly begins with today’s Gospel, and he announces it in his own hometown.
He arrives in his hometown of Nazareth and is asked to read from the scriptures on the Sabbath. Someone hands him the scroll of Isaiah. He finds a particular passage (now take note this is also what we do on our Sabbath day–we look into the scriptures to learn something every week).
I’m going to read this again; it’s important:
“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.”
What’s interesting to me is that he is very deliberate about the passage he reads, and he adds a bit from another part of Isaiah. So he knows exactly what he intends and this makes it more meaningful.
Then Jesus sits down. (From what I understand it was common practice for someone presenting in the synagogue to read a scripture and then sit down before explaining it.) He then says, as everyone stares at him expectantly, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, “This text is about me and I’m about to blow your minds.”
The response of the people of Nazareth will be continued in next week’s Gospel reading–you’ll have to come back for that (I feel like I’m giving you a cliffhanger—but you can also read it in any of the Bibles here). Today it’s all about what Jesus is saying. You could call this passage Jesus’ mission statement, because it’s indeed what he goes on to make the focus of his ministry–to bring good news to the poor, to tell the captives they are free, to proclaim sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and to tell everyone the time has come for the Lord’s favor.
His carrying out this mission is apparent in everything he does—in what he teaches, in his healing ministry, in his surprising responses to questioning by religious leaders, in his miracles—and this mission is what leads him to the cross. Then he rises from the dead and his mission continues in the hands of his church. Sometimes the church has followed his mission and done it very well and of course sometimes it’s done it poorly or even as if following a very different mission.
Let’s break this mission statement down. First, to bring good news to the poor. Jesus was very focused on poverty. He was very focused on money. There are people who count these things and they have calculated that he talked about money more than anything else–but he talked about it in the sense that earthly things are fragile and fleeting. In that time people who were wealthy were often considered blessed by God. Honestly there are a lot of Christians who think that way today. They think if you’re poor, you must have done something wrong—never mind income inequality, the effects of racism, classism, the difficulty in affording higher education—poverty is somehow a sin and a reflection of bad character according to some people. Recently Franklin Graham (he’s the son of the famous Christian evangelist Billy Graham) said in an interview, “A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume.” This was in context of him saying that the United States has been a force for good because of its wealth. I think I get what he’s trying to say, but it comes across very dismissive of the poor and their intrinsic worth, worth that Jesus would never deny.
There are ministers (some are themselves multimillionaires) in the pulpit this morning telling their congregations that they just need to pray harder to be blessed with money. They teach that they lack faith if they struggle financially. But later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are you that hunger now.” Jesus had no disdain for the poor but only for those who mistreated the poor and trampled them on their way to their own riches. He often contrasts the poor with the wealthy. After blessing the poor, he says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” His words of comfort were for those who needed it, not for the already comfortable. Most of us probably know the story of Jesus watching people donating money at the temple. He saw the rich men donating large amounts very ostentatiously—obviously showing off their wealth while they were at it. Then he watched a poor widow give two copper coins and he said that she had given more than all the rest, because they gave out of their abundance and she gave all she had. That was how Jesus cared for the poor. He brought good news to the poor because they likely saw themselves as unworthy as well. They internalized that harsh assessment of poverty being their own fault, but Jesus gave them comfort and intrinsic value.
Next, Jesus said “proclaim release to the captives.” Often this is interpreted only metaphorically—freeing people captive to sin or freeing us from certain ancient laws. It’s true that I can’t recall an incident of Jesus personally setting captives physically free—but he did have a message of hope and freedom. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and 20 percent of the world’s imprisoned population. Do we really have more law-breakers than other nations? Even as the rates of violent crime and property crime have gone down, our prison population has increased dramatically for decades, thanks to harsh sentencing and mandatory sentencing laws and I think also due to a certain culture of condemnation and retribution for even minor offenses. Our prisons are disproportionately populated by people of color. In addition to our regular prisons, we have those detained at the border seeking asylum. Our country has increased spending for prisons dramatically compared with the increase in spending for education. The amount of tax payer money spent for state and local prisons increased at triple the rate, compared to public school education. If Jesus began his ministry in this decade, I think he would call us out for all of these alarming statistics.
Jesus also talked about recovery of sight to the blind. This was very literal in the Gospel when he healed the blind and many other people. Healing was an extensive and essential part of his ministry. Healing should also be a part of our ministry, whether spiritual or physical. Healing is complicated and difficult, but it’s part of our calling as followers of Christ. Of course, we should work to make medical care more accessible and affordable for people and that’s important, but healing isn’t synonymous with curing. To cure someone is to eliminate their disease. To heal someone is to make them whole. That goes beyond the medical. How are people healed? Sometimes they are literally cured, yes. Sometimes they are healed of addictions. Sometimes they are healed of their own closed-minded bigotry. Sometimes they are healed of loneliness. We may not experience the kind of miracles Jesus performs in the scriptures, but healing still happens and we are called to care for our fellow children of God.
Jesus also says he’s called to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Isn’t that a beautiful thought—freedom for the oppressed and the Lord’s favor? So many of us have been treated badly, so many people have been marginalized and abused by society and by other people. And Jesus had a message of hope for them, for us. And he calls on us to carry on this mission, a mission to the poor, to the captives, to the blind, to the oppressed—to all the people our culture has rejected and neglected.
Today’s reading from Corinthians is also about the church, the Body of Christ, and how we are called to live out the mission of Jesus. We are all part of that body and we all have our own purpose within it. We all have gifts and skills to use for the church and for society. Those gifts are all different. Your gifts are not the same as your neighbor’s. Those gifts work together to make a functioning and thriving body of Christ, working together for the good of the church and the world, carrying out the same mission.
I want to challenge all of us to think about Jesus’ mission over next two weeks as we approach the date of our annual meeting. How are we fulfilling our role within the body of Christ?—both as members of Grace and members of the larger church. How is Grace working toward these goals? I could tell you some wonderful things Grace is doing, but I challenge you to look into it in the coming week. You can check out the website for information on all the ways this church is at work fulfilling Jesus’ mission or you can come to the annual meeting on the 10th and hear the voices of those doing that work and inviting you to join in as well.
So let’s go back to where we began—in our imaginations. We have heard the scripture. The Holy Spirit is within us as followers of Christ. We are called to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, to heal the broken, to free the oppressed, and to proclaim the goodness of God. Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. Amen.