I’d invite you to go ahead and turn to Luke chapter 4 in your Bibles. This is on page 936 in the church’s Bibles in the pew backs.
There are some sharp signals Luke gives us for why we should pay particular close attention to this passage. Luke’s gospel begins by paralleling the birth stories of John and Jesus and then, 30 years later, has Jesus joining John’s renewal movement by getting baptized in the Jordan River. When Jesus is baptized it says “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” and he heard a Divine voice saying “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Then in chapter 4 verse 1 this Spirit that Jesus received promptly leads him out into the wilderness in isolation where he faces down another spirit that Luke calls the devil. And Jesus wrestles with which spirit he will allow to guide him, and emerges ready for ministry.
This brings us to verse 14 where the reading for today began. “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee (in other words, he’s now out of the wilderness) and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” And then he comes to Nazareth, his hometown and we have this episode in the synagogue, the first act of Jesus’ ministry that Luke narrates.
If you look in Mark and Matthew’s gospels you notice that Jesus’ visit to Nazareth occurs much later in his ministry. Jesus does all sorts of things before he actually gets to Nazareth. Healings, calling his disciples, teaching different parables, traveling around the countryside. But Luke wants to have his trip to Nazareth be the first thing he narrates about Jesus’ ministry. His nod to these other things that have happened is this statement in verse 15, “He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”
Luke places this Nazareth story where he does because for him it is the entire ministry of Jesus in a nutshell. He’s basically using the same technique as a modern day newspaper reporter. In newspaper articles, the first paragraph or two are designed to tell the whole story in condensed form. If you read the opening paragraph closely then you get the gist of the whole story. The rest of the article serves to provide further details and fill out the picture. Luke’s strategy here is not to provide a chronological account of Jesus’ ministry, but to offer an opening story that summarizes the meaning of the whole rest of the story. So Jesus’ talk in this synagogue serves like his inaugural address where he highlights what he is all about. Or it’s like his personal mission statement. So, this passage asks for our attention because of where Luke has located it in his gospel. If we get what’s going on here, we will have a pretty good grasp of the rest of the gospel which provides more of the details and fills out the picture of Jesus’ ministry.
So if we’re supposed to pay attention and read closely, what is it that we find when we read here?
One of the things I try and notice when I read Scripture is the pace of the narrative, where the author chooses to move action along rather quickly and what instances the author chooses to dwell on and hover over for a while. As I mentioned, verses 14 and 15 cover a lot of ground. In two verses Jesus goes from the desert back to Galilee, and visits a whole bunch of synagogues. He goes from being a nobody to having news about him spread all over the country side. At the beginning of v. 15 Luke tells us that he began to teach, but doesn’t give us any details about the content of this teaching.
Then in verse 16 the pace starts to slow down. He came to Nazareth (a walk across the countryside), then we went to the synagogue in Nazareth (a walk across town). And we see that it was the Sabbath day. So we have a specific time and a specific place. And then the narrative slows down to a crawl. And we begin getting almost a moment by moment description of what is taking place, a very slow pace right at the end of v. 16. “He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written…
If this passage had a soundtrack to it, the music that would open would be have to have a fast paced driving beat to match all the activity that gets packed into just a few verses. And then, it would suddenly slow down into some kind of ballad. The way that a story is paced also helps us know where to pay attention. Luke is hovering on a particular moment and wants us to hover there with him. Jesus reads the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, “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.” And then Luke continues this painfully slow moment by moment narration. V. 20. “And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him”…So we’re set up. Whatever happens next is key.
Just so we’re where Luke wants us to be its important to know that it was custom for people to stand up to read the Scripture and then sit down to teach. So Luke begins this section by saying that Jesus stood up to read, and ends by saying that he sat down. “And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” This is every teacher’s dream! To have the complete undivided attention of those who are listening. And his teaching begins with this one sentence. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The position of this passage in Luke’s gospel as a whole signals its importance, and the way Luke has paced out the passage itself lets us know where he is focusing. And this seems to be the message. Jesus actually believes that the Scriptures are talking to him and about him. He actually believes that when the prophet says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” that it means “The Spirit is on ME” “because he has anointed ME to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight for the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus believes that scripture can be fulfilled in his self, through the life of his physical body. Today. This apparently, is what the ministry of Jesus is all about. Each day, living under the anointing of the Spirit, and bringing freedom to those who would receive it.
It should be noted that this quote from Isaiah is not a single passage from Isaiah. It’s a composite which comes mostly from Isa. 61, but also partially from Isaiah 58. So it’s not as if Jesus is picking out just one little Scripture and choosing that to define himself. It’s as if he is saying that the entire liberating message of the law and prophets are referring to ME, and my ministry is about fulfilling all of this. The last phrase of this quote, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, could very well be speaking of the Year of Jubilee which involved a rather radical redistribution of wealth and a rebalancing of power. Jesus’ body becomes a vessel for the Holy Spirit and through his physical body he becomes the bringer of this message of hope.
Now here’s the kicker for us. In his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul tells the church, “Now YOU are the body of Christ” “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews (and) Greeks, slaves (and) free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” The anointing of the Spirit, Jesus baptism, and fulfillment of Scripture in Jesus aren’t meant to be one time events. The mystery of our Christian lives is that through baptism WE are God’s Beloved Children, welcomed into this same movement of the Spirit, and WE become a part of the living and breathing body of Christ. And this body is no longer an individual, Jesus, but an entire community of people making up different parts, as Paul describes. We each play a small part in this. So none of us has everything, but we each have something, and we bring our gifts together and work together like the parts of a body. And, like Jesus, we are about the work of fulfilling the liberating message of the scriptures here and now, as the body of Christ.
So, if we use our imaginations a bit, we might be able to see how this is happening. I can imagine a Scripture hanging over the Children’s Circle downstairs from Matthew 18: “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” And then the words, “Today, in this Circle, this Scripture is being fulfilled.” Or how about a sign outside of Ten Thousand Villages with the words from Deuteronomy: “You shall not withhold the wages of the poor and needy laborers…justice and only justice you shall pursue” and the words, “Today, in this store, this Scripture is being fulfilled.” As we provide spiritual and emotional support for each other in this congregation I think of the words from Paul in Romans, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn.” Today and many days this Scripture is fulfilled among us. And when the day is over and we lay down for sleep and offer the day back to God I can imagine the words from Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.” Tonight, as we rest, this Scripture, fulfilled.
We, the body of Christ, living out the fulfillment of God’s desires for the world. Jesus’ mission statement. Our mission statement. The Spirit of the Lord is upon US, because WE have been anointed to be bearers of good news.
We have the chance to take communion together today. And it just so happens to be World Fellowship Sunday for Mennonite churches where we are mindful that the body of Christ is so much bigger than just our local gathering, but spans around the world. In communion, the body of Christ becomes alive to us again and again. The bread and the juice are a sign of this living body, and a sign that we are participants in the ongoing life of the resurrected Christ. And the Scriptures are fulfilled within this. We receive God’s forgiveness, freely offered. We receive the gift of Christ’s self, freely offered, and we again take the body and blood of Christ into our body and blood that we may become Christ’s living body, anointed with the Spirit, bearing good news.
Words of Institution…
… and I say to you, that today, in your hearing, this Scripture has been fulfilled. All who wish to share in this gift of Christ and invited to come, eat and drink.