Scripture can be found here…
This morning we find Jesus in his home village of Nazareth. According to the gospel of Luke, it’s still early days in Jesus’ ministry. To recap: chapter 1 was devoted to all the significant events before his birth, and chapter 2, to his birth, infancy, and even, a little, his childhood. Then, between the ages of 12 and 30, we find… silence. An eighteen-year gap not illuminated by any of the gospels, when Jesus is doing… we don’t know what. Growing up, certainly. Growing more and more deeply to know the scriptures, surely. Learning his father’s trade, perhaps.
Years ago, following a class I taught for Lyceum, someone pressed a book into my hands. It was called “The Christ of India,” and made the case that Jesus spent his youth—the lost years between 12 and 30—in India and Tibet, studying Buddhism, which supposedly influenced his teachings when he returned. Most mainstream scholars are doubtful that this ever happened, but we simply don’t know. These years are lost to us.
In chapter 3 we meet Jesus at “about thirty years old.” This is an age when biblical men often begin lives of service: At thirty, the men of the priestly tribes were eligible to begin their work in the tent of meeting, or the temple. At thirty, Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, began his service to the Pharaoh. At thirty, King David began his reign. Now, Jesus is baptized, and when we meet him at the beginning of our passage in chapter four, we find him “filled with the Holy Spirit.” However he has prepared for this moment, here it is. He is ready.
Jesus goes on a preaching tour of Galilee, and word spreads, fast. Guess who’s back? He teaches in the synagogues and gains universal praise.
Then Jesus comes home to Nazareth, and on the Sabbath day, goes to the synagogue, as is his custom. He stands up to read, and the scroll is open to Isaiah. It sounds a lot like chapter 61.
“The Spirit of the Lord, she is upon me,” Jesus says. In the original—the Hebrew and Aramaic version—the word for Spirit is “ruach;” the Spirit is gendered feminine. Most of the times you hear the word “Spirit” throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, you are hearing a feminine noun. People who know their Hebrew hear it every Shabbat in their synagogues. Our translations hide it from us.
“The Spirit of the Lord, she is upon me,” Jesus reads, and he continues:
because God 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. ~Luke 4:18-19
Jesus rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the synagogue attendant, and sits down. In a Presbyterian Church in 2019, when the preacher sits down, the sermon is over. In a synagogue in ancient Palestine, when the preacher sits down, the sermon is just about to begin. All we get today, is Jesus’ opening line:
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
(Tune in next week for the rest of the sermon.)
But… what an opening line! Jesus is pointing to Isaiah’s words—good news for the poor, release to captives, recovery to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed—and he is saying, “I am the fulfillment of all these promises. This is God’s agenda, and it is my agenda, too.”
It would be completely understandable if the good congregants of Beth Nazareth were to scratch their heads in wonder, or to weep with joy, or maybe both.
What does Jesus mean? What is he talking about?
Certainly, the words from Isaiah hit close to home for anyone within his hearing—Nazareth was famously small and insignificant, and its people at the bottom of the ladder, by every measure—wealth, power, education, longevity. Everyone there was living under the brutal occupation of the Roman government, and release from that captivity was a widespread and fervent hope. Every person in that synagogue either knew someone who had been struck with some condition for which there was no hope of healing—or they had experienced it themselves. They understood oppression. They lived it.
But… these words from Isaiah have meaning for us, too, don’t they? We long for good news in days when it seems most of what we hear or see is wretched and full of anger. We feel captive to any number of things—anger, addiction, unemployment or work that doesn’t pay a living wage, painful relationships, responsibilities we don’t feel equipped to carry out, and on, and on, and on. We long for recovery—for healing—that seems to elude us. And if by chance we’re actually doing just fine, well then, don’t forget that verse from 1 Corinthians 12: “If one member [of the body] suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” We are members of one another. We are a part of each other, knit together with all God’s children. If any suffer, don’t we suffer, too.
And then there’s “the year of the Lord’s favor?” Who could even begin to hope for that?
The year of favor was another name for the Jubilee year. Outlined in Leviticus, the Jubilee was supposed to take place every forty-nine or fifty years. But to understand it, we first have to understand the Sabbath year, which took place every seven. Here’s a description from the book of Exodus:
For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.
~ Exodus 23:10-11
Every seventh year, those who produced the food were to take a year off their labor, and also their profit (if they had any). The food that the land naturally produced belonged to the poor. The idea was that, if farmers faithfully practiced this Sabbath of the land, God would ensure that, years six through eight, their crop would be sufficient to feed them and their families, until they are plowing and planting again.
The other ingredient of the Sabbath year: most slaves were given their freedom.[i]
The Jubilee year, every forty-nine, was simply an enhanced, super-sized version of the Sabbath year. In the Jubilee year, the land was to lie fallow. In the Jubilee year, slaves were to be set free. But in addition, in the Jubilee year, debts were to be forgiven. In the Jubilee year, the weight of poverty and hopelessness was to be lifted from everyone, and those at the bottom of the social ladder were the ones who longed for that the most. The year of God’s favor. The year when they felt the blessing of God’s presence most keenly in the blessing of wholly owning themselves again.
By virtue of our baptism, each one of us is invited to take part in fulfilling Jesus’ agenda for the poor, the captives, the ailing, and the oppressed. Because the waters of the muddy Jordan have been poured on us, just as they were poured on Jesus, we too are anointed to do Jesus’ work. Last week, when we gathered together for our deacons and elders’ retreat, we shared our personal statements of faith. One among us said—and many agreed—that our faith is about more than what we believe. It’s also about what we are called to do.
Jesus returns to his hometown and reads words of incredible comfort and blessing to the people who watched him grow up. He proclaims that God’s agenda of good news, release, recovery and the lifting of oppression is today’s agenda, and by the Spirit’s powerful anointing, it is Jesus’ own agenda, too. The people who hear these words of Jesus, wondering and perhaps weeping, welcome Nazareth’s favorite son with open arms.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] The only exception to this rule is: daughters who have been sold into slavery (of any kind, including sex-slavery) are not released in either Sabbath or Jubilee years. Their slavery is permanent.