Luke 4:14-30: An inaugural speech usually sets the tone for the work ahead, touching on the key points which the president plans to focus on during his or her tenure. It is the first speech of the presidency, and people pay very close attention to its’ content, no matter what their opinion of the speaker. Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown serves as an inaugural sermon for the gospel of Luke. He has begun his ministry in Galilee already, teaching in synagogues of towns and villages around the eastern rim of the Lake, but this sermon in Nazareth is an agenda-setting message which sets the tone for this entire gospel.
Sitting in the synagogue that day is the man who first taught him to read the ancient Hebrew texts from the scroll. And the men he sat with to debate the meaning of the words of God. And in the back was the old, old man who gave him treats
to keep quiet in church when he was a little boy. They are the people who watched him grow up. The people he saw every Sabbath day in the synagogue. They are like family. They love him and are excited to see his ministry taking off. Standing in front of this hometown crowd is a very different experience than standing in front of strangers in other towns.
I remember my first (and only) sermon at my home church in Arlington, VA. I believe I was still in seminary. We had traveled to visit my family for a weekend and I was to preach on Sunday morning. When I stood in the pulpit I felt a mixture of fear and comfort. I saw my own family–my parents and my youngest brothers still at home. I had preached in other settings while in seminary, but they had never heard me preach. I saw Helene Perkins, who taught me in Sunday School. I saw the lady I used to help in the nursery. And I saw the faces of my youth group leader and his wife who had traveled more than an hour just to be there when I preached. Then my eyes started to water. These people loved me. They were proud of me. There was probably nothing I could say that would change that. I can’t remember the content or the style of the sermon, but I do remember the eyes and the smiles.
Jesus must have had those same eyes and smiles. At first. His hometown crowd was proud of him. “That’s Joseph’s boy”, they said. He spoke words filled with grace. He himself was the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah, the one anointed, chosen, set apart to tell the good news to the poor, to release the prisoners and give sight to the blind, to free the oppressed and to announce the year of jubilee. Sitting in the synagogue that day, the people were impressed. He was bringing good news for them. God had answered their prayers and now things were going to change. He would bring healing on multiple levels. He brought them hope for a future free from the oppression of a foreign government. Then he went too far. Preachers do that sometimes, you know.
Jesus stepped on toes, hard. Yes, he came to bring good news to the poor, but not first to his hometown crowd. First to the outsider, the foreigner even. He uses the illustrations of Elijah and Elisha, Old Testament prophets who were sent by God to care for and to heal persons outside of Israel, even though there were many in Israel who were hungry, many people with leprosy who needed healing. He aligns himself with the prophets, and basically sets his agenda, which will be one of setting people free from that which binds them– physical infirmity, economic burdens, social condemnation, political oppression. He is coming to open doors that have been closed, to raise hopes for the hopeless, to change lives. Sounds great when you think he is talking to you. But when you realize you are not in the recipient group to start with, you feel snubbed, you feel left out, and then you get angry. The people in the synagogue that day swiftly moved from rejoicing at their hometown hero to rejecting a man who was setting his agenda to care first for the poor and the oppressed.
The crowd responded the same way the crowd might respond on Friday at the presidential inauguration if President Trump were to say that first on his presidential agenda he was going to make sure we find ways to take care of all the homeless refugees from Syria. “What? What about my job? What about my retirement? What about my son’s education?” Supporters who had traveled a distance to cheer him on could quickly turn angry. The crowd on the mall in DC would not rush the podium and escort him out of town as they did in Nazareth, but the scene could easily turn ugly if people got their toes stepped on.
We won’t hear words like those on Friday. But Jesus was clearly setting his agenda, offering his mission statement, launching his work plan from his home pulpit. Like any public leader, he comes to his hometown to make a special announcement. His agenda will focus on release, setting free, and the word is even translated as forgiveness in some instances. He talks about proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. His usage of Isaiah’s words call to mind the ideas of the year of jubilee, which were proposed during the years of the return from exile, when the people of Israel were re-acclimating to the land they had once occupied. The proposal was that every 50th year all property would revert back to the previous owners, all slaves would be freed, all debts would be canceled, making sure that all people were provided for, and removing the risk of a few people gobbling up all of the land. Historians are not sure whether the year of jubilee ever was put into practice, but its value as a social leveler is lifted up in the Hebrew scriptures and here in Jesus’ inaugural sermon. Perhaps it is more a focus on jubilee principles to guide our life together than a particular year of release. Instead of waiting for 50 years, let us be a people who seek to find ways to release one another from what holds us captive. There are many ways that we are held captive. In our conversations in Cuba with church leaders, it was clear to me that they see the US as held captive by a capitalistic, individualistic value system. And at the same time, we look at Cubans as held captive by a dictator whose legacy continues on even after his death. Who is held captive? All of us. We are held captive by our past, unable to move forward into the future. We are held captive by a lifestyle that is really out of reach economically but we won’t admit it. We are held captive to trying to be someone you are not, imprisoned by the opinions of others. We can be held captive by lack of educational opportunity and development.
This week I visited a young man who suffers from diabetes. I’ll call him Frank. Frank ended up with a foot infection that sent him to the hospital and now to a nursing facility for a couple of months’ worth of antibiotics in an attempt to save his foot. Not only is he held captive by an iv pole for 5 hours per day, he is held captive by his anxiety over his mounting bills and his inability to do the kind of hard labor he used to do to meet his expenses. Frank is an outsider to the church, but not an outsider to God. He knows he needs to be released from that which is holding him captive. His daily struggle is the kind of oppression that Jesus offers to remove. The iv pole is going nowhere, but his attitude toward it can change. His job search is on hold, but his hope for the future can grow even under these conditions.
Jesus’ mission statement includes people like Frank. And nameless people who look for dollars on the street corners in Baltimore. And the women who find themselves in a shelter for domestic violence victims. And the men who can’t get off heroin. And the children who have no place to safely play basketball. Jesus’ good news comes to those who are held captive, those who are oppressed, those who can not see, literally or figuratively.
Jesus says: Open the doors. Release the chains. Unbind them. It is time to put into practice the jubilee principles, the year of release. It is time to lift up those at the bottom. It is time for action. And we who follow Jesus are called to carry on this agenda, this work plan, this mission. May we have the courage to speak up, to stand up and to seek the release of the captives, wherever and whoever they might be. Amen.