Back in 2009, I had an opportunity that was an unbelievable privilege. During the season of Lent, I was invited to preach at my hometown church, Perry Memorial United Methodist in Shady Spring, W.Va. I quickly accepted and was humbled by the chance to preach from the same pulpit where some of my favorite preachers stood.
As I look back, I remember feeling some pressure and a lot of temptation leading up to the service. Keep in mind this was the same congregation that saw me running up and down the aisles, stealing microphones as a child, and doing a bad impersonation of a singer during the Christmas cantata. They knew me and I knew them. I felt a lot of pressure to preach an easy message, one that would be easily received by the congregation and would allow me to maintain the “hometown boy does good” status I had earned.
The passage I preached from was not easy. It was from 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, where Paul speaks of the foolishness of the cross. The message I preached became a message that would serve as a centering point for how I try to serve. What I said was that the Gospel and the cross breaks down the barriers we often create and welcomes all people. In a way, that message set up how I have tried to preach ever since.
When I think about that service and sermon I can understand how Jesus must have felt when he went to his hometown synagogue to preach. Jesus had been in Galilee for about a year teaching and preaching when we arrive at the events recorded in Luke 4:18-21. The reports of Jesus’ ministry, his teachings and healings, got back to his hometown of Nazareth. People were wondering about Jesus, who was this man they saw growing up in their midst. The leaders of the synagogue invited Jesus to come and speak to the assembled congregation.
It was a hometown boy done good moment, and Jesus had to have felt pressure and temptation to live up to the expectations. In Nazareth were the people who saw him as a child. They were the people who knew his mother, Mary, and cared for her. There must have been a temptation to deliver a light message. Jesus could have picked any passage of the Hebrew Bible, which we know as the Old Testament. He could have preached on Joshua, on Job, or even the Ten Commandments. Instead, he selects a passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 that is filled with Messianic overtones.
There is a reason why Jesus chose this passage and this moment to preach this message. The passage provided an introduction to the way Jesus would live out his Messianic identity and calling. It announces the kind of work Jesus came to do and the work Jesus calls us to take on.
That is the kicker for us as we continue our “Restart” series in examining how we can energize our faith in 2016. This passage is not just Jesus’ announcement of what it meant for him to live out his calling. It is also announces how Jesus desires us to live out our faith. If we want to restart our faith, then we are to live like Jesus and proclaim good news to the poor, release the captives, help the blind to see, set free the oppressed, and proclaim that the Lord’s redemption has come for all today. We are called to live a faith that seeks to serve others.
Admittedly, the way Jesus invites us to live out our faith by joining in his very own ministry makes us uncomfortable. The reason is that this is not the faith many of us would want to claim. The faith we are attracted to is a faith that can easily fit on a bumper sticker or a nice T-shirt. We seek a faith that is more about pithy statements that are unchallenging and easily comforting. We want a faith that is more about our own personal needs. In fact, we like faith best when it makes us happy, comfortable, and relaxed.
That is not the faith Jesus proclaims, nor is it the faith we are called to live out. Jesus’ faith and ministry challenges our presuppositions and calls us into relationships with the poor, the outcast, and the rejected. Faith is both a personal and social reality. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, best lived this out. His ministry sought to combine both personal and social holiness together. It was a belief that said as we grow in faith we are called to go out and serve the poor, the outcast, and the forgotten. If we want to reclaim our faith, then we must see that our faith is not merely about us, but it is about serving others in response to our faith in God.
This is why Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2 with its message of the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed being set free. He preaches this message in a time that was much like our own. People were considered outcasts if they did not fit in, come from the right community, or look like others. He also preached at a time when people were expecting the Messiah, a savior, to come and redeem the people. So, Jesus addresses his hometown synagogue and announces the true nature of his ministry and the life Jesus desires us to claim.
The passage emphasizes how Jesus has been anointed for this work. He has been called and set apart to be the Messiah by the very fact he is the Son of God. The Spirit has empowered Jesus to be the healer and redeemer we need. Think about what this means. The Spirit does not just anoint Jesus to do the challenging. The Spirit anoints us to do the challenging in our own community. Our adoption as God’s children and empowerment through baptism anoints us by the Spirit with gifts to be used to change the world, just as Jesus changed the world.
Jesus changed the world in each of the areas the passage highlights. First, good news, Jesus announces, is to be shared with the poor. In a time when good news was only shared with the religious elite or were connected to the announcements of Caesar, Jesus announces that news of hope and joy was to be shared with the poor. It was a revolutionary statement. The very people who were often ignored and excluded by society were given a place in Jesus’ love. The same people who are often ignored in our own time are told they are welcomed by God.
The poor in this passage has two meanings. First, there is the spiritual poor. These are those who believe they do not need God. These are the people who believe there is no reason to be in church. These are the people who have a deep need of God. In truth, the spiritual poor includes all of us. The good news of how God comes and offers hope and reconciliation for all people. That is good news. Just as it is good news for the physical poor. Good news for those who struggle with finances, who have nothing, and who have nowhere to turn to. The good news is the message God has not abandoned them. Jesus comes to offer good news for all people. No one is excluded from receiving God’s good news of hope.
Jesus has been sent, as well, to proclaim release to the captives. To be sent means to go into the community. One cannot be sent by staying where we are. The captives in Jesus’ time were those imprisoned by the religious regulations and the civil rule of the Roman empire. Today, we are imprisoned and held captive by many things, such as our schedules, our ideologies, our addictions, and other things that hold us down. These imprisonments prevent us from being the people God calls us to be.
Jesus says he has come to bring freedom to what enchains us. Freedom that allows us to experience the fullness of a life in God’s love. Charles Wesley highlights this in the hymn “And Can it Be.” He writes how our chains fall off – our imprisonments and burdens – because of Christ’s love. Jesus brings freedom from all the things that enslave us. We are to live like Jesus and help others to break free the chains of their imprisonment. To partner with people to find ways to end the cycle of captivity that so often hinders the lives of so many. We are called to live like Jesus and proclaim freedom for all.
Jesus came to bring sight to the blind. A story illustrates this in John’s gospel when Jesus takes mud and places it on the eyes of a blind man. The man’s eyes were immediately opened and he was able to see. The sight Jesus offers was not just a physical sight, but it was a sight that would open the blindness in our hearts. This blindness keeps us from seeing God or the good in one another. Jesus enables us to see God’s love in a new way. He came to offer us eyes to see the potential in others. As our eyes are opened to God’s love, we are called to go and help others see by being people of light who show a new way for people to live. We are called to live like Jesus and help others to see the light and hope of Christ in their world.
Jesus also came to free the oppressed. He came to bring justice in the midst of injustice. He came to welcome the social outcast. He came to express how God’s presence is with all people and not just those with power or authority. To know God is with us is the message of freedom.
In response to our faith, we are called to set free the oppressed in our time. We are called to be people of justice, as well. We often ignore this call by ignoring the pains and struggles of others. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., responded in his ministry to this reaction to ignore the injustice that occurs in our communities. He wrote in “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we truly want to have justice in our own lives, then we must be people who fight for justice for the oppressed and the wronged in our community. We must live like Jesus and be a voice for the voiceless and seek justice for all.
Through all of this, Jesus announces how God’s jubilee has come. Jubilee focused on how property rights and values were reset every 50 years going back to its original owners. People would be redeemed and restored, especially as it related to land and property. What Jesus says is that the time of true redemption and restoration has come. The time when all would be healed, when all would be restored, and all would be completed redeemed by the presence of God. It is a message of hope that is desperately needed in our time. We are called to live like Jesus and announce that hope has come and redemption is available for all.
It is a daunting and challenging task, but one that has already been fulfilled. We are merely just participating in the outflow of it. Jesus’ fulfillment of these things is the announcement that God goes with us in our work to bring for peace and justice in our world. We do not go out from the walls of the church alone. We are co-workers with God in the important work of sharing hope with the poor, bringing life to the captive, of helping the blind to see, to giving freedom to the oppressed, and announcing redemption for all.
The faith Jesus calls us to express is a public faith that is lived out in the needs of our community and world. Faith cannot be private only. Faith must be lived out if it is ever to be made real in our hearts or the hearts of others.
There are people who need release, freedom, and redemption in our community. We know the places of injustice that exists in our area. We cannot sit idly by and ignore the needs of others and calls ourselves faithful Christians. If we want to restart our faith, then let us be the people who clam our faith by joining in Jesus’ own work of bringing hope and redemption to all people. And let this work begin with me, with us, in this community.