Sunday, January 21, 2007

Jubilee 2007: A Sermon (basis) preached in Magheralin Parish Church on 21st January 2007. Luke 4:14-21

We’re potentially coming up to a time of elections, but don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about politics this morning, and I’ll not be telling you how to vote. But one of the features of the run up to elections is the mountain of mail they generate. You’re sitting at home, enjoying your breakfast (or maybe even your lunch – depending on the postal service), and suddenly there’s a thump, as a forest of paper lands on the mat.

All the parties publish their manifestos, and send them out to us. In them, they tell us what they aim to do, and how they plan to do it. It’s a sort of vision statement – depending on them getting your vote, of course.

This morning we’re going to look at the manifesto for Jesus’ ministry. He sets out his business, and where he’s going from here – at the start of his ministry. In the passage we find him returning to Nazareth, the place where he had been brought up (16). Elsewhere in the Gospels we find that he had lived in Capernaum for a while, but this was his return home.

The people were expecting a lot from his visit, after all, they had heard about his activities in other towns. Verse 15 tells us that he had been teaching in synagogues. News quickly spread through the countryside – perhaps nothing changes, as news still seems to spread rapidly from person to person and village to village. The news about Jesus was good too, because ‘everyone praised him.’

Jesus had come home. It being the Sabbath, he went to the synagogue – the meeting house where the Scriptures were read and taught and where prayer was offered. And just as he had taught in the other synagogues, there was the opportunity to teach there, in Nazareth.

His first sermon in front of his home town, and probably his family as well. What would he say? He had sat in the synagogue for so many years as he was growing up, listening to the teaching of the rabbis. What would he say today? And how would the congregation respond?

Next week, we’re going to look at the reaction, but in order to understand the reaction, we first have to hear and understand the message of Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth.

At the time, the Scriptures were on scrolls – massive scrolls. The scrolls would be kept by the attendant of the synagogue, and given to the speaker. Imagine the anticipation – what would Jesus read from?

The prophetic scroll was given to him, and then he had liberty to choose his text. So he found the place and began to read from Isaiah 61 those very familiar words:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

No doubt these words had been read many times before in the synagogue. They were words of good news, of freedom, of release. Maybe the congregation thought, oh, that’s a nice choice of reading. Something encouraging and inspiring.

It seems that the reading was done standing up (out of respect for the word), but the teaching was done sitting down. And so Jesus sat down to give his message. All eyes were fixed on him. What would he say?

Luke only gives us his opening words – he obviously spoke longer than we have recorded here. But those words were dynamite: ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’

In order to grasp what is happening, we need to hear this word afresh today. What was Isaiah originally saying, and how was it fulfilled in Jesus?

The speaker in Isaiah 61 doesn’t identify himself directly, and isn’t introduced. He just begins to speak: ‘The Spirit of the (Sovereign – Is 61:1) Lord is on me.’ Yet immediately there is a confident authority in his words – he is anointed by the Spirit of the Lord, he is sent to proclaim and release. Who is it speaking? This is none other than the Messiah, the one to come. In other parts of Isaiah, it says that the Messiah will have the Spirit on him (11:1, 42:1)

But as well as that, the very title suggests the person. Messiah means ‘anointed one’ and points towards a combination of prophet, priest and king – the three jobs that were marked by the anointing of oil. Consider briefly Elisha, who was anointed by Elijah to be a prophet (1 Kings 19:16); Aaron, who was anointed by Moses to be high priest (Leviticus 8:12); and David, who was anointed by Samuel to be king (1 Samuel 16:13).

So Jesus is clearly identifying himself here as the Messiah, the Christ, the expected and anointed one. He also declares that the Spirit of the Lord, the Holy Spirit is on him, enabling and equipping him to act. Already in Luke’s Gospel we have seen this, as the Holy Spirit comes on Mary at the time of conception. We then find the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan, and leading him into the desert at the start of the temptations. Even in our passage this morning, we find Jesus returning to Galilee ‘in the power of the Spirit.’

But what is it the Spirit will empower Jesus to do? What is he fulfilling in front of their very eyes? Jesus announces the Jubilee of the Lord, with its favour and freedom and release and restoration. You see, in one sense, the Jubilee wasn’t new. It was contained in the Law, in Leviticus 25 and was the year of release, when liberty was proclaimed. With all this talk of Jubilee, you might have been reminded of Jubilee 2000 – the project aimed at reducing third world debt. This was the focus and basis of that campaign.

Imagine that you were a small farmer in Israel. In those days there were no subsidies or grants schemes for farming, so you had to make do with what you could grow. Then you realise you can’t sustain yourself any more – what is to be done? Well, you can sell yourself into slavery – sell your land to a neighbour, and they will look after you. In the short term that’s good, because you survive. But you’re a slave. You’ve lost your land, the land that your father and his father and his father lived on and owned. Not such a good situation.

But every fifty years, there was the Jubilee – the year of liberty. In that year, debts were cancelled, and the land was returned to its rightful owners. How great would the news of the Jubilee be? Truly good news, I think you’ll agree.

And this is what Jesus is doing in our passage. He identifies himself as the Messiah, the anointed one empowered by the Holy Spirit. He proclaims the good news of the Jubilee – the year of the Lord’s favour. He declares that freedom and liberty are available.

But the freedom and liberty he proclaims and achieves is not just the material freedom from slavery. The good news is for the poor of spirit (to quote from Matthew 5). Jesus releases those who are imprisoned by demons and illness – later in Luke 4. And ultimately, he provides release from the bondage of sin and death through his death on the cross.

Just think of the words of Charles Wesley in the hymn ‘And can it be’ –

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
fast bound in sin and nature’s night,
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light,
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

I mentioned at the start about the politician’s manifesto. The promises can look good on the paper, but they aren’t always achieved. We can rest assured, though, that the manifesto of Jesus is, and will be, fulfilled.

The Jubilee brought freedom and release to the oppressed and prisoner. Jesus brought good news to the poor and promised release for the prisoners and the blind and the oppressed – in announcing the year of the Lord’s favour.

We are still in this time of favour – or grace – as the promise of liberty is offered in Jesus. Are you still bound in your sins, trapped in the dungeon? Jesus offers you release. Are you blind to the purposes of God and his glory? Jesus offers you sight. Are you oppressed by circumstances, or your past, or guilt? Jesus offers liberty in him.

[But we must never take the time of favour lightly – one day it will be finished. Jesus stopped mid-sentence, as it were in Isaiah 61. Because, if you look at 61:2, we find that the proclamation is a double one – ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God.’ The favour of God is offered in these days of grace, but soon will come the Day of Judgement when sin will be punished. ]

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