"We know what kind of world we want. We want a world that's part city and part small town, part farm and part forest. We want to live someplace exciting and someplace peaceful. We want to live someplace safe and someplace secure, where kids play unafraid on playgrounds and in backyards, where old people live out there lives rocking on the front porch telling the rest of us stories about the old days, and where people who work hard can enjoy times of rest. That's the kind of world we want to live in. And we don't want that world just for a chosen few who are protected by Border Patrol and security fences. We want that kind of world for everyone." (Robert Arbogast)
Maybe the kind of world you want to live in doesn’t agree in every detail with the man who wrote these words. But I think we all want most of those things. What kind of world does Jesus want? I think today's reading from Luke's Gospel answers that question.
Jesus had begun to get a reputation in the villages around Galilee as a teacher and healer. In today's reading he returns to his hometown of Nazareth. He goes to the local synagogue and is invited to preach the sermon. In Jewish synagogues there were no ordained ministers. Anyone considered to have enough learning could be invited to teach the congregation. (The sermon was preached sitting down. I think that's a tradition we should bring back, don't you?) Jesus chose to read from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61. He had a lot of chapters to choose from so why did Jesus choose that one? In the later chapters of Isaiah we begin to hear about a particular individual chosen to be God's Servant and anointed by God's Spirit. And we discover that the individual Isaiah is talking about is the One God has chosen to do the work that he intended the people of Israel to do. Isaiah says that in the future God's work will be achieved through this Anointed One. In fact the reading from Isaiah is almost like a royal proclamation announcing what God the King would be sending his Servant to do. And according to Isaiah God's Servant would be sent to do 2 things:
1. The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, ...
2. to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour ... (Isaiah 61:1-2)
The two things God's Servant was sent to do are: in v. 18: "to bring good news (or 'gospel') to the oppressed" and in v. 19: "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." In his sermon Jesus used this reading to identify himself as the anointed Servant of God. Luke tells us in v. 21 that "Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Jesus was clearly claiming to be the Servant. Did you notice the three references to "me" in verse 18? "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me … He has sent me ..." The Spirit was upon Jesus. The Spirit had anointed Jesus. The Spirit had sent Jesus. If what Jesus says is true, then his work is God's work. His ministry will be the fulfilment of what God had announced through the prophet Isaiah.
This brings us back to the two things God's Servant was sent to do: (1) "to bring good news to the poor"; and (2)"to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." Firstly, who are the "poor" and what is the good news brought to them? I think both Isaiah and Jesus were talking about more than just people who are financially poor. But they were certainly included! A different translation might help us here. The reading gives 3 examples of what bringing good news to the "poor" means:
To proclaim for the captives release, and
To the blind recovery of sight;
To send out the oppressed in release.
So the good news includes being pardoned or forgiven—release for captives. The good news includes being healed—sight for the blind. The good news includes being set free—being sent out from oppression. Notice how the word "release" is used twice in this translation. In both the Old and New Testaments the word used here can mean either "liberation" or "forgiveness." It is also the word used in the Lord's Prayer when we pray, "Forgive us our sins" (Matthew 6:12). We could say "release" us from our sins. To be forgiven means being released from a debt we owe to other people or to God.
But what does this look like in practice? Well if this is Jesus action plan let's see what actions result from his plan in the rest of Luke’s Gospel. If we start in the next chapter we find Jesus healing a paralysed man. But what does Jesus say to him? "Friend, your sins are forgiven you." (Luke 5:20). And when the teachers question him Jesus replies: "'Which is easier, to say, "Your sins are forgiven you," or to say, "Stand up and walk"? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins'—he said to the one who was paralyzed—'I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home' " (Luke 5:23-24). And then Luke tells us that "Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God." (Luke 5:25)
In chapter 7 Jesus is having dinner at a Pharisee's house when a woman described as a "sinner" arrives. She washes Jesus' feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. The Pharisee is horrified but Jesus tells him: "'I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.' Then he said to her, 'Your sins are forgiven' " (Luke 7:47-48).
Later on in chapter 15 Jesus tells the Parable of the Lost Son. In the parable the younger son insults his father by wasting his inheritance. When he returns and is welcomed back by his father his older brother is not amused. But, "Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found' " (Luke 15:31-32).
A bit further on in chapter 19 Jesus meets up with a chief tax collector named Zacchaeus. All most people remember about Zacchaeus is that he had to climb a tree to see Jesus because he was short. But in the original language the Bible could actually be saying that Zacchaeus had to climb a tree because Jesus was short! What is more important is that Jesus asked himself to dinner at Zacchaeus's house. People began to because Jesus was sharing a meal with a "sinner." But Zacchaeus responded by giving half of his possessions to the poor and paying back four times what he taken from people he had overcharged. "Then Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost'" (Luke 19:9-10).
What happened when Jesus put his plan into action? People were forgiven. People were healed. People were set free. (For some homework can I recommend that you compare the words Jesus' quoted from Isaiah with Paul's words in Acts 26:16-18 when he was explaining his mission to Governor Agrippa. And notice that Paul used the words Jesus said to him when was converted on the road to Damascus.)
But what about the second thing Jesus said he had been sent to do? What is "the year of the Lord’s favour" Jesus said he had been sent to proclaim? In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament it was called the year of "Jubilee." And the year of Jubilee was held every 50 years. That's why Queen Elizabeth celebrated her Jubilee a few years ago when she had been on the throne for 50 years. But today's other reading from Leviticus tells us that in the Bible a Jubilee was something much more important. During a Jubilee year the fields were not cultivated, people returned to their own homes property was given back to its original owner, debts were cancelled and slaves were set free. Let's hear Leviticus chapter 25, verses 10 again: "And you shall keep sacred the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants." The word used there for "liberty" is the word used for "release" in Luke chapter 4, verse 18. During a Jubilee everyone and everything in Israel was to be released or to be set free. This applied "throughout the land to all its inhabitants." Even the soil where they grew their crops was to be set free for a year!
Jesus said that he was sent to bring "good news." We get our word "evangelism" from the word for "good news" in the Gospels. But Christian evangelism is not always experienced by other people as "good news." Maybe that is because evangelism has often been reduced to telling other people they are sinners who need to believe in Jesus and go to church? I'm not saying that those things are not true. They are true! But what I want to suggest is that the Bible paints a wider picture of evangelism. And in the Bible the goal of evangelism is the sort of world God wants everyone to live in. Jesus called it "the kingdom of God." And he taught that to live in the world God wants we need to be forgiven, we need to be healed, we need to be set free from oppression. And in his life, death and resurrection Jesus showed that he was the One sent by God to bring us forgiveness, healing and freedom from oppression.