The Spirit as the Agent of Social Change
I think we have waited with bated breath over the last few weeks for major announcements that we think are going to change the world. We’ve waited for Theresa May to come out and have something profound to say about Brexit and how it might change, and for Claude Junker on behalf of the Europeans to say something staggering. We have waited for Donald Trump to go on air and say something about the way the wall might be built, and end the government shutdown. We've waited for word on Canada's relationship with China. We have waited for many announcements, always hoping for some good news that might change the world, yet in many cases we’re still waiting. Announcements are being made and declarations are being undertaken, but in many cases we’re none the wiser.
In stark contrast to that, today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke could not be clearer. If there is a difference between how Jesus approached making a great announcement of good news, and how our current era handles it, we are overwhelmed by the difference. When Jesus of Nazareth made one of the greatest announcements of his entire ministry, and we are given some background to all of this by Luke in his passage, we’re told that Jesus had already undergone his baptism, to which Lori alluded in her children's moment, he had undergone a moment of temptation when he'd been out in the wilderness and was offered all the powers of the world and he turned them down, but now he is somewhere else.
Luke tells us that he is in the synagogue in his hometown. Now this is significant, many people don't realize this, but the difference between the synagogue and the Temple in first century Israel, is the Temple was the place where they had religious sacrifices, but the synagogue was where they taught, preached, and learned. Jesus is in the synagogue, and we are told that as he goes in there, incredibly he opens up a passage of scripture from a scroll. But before that happens Luke tells us something even more powerful. Jesus we're told did all this in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I love John Calvin's commentary on this passage. He says how important this is and I want to quote him. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” wrote Calvin. “These words inform us that both in his own person, and in his ministers, Christ does not have his set by human authority or private capacity or has it set by his own opinion, but by God's desire to restore the world. He does nothing by the suggestion or advice of men, but everything by the guidance of the Spirit of God. And this he declares in order that the faith of the godly may be founded on the power and the authority of God himself.” What Calvin is saying is that everything Jesus said, everything Jesus did, was empowered by the Holy Spirit, and therefore it is the spirit that has moved Christ to do what he does.
This is not just a matter of Christ having a personal preference for the Book of Isaiah. This isn’t Christ trying to establish himself as a political person. Rather, this is Christ himself being moved by the power of the Holy Spirit. The timing and the place of the announcement is interesting. It was on the Sabbath. This was when people were gathered around the meeting place. Now you might not appreciate it, because we live in a digital world and we get our information 24/7, and we know what is going on in China, or we know unfortunately today what's going on in the Philippines or in Brazil. We know it instantaneously, we get the news, and the old news cycles as they used to be referred to by the media have changed.
I remember taking a press politics course with Marvin Kalb the CBS reporter, and he said that if you're going to make an announcement politically, always make it between three and four in the afternoon, then the day's business has already been aired, and you will make it in time for the evening news. Yet in a conversation I had on Friday night with a media executive he said that cycle is completely turned on its head now because we’re in a 24-hour news cycle. Everything has changed. But if we put ourselves in the first century, and you wanted to make a big announcement you make it in the synagogue, because the community would be gathered in massive numbers there on the Sabbath morning. And you do it on the Sabbath, because that was the time when the people were gathered. If you were a leader, you would do it in your hometown, in the place where most of the people already know you. So, it's fitting that on the Sabbath, very shortly after his ministry had begun in a synagogue, Jesus made this great announcement — his mission statement about what the rest of his ministry was going to look like.
There is a tremendous power in his announcement. Jesus opens the scroll of the scriptures, and the passage he turns to is none other than one on the central passages in the whole of the Old Testament: Isaiah, Chapter 61. The moment where Isaiah talks about the return of the exiles to the Promise Land. It was a moment of hope, a moment of liberation. Jesus begins to read and the power of the spirit came upon him. What does he say? He says, “I have been called to bring good news to the poor.” But who are the poor? In biblical times who were they? Were they people who didn't have money? No, because money wasn't that important. Were they people who were necessarily destitute? Not always. In fact, the Hebrew has four words for poor, but the Greek have one word for it that reflects the true Hebrew meaning, and that is the word ptóchos. Homer suggested that ptóchos really means: “those who were mendicants.” Those who are bowed down, and subservient to others. Euripides said “It is those who are begging for bread on the streets.” Another interpretation suggests it means, “People of the land.” People who have to work the land, and often seven days a week. The poor then are not just those that don't have money, the poor are those who are subservient, having to bow down, and are vulnerable, those who are the mendicants, who are in need. They might even be working, but be poor, just as some people are today, but they are people who are subservient and dependent on others.
Jesus says, “I have come to bring good news to the poor.” In other words, I have come to lift up those who are dependent and vulnerable; those who are put down and oppressed; those who find themselves vulnerable to the machinations of others. When you look at the ministry of Jesus and the power of the Spirit that came upon him, it seems so many times he is indeed lifting up the poor. When a widow, for example, is putting her money into the coffers of the Temple and people are looking at her with disdain because she's giving so little. When others are bragging about all that they are able to give and are getting the credit for it. What does he point out? He points out the window. He lifts her up and gives her dignity when everyone else is looking down on her for her lack of money. He knows that from her heart this is a tremendous gift.
Look at the ministry of Jesus. Look how he cared for the people of the land, how he talked to the farmers and the shepherds and the fishermen. These were people who had to work the land seven days a week, and weren't able to observe the Sabbath. They weren't able to perform the rituals of the day, and were looked down on as being dirty people, because they didn't always abide by the law. They would be harvesting their fields on a Sabbath simply because it had to be done. But who lifts them up, who forgives them for not being able to obey the law? Who reminds the powerful that it is the common people of the land who are not there to serve the Sabbath, but the Sabbath is there for them? Jesus. Who befriends poor Lazarus, someone who had nothing? Jesus. The whole ministry of Jesus was a blessing on the poor, to lift up the weak and the mendicant, and those who are subservient. The entire canon of scripture, particularly in Luke's Gospel, is built around the power of the spirit and the ministry of Jesus lifting up those who often had no voice for themselves. Jesus also said, “I have come to mend and to heal the broken hearted.” In other words, it's not just a matter of the poor, it's those who have brokenness in their lives. When you think about it, brokenness is like having a chasm. If something is broken, there is a gap between two things, and it's trying to fill the gap between those two things that really brings wholeness.
If you break a glass or a cup, you are trying to bring the parts together. The ministry of Jesus is healing a chasm in people's lives. He is mending that which is broken. Sometimes it's a lack of a relationship with God; or people who have been judged by society and need forgiving. Sometimes it's those who have an evil spirit who need to be cleansed, or people like Zacchaeus, who were on the outside being brought back into society. Jesus mends the chasm, the brokenness that exists between God and people, and people and each other. That is the nature of his ministry.
It is Jesus who gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk, the deaf hear. All because they were not fully able, were excluded from society, or were forced to beg. Jesus restores the brokenness, the chasm that exists, and heals the wounds. He still does. That is the very power of the Gospel.
Jesus comes into the midst of death and heals the chasm between life and death, by the power of his own grace. He demonstrated this with the widow and her son, who I preached about last week, and with his friend Lazarus, who had died. He also sets the prisoners free. It appeared that the whole nation of Israel was under the oppression of the Romans. For all the talk of Jubilee, (which was that great Old Testament phrase) that every 50 years all the debts would be forgiven, and the fields would not be sewn, but would be left dormant, and prisoners would be set free. The day of Jubilee, it would've seemed, was not happening. Yet when you look at the ministry of Jesus, everything he did pointed to setting people free, including — and this is what makes Jesus radical — the oppressors. Jesus reached out to the oppressive Romans when no one else did, to the centurion’s son, to the tax collectors and Zacchaeus serving the Romans. When Peter wanted to cut off the ear of one of the guards, wasn’t it Jesus who put it back on? Even though they were the oppressors, Jesus knew that if there was to be liberation they needed to be changed as well.
Jesus was the impetus and has been the impetus for 2,000 years for Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King who we celebrated this week. The recognition that the oppressor’s heart has to be changed for freedom to take place, and not just the liberation of the oppressed themselves. Jesus came on the side of the oppressed, on the side of those who were otherwise downtrodden. The ministry of Jesus, through the power of the Spirit, was to set the captives free. That was his mission statement. And when you look at the whole of his ministry, through the lens of what he said from the prophet Isaiah, it is powerful. You will notice, (and here I'm going to make fun of my own profession) that Jesus simply read the Scripture, he did not give a sermon afterwards.
We read that he sat down after the Scripture, and then we heard nothing. But, and here's the thing you need to know, folks: in the synagogue the preacher sat down to deliver the message, because it took so long to do it. (When you see me sit down you know to worry!) We don’t now know what Jesus said, but we do know this promise to Israel has been fulfilled. The hopes and the wishes and the dreams of people are seen in Christ himself. That was part of his long-range plan. If the mission statement was as said, the long-range plan was to share it with his disciples. It was to bring those who followed him, whoever they may be, whether in Toledo, Tarsus, or Toronto, to follow in the footsteps of the mandate and the mission statement of Jesus of Nazareth.
On a day when we celebrate with food, it may be a salient reminder that even here in this church, as we heard this week from the head of the Churches on the Hill Food Bank, in 2018 we served 12,000 people with meals for three days. That’s thousands of people fed and thousands of meals for the hungry. It is to the refugees that we support, though few in number, a contribution to those who find themselves seeking freedom. It is we who bind up the broken hearted, and give hope and the word of resurrection and healing, when people are in need. It is in Stephen Ministry that we care for those who are suffering. It is through our outreach programs, which are numerous, that we help seniors and the vulnerable and the sick; and through our Grants Committee that we help many other institutions.
I'm not patting us on the back I'm just letting you know that is part of the mission statement of Jesus of Nazareth himself, and if we do not take those things seriously, and if churches only become inward looking, only thinking about ourselves, and forgetting the mission statement of Jesus of Nazareth, then we're not being faithful to the movement and the power of the Holy Spirit himself.
It is the mission statement of Jesus that should be at the forefront of our hearts and souls and minds. It should be at the centre of the study of theology. Never mind the nonsense that they reflect on so much of the time. It should be on the mission statement of Jesus of Nazareth, and how to take that into the world, and bear witness to that. For the poor we still have among us, the broken hearted are all around us, and the captives who need to be set free. Until such time when all of that is ended and Christ has come again it is the purpose of those who follow him, to keep and to remember the mission statement of Jesus of Nazareth. “I have come to bring good news.” Amen.