Text: Luke 4:13-21
Back when I first started taking seminary courses part-time, I asked my pastor if I could preach. The interim pastor said yes, and so I preached my first sermon. And things went well. Things went so well, in fact, that the next time the pastor was on vacation, he asked me to preach. I eagerly said yes.
I was already working on a sermon for a class, so I decided that I would use it for the Sunday service. I had gotten a lot of positive feedback on the sermon in class, so I just knew that the congregation would love it. I asked the pastor if he would like to read it beforehand, and he said, “No. You did great last time. I trust you. Everything will be fine.” Except that, everything was NOT fine after that sermon. My sermon upset my fellow congregation members. The people that I studied with in Sunday School, that I shared meals with in the fellowship hall, that I prayed beside in the pew, that I stood beside and cried with when our congregation split the year before. Many of them were VERY upset about my sermon. (Something I’m sure no one here has ever experienced from one of my sermons.) So much so that the pastor admitted that he should never have let me preach without him being present. That I would not be allowed in the pulpit for some time. And definitely not without him reading the sermon first.
I didn’t understand why my sermon, which received so much praise in my class, incited such anger and vitriol in the congregation. My pastor replied, “Because you preached prophetically in pastoral times. And a prophet is never welcome in their hometown.”
Jesus definitely knows what it’s like to be a prophet in his hometown. He knows what it means to preach prophetically in pastoral times. Jesus ministry had just begun. In Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus being baptized, then facing temptation in the desert, followed by a brief mention of some preaching in the synagogues throughout Galilee, where it is said he was “being celebrated by all.” (I’ve NEVER known a preacher who was “celebrated by ALL.” If you’re not upsetting somebody¸you’re not doing your job!) And then Jesus arrives in his hometown, appearing in his childhood synagogue on the Sabbath Day as would be expected of any devout Jewish man. This is the first we see and hear, in Luke’s Gospel, of Jesus publicly speaking and declaring his mission. And the scene is electric with tension, as Luke describes every action in detail. Jesus “stood up”, “took the scroll”, “unrolled it”, “found the place”, “read the Isaiah passage”, “rolled up the scroll”, “gave it back”, and “sat down.”
Then…nothing. You can feel the pregnant pause in the room as “All eyes in the synagogue were transfixed on him.” The people are anxious with anticipation of what this great preacher, their hometown boy, will say about Isaiah’s prophecy, especially in the face of their oppression by the Roman Empire. Especially in these times of great pastoral need.
Finally, Jesus proclaims to them: “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your own hearing.” And this simple, one sentence sermon – 15 words in the original Greek – invokes anger so great in those present, that even though they’ve known and loved Jesus since he was a kid, they try to throw their beloved local boy over a cliff. And it’s because such rage, resentment, and revolt happen when your dreams do not align with God’s Dream.
We all have dreams – big dreams and small dreams. They start when we are kids: where we often dream about our future job whether it’s being a professional athlete, a doctor, or lawyer. Or, as an article stated this week, teenagers dream about being a YouTube Star MORE than they dream about being an astronaut. (Yes, you can make a good living off making YouTube videos.) We are taught by our society to “live your dreams” to “achieve your dreams.” We tell students at graduation that you can “accomplish anything you put your mind to.” But is that really true? And are you really living your dream? Or are you just living out a dream that was handed to you by someone else? And how many of us actually consider our role in God’s Dream? Do we even understand what God’s Dream is? And if we did, do we really want to be a part of God’s Dream?
In reading and preaching the Isaiah text, Jesus reveals the Dream of God for all humanity. The Dream of God which lies behinds Jesus’ mission on earth. And if you look at the original Old Testament Hebrew text that Jesus reads, you discover that Jesus actually cherry picks and smashes together verses from four different locations in the Book of Isaiah to develop his view of God’s Dream, which is a lot less spiritual than one would realize. In reading the original Hebrew text, I translated the Isaiah passage like this:
“The Lord’s spirit is upon me on account that the Lord’s anointed me to promise good news to the poor ones, the Lord has sent me to announce the running free of prisoners and recovered sight by the blind ones, to send out, free of debt, those having been crushed, to announce the era of the Lord’s acceptance.”
Jesus’ announcement, his mission, God’s Dream for the world, is not just one of spiritual salvation – as we tend to teach in the modern American Christian tradition – but God’s Dream for the world is also an economic salvation. Because all the texts that Jesus cherry picks address the socio-economic injustices within his society – such as the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, more people being unjustly imprisoned for political and economic reasons, illnesses on the rise but blamed on people’s sins, and hard working families crushed under the weight of debt from which they cannot escape. And Jesus reads these cherry-picked scriptures from the Isaiah scroll because they also refer back to God’s solution to such socio-economic injustice – the Jubilee Year!
The Jubilee Year – also called the Sabbath Year – was a commandment in Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15, and Exodus 23 in which every 50 years all land, houses, property, etc. that may have been lost amid the normal risks of the economy must be returned to the original owners. That all monetary debts must be forgiven and reset to zero. It was a divine command and a social/religious ethic meant to curb unfettered greed thereby protecting economically vulnerable people from being stuck in generational poverty. When Jesus reads the actions described in the text, followed by, “to announce the era of the Lord’s acceptance,” he is making a direct reference to the arrival of the Jubilee Year and what happens socially and economically when it is enacted.
Modern American Christians often argue that what Jesus reads is a spiritual metaphor. That Jesus is speaking about the spiritually poor, those spiritually imprisoned or blind. However, it’s important to note the pieces of the Isaiah text that Jesus leaves out, including “to heal the broken-hearted” and “the day of vengeance of our God.” It’s clear that the God Dream Jesus is proclaiming is not some spiritual reality beyond this world, but a material, economic reality within this world, right now. A lived-out biblical ethic that would upset the whole socio-economic structure of Jesus’ day and even ours now.
And the most radical word of Jesus’ one sentence sermon is “TODAY.” Jesus prophetically proclaims that this radical God Dream of completely overturning unjust socio-economic systems of the world is happening TODAY! And then he goes on to tell two stories about the Prophets Elijah and Elisha, and how God used them to offer God’s Dream to those outside the religious and national boundaries of Israel. About how God’s Dream is not just for the advantage of Israel, but for the entire world. And in order for such a socially radical, biblically ethical, and divinely commanded economic reordering take place, the hearts of people must be radically transformed as well. Because when people allow themselves to be transformed by the Word of God, they start responding to others the way Jesus does in his ministry, and the Jubilee continues happening. Because Jesus proclaims the Jubilee era is happening RIGHT NOW. Jesus is NOT calling us to sit back and wait for God to fulfill the Jubilee in the future. Jesus is NOT calling us to resurrect the past, hoping to make Israel great again. Jesus is calling us to fulfill God’s command of the Jubilee TODAY! To fulfill God’s Dream Today!
For the era of the Lord’s acceptance is here, today! God’s promises are fulfilled today! The time of God is today! And the ministry of Jesus, lived out through on-going ministry of the Church – the body of Christ – demonstrates that today continues. For in Luke’s Gospel, today is never allowed to become nostalgia for yesterday nor is it allowed to become some vague future someday. God’s Dream is unfolding today, and the reality of God’s Dream is just as shocking and upsetting to us today as it was for those who first heard Jesus proclaim it.
And it’s shocking and upsetting because God’s Dream is almost never our dream. For the only way to fulfill God’s Dream is through hearing the Word of God and then acting on it. And when you do so, you don’t discover your dreams – you discover something greater. You discover God’s Dream for you! You discover that all the little dreams handed to you by Society, your Ego, and the Self-Interests of others, cannot hold a candle to the glory of God’s Dream for you. And God’s Dream for you is discovered through your vocation.
My favorite definition of “vocation” comes from Christian author Frederick Buechner who says: Vocation “comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a [person] is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.
Buechner goes on to say: By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren't helping your patients much either.
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. (Listen to that again.)
If you are lucky, your vocation is also your job. Many pastors find that to be true, but not all of them. For most church-goers, your vocation and your job are often two different things. Your job is something you do so you can serve your vocation. And sometimes people will resent your vocation, especially when it interferes with their own Self-interests. This resentment is often experienced by pastors who feel that congregations are more concerned about their pastors taking care of them, serving them, making them happy – rather than serving their God-commanded “vocation” of promising good news to the poor, proclaiming the running free of prisoners and restored site to the blind, and sending out those freed from crushing debt to proclaim the era of the Lord’s acceptance – to proclaim the Jubilee Year which is happening TODAY! Those people who focus more on the pastor’s “job” rather than the pastor’s “vocation” don’t actually want a pastor, they want a chaplain. But those are two very different vocations.
But people who know and understand their vocation, also know and understand its importance to each individual – because they experienced the union of God’s Dream with their dreams. And in doing so, God’s Dream for them becomes their dream for themselves. Such people are more self-aware, and therefore, happier, more emotionally stable, and less anxious. These people are truly living the Dream.
The same can be said for entire congregations. Congregations that are NOT living God’s Dream for them are filled with anxiety. They are in denial of their own flaws, fearful about the future, and emotionally tense at best. They hold a constant concern for someday and a constant nostalgia for yesterday. As a result, little effort or thought is put into today. And pastors always know when they preach prophetically to such churches, because those churches are quick to try and throw the pastor over a cliff.
Yet TODAY is where Jesus is calling the Church. TODAY is where Jesus is prophetically preaching to the Church. TODAY is where and when Jesus’ ministry is operating in the Church. And TODAY is where God’s Dream is unfolding through the Church. You’re not going to resurrect some dead dream from the past. And never you going to experience God’s Dream simply waiting for the future. You can only experience God’s Dream for you TODAY by acting on God’s Word TODAY.
And I am proud to say that Grace Presbyterian is discovering our dream by living out God’s Dream for us today. We are “promising good news to the poor” by feeding people at The Welcome Table. (This past week we fed a record 75 people!) We are announcing “the running free of prisoners” through our Facebook Ministry (I’m no longer calling it our Facebook “Page” because it has truly become a “ministry” thanks to calling and the love of Diane DeWitt Hall.) Our Facebook ministry currently has over 6,500 followers. And each week I get messages from people who tell me that our Facebook ministry has been a blessing – an act of God’s grace – in their life. They are thankful that churches like Grace exist – churches that are loving and welcoming of ALL people – and if they simply lived closer, they would be active members of our congregation! That our Facebook ministry has freed them of past pain and suffering at the hands of other churches, so now they can run free to be who God made them to be, even in the Church. That they are free to accept the Church and God’s love once again. Even those who DO live local are starting to attend because of the Facebook Ministry. They are thankful to find a church that focused more what we are FOR rather than what we are AGAINST. A church that emphasizes the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ rather than judgment and exclusion. A church that puts the Word of God into action in our community, rather than viewing “church” as a mental exercise or a weekly spiritual fix.
Great things are happening here at Grace. And they are happening TODAY! And you if you haven’t been a part of it yet, TODAY is an opportunity to do so. After worship, we will have the meeting of the Peace Team. If you want to join us today, simply come downstairs and sit with us. We will have pizza, and we will plan how we can continue fulfilling God’s Dream for us during the Peace Season this September.
What is happening here at Grace may not be your dream for Grace. And that’s because we are discovering something bigger and better than our individual dreams and self-interests. We are discovering God’s Dream for this congregation.
And, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” AMEN.