I want you to think with me a moment (dangerous, I know) - think back to any one of those mostly surreal occasions in life, when a moment for which you had waited, long planned for, and dreamt suddenly arrived before you - it’s here! - with a nonchalance that took nothing away from the excitement of the moment, but rather, by its very matter-of-fact-ness, beckoned you to stand up, step up and step into the previously impossible, undeniably factual, thoroughly upended world for which you had dreamed.
The acceptance letter comes in the mail, and you wonder by what colossal administrative error this great thing has come to be. He find himself down on his knee, palms sweaty, ring in hand, realizing she just said, “Yes.” With tears in her eyes, she finds herself having spoken the words she has known for years needed speaking. “I’m sorry.” And the tears in his eyes tell her her prompting was true.
Moments for which our hearts had longed, suddenly upon us, and in a twinkling we were transformed from people with grand ideas about who-we-would-like-to-be-some-day-yonder into men and women now face-to-face with the far-off promise come near. Far-off promise become present reality. And our joy overtook our fear.
Luke’s gospel tonight unfolds just such a moment before us in the life of the people of Israel. It happens so quickly, the ordinariness amazes his listeners, catches their longings by surprise. Jesus sits down in the midst of the assembly and applies the lesson just read in the worship of the synagogue (from Isaiah) to himself. He captures the congregation’s imagination and attention when he says, “the scripture you just heard is about me; equally, I am all about it. Because I am here, the long shot, far-off, promise you learned to dream in Sabbath School is your present reality. It’s here.”
[Quick aside: experienced sermon listeners will know that when Jesus says “this scripture is about me,” his is at best an unconventional preaching strategy, and one not recommended to aspiring preachers not named Jesus.]
But if Jesus is a bad preacher, he is still a good Savior, because the words he has spoken about himself are true. In him, God’s promised future is present. It’s here.
So the words Jesus takes for himself today tell his disciples, and us, all they need to know about the promise of God, the person of Jesus, and the present action of God. In our context, this is the year we read Luke’s gospel in our lectionary; virtually everything that follows will issue from - and point back to - these words, this promise, and its fulfillment in Christ.
Enough with the build up. Substance. What is the substance of the promise that Jesus makes present in Luke’s gospel tonight? Look with me at five imperatives: 1) bring good news to the poor, 2) proclaim release to the captives, 3) proclaim recovery of sight to the blind, 4) let the oppressed go free, and 5) proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
The first four charges direct our attention: the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. Whatever Good News the Gospel is must be Good News for these, and so the Good News must be social, must enter the world of poverty and wealth, the lessees and the landlords, the captives and the creditors, the blind and the blinding, the oppressed and oppressors. The world of Guantanamo Bays and domestic abuse. Whatever Good News the Gospel is must be tactile Good News for Jews going on 300 plus years of foreign occupation.
The first four commands give us direction, illumine a social dimension, but the fifth command - proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor - is less self-explanatory. For this reason, the fifth imperative suggests that the other four might yet be nuanced by the context of the fifth. What is the year of the Lord’s favor?
Sometimes called the year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor is a very old idea that first shows up in Leviticus. (So Jesus is quoting Isaiah is quoting Leviticus in this passage from Luke.) The year of the Lord’s favor was a commandment to the people of Israel as they wandered the wilderness and prepared to enter the Promised Land. The essence of the command was that, in the fiftieth year of Israel’s new life as the people of promise, after seven sets of seven years, the people were to hit a kind of reset button with respect to what we now call personal property rights. Land was to return to original owners. The heritage of each tribe was to be restored. Slaves who had entered slavery of financial necessity, poor planning, and personal failings, were to be set free, go home to their families. Prison sentences were commuted; debts were forgiven.
Now - the commandment of Jubilee may seem like irresponsible or untenable economic policy to our capitalistic eyes and ears. But see the honesty and compassion of the commandment, how it recognized the effects of power, poor choice, and exploitation in the lives of God’s people; how the command named the truth about the opportunistic nature of wealth with respect to the weak and the vulnerable. As Amy Poehler quipped at last week’s Golden Globes, “Nobody has plans to do porn, Tina!” Nobody plans to be enslaved. Thus the commandment for the Jubilee year sought to embody forgiveness grounded in the provision of God. That is, the Lord gave the command of the Jubilee year because Israel, as a people, had once been slaves in Egypt, but the Lord had set them free. So when Jesus picks up the scroll and says, “I am this,” he takes the year set aside for forgiveness and fresh starts and God’s will for the flourishing of God’s people and says, “I am this.” I am freedom for the captive. I am sight for the one who can’t see the way out. I am abundance. I am Jubilee without end.
Jesus comes like a second Moses to set God’s people free. Suddenly, abruptly, the dream is here, with a nonchalance that takes nothing away from the excitement of the moment, but rather, by its very matter-of-fact-ness, beckons the people stand up, step up and step into the previously impossible, undeniably factual, thoroughly upended world for which the people had dreamed. Jesus is anointed for this.
And not just Jesus. You. You were not made a spectator by virtue of your baptism; you also were anointed. For baptized Christians, to understand the present promise of God is also to understand your calling. At your baptism, just after the assembly covered you with prayer, you were washed clean with water, you were set free when you passed through the waters, were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, and then the priest smudged a small cross of oil on your head, anointed you, and said, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
And, in a twinkling, you were transformed from a person with grand ideas about who-you-would-like-to-be-some-day-yonder into a woman or man now face-to-face with the promise come near. Far-off promise become present reality, and you were simultaneously set free and given the proclamation of freedom. Freedom. Generous. Abundant. For others. Embodied. Forgiven. Free. May our joy overtake our fear.
Let us pray.
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
[Sermon preached @ St Francis House Episcopal Student Center, 1.27.13.]