Tonight we're carrying on our evening service series in Luke's gospel, as we look at the life of Jesus and his early ministry.
We've heard about the amazing things that happened around Jesus' birth, the fulfillment of hundreds of years of prophecy. We've heard about the amazing preaching of John, preparing the way for this coming king. Anticipation's been building.
We've heard about Jesus' baptism, and God's voice declaring 'this is my son...' and last week we heard about Jesus overcoming the devil's temptations...Anticipation really building... just imagine: What's going to happen when he really gets going?
And tonight: Jesus goes public.
So, grab a Bible and open it to Luke chapter 4 so that you can check what I'm saying is what the Bible says. And don't forget, as is our custom in the evening services here we'll have a time of questions afterwards, so do be making a note of anything that strikes you, you want clarifying or simply don't agree with to ask me about afterwards.
And before we go any further, let mepray...
As we look at this passage we get a chance to look in on the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. Here, right at the beginning, Jesus visits his home town of Nazareth, and we hear him deliver what some have called 'the Nazareth manifesto.' It's a massive heading in Luke's gospel, anticipating everything that comes afterwards. And as we look at this passage we can break the big idea down into two bitesize chunks (!): Jesus brings Freedom now, but rejecting him might be easier than you think...Jesus brings Freedom now, but rejecting him might be easier than you think
Jesus brings freedom now:
Have a look at Luke 4, verse 14:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. News about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
So, Jesus has been in the desert, and now comes back to Galilee, where he grew up. He immediately starts his public ministry. Slowly his reputation builds. This guy is some preacher. Lives are being changed. Word begins to spread. People are streaming his sermons live on the internet. Twitter's going mental, and more and more people are reading his blog. The people of Galilee are being stirred up.
Look at verse 16:
[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read.
Just imagine it.
On August 7th, 1996 a few miles away from here, an entire city went completely nuts to welcome home a favourite son. Alan Shearer was unveiled as a Newcastle United player. They'd paid a world record £15m for him. As one reporter put it "the whole population of Newcastle appeared to be wrapped in black and white nylon" as they descended on St James' park. He was the Geordie son of a sheet metal worker from Newcastle, and he was home. Everyone had some sort of connection to him...My dog's his sister's dog's cousin...things like that...He was the local boy come good.
And in Luke chapter 4 it's similar. The whole area's been stirred up by this fiery preacher. Miracles have been reported. Momentum's building. And then, in Nazareth, you hear: he's coming home! This is where he grew up. Everyone's got a connection...We do a weekly shop with Mary. Joseph made our family's furniture. He played football with my neighbour's kids. This is the ultimate local boy come good. He's home, and you can bet the whole town are out to see him.
Imagine the anticipation. What's he going to say? Well, look at verse 17 and we can listen in:
The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
"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." Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him...
Jesus reads a passage from Isaiah speaking the words of the messiah; God's promised servant who would establish God's rule and save his people. The guys in the synagogue will have heard this before. They'd be thinking 'This passage is about the messiah - and now here's this amazing, fiery young preacher reading it. They're on the edge of their seats, staring at him. And Jesus pauses just to make sure he's definitely got everyone's attention...you can hear a pin drop...
...and (verse 21) he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
"Guys, you need to know: this guy Isaiah's talking about...it's me."
What an amazing thing to say! I'm here to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind. I'm here to release the oppressed. And most of all, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour...
Now, to get a handle on what Jesus meant, we need to understand something of what Isaiah was originally saying.
Jesus reads Isaiah chapter 61, verses 1 and 2. So, Isaiah's been going for 60 chapters before this. And, to be honest, he makes pretty bleak reading for a lot of that. Israel had rebelled, and turned against God, and through Isaiah, God promises punishment: they'd be conquered and taken into exile in Babylon, taken away from their land. God's people being sent away from him. Broken relationship with God.
But then, reading on, Isaiah sounds more triumphant. The exile wouldn't be the end. God would restore his people - back to the land, back to relationship with Him. And this figure emerges - a servant specially commissioned by God to restore Israel. And it's this servant who speaks in Isaiah 61...
So when we hear him saying he'll bring good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and so on, we need to have the exile in mind. It's a promise of freedom for God's people. They are prisoners in Babylon. And more fundamentally their captivity is an expression of God's judgement for their sin...and this servant will bring freedom in place of captivity...he'll bring God's favour in place of his judgement.
But, back to Luke 4: Jesus is in Israel. The exile's been and gone hundreds of years before. So how can Jesus say Isaiah 61 is just being fulfilled now?
Well, the thing about a lot of OT prophecy is that it works on two levels. There's an initial fulfillment, but it doesn't quite seem to add up to the full promise. Israel do get back to the land, but they stay under foreign rule. They don't reach anywhere near the heights the prophecies seem to suggest, they just, live normal life again. They even thought of themselves as still kind of in exile from God. Still under his punishment for sin. And that's the point. The initial fulfillment is supposed to point beyond itself. There's so much more to come.
And so, after hundreds of years of waiting Jesus comes along and says: "I am the servant of Isaiah 61. I bring a final end to the exile. I will deal with the sin and the punishment, I will restore relationship with God, I bring the year of the Lord's favour.
And that's the major point of this 'Nazareth manifesto.' As we read these words we need to see them as a call to us. We are the poor - we have nothing to offer God but our sin. We are the prisoners, under God's judgement, we are the blind - unable to see God and out of relationship with him. We are the oppressed under the effects of sin in our lives. And Jesus comes: preaching good news, bringing freedom, bringing sight, bringing release. We're in such dire need of God's favour instead of his punishment, and Jesus proclaims it to us.
Jesus brings freedom.
But… before we leave this quote from Isaiah there's more to understand. Because, just as important as what Jesus says here, is what he doesn't say. He stops right in the middle of a sentence.
Isaiah 61 says:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me then verse 2...to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour and the day of vengeance of our God...
Many of Jesus' hearers probably know it so well, you can imagine them mouthing along silently with him. "The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me...(yes, yes)...good news to the poor...(yes)...freedom for prisoners...proclaim the year of the Lord's favour....and then Jesus stops. And everyone in the synagogue would have gone "and the day of vengance of our God..." Hang on, why's he stopped?
The clue is in what Jesus says next. Luke tells us:
...he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
That's not all he said, he began by saying this to them. But from Luke's perspective, and for his readers, that's the most important thing he said. And the key word there is "Today."
Today I bring good news. Today I give sight to the blind. Today I give freedom to prisoners. Today I release the oppressed. Today, TODAY I proclaim God's favour instead of his judgement.
So do you see the implication of that? He deliberately stops before mentioning the day of vengance. Today is the day of God's favour. The day of vengeance is still to come.He will bring favour and vengeance, just not all at once.
And that's the key message of Jesus' sermon. Because it's still today. It's still the time of God's favour. Jesus hasn't brought God's vengeance yet. But he will. So don't reject him now and face him then.
Which brings me to the second half of this passage, and my second heading:
Rejecting Jesus might be easier than you think
As we read on, we get to listen in on the reception Jesus gets after his sermon: look at verse 28:
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff.
Not a good reception is it? I mean, if you guys wanted to throw me off a cliff when I'm done speaking, I'd be thinking things haven't gone well. So why does that happen to Jesus, of all people, in his home town, of all places?
Well, the answer is: They reject Jesus because He doesn't fit their idea of what God should be like.And that's where this passage suddenly gets uncomfortable for us. The attitudes that caused them to reject Jesus are just as prevelant in our hearts today. That's why I say rejecting him could be easier than you think, because, if we're not careful we'll find that Jesus doesn't fit our idea of what God should be like either.
So, what are the attitudes that lead to that conclusion? The first is:
They're so familiar with Jesus they become complacent...
Let's listen in to what happens after his sermon, from verse 22:
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.... "Isn't this Joseph's son?" they asked.
It starts well. Everyone speaks well of him. They're amazed - Jesus is such a great speaker. But that's not so much because of what he says, as who they see saying it. Isn't this Joseph's son? Don't we know his family? Didn't we see him growing up? We went to his Barmizphah, saw him graduate from Joseph's carpentry school...
They think they already know who Jesus is, and they think they don't need him.
And for some of us, we were brought up going to church, and hearing about Jesus at home. What a privelege it is to be taught about Jesus from an early age. But the danger is, if we've been going to church a long time, hearing about Jesus, his miracles, his teaching, we can become complacent. We lose that awe we should have. He's God, walking among us! But for some of us he can easily become just a good buddy to have when things get tough. We end up rejecting him unwittingly because we think we know him, and then we get distracted by other things. We think we already know all there is to know, and we think we don't need him.
Let's not stop being shocked and amazed by him. Let' s not become complacent. Let's be teaching all the kids at HTG to be increasingly amazed at who Jesus really is, and as we do pray they grow up seeing us revere him, and learning to do the same.
So that's the first problem: We can be so familiar with Jesus we become complacent.
They want Jesus for what they can get
Let's read on, from verse 23
Jesus said to them, "Surely you will quote this proverb to me: 'Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.' " "I tell you the truth," he continued, "no prophet is accepted in his hometown.
You guys think I'm amazing, but you haven't figured me out yet. You think you know me, and now you want me for the tricks, the miracles.
And that's their second problem: They want Jesus for what they can get
And Jesus saw through that attitude: "here's what we want: these people need healings, we want to be amazed, so get on with it..." And that's so prevalent in us too isn't it? We quickly slip into the idea that God is there, Jesus is there to please us. He's there to make our church look good. He's there to make me happy, to sort out my problems. We can fall into this when we start thinking of Jesus as a means to an end, wanting him for what we can get. "I want a relationship, a better marriage, well behaved kids: Jesus - give it to me..."
But he's never a means to an end. He can (and often does) give us these gifts, but they should never be the ultimate reason we come to him. We come to him for the favour he wins us with God. We come to him because he gives us restored relationship with himself.
So, the second reason we might find that Jesus doesn't fit our idea of what God should be like is: We want Him for what we can get
They think their religion can win God's favour without Jesus.
And that's a big problem in our hearts. But still not the biggest...That comes next. Let's read on from verse 25: Jesus says...
I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian."
So, Jesus is saying: Remember the stories of the Old Testament. 1 Kings 17, and 2 Kings 5 (if you want to look at them later). First: There's a famine: who does God send Elijah to? A widow, the lowest strata of society, in Zaraphath, a completely different nation, a worshipper of completely different gods.
And, second, there was an outbreak of leprosy. Many lepers in Israel, no possible cure. Who did God send to be healed by Elsiha? Namaan. Not only a worshipper of different gods, but the leader of the armies of Syria: a sworn enemy of God's people.
So why go to those stories now?
Well, Jesus just finished explaining that he fulfills the promise of Isaiah 61. But to their ears that's a promise about the restoration of who? Israel. They're thinking "If he's right, Jesus is going to restore Israel. We'll get the better of the Romans. He'll be on the throne and we'll be a world power again, blessed by God, because we're God's special people."
And then Jesus uses these stories to remind them of God's plan to bless all nations. He wants them, and us as we listen in, to understand that the offer of God's favour, in place of his judgement is open to anyone. Irrespective of how bad they are, how acceptable they are, where they're from.
And they're so insensed when they hear about the amazing thing God is doing through Jesus that instead of praising him as you might expect, they try to throw him off a cliff. Why?
Jesus doesn't fit with their idea of what God should be like. And the third, and biggest reason is: They think their religion can win God's favour without Jesus. For those in Nazareth this was the real problem. Their entire understanding of what it meant to get God's favour was on the line here. They were Jews. Israelites. God's chosen people. They were religious. They sacrificed. They went to synagogue. They took regular trips to Jerusalem. Of course they deserved God's favour. And they couldn't wait for God's vengeance because it would fall on other people - not them. Enemies, sinners, worshippers of false gods. Israel would be restored and people like the widow in Zaraphath and Namaan, destroyed in the day of God's vengeance. And now Jesus says: "No. God's favour extends to people like that. And even more, you need to make sure you're accepting it before the day of vengeance does come. Your need is just as bad as theirs was."
What! We're moral people. Upright, educated, thought-through, church-going, even church growing, home group-attending, kids group-leading, hard-working people. It's not like we have the same need as a starving widow and a pagan army captain, is it?
Jesus brings freedom now, but examine your heart. As we come to communion in a few minutes, what are you bringing with you? If there's anything you're relying on other than the pure fact of Jesus' death to deal with your sin and bring you God's favour, if you're bringing anything to the table except your sin, you need to stop, and make sure you don't reject the freedom he brings because you're relying on other things. Jesus brings freedom now, but rejecting him could be easier than you think.