Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 26, 2016

2016.01.24 “Put Your Finger on the Text” – Luke 4: 14 – 21

Central United Methodist Church
Put Your Finger on the Text
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 4: 14 – 21
January 24th, 2016

Scroll

‘Scroll”, by Sarah Fagg via Flcikr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4: 14 – 21, the New Revised Standard Version

 

When I was in seminary, I had a professor of Old Testament, Walter Kaiser, who – to remind us to keep our preaching Biblical – used to say over and again: “Put your finger on the text.”

“Put your finger on the text” is exactly what Jesus does today in Luke’s Gospel, when he visits his hometown synagogue in Galilee and reads the Scripture. To this day, the text Jesus put his finger on, is a text that we – the followers of Jesus – should be putting our finger on, as Jesus did. In fact, it’s such an important text, the lectionary gives us TWO SUNDAYS to take it in: today we hear what Jesus did and said, and how that applies to us; next Sunday we hear what the people did, in response to what Jesus said, and how that applies to us. So what was this text, and how does it apply to us? (Do you have your fingers ready?)

In some ways, the scene described in today’s Gospel is familiar and unfamiliar, recognizable, yet distorted. On the one hand, much is familiar. What we hear described is what we are doing right now: religious people gather, the Scriptures are read, and then it is interpreted and applied. It’s a tradition that goes back thousands of years in Judaism, even as we heard in the reading from the book of Nehemiah, and it is the same tradition we observe this morning.

On the other hand, there is much in this story that is unfamiliar. It’s a small town synagogue in Nazareth around the year 25 to 30 AD; there were likely less people there than here this morning. They speak a language called Aramaic (a language some here this morning likely speak); and the reading is in Hebrew. The reader (Jesus) is someone who grew up in that town and that synagogue, someone they have known since he was a child, just as these people know you when you read Scripture here. Lately, amazing reports have been coming in, and there’s been quite a buzz. And now, he’s come home. Surely, something good is about to happen! Surely – after all these years – they’re about to win the religious lottery! Bring it on home, Jesus!

By the way, this story reminds us that all Jesus says and does lies within his tradition of Judaism. By his faithfulness, Jesus affirms the Sabbath, the Scriptures, and the Synagogue. He not only attends services but participates, by reading Scripture and commenting upon the Scriptures. Jesus wasn’t just spiritual, he was also religious, not Christian but Jewish, all his life. How often we forget this.

Luke tells us what happened, but he doesn’t take us behind the scenes to tell us HOW it happened, as the Gospel of John did last week at the wedding of Cana. Were there “oohs and aahs” when Jesus came in and sat down that morning? Was Jesus – as a favorite son returning home – recruited to read, or did he volunteer? Did his mother Mary volunteer him, as she did last week? Was this a prescribed reading, a chance reading, or did Jesus request the scroll of Isaiah, so he could unroll it and put his finger on this text? It also doesn’t tell us if Jesus was nervous, preaching to his family (“Mom, stop applauding; I haven’t done anything yet!”), to his childhood friends, maybe his baby sitters and teachers. Would that make you nervous? It would me; whenever I know family members or friends are going to be here, I sweat a little more. It’s one thing to make a fool of yourself in front of strangers, but you really prefer not to do it in front of family and friends.

Slowly, Jesus unrolled the scroll of Isaiah the prophet, found the place, put his finger on the text and read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. There was silence, as everyone stared at him. And then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” “WHAT DID HE SAY?” said the old folks in the back row. Perhaps that were gasps, perhaps some woke up from their naps and sat upright. Even Mary must have wondered if her son had over-reached. WHAT COULD HE MEAN? Him? Here? Today?

The text Jesus read, from the book of Isaiah, actually went back to the time of Moses, to a commandment given by God, known as the Year of Jubilee, the Year of the Lord’s Favor. It goes like this:

“You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month — on the Day of Atonement — you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. (Leviticus 25: 8-10, NRSV).

That’s right, according to the law of Jubilee, every fifty years, the fields were to rest and be reinvigorated for future harvest. In this Jubilee year, debts were forgiven, slaves set free, the imprisoned were released, and people returned home, to be restored to their original property and family

But guess what? It never caught on. I mean, how could it; how would that play on the North Shore or the Gold Coast today? Nobody’s going to do that! It’s a funny thing we do with Scripture: all the Scriptures about sexuality, we interpret literally; all the ones about economics and justice, we interpret spiritually.

Since it never happened in reality, a spiritual interpretation was exactly what the prophet Isaiah gave the Year of Jubilee in the 8th century B.C. To exiles returning from Babylonian captivity after 70 years of exile, Isaiah put his finger on the text and gave the old promise of liberty to captives and the setting free of the oppressed a new meaning. As Jesus – putting his finger on Isaiah’s text – would do in the synagogue that day.

By putting his finger on this text, here at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus announces who he is, what his ministry will be, what his church will be and do, and, as we shall see, what the response to both will be. It is – at once – Jesus’ inaugural speech and mission statement, and will become his life’s work. This text functions as an overture to all that is to come in Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus – both literally and spiritually – preaches good news to the poor, announces pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, sets the burdened and battered free.

Who were those Jesus was talking about? Most often, we think it is us, just as the people in that synagogue long ago thought it was them. Because sometimes we are poor and in need of forgiveness and imprisoned and blind and burdened and battered, as they were. But what if the people Jesus was talking about – as the people in that synagogue were to find out – really were the poor and the debtors and those imprisoned and oppressed? This is a reality we in church – like those in that synagogue – often do not consider.

In the 1980’s, priest and theologian Ernesto Cardenal studied this story with a group of Nicaraguan peasants. He wrote that after hearing this story, one woman responded this way:

“What he [Jesus] read in the book of the prophet is prophecy of liberation. And it’s a teaching that a lot of Christians haven’t learned yet, because we can be in a church singing day and night tra-la-la-la, and it doesn’t matter that we are surrounded by injustice, with so many afflicted hearts . . . so much unfairness in the country, so many women whose eyes are filled with tears.” (Quoted by Verity A. Jones, “Living the Word,” The Christian Century, January 20, 2016 (Vol. 133, No. 2), p. 18)

Consider, as just one contemporary example, the Black Lives Matter movement. Some question why the focus on black lives; why not say “all lives matter?” But it’s not that black lives matter more, it’s that the movement is calling attention to the fact that the way our society works, one could conclude that black lives don’t matter, at least not as much as white ones do. An African-American pastor put it this way: “When you see a house on fire and direct the firefighters to that house, you’re not saying that all the other houses in the neighborhood don’t matter; you’re saying this one especially matters because it’s on fire.” “Right now,” he added, “our house is on fire.” (David Lose, Epiphany 3C: A Peculiar Power, In the Meantime, January 18, 2016

Isn’t Jesus saying something similar? He knows how the world works, that it seems like some lives matter and some don’t, and proclaims that God sees all, loves all, and intends to redeem all, STARTING with those the world has forgotten. This is why God’s work in the world sometimes seems strange, mysterious, even unsettling, because instead on focusing on those with privilege, God begins with those the world – and sometimes us –overlook, forget, or discard

As for the rest of us – as the congregation in that synagogue would soon find out – what it means for us is that God loves us enough to challenge us, to open our eyes, to send us out to see and love those the world doesn’t see, just as Jesus did. Next week we shall see how message went over with the people of Nazareth; probably about the same as it does with us.

HowardThurmanHoward Thurman (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981) was an influential African American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades, and wrote 21 books. And yet one of my favorite things that Howard Thurman wrote was a poem about the true meaning of Christmas, called “When the Song of the Angels is Stilled.” It goes like this:

When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and the princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flocks, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among people, To make music in the heart.

This is not only the work of Christmas, it was the work of Jesus, ever since that day in the synagogue at Nazareth when he put his finger on the text. Now – today – in our time – Spirit filled and Spirit led – let us put our finger on the text, and do the work that Jesus did:

To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among people, To make music in the heart.

Amen.

 

 

 

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