James R. Renfrew, Teaching Elder
Luke 4:14-21 Jesus Reads the Scroll of Isaiah
The Scroll Quiz (multiple answers are possible)
1. Which prophet’s scroll did Jesus read in the Nazareth synagogue?
(a) Isaiah (b) Jeremiah (c) Amos (d) Hosea (e) Ezekiel
2. Which of these did the prophet announce in what Jesus read?
(a) Sight for the blind (b) Words for the voiceless (c) Forgiveness of all debts (d) Liberation of the oppressed (e) A free chicken, goat or pig for all believers (f) Destruction of all enemies (g) Good news for the poor
3. What was Jesus’ brief sermon about after the reading?
(a) “God hates our enemies, especially Samaritans”
(b) “God has blessed the people of Nazareth”
(c) “God’s blessings, though hard to obtain, are a great treasure”
(d) “This reading is fulfilled, as you heard it being read”
(e) “Please buy one of my scrolls, discount today only”
Answers: 1-a (was this the reading for the day or did Jesus choose it as a personal favorite? Amos, by the way, was chased away by religious authorities after he spoke), 2-acdg (“b”, “e” and “f” are not mentioned by Isaiah; “f” was what people wanted to hear, but Jesus didn’t say this at all), 3-d (his listeners were expecting “a” or “b”).
This is a two Sunday sermon. Today is all about hope. Next Sunday will be all about reality. Hope and reality. If you had to choose between investing in hope, or accepting reality, which way would you be leaning? I lean towards hope, let’s lean together!
So today we’ll begin with the hope. The story seems simple enough. One weekend Jesus returned home to Nazareth. Everyone was glad to see him – family, friends and neighbors. He’d been away. Every so often, a visitor from another town or village passing through Nazareth would tell a story about something Jesus had said or done in another town or village. But it was hard for them to believe it because Jesus was only a carpenter’s son.
Well, now Jesus was back home for a few days. He went to worship in the synagogue on the Sabbath along with everyone else in town. As a special honor for one of their own Jesus was invited to read the scripture during the service. When his turn came he stood up and carefully unrolled the scroll. He found his place, then he read the scripture. He read it clearly and with authority. Everyone was whispering about his ability to read so well. Keep in mind that few people in those times knew how to read, and certainly not the sons of carpenters. They were proud that one of their own was continuing in the traditions and faith of their ancestors.
They didn’t have a big pulpit Bible in that synagogue. Instead they had a closet filled with scrolls. Jesus had read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet whose words they loved to hear because they were filled with such beautiful promises. The reading he shared was one of the most beautiful because captured the hopes and dreams of everyone there that day, of the days that would someday come, days of justice for the impoverished, days of freedom for the imprisoned and enslaved, days of healing for the sick, days of forgiveness for the lost, days of peace for the whole world:
“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.”
As each of these beloved familiar words settled in, they all felt a warm feeling in their hearts. He had spoken each word confidently, clearly and with feeling. Everyone was impressed. Everyone felt a special blessing.
Jesus rolled up the scroll, but he did not return to his seat. He stood there for a few moments, and then they realized that he wasn’t done. Jesus had something more to say, something more about the words he had just read. This was completely unexpected. It would be like asking Teagan to read the scripture during our worship service, but then she would hold onto the pulpit and begin speaking without regard for the scheduled preacher. This is what Jesus did. They thought he would sit down, but he spoke up. He had read from Isaiah. Now he was going to explain the meaning of Isaiah’s words to them.
What Jesus said about Isaiah constitutes the shortest sermon on record, so let me read it to you again, to be sure you got it: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s it. Nine words. I can’t begin to tell you how radical this message was. All that stuff about healing, about justice, about freedom is no longer a promise for the future; it’s happening right now. This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read. This passage is not wishing or hoping or dreaming. This passage is what is. This is what God is doing right now. We are no longer victims, we are no longer lost, we are no longer powerless,
You would think that the people of Nazareth would have welcomed the reading from this scroll and Jesus’ short sermon. But that’s not what happened. What Jesus said made them uncomfortable, it made them embarrassed, it made them defensive, and in the end it made them very angry!
Here’s why they got angry. Jesus’ short sermon challenged them with the fact that they didn’t really believe Isaiah. Sure, they liked hearing the words from the scroll, they liked the warm feeling it left in their hearts, but the truth was that they didn’t believe that these words of hope had any power to change reality. They didn’t believe Isaiah’s words. They were afraid of change. I think they were even afraid of God. They were certainly afraid of Jesus because of what he had said. They were expecting to be blessed by Jesus. Instead they got angry at him.
In truth, these words still make us uncomfortable. Relief for the poor? Impractical. Release the imprisoned? Too dangerous. Heal the sick? Too expensive. The year of the Lord’s favor? That means the 50th Jubilee year when all debts are forgiven. Forgive all debts? That would destroy the economy. Many of us sitting in this room could come up with a wide variety of reasons for dismissing Jesus’ words.
But these are things that Jesus read from the scroll. It makes many of us uncomfortable. Jesus said it. He knew we would be uncomfortable. And he still said it.
“This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.” It’s not a promise, it not a hope, it’s a statement of our belief as Christians. The work of God begins right now today, not next week or next year.
Jesus’ words are not a vague promise in the distant future. What he proclaims is not hope, it’s a new reality. It ,may not have taken hold yet, but it is the new reality. The present is now leaning into the future and what God announces has begun. This becomes a teaching for us to follow, as Christians we live in a familiar reality of difficulty and trouble, but the very choice of living a new way reshapes the present.
When President Lincoln in 1863 presented the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves, the country was in the middle of civil war. Slaves who lived within the Confederate states remained in bondage no matter what Lincoln said. Many of those enslaved did not know about the proclamation at all when it was first announced. At best, it was only a distant rumor. The Proclamation was unenforceable in the south. Yet President Lincoln contended that the proclamation was nonetheless true and real. It was not a complete emancipation, but it began with that Proclamation.
Jesus’ proclamation is no different: “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.” Then he said , “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”