President Obama delivered his Inaugural Address this past week. In it he vowed to uphold the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. He vowed to fight for these self-evident truths, saying that “These truths are self-evident, but not self-executing. While freedom is a gift from god, it must be secured by his people here on earth.” In other words, we don’t have freedom unless we fight to keep it and expand our personal freedom to those less fortunate. But these promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness may seem far off to those who are poor, held captive by the circumstances of life, and oppressed by people and society. When we come face to face with the effects of our slow economy, the joblessness and homelessness that we ourselves or our fellow human beings suffer, President Obama’s vision may seem a bit too much to expect. The question may come to mind, “Can he make a difference?”
Many will ask the same question when they hear Jesus—are the blessings he promises too much to expect? When Jesus preached his first sermon in his hometown, he read from the prophet Isaiah and said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” With those words he was promising a solution to every one of life’s problems, and even better—salvation from root of the problem itself. But to those who are poor, who feel like they are held captive, like they are oppressed, Jesus’ claim may seem like a bit too much to believe. He isn’t just holding out a better future when he said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He is telling you that you already have it. Is it too much to believe? Judge for yourself. Here are his own words, from Luke 4:
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He 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. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 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, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
1. On that Sabbath day the faithful Jewish believers of Nazareth gathered in the synagogue as they usually did, but with maybe a bit more anticipation than usual. Jesus had come back, and he had made quite a name for himself. Maybe they had heard of his baptism by John. Maybe they had heard of his miracle, changing water into wine. The opening verses of our text tell us that he had been preaching in other places, and they all praised him. Jesus’ reputation had probably preceded him when he came home to Nazareth. That would explain why Jesus, a man of only 30 years, had been chosen for the honored task of reading from the Prophets and delivering the sermon for the day—some Rabbis said that this task should be reserved for a man at least 50 years old.
The synagogue service opened with the usual Psalms and prayers, a recitation of their Old Testament Creed, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” A series of readers would usually stand up to read selected passages from the Law and the Prophets. Then Jesus stood up, read these verses from the prophet Isaiah, and sat down to give his sermon. All eyes were fixed on him. Whether he said more or not, we don’t know, but what Luke records is short and to the point: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
I wonder if anyone gasped or choked when they heard Jesus say that, because it was a shock to their ears. A 700-year-old prophecy fulfilled today? How can it be that Jesus has brought good news, freedom, and restoration now, when life is as bad as it has always been?
Jesus was asking them to look past the physical reality of their lives, and see the eternal spiritual reality of who he was and what he had come to do for them. Yes, you may be poor, but not necessarily meaning that you don’t have money. Maybe you have been humbled by the turns that life takes. Look past that and hear the good news Jesus brings for you, he is the Savior from sin and the rescuer from this world. You may feel like a prisoner, punished by God and man and unable to escape. Look past that and hear his declaration of forgiveness and freedom. You may feel spiritually blind and unable to understand what God wants, you know other people who are spiritually blind, or maybe you actually are physically going blind—it makes no difference—forget about all of that and believe that Jesus will give you the ability to see. If you are oppressed, like a slave who works for a harsh master and is never able to get anything good for himself from all his hard work—look past that and believe that Jesus has released you from the oppression. Believe in the forgiveness and freedom that Jesus gives, even though you still feel guilt and oppression.
Is that a tough call to obey? The people of Nazareth thought so. They wanted to believe. They sat there and listened with rapt attention, but they couldn’t get past the obvious fact that Jesus was Mary and Joseph’s boy. How will you believe, having never heard Jesus in person? How will you believe that he has brought freedom when you meet poverty, sin, and oppression face to face every day? That’s too much for ordinary sinful people like us to believe, especially when it isn’t immediately apparent how Jesus can help—but if we don’t believe that Jesus saves, then there is nothing left to help us. The answer I get from this text is that we shouldn’t worry about how we are going to believe that he can help. Just listen. This was Jesus’ plan. There were no miracles to prove his point. No clever arguments. He just announced the good news and trusted the Holy Spirit’s power to convince people to believe.
2. Jesus pulls back the curtain to reveal himself as the Savior, but this time there is no voice from heaven, and there is no miracle like there was at the wedding of Cana. He isn’t always going to do miracles. He wants you to take him at his word, even when there is no evidence. And he is perfectly confident that his Word alone is enough!
I know that Jesus wanted the people at Nazareth to believe. The Bible says “God our Savior wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Certainly Jesus wanted the people he grew up with to be saved as much as anyone else! But Jesus knew that his words were powerful words. The Holy Spirit had given Isaiah the words that he read in the synagogue that day. It was the Word of God, and the Word of God has the power to create faith—Paul wrote, “Faith comes from hearing the message.” Jesus’ own words had that power too, because he is God, and because he has God the Holy Spirit with him as the greatest of the prophets. When Jesus proclaims freedom, forgiveness, and an end to all of life’s troubles, his words have the power to make you believe it. God the Holy Spirit works through his words to create faith.
Follow Jesus’ example, and trust the power of his Word. So when you feel that you want to believe but don’t know how because the problems are so big, just listen to his Word. If you want to believe that your forgiveness and salvation in him will help you in every problem but can’t believe that it really will, just listen to Jesus’ Word. When you feel like a captive in life, oppressed by sin and guilt, or oppressed by the situations of this sinful life, and you want to believe that Jesus has given you freedom but you just don’t feel like it’s true—stop worrying about how you are going to believe it. Just listen to his Word, and let the Holy Spirit make it real for you.
As a church, when we are tempted to resort to gimmicks or cleverly devised proofs to convince people to believe, we need to follow Jesus’ example. I know we are going to feel embarrassed when we can’t prove what we believe about God. We can point to the things that the Bible says, but we can’t point to the hard evidence. We can’t show anyone where the ark came to rest, or hold up Goliath’s spear and sword. We don’t know exactly where the tomb is, and an empty tomb only proves his resurrection if you believe that it is the tomb he was buried in. God hasn’t been doing the spectacular miracles among us lately—usually just the ordinary ones that can be explained to some extent by science. That’s ok; there doesn’t need to be any proof that the Bible is true. We are going to keep preaching the Word, and we will trust the Holy Spirit to do the hard work of convincing people to believe it. There were only a handful of times that God spoke from heaven. Only a few times has Jesus done miracles to show us his power. Most of the time there is no proof. Most of the time, Jesus reveals himself only through the words of the Bible.
“Today this Scripture is fulfilled,” Jesus said. Freedom and forgiveness, a restored relationship with God, and a rescue from every trouble that sin has brought into the world—he has brought all of this to you. Everything has been made right. But is that too much to believe, since there may be so many things wrong in your life yet, and you may still feel such great guilt for your sins? Don’t worry. If you want to believe that Christ has given you freedom from your sins, your addictions, your poverty, and all your troubles, but you don’t feel it; for now just know that it is yours because God said so, and keep listening. Don’t push this word out of your heart and walk away. Don’t forget about Jesus. Don’t get upset and try to push him out of your life, like the people of Nazareth did when they tried to push him off of a cliff. Just keep listening, take God at his word for now, and the power of his Word will take away your doubts. Part of the promise that Jesus quoted is that the “eyes of the blind will be opened.” A day will come when God will pull back the curtain all the way, and you will see how true it is that Jesus has brought good news and freedom from all your troubles. You who have listened to his Word will be raised from the dead, and you may be amazed at the change. You may ask God why you don’t feel any pain. Why is everyone so nice and loving? And Heavenly Father, why can I see you, and talk to you like I never have before? God will say, “My child, because your sins were taken away when Jesus died. I told you about that in the Bible, and even though you had no idea how much good that was going to do for you, you listened to me. Now you know. You don’t need to live on that sinful world anymore. Welcome to heaven.” Today, I know all of this is pretty unbelievable, but just keep listening to God’s Word. You will see how true Jesus’ words were when he proclaimed freedom for the captives. Even today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Amen.