The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul.
Aren’t there sometimes words or songs that are so familiar, so comfortable, that you can sink down in them, like a warm blanket? Have you had that experience—maybe at a concert, when the orchestra starts playing a song you know inside and out, and you can feel your whole body rest into it—ready to enjoy every little familiar detail. Certain poetry can evoke the same response. That familiar settling in to listen and savor. The 23rd Psalm is definitely one. For a lot of people, they are words that can create a space comfortable and familiar enough for grief to be expressed.
But sometimes these very familiar passages and poems and songs are also ones that cause problems. Things that make us feel comfortable are things we don’t want to see change. And so, it is not at all uncommon for pastors who never use the KJV of the Bible in worship to use the KJV at a funeral or memorial service. People complain when the familiar words are changed, slightly, even if the change in words makes the passage clearer for people who have never heard it before.
We cling tightly to those familiar, comforting words. We don’t want a new tune to that familiar old hymn—the old tune is part of what is so wonderful about it. We don’t want to sing Amazing Grace with African drumming in the background, because it doesn’t feel familiar any more. We like the familiar, comfortable things.
I don’t think we can fully appreciate what is going on in this morning’s passage from Luke unless we realize that the scripture that Jesus read was this kind of very familiar, very comforting passages.
These words from the later part of the book of Isaiah were words spoken to the exiles who were finally returning to Jerusalem from Babylon. The poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed—these were their ancestors. When Jesus read these words, his hometown heard them as words about our community. Words that describe us. They heard “Our Story”. Saw their people saved from God. It was easy to hear the words both as a reminder of God’s goodness to their nation and ancestors, and as a promise. God is coming for us. When we feel poor, or captive, oppressed or blind, we can trust that God is coming—God is sending help ahead. God will not abandon us. God meets us in our weakness.
You can imagine the faces of the people in that synagogue in Nazareth as Jesus read this passage to them. Here was a hometown boy, returned from making something of a name for himself, and he reads these wonderful, comforting, familiar words. There would be eyes closed as people soaked in the familiar language. There would be soft smiles on lips, as they let the passage wash over them. There might be people catching each other’s eyes, or reaching out to squeeze hands—“I know this is your favorite, honey,” or “weren’t we just talking about this the other day?”
You can imagine it, right? You’ve been in that situation before, when everyone in the room grins and sighs, and maybe some people murmur along, because they all know where this is going—it is familiar and good and wonderful.
He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for thou art with me,
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Remember, now, that we are in the middle of the season of Epiphany, which is all about illumination, revelation, shedding light on things. All the passages we read during these weeks between Christmas and Lent point to these themes of revelation. God is being revealed to us, Jesus’ identity is being revealed, and maybe even something about ourselves is revealed, too.
So, what is being revealed in this passage from Luke? Well, one thing that is not revealed is Jesus’ preaching style. All we have from the sermon he preached at that synagogue is the opening line. There is the suggestion that there was, in fact, more than one sentence in his sermon, because our text says, “he began to preach, saying…” but all we have is his opening statement, and boy what an opener it is!
After reading these beautiful, familiar, comforting words from Isaiah, Jesus declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Let that sink in for a moment. Jesus is making a pretty audacious claim, here. It’s kind of like someone walked into their hometown, recited some of the most familiar and stirring lines from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, and then proclaimed, “Today, Dr. King’s dream has come true, here right in front of you.”
The first question they might ask is, “What? Did you really just say that?” followed quickly by, “How? How can one person possibly claim to fulfill a promise so big, so complex, so impossible?”
Somehow, Jesus must have elaborated at least a little, because verse 22 tells us that the crowd is amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth. Somehow, they get over the initial hurdle of disbelief and hear Jesus saying amazing things. But that is not the end of Jesus’ sermon, and it is not the end of their reaction, either. We’ll be learning a little bit more about that next week.
For now, let’s think a little bit about what is revealed through this little interchange—through Jesus’ choice of scripture and this opening statement of his sermon.
One of the things being revealed here is Jesus’ sense of purpose. This passage from Isaiah, that his listeners hear as words of comfort, Jesus seems to present as a statement of purpose. This is what I’m here to do—to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.
And if you read through the rest of Luke’s gospel, that this is exactly what Jesus does. Again and again he encounters people in desperate circumstances, and each time he brings words of good news, he acts to change their circumstances, he sets them free and heals them. If you remember a few years ago, when I did a whole series of story sermons, those were almost all from the gospel of Luke, because Luke is just chock full of wonderfully human stories, when Jesus comes face to face with very real people in very real circumstances. And here is where it begins—with Jesus’ statement of purpose.
I think it is very interesting that, while most of the people in Jesus’ day would hear these words from Isaiah and identify with those people being helped, Jesus reads them, and immediately finds himself in the one taking action—the one who has been chosen, anointed, to bring the good news.
Next week we will be reading the second part of this passage, and you’ll hear what kinds of problems it causes when it turns out that Jesus’ understanding of what this passage means is really quite different from everyone else in his home town. One of the other things revealed in this story is the hearts and the attitudes of this hometown synagogue. But we’ll talk more about that next week.
In the mean time, I want to leave you with some homework. It won’t be graded, of course. It’s for your own edification. Here’s the assignment. Think about this statement of purpose Jesus pulls from Isaiah. Think of the kind of people mentioned in it. The poor. The captive. The blind. The oppressed. Who are those people, today? Where do we see them, or maybe, where are they hidden, so we don’t see them? Have you ever felt like you fit in one of those categories? Do you know people who you would consider poor, captive, blind or oppressed? Would they see themselves the same way? One of the things Jesus achieved in his ministry was revealing these outcasts of society, bringing them from the shadows, into the light, so as we take a pause in this story, and wait to finish it next week, let’s also try to shed some light on the dark places of our world so that we can see more clearly who might need the kind of help that Jesus brings.