A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, January 27, 2019
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Rev. J. Michael Strachan
Let’s start with an interesting question: Did Jesus preach the Gospel? The Gospel, as we normally define it, is something like what Paul says in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15. Paul says, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor 15:1–5). The Messiah, invoking the full Jewish story of God’s promise to Abraham, died for the sins of the world, was raised from the dead on the third day, and appeared to the Apostles who now announce to the world what God has done through the Messiah.
If this is the Gospel (and it is), then the answer to the question “Did Jesus preach the Gospel?” is “No, he didn’t,” and that’s a pretty remarkable fact. Jesus doesn’t, so far as we know, and except for a few occasions where he was speaking to his disciples privately, ever tell someone, “Here’s what’s going to happen. Here’s what you need to know. You’re a sinner, and I’m going to go to Jerusalem, die for your sins, and be raised on the third day, and you need to believe in me if you want to be saved.” That doesn’t happen.
So, if Jesus didn’t preach the Gospel, what did he preach, and why did it make everyone in Nazareth so mad? The lectionary cut the story short this morning, but you’ll remember that the crowd doesn’t take too kindly to Jesus’ preaching, and they try to throw him over a cliff. It’s a slight consolation, I suppose, that I’ve never finished preaching a sermon and had someone try to throw me off a cliff. I was tempted to say that that must mean that I’ve never preached a sermon that bad, but maybe it means I’ve never preached a sermon that good. Maybe that’s the mark of an exceptional sermon, people trying to throw you over a cliff. Let’s hope not.
So, if Jesus doesn’t preach the Gospel, what does he preach? Luke gives us an example this morning. This account of Jesus reading Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth isn’t just one example of Jesus’s preaching, but rather it is prototypical for everything that Jesus will do in the remainder of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus goes to the synagogue at Nazareth on the Sabbath, unrolls the scroll of Isaiah the prophet, and whether that was the assigned reading for the day or whether Jesus was looking for a particular reading in the scroll, we can’t be sure, although it seems like the latter was true. Jesus comes to the spot he was looking for, and he reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19), and then he stops.
Two things are notable here. First, Jesus, as he reads Isaiah 61:1-2, leaves out the line about announcing “the opening of the prison to those who are bound” perhaps because John is still in prison. Sorry cousin, I didn’t come to do that. Second, Jesus stops right before the line that would have been most exciting to his audience. Remember that the people of God are waiting for the Lord and his Messiah to show up in judgment, for the Messiah to do like Judas Maccabeus before him and purge the nations from the land of Judah and bring judgment upon the heathen. And so it’s noticeable when Jesus stops the reading right before Isaiah says, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Right when he gets to the line about vengeance and judgment, Jesus stops reading.
And if that wasn’t enough to annoy people, Jesus doesn’t end the reading the way the people would have expected, and instead, he adds his own ending, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Imagine if one of our readers or one of our deacons did this. Imagine if, instead of, “The Word of the Lord,” or “The Gospel of the Lord,” Deacon Karen read a passage from the Gospels, said, “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” and then put the Gospel book down and walked away as though nothing had happened. That’s what Jesus is doing here, and everyone is rightly perplexed.
So, what’s the point of this? What is Jesus saying? What is Luke saying about Jesus’ preaching and ministry throughout the rest of his Gospel? Jesus’ point seems to be that his earthly ministry, which the church continues today, was not going to be about judgment and vengeance. That’s what the people wanted the Messiah to bring, but that’s not what his ministry was going to be. Instead, he was going to focus on making the world a better place, or, to use his own language in other parts of the Gospel, he was going to bring the kingdom of God. The Spirit of the Lord had been poured out on him at his baptism, he was tested in the wilderness by Satan himself and proved himself to be who the voice from heaven said he was, and now he is ready to begin his ministry in the world: the proclamation of good news to the poor and liberty to the captives, the healing of the blind, the freedom of the oppressed, and perhaps most important, the announcement of the great Jubilee, the Year of the Lord’s favor, when on the Day of Atonement the horn was blown, debts were forgiven, land returned to its original owner, and slaves set free. And there, if we know what we’re looking for, we can see the Gospel.
The point is that Jesus sets the agenda for Christian ministry both for himself and for the church in the centuries to come. There is judgment, yes, but it is poured out on the cross, and whatever remains waits for the end of the age. You can’t miss that Jesus cuts the reading short, and it angers everyone because there’s a part of us that wants to stand in our moral purity (as if we have it) and shout at people to tell them that their wrong and defend our self-righteousness, but that is not what Jesus preached or what Jesus did. In fact, the only people Jesus only condemned were the religious elite. Let that sink in for a moment.
And maybe it’s significant that this is the reading on the day of our annual meeting when we’re going to talk about who we are and where we’re going as a church because we have to start here with the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. We are, in many ways, not too different than Jesus in this reading. We are spirit-filled people who have passed through the waters of baptism and now come to public ministry in the world, and what are we going to say? What are we going to do? We’re going to preach the Gospel, certainly. If the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sin and risen from the dead on the third day is ever not preached in this church then we have surely lost our way. But alongside the Gospel stands the mission of bringing God’s kingdom to this world. And there are lots of ways that we can do this, and we’re going to hear from one of those opportunities today.
This is who we are as a people. This is who we are as a church. We are, as a community, placed in a particular place at a particular time. It is our mission as a church to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God to every home in this area. We need to catch a vision of this place on fire with the fire of the Holy Spirit being fueled by the gasoline of the prayers of God’s people and pushing us out into the world with the message of God’s saving, redeeming, world-changing, life-changing, people-changing, culture-changing, family-changing love. And if we can do that, if we can catch that vision and be that people for this community, then today, this Scripture will have been fulfilled in your hearing.