This week, President Obama was inaugurated for his second term in office. As is tradition, on the day after the inauguration, an Inaugural Prayer Service was held on Tuesday morning at the Washington National Cathedral. The preacher at this year’s service was the Reverend Adam Hamilton, who is the lead pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. Reverend Hamilton had a great message. Taking Moses as his inspiration, he said, “Humility and courageous compassion for the marginalized and oppressed are central to the heart and character of Moses and are meant to be central to the heart and character of this nation.” The main idea of his sermon was that in a time of great division, our country needs a vision that will unite us. “There’s a lot of darkness in our world,” Reverend Hamilton concluded as he spoke to the leaders of our government. “Lead us to be a compassionate people, to be concerned for the marginalized. Help us re-discover a vision for America that is so compelling it unites us and calls us to realize the full potential of this country, to be a shining city upon a hill.”
Vision is so important. Proverbs tells us that “without vision, the people will perish.” Every truly great leader is a great visionary. And that is true of Jesus more than any other, though we often seem to overlook Jesus’ vision. But it turns out that the vision Jesus cast very early in his ministry was much like the vision about which Mr. Hamilton spoke earlier this week – care for the poor, compassion for the marginalized, and freedom for the oppressed. And I know that Adam Hamilton would be the first to tell you that this vision comes straight from Jesus.
After his baptism and temptation in the desert, after his first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, Jesus headed home to Nazareth. While there, he did what a lot of us do when we go home; he went to his “home church,” although in this case it was his “home synagogue.” But Jesus didn’t just sit in the pew and greet old friends; he actually led some of the service. As the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was unrolled, Jesus read these words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon 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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” For Jesus, these words are not just a reading, but also a declaration of his purpose, of God’s vision for all people. For Jesus these words are a description of who he is and what he is about. When Jesus reads Isaiah 61: 1-2 in the synagogue in Nazareth, he is declaring that his ministry as Messiah calls him to be an agent of mercy to the down-trodden in this world. He will be good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for all the oppressed, and new beginnings for all who have failed. And if that is Christ’s vision and purpose, then so it should be for each of us who claims to follow this Messiah.
Sadly, though, we modern Christians have managed to lose sight of this central aspect of Jesus’ ministry, and so what was definitive to the work that Jesus did in his time on earth, means very little to us and the work that we do today. A fellow preacher notes that “Luke 4: 18-19 is one of the most ignored, watered down, spiritualized, or glossed-over texts in many [Christian churches], evading or emptying Jesus’ first statement of his [vision and purpose].” He goes on to say, “Jesus said the gospel was for the poor and oppressed, speaking to those at the margins of society. Jesus was announcing that he came to liberate from real oppressive structures the marginalized—the impoverished, the war captives, the poor in health, the political prisoners.
Jesus came to turn the economic structures upside down, beginning the year of Jubilee when crushing debts were forgiven and slaves were freed.”
Really, it’s no wonder we have lost touch with the importance of this scene from Luke. All of this is very challenging for those of us who are not among the poor, marginalized, oppressed, or imprisoned of our society. We are threatened by the idea of the turning upside down of economic and power structures that currently work for our benefit. We are scared by the thought that prisoners might walk free. And at its very root, we just don’t like change, which is exactly what Jesus is talking about here. This is truly radical stuff. In Jesus’ day, these words called for a new righteousness—no longer is it strict adherence to the law that matters, it’s how you treat others. In our day, these words mean a turn from the self-righteousness that is so pervasive in our culture to a genuine concern for our neighbor.
To give you an idea of just how dramatic this change is for all people who want to truly follow Christ, I want to focus in for a moment on one part of what Jesus said. Jesus concluded his reading with the declaration that he had come “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Another name for the “year of the Lord’s favor” is the Jubilee year. In Jewish tradition, the Jubilee came around once every 50 years. Here’s what Leviticus commands about the Jubilee year, “The fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families.” In other words, the Jubilee year is the year when debts are forgiven and slaves are freed. Can you imagine if we followed this concept in today’s world? Every fiftieth year, all debt is wiped away! Personal debt, credit card debt, bankruptcy, national debt, student loans, mortgages, medical bills, all gone! This is an incredible idea, and I think we can all deduce that such a practice would completely rock our modern world, shaking our power structures at their very foundations. This is the kind of radical change that Jesus began through his ministry. In fact, it began on this very day in the synagogue. “Today,” he said, “this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
Jesus’ radical reversal has already begun, and as we look toward that day when God’s kingdom will be established on earth as it is in heaven, the challenge for us is to have the courage to listen to God’s intention for humanity as Jesus declares it here in Luke 4. And then we have to be united in this particular vision that God holds for his people. It is quite popular in this day and age in American culture to lift up the importance of knowing and clarifying one’s purpose or vision and then to work towards that; and it’s not just an individual phenomenon, it’s a corporate one too. Everyone seems to want to know these days, “How are we doing as a church?” But the real question should be, “As a church, what are we doing for God?” Jesus steps forward in Nazareth and declares the truth about his life: he has been filled with the power of the Spirit and anointed to bring good news to the poor, release for the imprisoned and oppressed, healing for the sick, and God’s forgiveness for all. To know our mission and to understand what God has given us to do are as important to us as they were to Jesus. We have a purpose to pursue in this life; and it’s not just the next great fad, Jesus sets a vision that will change the world, and we are called to be a part of it.
The great Christian writer, N.T. Wright begins his thoughts on Jesus’ time in the synagogue at Nazareth with this personal story: “I had a dream the other night, a powerful and interesting dream. And the really frustrating thing is that I can’t remember what it was about. I had a flash of it as I woke up, enough to make me think how extraordinary and meaningful it was; and then it was gone.” He then goes on to say, “Our passion for justice often seems like that. We dream the dream of justice. We glimpse for a moment a world at one, a world put to rights, a world where things work out, where societies function fairly and efficiently…and then we wake up and come back to reality.” And yet, in spite of our continuing failure to fix the many injustices of this world, we keep dreaming that one day all broken things will indeed be set right. Wright says we Christians believe this because “all humans have heard, deep within themselves, the echo of a voice which calls us to live [with a dream for justice]. And [followers of Christ] believe that in Jesus that voice became human and did what had to be done to bring [justice] about.”
Now Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, and we gathered here this morning and in churches around the globe are called the body of Christ working daily in our world. Our dream for justice for all has to become a way of life, just as it did for Jesus. You seen, when Jesus finished speaking in the synagogue, he left his hometown and he headed out into the countryside, and he started bringing true justice to the world. He healed many people in those first few days, he called some more disciples, and then he started teaching. He taught about blessings for the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the persecuted. He taught about how we should not judge others until we have judged ourselves, and he showed us how to love our neighbors. For Jesus, these words read in the synagogue were not just a dream—it was a way of life; lived out and made real everyday he walked this earth.
We don’t have to wake up each day trying to remember that dream of the night before. But what we do have to do, is to live out everyday the God’s dream of justice for all. Each of us has a purpose; a vision that offers not only direction, but ultimately true life. And this vision comes directly from Jesus. It is work that should keep us all busy until that day when we see good news for the poor, freedom for the imprisoned and oppressed, healing for the sick, forgiveness for all. Someday God’s kingdom will bring justice to this world, and people everywhere will be praising the name of God. That is what we are working for, and I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t think of a better vision, or a better job! And I’m thankful to God everyday that I get to be a part of it.