Summary: Each of us has a purpose; a vision that offers not only direction, but ultimately true life. And this vision comes directly from Jesus.
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.