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Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Spirit…Today!

 A sermon Based upon Luke 4: 15-30

By Charles J. Tomlin, DMin;

August 22nd, 2021,  Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership 

Series: The Way of God’s Justice 20/20



He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,

 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,

 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?"

 23 He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'"

 24 And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.

But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;

 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

 27 There were also many lepers1 in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian."

 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.

 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luk 4:15-30 NRS)


In 1992, my wife and I visited Paris for the first time.  We were living in Western Germany at that time, studying  German language and culture, preparing to move into the former eastern communist area as Baptist Missionaries for the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.   As we came near to the city by automobile, accompanied by my wife’s aunt and uncle who came to visit us, we were almost unable to enter the great city.   Tuckers were striking all over the country, blocking highways and all entrances to the city.  I found a local map and was able to get us into the city using backroads and ‘pig paths’. 

Even though we were very excited to be in Paris, when we finally arrived at our hotel, and upon inspecting our room,  I found an insect infestation under the bed pillows.   Also, when we we  went out on the streets asked for directions with my terrible high school French, my newly acquired German, or my southern accented America English, the responses I received were rude, coarse and most often not very polite.  The street cafés were OK, but one one evening, since we expected French Cuisine to be the best in the world, we decided to splurge and experience a nice Restaurant.  There too, we were all disappointed, as not only was the meal very expensive, it did not meet our expectations.  Later, when traveling the courtly side, we stop to eat at a small country home, and the food was much better there, but still not spectacular.  

Finally, we all got tickets to visit one of the most famous art museums in the world, the Louvre.  There were many great painting and sculpture exhibitions to see, like the Egyptian Sphinx of Tanks, Canova’s sculpture of Cupid kissing Psyche,  the Ancient Stele of the Law Code of Hammurabi, the King of Babylon in 1792.  That’s BCE!  More famous than these sculptures, especially more Americans, is the painting of Lady Liberty Leading the People in the Paris Uprising of 1830.  It is believed that this painting by a Frenchman named Delacroix inspired the Statue of Liberty that was later given to the United States as a gift from France.

There are, of course, many other great works of art in the Louvre, including the stunning, headless but winged sculpture of Nike of Samothrace; the Ancient Greek goddess of victory (yes, the inspiration for the name brand shoes).  However, we discovered that the most crowded exhibit and the most highly anticipated work was Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  Today, people wait in long lines just to get a glimpse from a distance.  The painting is not only roped off, its under protective glass and it is so small, only about 2.5 feet tall.  While it looks like she is smiling when you approach, as you look at her head on, it looks like she frowns, and the painting left unfinished.  

To say the least, though Leonardo was no doubt a genius of an artist, this painting is often labeled as ‘the most famous disappointing work of art in the world’.  Some critics are even saying that because of how difficult it is to see, that it’s not worth the wait or the price of the ticket and ‘it’s time to take her her down.’



A great feeling of letdown and disappointment was expressed about Jesus right after the announced his call to ministry in his hometown.   

Do you see it?  Can you feel it?   

Jesus had just read from a text in the prophet Isaiah. He used this Scripture as a mission statement for his own earthly ministry. So far, so good.   But it was when Jesus began to expound on this text, interpreting it for his own time and for his people that they felt like, as the saying goes, ‘he stopped preaching and done gone to meddling!’   

Do you see it?  Can you feel?  

Jesus stated clearly, right up front, and to his own hometown, before he even got started, that they too would be disappointed with him.  ‘Doctor, cure yourself’.  He put words in their mouths even before they thought them.  

A prophet, a preacher isn’t respected in his hometown’, he continued.   Then, he made it even worse.  He reminded them God has been limited in what God can do through his people.   God has been able to work miracles with other people, less than with his people.  

Needless to say, such barefaced honesty didn’t set well with his hometown folks.  Maybe they expected some special treatment.  Maybe they thought their ‘homeboy’ would give them a special pass.  Whatever they felt, their disappointment was so strong that they let their emotions get away with them.  The text says they surrounded him, forced him out of town and up a hill and wanted to hurl him off a cliff.   Talk about overkill? This whole fiasco ends with Jesus walking straight through this lynch mob  without a scratch. 

 What a strange way to begin a ministry!   

This whole crazy scene serves as a challenging, but very fitting conclusion to this series of messages about God’s command for his people to do justice, to love mercy, and to keep walking humbly with God to keep doing good for our world. 

If you’ve noticed, after each Scripture reading, I give the blessing: ‘May God bless the reading to our hearing, understanding and our doing.’  I say this because it is not at natural or automatic that we understand what God wants to say to us and do through us.  It’s not always easy for us when we do understand either.  Sometimes we want to judge the Word, rather than allow the Word to bring a judgement of truth for us.  We may hear a sermon, and think to ourselves,  ‘I liked that’, or ‘I don’t like it’, or we tell the preacher: ‘Preacher, that was a good sermon’ when in reality, the message isn’t inviting our judgement, nor intended to be a form of leisurely entertainment intended to scratch our ‘itching ears’ (2 Tim. 4:3). 

The message of Jesus still speaks the ‘words of eternal life’ (Jn. 6:68), but, in order to keep us on mission, this ‘good news’ can be challenging and even disturbing too.   Eternal matters are matters of life and death; matters of either finding salvation or remaining lost, gaining hope or facing despair, learning how to flourish or knowing that we perish.   This means like water, food, electricity or even your automobile that can help you and kill you at the same time, God’s truth both hurt you and heal you.  It can even be healing you when it hurts.  

The life-changing and challenging word of a holy God should counter who we are, what we want, how we think, where we are going.  As the prophet Isaiah wrote, paving the way for a story like this: God’s ‘thoughts’ are not (our) ‘thoughts’ and the ‘ways of a holy God are not (our) ways.’ (Isa. 55:6).   When Jesus announced his mission as God’s mission, Jesus’ hometown faced the ‘counter-intuitive’ God head on.  The demands on the hearer proved to be dangerous for the messenger.  To the credit of the messenger, the good people of Nazareth got the message, but what this message required of them, they weren’t quite ready for. 



The great challenge of Jesus’s message and mission not only made his hometown angry enough to kill him, eventually this same message caused Jewish religious leaders to plot against him and incited the crowds to shout loud and clear: Crucify him!  Crucify him!   As the gospel of John says, He came to his own, but they did not accept him...”.   

     Have you ever wondered why people would want compassionate teacher who brought a message of ‘good news’ dead?   From this story in Luke, the anger with Jesus had to do with two most basic concerns: one, God’s mission in the world, and God’s call to ministry in the world.  

     The ‘mission’ in God’s good news, according to Jesus, is that God welcomes and includes others.  What made the people so angry was how Jesus made this point.  Elijiah and Elisha, God’s first prophets, were able to work miracles among outsiders than insiders.  In fact, the good news is especially meant for these outsiders, Jesus implies.  The good news fits best those who need it -- those who are struggling and know they need saving.  That’s why Jesus announces God’s mission as being for the poor, for the imprisoned, for the blind, and for the oppressed.  There is no question—they know they need it.  That’s why ‘good news’ is especially meant for them. 

         The other part this gospel challenge is that the mission of taking this ‘good news’ into the world is supposed to be the ministry of God’s people.  When the angels announced in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus came to save his people from their sins’  (Matt. 1:21).  The sin that is meant here isn’t that that Israel had become a bunch of heathens (which might have also been true), but that Israel wasn’t being the people God had chosen them to be--a holy, priestly, mission-minded, and ministry oriented people.   This call to God’s own to be and to take God’s good news into the world as priests, ministers and missionaries.    If you read on in Isaiah 61, you’ll understand that the entire passage was written to make a very important point; not only is God bigger than Israel ever imagined, the world is much bigger than Israel.  Isaiah says that God was already calling them to invite ‘strangers’ (Is. 61:5) into their world, and by doing this, they could be who they were called to be; priests of the LORD and ministers of our God (Isa. 61:6 NRS).  

        It is this this calling that includes ‘strangers’ and ‘sinners’ that most infuriated God’s people then, and evidently, still infuriates some of God’s people today.  Many people make it their religion or their politic out of demonizing and demoralizing others, rather than seeing and acknowledging them and their needs as opportunities for ministry.  

         I recall in one church I served as pastor, a member of our congregation who was chief of police in our small village, along with wide had great hearts for children and missions too.  They started a small ministry picking up children in the nearby small town and bringing them to Bible classes every Wednesday evening. The ministry was going well until a grandmother who was helping in the class starte?  complaining that the children they brought into the church were a bad influence on her granddaughter.  When I heard about the problem, I thought to myself what does that woman think the church is about, just for keeping everything perfect Christian children?  Why could she not find something better to do than attacking people trying to do good and children needing to learn how to be and do good?

      Unfortunately, when we make a religion out of attacking, rather than caring, we only prove just how lost we are, rather than how lost they are.  It is still too easy, in a big and broken world like ours, which is getting smaller and smaller to make the stranger and the other person a threat rather than a treat, dumping them into the most negative categories that only distinguishes distinguished between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and distances us all even more, from God’s coming kingdom and from inviting God’s glory to cover the whole earth.  

         Thus, more than anything else from this story, we need to see that what happened in Nazareth is directly connected to what also happened in Jerusalem on Good Friday.  Jesus came to his own and his own rejected him, not because he was misunderstood, but because they, and we too, understand him very well.  When Jesus acknowledged God’s mission, Jesus was reminding them, just as through the Spirit, Jesus still reminds us, what the Lord requires of us too.  This is to answer God’s call to mission with Jesus, becoming and being a people doing ministries of justice, while loving mercy and walking humbly with our God.



Finally, there’s one more important point we must not miss.  This reading from Isaiah, along with Jesus’ interpretation, come together in agreement with Micah’s most basic requirement that we, as God’s people, are still called to do ministries of ‘justice’ in our world.  This is certainly not how we are used to expressing it, is it?  We’ve thought a lot more about ‘being righteous’ than about ‘doing justice’, haven’t we?  

I recall many years ago, when my wife and I visited a big-city Baptist church in New York City.   The church was positioned right on the edge of Harlem, which then was an area of the city filled with many opportunities for doing ministries of justice.   I’ll never forget when we entered the church building, on the bottom floor, that we were meet by greeters and tables where various church members were giving out information about various social ministries.  They were expecting and requiring that church members become involved.  This was not an opition.  At first, I was taken back.  I almost envisioned ‘money changers’ in the temple, but they weren’t asking for money, but they were requiring God’s people to become ministers of justice and righteousness in their city.

When I was growing up, in Baptist churches, I had never heard of ‘justice’ ministries in the church.  In fact, all that I ever heard as a child was a lot of negative ranting about how the ‘social’ gospel wasn’t any true gospel at all.   Now, that I look back at it, can you even separate a spiritual gospel from a social gospel?   The gospel is always both and, not either or.   The gospel is as much good news because of the social ministries we are called to do as it is good news because of the spiritual ministry we are called to. We must not choose, but we must do both.

Interestingly, the word ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ are inseparable twins---inseparable ways of the Lord going all the way back to God’s relationship with Abraham in Genesis (Gen. 18:19).   In the biblical understanding, there is no individual, private righteousness without also becoming involved in public, social justice just like there’s also no true social justice without also seeking God’s righteousness.   

We Baptist have been much better at seeking God’s righteousness, especially as we interpret it for ourselves.  But we need to understand that this is exactly how God’s people Israel went got off track.  They didn’t get off track by rejecting righteousness, but it was their own interpretation of righteousness that ended up neglecting the ‘weighty matters of the law’ which Jesus defined first as ‘justice, mercy’ and then, he also included personal ‘faith’ too (Matt. 23:23).   Go look it up.

So, if doing justice goes along with seeking God’s righteousness, why is there sometimes resistance to doing social justice or carrying out social ministries in our churches, or even to advancing social programs in in our nation too?   Now, I realize I’m close to getting political here, but doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God must be as much a matter of our public, political concerns (doing justice), as it is a part of our  personal faith concerns (loving mercy and walking with God).  If we fail to do justice and love mercy in our political life, as well as in our spiritual life, this the very way of political and religious failure that often leads to the rise of revolutionary and oppressive governments, where people are governed more by fear than faith and trust.

What Jesus was challenging his people to do, which Jesus still challenges his followers to do, is to realize that ‘today’ the day that ‘good news’ must still be ‘fulfilled’ by us.  At Nazareth, Jesus started everything he did by simply telling his own people, "Now, Look around.  The Spirit of God at work, right here. Right now. God is with us.  Let’s work to care about others, doing what God has always called us to do.  Today, God wants to do justice through me—through you—through us; by bringing good news to the poor.  Today, God wants you us to love mercy as if it we are the very ones who are imprisoned, blind, or oppressed.   If we really want to be righteous, and we want to walk humbly with God, we must understand that the Bible must not just be read, reverenced, or preached, but it must also be fulfilled, right now, right here, and through us, now, today!   Amen.


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