Last week we learned about the first act of Jesus when he began his ministry in the Gospel of John. It was a pretty cool miracle, or “sign,” as John always calls miracles because they tell us something important about Jesus. At the urging of his mother, Jesus turned about 180 gallons of water into wine at a wedding celebration. John was establishing that whenever Jesus is present he will not only do the impossible, he will replenish or replace what is missing in abundance. In that way Jesus will be the manifestation of God’s grace in the flesh.
This Sunday we are back to the Gospel of Luke, who chose to tell a different story about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In Luke, the first recorded act of his ministry was a sermon. Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth and was given the honor of reading scripture in the synagogue. We can infer from this story that Jesus attended synagogue regularly and that he probably had been considered a rabbi, or teacher, authorized to at least read and preach during services before he left Nazareth. Luke tells us that he turned to the prophet Isaiah and read these words: “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The people listening would have associated that reading with the year of Jubilee, an event which was supposed to occur every 50 years in Israel when those who were working off debts would be set free. In the first chapter of Luke, in Mary’s song, we were told that the powerful and rich are sent away empty, while the hungry are filled with good things. Those who are at the bottom of society are the Spirit’s chosen recipients of the good news. As the Gospel unfolds the poor will be identified as worthy hearers of the good news, as recipients of God’s kingdom, as a sign of Jesus’ ministry, and those who will be invited to the kingdom feast. These words from Isaiah sum up who Jesus is and what he is about and therefore what we should be about.
When he finished reading, Jesus sat down, which was the usual posture for a teacher, or rabbi, when they preached a sermon, and the congregation prepared to listen to his teaching. Jesus began explaining the Scripture by shocking them. He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He was saying that he himself will be the source of the fulfillment of this prophesy. In the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is the one who has been chosen, or anointed, to preach and proclaim the good news of God. In the chapters ahead, Jesus will travel from town to town and wherever he goes he will teach and heal, living out the good news so that people can see the salvation that God offers. All the stories that follow in Luke’s gospel will be a fulfillment of the words he read and taught to those who were gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth on that Sabbath day. According to Luke, Jesus was very honest and upfront about who he was and what he would be about. Anyone who really listened to what he was saying that day should have had a pretty clear picture of what his ministry would be like. But the shock that statement would have caused to the people cannot be over stated. They are the poor and oppressed, and they have been waiting for the Messiah with great anticipation and hope. To be told that he, the hometown boy, will fulfill their expectations is just too much for them.
Last week we saw how influential his mother Mary was in urging him to begin his ministry by creating new wine when they ran out at the wedding they attended. She understood that his time had begun even before he did. In Jesus’ choice of that particular reading from Isaiah he was echoing the sentiments expressed by his mother earlier in Luke’s gospel, the passage we call The Magnificat. As part of her song of praise to God for having blessed her, Mary proclaims that God has “…scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Although we have only one story from Jesus’ childhood, also found in the Gospel of Luke, we know that Mary was given the responsibility not only of giving birth to him, but also of raising him to adulthood. It is natural that she had an important influence on him. Jesus grew up in what we would be considered today a “blue collar” family in Galilee. Joseph is described as a “carpenter” in the Bible, but the word in Greek can also refer to a builder, someone who may have worked in stone. Jesus was educated in the local synagogue – he could read Hebrew well and was chosen to read from scripture at Sabbath worship. No one seemed surprised that he could teach as well. In addition to making sure he had formal schooling, we can infer that Mary, as was expected in those days, taught her son in the oral tradition, using a combination of stories and scripture. In her words recorded by Luke, we see a strong compulsion to teach her son about God’s compassion and mercy and insistence on justice, especially for the poor and marginalized.
Looking at the two stories together, the first sign he performed at the urging of his mother and his first sermon given in his hometown, the foundation of Jesus’ ministry becomes quite clear. Everything he will be is summarized in the words he read from the prophet Isaiah, and the way he will manifest those words is demonstrated in his replenishment of the wine in abundance at the wedding at Cana. However, that can’t be all that both John and Luke are trying to convey in telling these stories. Although it is extremely important that we understand who Jesus is and the reason he came into the world, the gospel narratives are more than just a biography of Jesus. The authors of the gospels also use these stories to convey to us what our response should be to this great gift of God’s grace in Jesus.
They encourage us to think about what words we would use to use to communicate who we are and to consider what we will do to demonstrate what our lives really mean Jesus tells us that all that we have is a gift from God, and that our priority should always be to use our resources to relieve the suffering of the poor and needy, to advocate for justice, to welcome the stranger. Yet, just as it was when Jesus lived on earth, human society encourages us to accumulate material wealth for ourselves and to support the status quo. So often we allow our anxieties and fears to govern our actions instead of being willing to take the risks that Jesus encourages us to take. We remain enslaved to that which feels familiar and safe or we allow ourselves to follow the siren call of false prophets instead of being free in Christ.
Mary understood that what God has always done, her son would now do as well. She made the connection between the God that she knew and the God that would be made manifest through Jesus. She realized that God’s favor of her would be experienced by the world in him. We understand that every time we do something to relieve the suffering of others – make quilts, give food, clothing and other necessities, pay tuition for a poor child far away, buy a flock of chicks for ten dollars – we fill a need that we see in abundance. Both the recipients of our giving and we ourselves as the givers experience the great gift of God’s grace. In that way God’s favor of us is experienced by the world through our words and actions. Amen.