Isaiah 58:4-9, Luke 4:14-30
January 25, 2009
“Home town boy does well!” That might also have been a good title for this message. Can we even imagine what it was like for the people of his town when Jesus came home and stood before them in their synagogue? Can we imagine their reaction when he began to tell them who he really was?!
A Catholic friend of mine once told me that in large Catholic families it used to be a dream – or even an expectation – that at least one of the sons would go into the priesthood. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but here was one family in which that happened to the greatest possible degree. “Mary, your son is the Messiah! How proud you must be!” Well, that wasn’t quite their reaction, but I’m sure Mary was proud!
Just imagine this town was like. People knew people! In our day, we talk about how we don’t know our neighbors any more. And I think that’s true. We’re so busy, we’re so mobile, that we don’t often interact with those who live around us. Maybe you remember a time when people did that more. Maybe that was easier when we lived in smaller towns. When I went to Kansas, the warning I heard was, “Be careful what you say about someone, because they might just be related to the person you’re talking to!” That proved true more times than I can tell you! But I grew up in the burbs, and even there we knew a lot of the people around us. Maybe you did, too. Maybe we need to get to know our neighbors again!
Well, here’s the story of that time, which I’m sure was inevitable, a time at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he came back to be with the people of his home town. And they all knew him! And throughout this story there seems to be two ways they reacted to him. First, they were proud of him, and later they were indignant. We read from Luke’s account today, which is the more complete version. If we read Matthew and Mark, we’d find the short version of this story. They only tell the last part of this, how the people they took offense at Jesus. “Who does he think he is?”
I like Luke’s account. Because I think there was more going on here than just indignance over an “uppity child,” who thought too highly of himself. They were also reacting to what he said about them, too. Luke tells us they were ready to throw Jesus over a cliff! At that point he had just told them how no prophet is acceptable in his own town. But I believe their reaction started from his very first words. Let’s take a look at this.
Jesus was in the synagogue, and he was asked to read from the scriptures. And unlike here, where I give the readers their passages, Jesus chose what part he wanted to read to them. I’m sure many of you have wished you could have chosen your own passage! And notice too that Jesus choose a passage that didn’t have a lot of hard names in it!!
They handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he found the place we read today. And what I want you to notice is that there are two ways of looking at this. And it depends on how you interpret the place in Isaiah from which Jesus was reading. Was he simply making a statement about himself based on the messianic prophecy we find in Isaiah 61? Or was it more? Was he also making a statement about the way the people were conducting their lives of faith based on the warning in Isaiah 58? Because the words are similar! And remember, warning people was one of the functions of the prophets!
Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes when we think of prophets we think of what? We think of people who predicted the future. There is a great fascination these days with this man named Michel de Nostradamus, who seemed to predict future events during his life in the 16th century. He’s certainly an interesting character. But the difference between Nostradamus and the prophets of the Old Testament is that those prophets spoke plainly and specifically. And their prophecies came true to the letter. Too often, with the quatrains of Nostradamus, people have interpreted them after the fact, in order to make his much more cryptic words fit modern events. He is said to have foreseen things like the rise of Adolph Hitler, and the tragedy of 9-11. But as one critic said, it would have been much more helpful for the world if he had actually helped head off those events! It would have been more helpful if he had written “Watch out for this guy, Hitler, he’s going to try to take over the world!”
The other difference with the prophets of the Old Testament was that predicting the future was only part of their job. They were speaking to speak to the people on behalf of God, and their message often began “Thus saith the Lord…” And very often that meant telling the people that God was not pleased with them. Their message was to warn the people that, if they didn’t shape up, then such and such was going to happen. There’s the future element, you see. And of course, that’s what people often didn’t like about the prophets. Sometimes they even put them to death!! And here we have the same thing almost happening to Jesus. Because, while he was telling them he was the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy, he was also pointing to the warning of Isaiah 58, which we’ll look at in a minute.
When he said to them, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” it then took on a deeper meaning. As he was saying, “these words are fulfilled today – in me.” he was saying, “these words are also fulfilled today – in you.” I hope you see that double meaning. With it, the people’s indignance becomes even more significant. “Hey we know this guy! Who does he think he is?!”
Let’s take a look at Isaiah 58 for a moment. There the prophet writes this. “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sin.” And then these words. “Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.”
That’s a pretty harsh thing to say! Listen as he continues. “They say, ‘why have we fasted and yet have not seen [God’s righteousness]?” Answering that question Isaiah writes “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight.” “Fasting like yours will not make your voice be heard on high.” “Yes, you do the right things when you fast. You bow down. You use the sackcloth and ashes.” But your lives are not right, “and then you call this a feast and a day acceptable to the Lord?” Those are ominous words!
Then he tells them, “I’ll tell you the fast that I choose: it is to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.” “That’s doing God’s work!” he said. “The fast I choose is to share your bread with the hungry, and reach out to the homeless poor, and to clothe the naked.” When you do that, “then shall your light break out like the morning.” “Then you shall call and the Lord will answer.” “That’s the kind of lives I want you to live,” he said.
Friends, I hope you see this passage as a hard challenge. I hope you see in this that the call of God is a high calling! The people of Israel were chosen so that they could be God’s light to the world. But they had not been that light. Later, when Jesus came and said, “You are the light of the world.” They should have known that.
We too are called to be that light to the world. But we need to ask ourselves the tough questions. Are we doing all the right things in our faith, but not doing God’s will? And then, do we call what we do in our faith that which is acceptable to the Lord? That is a tough question! I don’t know about you, but I know there are things I do that wouldn’t be acceptable to the Lord. And I’m sure that’s the case with all of us! And I hope when we look at our lives that we try to think of the light we are showing to the world. And I hope we try our very best to be a positive light. I hope we try to live every day as God would have us live. That’s the tough work of the faith! That takes God’s strength!! We can’t do t on our own!
Our goal in this life is to be more and more like Jesus. He’s our example for living! And we may be the only Jesus some people ever see! Yet how often do we fail at that? I don’t have to tell you that there are too many people in this world who are doing things in the name of the Lord that they think are God’s will, but to whom this prophecy would be a warning. There are too many who go through all the motions of the faith, yet like Isaiah warned, their lives are no different than anybody else’s. They seek their own pleasure, they quarrel, they fight, and God would say, “You’re not doing what I want, and yet you claim to be. And then you call this ‘acceptable to the Lord?!’”
I would challenge us today to be humble enough to know that could be us. I would ask for us to be willing for God to challenge us and change us. We are the light of the world. There’s no getting around that. The only question is what will our light be?!
Help us, Lord, to be more like Jesus every day. Change us, Lord, from one degree of your glory to the next. Grant us the power to do that by the indwelling and the awareness of the Holy Spirit. Help us to be the light of the world. For this we pray in the name of he who was and is the light of the world, Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.