Luke 4:14-21 The Foundation and Application of the Ministry and Mission of Christ
A movie came out a number of years ago called “The Kingdom of Heaven” Now, this movie was set during the second Crusade and as the Christian forces had retaken Jerusalem. But the rub in this story is that the Christians are divided. On the one hand, some people seek to maintain a fragile but stable peace with the Muslims by sharing the various holy places that are sacred to all religions. On the other hand, however, there are the Christian zealots who are bent on destroying all the Muslims, convinced not only that it’s their duty as Christians, but also that victory is guaranteed. Their slogan is “God wills it.” God wills the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of people whose only crime was that they practiced another religion?
Now, I’m not sure what it is about the nature of religion that seems to always make people think in those terms. Why those who belong to the “right” religion believe that they’re the chosen ones, and those who belong to other religions are condemned to eternal damnation? What is it about religion that breeds exclusivity, an “us versus them” mentality, rather than inclusion or at the very least, coexistence?
Now, the “religious” people of Jesus day, the ones who were under the law and subject to the Temple system, thought that way too. When Jesus preached his inaugural sermon in that Nazarian synagogue, the folks initially responded with proud approval for the “local boy” made good. But Jesus knew that they were missing the point, and so he made it clear: God’s grace is for everyone, everywhere, not just for a select group. As one contemporary theologian put it, Jesus “threw the book at them”[i] by citing examples from Hebrew Scripture; stories from their own Bible about how the prophets Elijah and Elisha went to and blessed outsiders, gentiles, people who existed outside the Temple system. And, as we heard in today’s reading, they tried to kill him.
But why the sudden change of heart? How did Jesus go from hometown hero to public enemy number one in a single day?
Well, what scandalized the “righteous” people of Nazareth was the extravagant way in which Jesus offered God’s grace to everyone. You see, the religious people of his day expected God’s blessings for themselves. They believed they had earned these blessings through personal piety and a strict adherence to the letter of law. They were convinced that they deserved God’s grace, while the “sinners” deserved punishment. But Jesus came along offering God’s blessings indiscriminately to everyone. It’s hard to imagine anything more scandalous in Jesus’ day.
Now, we might be tempted to think that we’ve moved beyond all that. But the reality is, not much has changed. I’m often amazed by the way people respond when they hear for the first time about the Bible’s hope for all people to be redeemed. The typical response is, “If everyone is going to be saved, why should we go to church?” As if salvation is based upon some kinda points system.
You know, I heard some wise words this week about salvation that I’ll share with you. When asked about the nature of salvation, in other words, who’s in and who’s out, this wonderful, gentile soul wouldn’t respond with a Bible lesson or a defense of his theological position; but instead, he would simply say, “My hope is that God’s grace is big enough to include everyone.”
“God’s grace is big enough to include everyone.” I think part of the problem is that we get confused regarding who salvation is about. It’s not primarily about us making the right choices or believing all the right things. In a very real sense, salvation isn’t about us at all! It’s about God. It’s about God’s love for all creation. It’s about God’s desire for all of humanity to coexist in harmony, justice, and peace. And this, my friends, is the very nature of grace. The unconditional, unearned, always available to every person, Grace of God[ii]
And I know, in our culture, and especially the Christian faith that we so dearly love, God’s grace comes with some challenges. First, Grace challenges us to embrace the essence, the very core of Jesus’ mission and ministry, and come to realize that we are not saved apart from one another, but rather, that the Good News of salvation exists for all people. [iii] That’s the first challenge and the second is this: Grace finally isn’t a stagnate thing; it doesn’t exist in a vacuum; and once we’ve embraced and indwelled the universal nature of God’s grace, it’s then that grace is revealed in us and shared through us, as we reach out and tend to one another’s needs. In other words, the Good News leads to Good Ways.
So, what might be some examples of “Good Ways?” Well, consider three of the verbs that Jesus uses to proclaim the Good News in his proclamation about the direction of his entire mission and ministry: Release, Recovery, and Liberation. How might these words of hope be present in our world today?
Well, as you all know, in our nation and across the globe, we are a deeply divided people. We are divided in how we think about and respond to the plight of refugees, how we resolve the on-going violence and poverty we see around us, and as to the intrinsic worth and value of people of color. And as a result of this division, our government is shut down and people are suffering. And they’re suffering primarily because of the disfunction and distrust, the deception and fear coming from the very top level of our government. Indeed, the way ahead seems very dark and it seem unlikely that anything can change in this cultural climate.
But there is hope. There’s hope if we take seriously this idea of the Good News leading to Good Ways. What if, beginning with us, grace were to replace the disfunction cause by fear and distrust? What if we were to view national and world problems through the lens of release, recovery, and liberation instead of self-interest?
I submit, that even though Jesus’ words are ancient, and even though they originated from a culture that was very, very different from our own, they still contain a central and undeniable Truth. The Truth of God’s universal and unconditional grace. And it’s this Truth that will set us free. This inherent Biblical Truth has the potential to turn the tide; to change hearts and minds. The Truth that salvation is for all people, including the poor, the marginalized, and those on the outside looking in. The Truth that God’s grace is big enough to include people from every nation, from every race, and from every life circumstance; including those deemed unworthy or un-savable by some caiming to follow Christ. My friends, the Truth is that God seeks to bring humanity release from the captivity of ignorance and recovery from spiritual blindness. The spiritual blindness that leads to things like bullying or domination or war, recovery from the spiritual blindness of things like fundamentalism or racism, or sexism, or whatever “isms” people can concoct. And finally, that God seeks to liberate all people from these injustices.
Friends, as we move forward and as we progress as a people, these are the priorities we must embrace. We are invited to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” right now, here in this place, through acts of kindness, gentleness, and yet, grace. This is the Good News! The Good News that hopefully will lead all of us, and all of humanity, to practice Good Ways.
May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
[i] William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (January 27, 2004), pg. 20