TITLE: A Prayer to Be Worth Something SCRIPTURE: Luke 4:14-21
Jesus visited the synagogue at Nazareth, and was invited to preach. That's natural! Jesus had grown up in Nazareth. He had learned his spiritual ABC's in that synagogue. A number of people could say, "I used to be his teacher. He was such a nice boy. Smart too!"
Jesus no longer lived in Nazareth. As an adult, he made his home in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13). He was just visiting the place where he grew up. We suspect that his father, Joseph, was dead by this time, but Mary would have been there. Can't you imagine how proud Mary must have been of her son! It must have been wonderful for her to see him stand up to read the scriptures in the synagogue where she had brought him as a boy. She saw him unroll the scroll and find his place. Then he read:
"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."
Then Jesus sat down –– teachers always sat to teach in those days. The people waited expectantly for him to speak.
Sermons didn't amount to much in those days. They didn't have professional clergy. Their preachers were usually men from the community who would comment on the scripture that was read for the day –– men who weren't trained to speak publicly –– men who would mostly recite what they had learned in the synagogue as children. But these people had heard that Jesus was doing exciting things in Capernaum, so they waited expectantly for him to speak. Then Jesus said:
"Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
That doesn't sound like much of a sermon, does it! "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." But it kept the people's attention. They wanted to learn what Jesus meant. The scripture from Isaiah had to do with blessings for the poor, and most of them were poor. The scripture had to do with blessings for people who were captives, and they were captives of the Roman soldiers who occupied their country. The scripture had to do with letting the oppressed go free, and they were oppressed. The Roman emperor lived in great luxury because ordinary people like these farmers and shopkeepers from Nazareth paid such high taxes. If they met a Roman soldier on the road, they prayed that he wouldn't be carrying a burden –– because he could tell them to carry his burden and they would have to obey.
So when Jesus said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," they wanted to know what he meant. They wanted to know if it meant that he was planning to gather an army to expel the Romans. They wanted to know if he would give them their freedom from an emperor whom they never saw but who nevertheless exacted money from them at every turn of the hat.
What they couldn't really appreciate was the fact that Jesus had an even grander vision. He was planning to make life easier, not just for the people of Nazareth –– not just for the people of Israel –– but for all people everywhere.
God sent Jesus to bring good news to the poor. There isn't anyone who needs good news more than a poor person. There aren't many people who care about poor people. Poor people, by definition, have no money to buy loyalty. Poor people, because they are poor, have little power. Poor people, in their poverty, aren't very appealing. They don't dress well. Sometimes they aren't clean. Sometimes they are drug addicts. Sometimes they are crazy. We see them sitting with signs at stoplights asking for handouts. We see them sprawled on sidewalks.
But Jesus loved poor people –– and he calls us to love poor people in his name. Jesus came to bring good news to poor people ––and he calls us to bring them good news too–– and Christians have been bringing good news to poor people for twenty centuries.
Lee Owens is a poor man –– a poor, elderly man who happens also to be blind. Mr. Owens had the bad fortune to live in Biloxi, Mississippi when Hurricane Katrina came through there in August, 2005. The hurricane ruined his home. A group of Christians came to Biloxi to help. They stripped the wet sheetrock from his walls and removed the ceiling to allow the house to dry –– but they told Mr. Owens that they didn't think they could get a permit to rebuild his house, because the damage was so extensive.
Mr. Owens said, "Young man, if the Lord wants me here, I'll be here. I still have faith in Jesus. He could save my house."
The next day, the city of Biloxi issued a permit to allow Mr. Owens to rebuild. Christians came–– as many as a hundred of them. They came from all over the country. They started work on his house. They put on a new roof. They replaced rotten studs. They installed new sheetrock and flooring. They painted the walls. Mr. Owens says,
"Without them, I wouldn't be in this house today.
God is so good. He answered my prayers.
I thank God for the good workers He sent here."
God sent Jesus to bring good news to the poor. He also sends us to bring good news to the poor. Some of the people whom we encounter are financially impoverished. Others are spiritually impoverished. We need to be giving as we have been blessed so that we can help those in need.
God also sent Jesus to proclaim release to the captives. The people to whom he was preaching at the Nazareth synagogue were captives. They were captives of Rome, and they knew that. They were also captives of their small vision –– and their appetites. God sent Jesus to set them free.
God also sent Jesus to give sight to the blind. Sometimes he did that by healing a blind man –– by restoring his sight. But he also came to give sight to those who were spiritually blind. The people to whom he was preaching at Nazareth were small people living in a small world. God sent Jesus to open their eyes to what might be –– to what they might become –– to what God had created them to be.
God also sent Jesus to set the oppressed free. Is it too much to say that only those who have experienced oppression can fully appreciate what it means to be free? Archbishop Desmond Tutu grew up under apartheid in South Africa. He says,
"There's nothing ever to equal being free.
You can't put a money value to being free,
to be able to wake up in a country and not have to say,
'Do I have my pass on me?'
'Am I allowed to go there?'
'Can I take my children to that school?'"
Bishop Tutu tells of walking past a playground with his daughter many years ago and having to stop her from playing on the swings. She would protest, "But there are other children there." He says, "You got quite sick having to say, 'Yes, there are other children there, but they are not quite children like you'"
God sent Jesus to set the oppressed free –– and he calls us to do the same. We, his church, are his hands and feet to accomplish his purposes in this world –– and it is his purpose that we bring good news to the poor –– that we proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind –– that we enable the oppressed to go free.
It is a huge mission, given the state of the world today –– a mission that seems impossible to achieve. But God enables those whom he calls. God makes the impossible possible. God doesn't call any one of us to do the whole job, but he calls each of us to do our part. He has workers in every land on the face of the earth. With God's help, our small efforts can make a great difference.
I would like to encourage you to spend some time this week considering how God might be calling you to help those in need. Pray about it. Your prayers don't need to be elaborate. Just ask, "What can I do, Lord? How can I help?" Then spend a minute or two in silence –– giving God a chance to respond. Wait patiently! Listen!
Do that each day for a week. If you will do that, I believe that God will surprise you with the wonderfully good news that your life can be worth something to someone –– that your life can be more than going through the motions –– that you can be a blessing –– and that in giving you will receive a blessing. Pray about it each day this week, and see what God will do.