In the Year of the Lord’s Favor

We continue in Luke’s 4th chapter with an accounting of the beginnings of Jesus’ active ministry. Two weeks ago, in the dramatic scenes Luke described Jesus attending sabbath worship in the Nazareth synagogue. Having taken his place, Jesus indicated his desire to read, and Luke tells us he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Taking the scroll, Jesus unrolled it to a specific place and began to read:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,

Because the LORD has anointed Me

To preach good tidings to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives,

And the opening of the prison to those who are bound …

To proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.

NKJB

Handing back the scroll to the attendant Jesus sits down to begin his further interpretation of the text. Luke reports that all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him as Jesus began with a momentous statement:

today, these words are fulfilled in your hearing.

Now we know that Nazareth was Jesus’ hometown – the place where he had grown up. Luke reports that at first the congregation were amazed – awestruck at Jesus eloquence.

All spoke well of him, and asked is not this Joseph’s son?

Of course, everyone knew him. They knew his mother Mary and his father Joseph, the village carpenter. They knew his brothers and sisters – they were his friends and neighbors. Because of this they were all the more amazed and perhaps stirred with pride in their hometown boy.

Luke hints that report of Jesus teaching at Capernaum had already preceded his arrival in Nazareth, so the congregation may well have greeted him with already raised expectations. They begged him:

Do here also in your hometown the things that we have head you did at Capernaum.

But Jesus replies:

Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s own hometown.

Oh! You can feel the bewildered deflation.

Luke tells us that at this point the mood in the synagogue dramatically shifts from universal praise to sheer rage – a rage so powerful that in a few minutes it transforms a congregation hanging on his every word into a lynch mob intent on throwing him off the brow of the village cliff face. How come?

We sense Jesus’ unease in response to their acclamation. So he quotes to them the saying that no prophet was ever accepted in his hometown. Often interpreted as an explanation for the crowd’s turning on him, if we focus only on these words we miss the point of what’s really going on here. In effect, Jesus is saying a prophet is accepted only if he privileges his hearers relationship to his message in some way – confirming their expectations and affirming their prejudices.

Isaiah’s words were regarded by Jesus’ Jewish hearers as a manifesto for their liberation as God’s chosen people. They are roused to murderous rage at his suggestion that others also – even members of other despised and hated communities – are included in the dispensation of God’s favor.

There’s a whole lot of historical baggage of hatred and animosity between these northern Jews of the Galilee and their Phoenician and Syrian neighbors. Therefore, it’s intolerable for them to hear Jesus including them within Isaiah’s prophecy of liberation. Jesus is referencing God’s favor extending to those who are not like us. It’s one thing to quote with approval from Isaiah – it’s quite another to tell his Jewish hearers that God of Israel’s favor is not exclusive to them. 

Here is Jesus’ first practical teaching on love your enemies – because it’s not up to us to confine the boundaries of God’s favor – which he is at pains to point out – is given without discrimination.

Last week’s weather cancelled both in person and livestream worship. In the sermon I had prepared for then I drew a line of connection between the response of Jesus’ Nazareth friends and neighbors and our current experience of the resurgence of white supremacist nationalism. You can read the text and hear the audio podcast as usual on the worship webpage for last week. The connection I drew out then is this. To be told that God’s favor extends indiscriminately to not only those we consider not like us but to those we historically and culturally consider not only outside the dispensation of God’s favor but the recipients of God’s disfavor -is a terrifying prospect. For Jesus’ Galilean hearers as well as today’s white supremacists, their restriction of the boundaries of God’s favor exclusively to themselves must now be defended and enforced with violence.

Today’s gospel passage from Luke moves us into the next phase at the start of Jesus ministry – the call of his first disciples. The Old & New Testament lessons for today both take up the theme of vocatio – vocation rendered variously as calling, invitation, even summons. Unlike Jesus’ Nazareth family, friends, and neighbors; unlike white nationalists and evangelical white supremacists – we are the recipients of God’s favor not through birth or membership of an exclusive group of racial privilege – not through simply being Jewish or being white skinned.  We enter the dispensation of God’s favor through conscious response. We choose to be among those who receive God’s favor when we respond to the invitation – maybe even for some of us, the urgent summons of the call to follow Jesus.

Isaiah and Paul were both persons who experienced their personal identities collapse, their view of self and world transform in the face of the forceful and mystical urgency of God’s summons to serve. For Peter the response to being called by Jesus began with the experience of being shamed and humbled in the face of an overwhelming experience of God’s generous abundance (the huge haul of fish). All three heard God’s summons – a call to serve in realizing God’s dream for the world. All three accepted God’s invitation. For each the circumstances differed – yet something of a common blueprint for acceptance of God’s call was established in each instance – namely a process that begins with a reordering of self and worldview through a spontaneous act of repentance.

Where’s our experience of repentance without which we will remain blind to the urgency of God’s call to become more fit for the purposes we’re being summoned to? It’s this lack of repentance -the necessary precondition for the reordering of our comfortable lives and our easy and complacent relationship to the world as those who believe themselves to be included within God’s favor without any effort on our part. For aren’t we also good people just doing what good people do?

Today, these words are fulfilled in your hearing.

What is our relationship to the year of the Lord’s favor – are we within or without? Our readiness for an attitude of repentance might be our best guide to the answer.

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