What Is the Acceptable Year of the Lord?

January 22, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-30

When this Sunday’s gospel reading was chosen way back last summer – sometime in July – I had simply wanted a Bible passage that spoke of the start of the ministry of Jesus.

I was not thinking of the import of this weekend in our nation’s history. If I had paid attention to the calendar I would have seen that January 20, 2017, would be an extraordinary threshold moment in America – whatever the election result.

It turns out this morning’s lesson from Luke’s gospel is, in effect, the inauguration speech given by Jesus. 

Luke tells us that Jesus has been out on the hustings, working his way through the towns and villages of Galilee. Having been baptized in the Jordan by John and tested by temptation in the wilderness for forty days, Jesus has been on a preaching tour. He’s been campaigning his way across the rugged hill country, teaching, healing, and listening. Meeting and greeting.

Now he comes home, to the hill town of Nazareth. Many there have heard about Jesus’ Galilean tour, about his preaching and healing in Capernaum and other villages. They’ve been expecting something similar when he got back home; perhaps they even felt they now deserved his attention. It’s a dramatic moment for Jesus: part-coming out, part-opening act.

Joseph’s son, the carpenter, enters the synagogue for Shabbat worship as he’s done hundreds of times. He’s there with friends and neighbors who’ve known him all his life. He’s now about 30 years old – no longer the little boy, no more the teenager, but a mature man.

People find their usual places in the synagogue that evening as the service begins. After the opening words, probably a sung psalm or two, Jesus walks to the front of the gathered crowd and unrolls a scroll, apparently prepared by him beforehand.

It’s is an age-old scene for Jewish worshippers. We just heard a passage from the book of Nehemiah from 600 hundred years before the time of Jesus, describing the ritual that day in the synagogue in Nazareth: “So they read from the book,” the text says, “From the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:8)

That was the heart of the Jewish worship experience: a reading of the ancient word of God, and a sermon interpreting it. And that’s what takes place in Nazareth. Jesus reads scripture and then he “gives the sense, so that the people understand the reading.” That day the carpenter becomes a preacher.

The Second Helvetic Confession, from the 16th century Swiss Reformation, says plainly: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” If that doesn’t get the preacher’s attention, nothing will. I try not to think about it too often. The task is terrifying. Preaching is serious business, as Jesus is about to find out.

He opens the scroll to the prophet Isaiah and reads the passage he has selected, no doubt familiar to those hearing him 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.” (Luke 4:18-19)

The year of the Lord’s favor.

Some translations call it “the acceptable year of the Lord.” It’s a well-known, long-established hope among the Hebrew people. The acceptable year of the Lord. It refers to the day when God’s reign would break forth in concrete ways: the poor would be lifted up, the oppressed set free, forgiveness extended, debts relieved, slaves released.

The acceptable year of the Lord. It points to the long-awaited year of Jubilee, when all relationships would be made right and God’s intentions for the human family would take root. It’s nothing short of a realigning of human relations, a reconfiguration of human community based on God’s expectations – and that’s where Jesus starts: as the theme for his inauguration speech Jesus chooses the acceptable year of the Lord.

That text from the old prophet becomes the focus of his first sermon, and it will frame his entire ministry, from beginning to end. That’s the signal he’s giving by choosing this passage. Call it the plumb line for his life, or the bottom line of the gospel, or a theological line of justice in the sand, here Jesus declares his core values. His life will be defined and measured by those values.

Having finished the reading, Jesus carefully rolls up the scroll and gives it back to the attendant. He then sits down to preach, as was the custom, and when he sits, Luke tells us, all eyes are riveted on him. “Today,” he says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

The time for which you faithful people of God have waited for generations, he says, that day has finally come.

There’s a murmur of approval across the congregation. There’s delight among them. The people in the synagogue are pleased with what they hear from Jesus at the start of the sermon. Their homegrown preacher-prophet-healer seems to be saying God is about to bless the Hebrew nation in a major way, and Nazareth, perhaps, in particular. So they’re happy as he starts out.

Remember this is a people living under Roman occupation, a people dominated by outside forces for as long as anyone can recall, a humiliated people. Jesus reads Isaiah’s Jubilee text and announces that God’s promises are now being fulfilled. The congregation in Nazareth takes that as affirmation of their hope for themselves. Their nation, they imagine, will finally be made great again, by God’s own hand.

But then Jesus really begins to preach, and the sermon takes a turn they don’t like.

To describe how he understands the acceptable year of the Lord, Jesus cites two stories from Hebrew tradition, the tradition the people gathered there know well.

First, he reaches back to the time of Elijah, when there was famine in the land. It had not rained for three years and six months. Nothing was growing, No harvest at all. People were starving, including the prophet Elijah. So the prophet cries out to God and is saved from death not by an Israelite, Jesus reminds them, but by a foreign woman, a non-Jew, and a widow, at that. There were many widows in Israel, Jesus says, if God had needed to work through a widow, but God chose instead to work through the most vulnerable person imaginable, a widow not even from the Hebrew tribe, to save the man of God.

As if to say: what do we learn from that story?

Then Jesus reminds them of the story of the prophet Elisha. In his time, Jesus says, there were many people suffering from leprosy, but God chose a foreigner called Naaman, a Syrian with leprosy, not an Israelite, but instead a foreigner to be healed by the power of God through the ministry of Elisha.

Jesus is making the point here that the acceptable year of the Lord is coming not only to the Hebrew people but to all God’s children. Things will be turned upside down when the Jubilee begins. Women will have power. Foreigners will be blessed. Gentiles will be included in the promise of God. All those excluded now from the circle, he is saying, those despised because of who they are or what they believe or where they come from, those deemed by cultural and political norms to be outside God’s reach, are now welcomed in.

That is the acceptable year of the Lord.

The people of Nazareth are now not happy at all. They’re not cheered by this message from Jesus. They had assumed all along that God’s love was primarily for them, that they had an exceptional place in the heart of the Almighty. But now they hear that God’s love will reach to the poor everywhere who will be lifted up, to the oppressed everywhere who will be set free, to the hungry and thirsty everywhere who will be satisfied.

God’s favor is not reserved exclusively for one tribe or one nation or one religion.

Jesus is telling his friends and neighbors they are not the sole recipients of God’s grace. And they do not like that word. In fact, it’s too much for them to bear, and in their rage they turn on him. They drive him out of the synagogue, out to the edge of town to throw him off a cliff, but it’s not yet his time. Jesus breaks free from the crowd and leaves Nazareth as fast as he can.

The prophet is not welcome in his own town. Jesus is one of them, but our nation first is not the plumb line this carpenter will use.

At the heart of Jesus’ concern are the wounded and lonely, the lost and rejected; those living in poverty, barred from and broken by systems of power and privilege. A plumb line for the poor will set the course for his life, and the life of the church. The bottom line of God’s inclusive love becomes the measure of his ministry, and of our faithfulness. A line in the sand, a justice line in the sand for those whom God loves this whole world over, determines his agenda.

And it determines ours as well, as Christians in these troubled times.

It is not acceptable that racial disparities still pervade our national life. Every person is made in God’s image.

It is not acceptable that some are paid less for the same work, or that many are not paid a livable wage while others make millions. God’s children are all of equal value.

It is not acceptable that many in our land are ensnared in generational poverty. God lifts up the poor.

It is not acceptable that American prisons are overflowing. God sets the prisoners free.

It is not acceptable that good health care is out of reach for many. God heals the sick.

It is not acceptable to ignore the impact humanity has on the earth and its climate. God calls us to be stewards of creation.

It is not acceptable to demean those of other faith traditions. God goes by a thousand different names.

In his sermon in the synagogue that day Jesus declares it is now the acceptable year of the Lord. In so doing, he defines the ministry of the church, our ministry, yours and mine, and the ministry of this congregation.

It is time for the unacceptable to end.

We can be complacent no longer. We have been called, urgently summoned, to love God and to love neighbor.

It is not simply the inauguration speech of Jesus that day in Nazareth; it is ours, as well.

Now the work begins.

Thanks be to God.

Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

Doug Mitchell

Almighty God, by grace alone you call us and employ us in your service.  Strengthen us by your Spirit, and make us worthy of your call.  You sent Jesus to proclaim your kingdom and to teach with authority.  Anoint us with your Spirit, that we too may bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, and proclaim liberty to the captive.  Help us to be all about the reconfiguration of human community in our time and place, all about lifting up those who are poor.  Grant that we will not held back from acting by fear that we will lose our own power and privilege in the renewing of community.  Help us to repair the strained relationships in our own community, between citizens and the police, between members of different political parties, among people of different races and ethnicities, different political points of view, different religious traditions and different sexual orientations.

Loving God, through your Son you have called us to repent of our sin, to believe the good news, and to celebrate the coming of your kingdom.  Like Christ’s first apostles, may we hear his call to discipleship, and, forsaking old ways, proclaim the gospel of new life to a broken world.  We thank you that you labor to renew creation, and that you seek not to judge, but to save, not to destroy but to create.  We give thanks that you call the nations to peace, and the peoples to justice.  We pray for our nation’s leaders.  May they hear your voice guiding them with wisdom and humility.

Merciful God, you bear the pain of the world. Look with compassion on those who are sick, cheer them by your word, and bring healing as a sign of your grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  We pray for the families of the 11 people killed by severe weather in southern Georgia overnight.

Be with those who grieve this day, O Lord.  We hold before you loving God, the family and friends of…

And as we remember your great love, we pray together the prayer that Jesus taught us, Our Father…

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