Luke 4:14 – 21 — Jesus Has Come to Set the Captives Free


A sermon preached on January 27, 2013 based upon Luke 4:14 – 21.419707_10151200569046370_1034022561_n
This week we hear Luke’s version of the first things that happened in Jesus’ ministry.   Filled by the power of the Holy Spirit at the River Jordan, and then having spent forty days in the wilderness, Jesus returns to the region of Galilee.  The Holy Spirit is evident as he causes quite a sensation in various towns teaching in their synagogues before returning home to Nazareth.  And as is his custom, on the Sabbath Jesus goes to the synagogue.   As a rabbi, he is invited to read scripture.  They hand him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and which is a rather long book, and so to say the least, it is highly significant which verses Jesus chooses to have read that day.
(Traditionally the whole Bible is seen as the Word of God.  Each person, however who reads the Bible must choose on some basis which parts of the Bible they believe God is speaking through most clearly.  Here we see Jesus, trusting the leading of the Holy Spirit making precisely such a choice.)
He chooses a passage that has the language of an installation service.   “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me…”  In those dayswhen a prophet or king was commissioned to his work, he would be anointed with oil, but in this case, there is no oil; it is the Spirit of the Lord himself who does the anointing.  And what follows reads as essentially a mission statement for the ministry Jesus is beginning.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon 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, and to let the oppressed go free; and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 
The reference to the “the year of the Lord’s favor” refers to something called the “Year of Jubilee” described in Leviticus 25.   It is one of the most grace-filled passages in the Torah, declaring that every 50 years the captives were to literally be released — the oppressed literally set free.  Everybody in the land who had fallen on bad luck, or simply screwed up, resulting in the loss of their ancestral land and homes, leading perhaps to their becoming slaves by virtue of their debt – all of these poor souls would have their ancestral land restored to them.  They would cease to be slaves.    This law gave the gift of freedom, and a new beginning.  An opportunity to start over; not earned, simply given.
For it to actually have been carried out would have required that those who had come into possession of the lost land be willing to give it up in order that those left homeless might receive this grace — this new beginning.    Not surprisingly, there is little evidence that the year of the Jubilee was actually practiced in ancient Israel.
And although the Year of Jubilee was for the most part ignored, it was there on the books, and Jesus chose a passage that speaks of this extraordinary year of grace.   As it turns out, his ministry will last about a year.
As significant as it is what Jesus chose to read that day, it is also important to note what he chose NOT to read.  He finished his reading mid-sentence. Had he continued on in Isaiah 61:2 he would have read “and the day of vengeance of our God.”  That’s day when butts would be kicked; when those who have it coming to them (and typically understood as those who had wronged Israel) would get what was coming to them.  But Jesus doesn’t read that.  He is not here to proclaim the “day of vengeance;” he’s here to announce the year of grace.  His own experience of the Lord God has been one of extraordinary graciousness.  He chooses words of scripture that accentuate grace.   He does not speak to that desire often found in religious people to see the unrighteous get punished.  Feeling the leading of the Holy Spirit, Jesus chooses to accentuate the positive, not the negative.
And then as was the custom in that day, having stood to read from the sacred scroll, Jesus the rabbi now sits in order to comment on what he has read – to give, in essence, the sermon.   With all eyes fixed on him, Jesus declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Think about that:  in order for the scripture Jesus reads to be fulfilled it must be truly heard.  A relationship must be established between the messenger (Jesus) and us, the ones who would hear his message.  The Scripture is fulfilled when we take Jesus’ gracious message to heart, and his mission statement becomes ours as well.
But in order to be able to offer grace to the world, we first need to experience this grace for ourselves. If we haven’t experienced something of the love that sets us free, we will not be able to offer the grace of God to others.
The liberation for which Jesus came involves an ongoing journey in the lives of each of us.  The journey invariable includes many stumblings —  many apparent setbacks and wrong turns.  But in the big picture of the journey, we who would stay in relationship with Jesus are being led to a place where the grace of God seeps deeper and deeper into our lives.
I included in the bulletin (and sent out an email) encouraging you all to take time to consider that Lent is a little over two weeks away.  Lent is an opportunity given to us to be on this journey in a more conscious and intentional way.  If we wait until Ash Wednesday gets here to think about how we want to spent our personal Lent, it is likely that we won’t take advantage of this opportunity.   We need to have some degree of focus for our Lent.
A place to begin is finding this focus could be reflecting on Jesus’ mission statement in regard to our own lives:
What is the good news I need to hear in my poverty of spirit?
What are the forms of bondage from which I need to be released — set free?
In what ways am I blind, unable to see, in the routine living of my life?
Running throughout Jesus’ mission statement is the concept of “freedom.”  Jesus wants to set us free.  It’s helpful to reflect some on what is meant by freedom.
Here in this country we tend to view freedom exclusively in terms of freedom from tyranny.  For instance, a foreign invader, an overbearing government, or an unjust boss.  At the Veteran Day ceremonies, children will be asked what freedom is, and invariably they will say something to the effect that freedom is not having somebody telling you what you have to do, which by their definition, means they aren’t free, since parents and teachers are routinely telling them what they have to do.
As adults we may be more inclined to think of freedom as something money brings, allowing us to be free from the threat of poverty and homelessness.
Although this is a part of what freedom is, left to itself it’s very incomplete, because it focuses our attention exclusively outside of ourselves, on all the barriers we identify to our having what we want in life.  It encourages us to focus on some imagined day far off in the future where we will have all the money we imagine we need so as to never again have to worry about going without, never again have to report to a boss; where we will be able to somehow create a life that is free from external threat.  And the irony is that even if we were able to somehow approach this fantasy –win the lottery, say – we would discover that we still weren’t free.
Because ultimately the freedom God is calling us into has more to do with what goes on in our own hearts than it does with what happens outside of us.  But like the old story of the guy looking for the house key he lost under the street light when in fact he lost it up the street in the darkness, it seems easier to focus our attention on the outer threats to our freedom than to examine the bondage that is within us.
In our story this morning, Jesus had recently gone through his own personal season of Lent.  He had spent 40 days in the wilderness dealing with his own inner voices that would tempt him into bondage.  He came forth from that wilderness with deepened sense of inner freedom, and as result he is able to be a catalyst for the rest of us to move towards a deeper freedom ourselves.
And one of the things Jesus’ season of Lent shows is that freedom isn’t just a matter of being free from something; it also involves being free for something.  Jesus was free for the kingdom of God.  He was free to love.  And because he had that clarity, he was able to turn his back on the devil when he sought to lure Jesus into bondage.
If you can’t get clear about what in your heart of hearts your freedom is for — if it is for nothing more than to indulge the whims of our ego — then your ego will simply lead you into an endless array of bondages.
Getting this clarity is, in the end, a gift of grace.   It is a matter of experiencing a gift of love that awakens within us a strong and clear love.  But you need to put yourself in a position to receive this gift.  You need to know what it is you need.
Traditionally people have found it helpful for their spiritual lives to set aside time for simply being silent – times when we’re not doing anything other than trying to lead our minds into stillness.  “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46)  In the stillness, God awaits.
When we attempt to sit in silence, though, we often find it extremely difficult to do. Our minds start racing to various places.    We get frustrated and want to give up.   However, if we pay attention to the places our mind habitually runs to, it can give us some clues about the forms our personal bondage takes.
Oftentimes when we try to quiet our minds, we find ourselves becoming anxious, with our minds running off to this and that unsolved problem.  What is this telling us about the form of our bondage?
It could mean many things.   It could mean we’re in bondage to the fantasy that real life will happen somewhere far off in the future when we have all our problems solved. It can lead to the sobering thought that if we continue in this bondage, we may end up on our death bed with a profound sense of regret that we never actually truly lived our life, because every moment was spent focused not on the present but on something we would face in the future.
So maybe during Lent we need to focus on a question like this:  How can I grow into a deeper trust of God in regard to the problems I will face in the future, so that I can live more fully in the gift of the present?
Maybe part of this form of bondage has to do with taking ourselves too seriously, in the sense that if I don’t worry over all these problems, no one will and the world won’t survive.   Am I living as though I’m God?   Am I taking responsibility for that which is rightfully somebody else’s responsibility?  Am I afraid that if I don’t take on all this responsibility, I will lose the basis for my self-esteem?
Perhaps as we sit in silence we become away of generalized sense of anxiety – of foreboding.   What’s with that?  Is there something I’m afraid of that I’m avoiding facing directly, so I’m in bondage to this unaddressed fear, and the result is that I live with this ever present undercurrent of anxiety?  In the midst of prayer, we can ask the question,  What is it I am really afraid of?  Maybe we discover that our underlying fear is that we will lose the love of people we rely on.   Maybe our underlying fear is that we will lose our job and become destitute, or that we’ll get sick and leave our children to face this world without us.  Once we have some clarity of what we’re truly afraid of, we have something to go to God with in prayer.
Maybe this anxiety arises within us in the silence, and our impulse is to flee.  It is helpful to notice, what is it I want to flee too?  The TV?  To food?  To drink?  To the internet?  In noticing such things, we find a suggestion of what we might try going without during the season of Lent.
Maybe as we sit in silence it we notice that our minds obsess about what is going wrong with our lives, and pretty much ignore all the things that are going well with our lives.  What’s with that?  It’s a kind of bondage, or blindness, isn’t it?  Maybe this realization might lead us to keep a journal during Lent in which we write down each day the things that went well… The things we take for granted… The good surprises…  In taking the time to write such experiences down, we allow ourselves the opportunity of taking pleasure in them, strengthened an attitude of gratitude within us.
And maybe in our journal we can write down the things we are tend to obsess over, and in doing so, intentionally try to “turn them over to God.”  Hopefully day by day we spend a little less time obsessing, and a little more time feeling blessed.
Jesus has come to set us free.  The most difficult forms of bondage in our lives are the ones we have avoided noticing.   Take some time in the next two weeks to ask ourselves, If Jesus has come to set the captives free, what is it I need to be set free from?