When Jubilee Sounds Like a Threat (Luke 4:14-21)

[This sermon was preached by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler at the gathering of the All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, TN, on January 27, 2019.]

When I was a little older than my daughter, Hannah, I used to go to my mom and dad,begging them to tell me a story. And it couldn’t be just any story—it had to be me-centric. “Talk about the Kaitie, Talk about the Kaitie!” We laugh about it because that’s just such a toddler thing, right? Your world is so small.Everything is centered on you and your needs. I was told yesterday that the kinetic sand in our sand table was for me to “look at, mama, not play with”because it was not mine. I was invited to the table to play, but when I started, I was not welcome. Ideally, over time, we learn that sand is for sharing and the world is big and needs outside our own exist and other stories are important even if they don’t include us. Ideally.

This lesson of a “bigger-than-you” world and learning the patience to hear stories that don’t include you is harder the closer in proximity one is to power or privilege. For toddlers, the response may include tantruming or pouting, but for adults, the response often becomes violent. The older one is, the more de-centering work challenges one’s safety, status, and self-concept. Violence,then, is just an emphatic rejection of wanting to do that work. It’s a lazy and entitled response to a call for empathy. I’m setting us up to understand this before even diving into the passage, because I think it is vital for us to put ourselves in the Nazarene’s shoes. Especially the shoes of the local religious leaders.

The gospel writer sets this up so perfectly.

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.”

In verses 14 and 15, Jesus is a star. He is the standout, the wunderkind, the prodigy, the MVP. He was teaching in their synagogues and everyone praised him. There’s most likely a lot of hometown pride that bubbled to the surface when people heard Jesus was coming to the Nazareth synagogue. I can see Jesus sitting in the synagogue, surrounded by the men who he grew up around. Older men, his father’s age, and their sons, possibly childhood friends of Jesus.Maybe there was a mixture of pride, maybe some jealousy. He stands up, and they hand him the scroll. I’m not sure what they anticipated he read, but Jesus unrolls it, and looks for something. For all we know, this could have taken thirty seconds or five minutes, but I would bet the anticipation was thick.

He finds what he is looking for, looks up, and says the following:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. Listen to this:  The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.  He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

There’s so much to unpack here—I don’t think we can cover it sufficiently. This divine mic drop was basically God’s thesis statement for sending Jesus to humanity. He takes two passages in Isaiah, combines them, and uses them as a declaration of ministry and purpose: “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”Jesus’s first hometown sermon is a decidingly political one: in it he declares dominion over the sacred and secular. And this IS Good News.

For the poor, the prisoner, the oppressed, this is FINALLY God saying, “I’m here! It’s happening! Your Jubilee Year is finally come, all your debts are paid, you are free!” For the marginalized, Jesus is not only giving a word of hope and promise, but a word of finality. He’s here, y’all. Our troubles are no longer unheard and unseen.

With this word, Jesus basically confronts two institutions: the religious and the political. The Year of the Lord’s Favor Isaiah referred to was also called the Jubilee Year, and it was the responsibility of the government to enact and recognize it. Obviously, by the time Jesus came along, Rome was in charge, and “Jubilee” seemed more like a folk tale than a reality. It is a very pointed criticism that Jesus lobs at the political structures of his day when he chooses this particular passage. “Yeah, I’m here because you can’t do it.” And this Is Good News.

Everyone is amazed at his words and speaks well of him. But he doesn’t stop there.

See,it’s interesting to note that if you read ahead, the religious men in the synagogue don’t get mad because he says that he’s there for the poor and the oppressed. They get mad because he says that the poor and oppressed aren’t them. They are happy to hear of his healing until his healing heals those on the outside. They get so mad, in fact, they try to kill him. When the story shifts from centering them, to centering others, their violence overtakes their goodwill. They would rather kill the Messiah than join in the work with him.

And it’s not like Jesus is someone who withholds healing from those who need it. The fact that he chooses to reveal his mission in this way and then say later,“by the way, this isn’t about you,” tells me that he knew this community needed to be reminded of what it’s all about.

I titled this sermon, “When Jubilee Sounds like a Threat” because in 2019 America, I wonder how we would respond to the brown Nazareth preacher claiming freedom for the oppressed? I wonder if, depending on our social location and proximity to power and privilege, would it lead us to feelings of violence or feelings of joy?

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to

Proclaim good news to those with poisoned water in Flint, Michigan,

He has sent me to proclaim freedom to Cyntoia Brown,

And recovery of land to indigenous people,

To set the undocumented immigrant children at the border free,

To proclaim health and healing to any sick person, regardless of ability to pay.”

Are we the local Nazarene religious leaders, so believing that we are entitled to Jesus and his words that any call to lift up the oppressed and marginalized is threatening? How can we tell if we are about to throw God off a cliff because we can’t handle the focus being off of us and on the systematically disadvantaged?

Does Jubilee sound like a threat or does it sound like Good News? What is our litmus test for whether we have perpetually centered our stories OR welcomed a bigger world and a bigger God who challenges us to look to the oppressed and marginalized for signs of His salvation work?

Church, we are being called into something great. We are can either proclaim Good News and do Good Work, or violently reject the God of the Outcasts. It starts with listening to stories in which we are not the subject and it ends in participating in the Great Narrative that rightly centers the oppressed.

May we be ever aware of our power and privilege, and learn to live empathetic, justice-seeking lives.

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