Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Character of Christ: Options for the Oppressed (Luke 4:14-20)

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14 Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside.15 He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. 17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
    to proclaim release to the prisoners
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
    to liberate the oppressed,
19     and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him.

At the risk of showing my age, when I was 11 years old, this commercial hit the airwaves, and it launched one of the most successful ad campaigns of the decade (Show “Be Like Mike” commercial:

If you’re like me, you’re going to be singing that jingle for the rest of the day – you’re welcome!  This ad campaign worked, in part, because it was so simple.  Who was the celebrity athlete in them?  How can you be like him?  Simple.  Memorable.  Effective.

Now, can drinking Gatorade really make us a great basketball player like Michael Jordan?  Maybe – I suppose anything is possible – but I’ll speak for myself here, anyway, and say probably not.  But, what if you set your sights even higher, on becoming like Jesus?  Being a Christian means becoming like Jesus.  Or, as long as you’re going to be singing the song all afternoon anyway, think, “Like Jesus – if I could be like Jesus.”

With that goal in mind, today’s messages continues looking at “The Character of Christ.”  We are looking at various aspects of the character of Jesus Christ to gain a clearer picture of who Jesus was, and what he’s about, so that we can become like him.  This week’s character trait is that Jesus, and his followers, create options for the oppressed.  May we pray.

In today’s Scripture from the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has returned to preach in his hometown.  He is just beginning to gain some notoriety and recognition for his teaching and healing, and on the Sabbath day, as was his custom, Jesus goes to worship.

Perhaps it was Homecoming Saturday in the little synagogue at Nazareth, and maybe his name would put their little town on the map.  You see, Nazareth was so small and so isolated that when you mentioned to outsiders, they simply said, “And what’s that near?”  Because of its isolation, there was a certain way things were done in Nazareth.  A common phrase heard around town was, “Because that’s the way we’ve ALWAYS done it!”  To say that the folks in Nazareth were resistant to change or new ideas would be an understatement, because it wasn’t very often that they were even exposed to new ideas!

Meanwhile, Jesus has been away for awhile – down to Judea, baptized in the Jordan River, tempted in the wilderness where he has spent forty days fasting and praying.  Those days of prayer are, for Jesus, a time to prepare and become clear about his life’s mission.  He is learning and experiencing God’s will for his life, and, filled with the Holy Spirit, he returns to Nazareth to share the new and exciting things he’s discovered with the hometown crowd.

You know the saying that you can’t go home again?  That’s especially true if you’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit, and the folks at home haven’t!  Jesus’ sermon starts well and good – a beloved, familiar, passage from the prophet Isaiah – but if you read on beyond what we’ve read for today, you’ll find that hometown crowd turned hostile – driving Jesus to the edge of town with the intent of throwing him over the cliff – that’s the strongest response to a sermon I’ve ever seen!

So what did Jesus say?
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
    to proclaim release to the prisoners
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
    to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

It’s not hard to see that these would be encouraging and comforting words if you are one of the poor, are in prison, blind, or suffering from oppression.  At the same time, these would be very uncomfortable words for those who are wealthy, privileged, and influential, because they suggest that God is on the side of the little guy.  God is found not among the ruling elite, but along the margins of society, among those who suffer injustice and oppression.

Systems of oppression thrive on separating people into categories of greater than and less than, viewing people as right or wrong, good or bad, in or out.  The ugly truth in reaching the top of the pile is that, sometimes, you have to climb over a whole lot of other people to get there.

The Greek word that we translate as “oppressed” means “broken to bits” or “having been crushed.”  Let’s not forget – we’re talking about people here – people who have been broken to bits or crushed by the pressures of society.  I equate it something to like what happens in a cereal box – I grew up in a large family and was often not the first one to breakfast in the morning, and was often greeted with a bowl full of broken, crushed, Cap’n Crunch “grizzle” – that pulverized stuff at the bottom of the box that nobody else wanted.

Think of that cereal box as a representation of society.  At the top of the box – beautiful, whole cereal pieces fit for a commercial, society’s upper echelon – but those pristine pieces were weighing down on the rest, so heavily that the pieces at the bottom couldn’t stand up under all that collective weight and were crushed.

Then, along comes Jesus, with a particular care and concern for the broken and crushed pieces at the bottom of the box.  Who wants all that grizzle?  It’s not good for anything, and so many people don’t even eat it – they actually just throw it away!  Except for Jesus, with his care for the least, last, and lost, and how they ultimately have a place in God’s kingdom.

The kingdom of God has often been called an “upside-down kingdom,” meaning that’s God’s values and priorities are a complete reversal of those of the world.  Jesus’ sermon in his hometown of Nazareth is his first public sermon, in which he proclaims that the time of God's kingdom is now, and announces that his life’s work will be about that kingdom.

Sure enough, as we read through the Gospel of Luke, Jesus lives out this mission, championing the dignity of the least, last, and lost of his society, going to life’s periphery and inviting everyone at the margins into the center of God’s love and God’s plan for humanity.  The rest of Luke’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’ love and compassion for those without power, without status, without dignity, without a voice and without hope, and the extreme lengths to which he would go, ultimately giving his own life, to secure a spot at the table for all God’s children.

Isn't this the simple truth that stands at the heart of the gospel—that God's love is for everyone—not the privileged few?  Yes, Jesus’ central message was about God’s love for everyone, but it’s when he started to speak to the specifics of what that love looks like on the ground – including this social upheaval of the world’s power structures – that got him killed.  The ruling elite of his day were threatened by him; Jesus’ words represented a threat to everything they had worked for, everything they had built their life upon.  What, you don’t think they executed Jesus for saying, “Love one another,” do you?  Jesus was crucified because he spoke God’s truth to people in power.

Like those privileged few in Jesus’ day, we can end up impoverished by our lack of vision, captive to behaviors that demean and devalue other people, and blinded by attitudes that folks of different color or culture or gender or political persuasion are less than children of the living God and don't deserve to be treated as brothers and sisters in Christ.

We must not climb over all of those other people – weigh them down, crush them, or break them to bits, because they, too, are created in God’s image every bit as much as we are, imbued with a certain sacred worth simply as fellow members of the human family.  Other people are never a means to an end, other people are a sacred end in and of themselves. 

Sometimes we find ourselves at the top of the pile simply by circumstance.  For example, I am a white, North American male.  I have had access to education and healthcare my entire life.  I am free to live my life as I please without fear of persecution, punishment, or death.  In our society, I am a person of extensive privilege, and not even because of anything I have done.

The difficulty of this teaching of Jesus is that, especially on a global scale, most of us would fall into that privileged category.  We are the pieces of cereal toward the top of the box, which means there are folks beneath us we may be crushing, without even knowing it.  We’re not bad people, we don’t have an oppressive spirit, it’s simply that every time we go to the store, we make economic choices that, inadvertently add to the burden of people who are already at the bottom.  We purchase that shirt or electronic device without giving any thought to the working conditions of the people who made it, we buy coffee that’s inexpensive rather than paying a little more for the free-trade stuff.  It’s not intentional; we simply don’t realize that every time we do that, it adds a little more weight to an already top-heavy system, and the result is that someone, somewhere, is crushed.

If you listen to enough talk radio or watch enough cable news, you’ll hear a lot of folks who are concerned that “we’ve lost our way as a nation,” or that “we’ve fallen out of God’s favor,” and maybe that’s true – I certainly don’t know, I’m not God, so that’s not my call to make.  What I do know, however, is that for Jesus, upon whom the Spirit of the sovereign Lord rested, there is a direct correlation between “the year of the Lord’s favor” and how we treat the most vulnerable members of our society.  God is very interested in how those at the top of the box are either adding to or lifting the burden on those at the bottom.  Let's not burden and crush and break those who are already the most vulnerable and weakest.

Abraham Lincoln said, “A man never stands as tall as when he stoops to help another.”  As a follower of Jesus, I am reminded that with great privilege comes great responsibility, and that I am called to use what I have in the service of others. 

There is, of course, the temptation to ask, “Why should I?  What have they done to deserve my help?”  Thank God Jesus didn’t ask that question on his way to the cross.  We have all benefited from help we didn’t deserve, a gift we didn’t earn, liberation from the oppressive powers of sin and death.  It’s called grace – and it’s something we have received, and something we can pass on.

Jesus used all the resources of heaven and earth to liberate and reconcile the whole world; is it asking too much for his followers to do the same?  To employ our voice for those forced into silence, to use our power on behalf of the powerless, to work for liberation of those held captive by powers and principalities beyond their control, to hold out a light for those groping in darkness, and to refuse to endorse injustice and oppression – even when we may personally benefit from it?

Jesus returned to his hometown to set out a vision of God’s peaceable upside-down kingdom.  That vision is not out there, off in some distant future somewhere – Jesus said it's fulfilled today.  It’s right here, waiting to be realized within each of us.

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