Psalm 19:1-4b; Luke 4:14-21
I have a confession to make. Sometimes, even preachers occasionally find the Bible to be – dare I say – a little boring?
And such it was with today’s passage from Luke; in all honestly this text really isn’t particularly exciting or interesting! Given an initial glance, this reading appears to be a transitory passage at the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Jesus is shown to be teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth, as it says he has been doing in the surrounding towns, and nothing out of the ordinary is happening. There are no healings or other miracles, no parables, and with the way that the lectionary splits the gospel readings we don’t even get the arguably much more exciting second half of the story where Jesus ends up being rejected by those in his hometown and they attempt to drive him off a cliff.
Sure, many preachers have latched onto the theme of this being Jesus’ first sermon and run with it, but Jesus really doesn’t say much at all during this passage. Or if you’re an academic (like myself) you may realize that Luke 4 contains a ‘gospel in miniature’; the whole arc of Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection condensed into one short chapter. But this is a sermon and not an academic paper after all – does this literary trick of Luke’s really teach any moral lesson? What kind of a sermon can one preach on text that is seemingly so mundane?
Well, in the midst of this passage describing average synagogue life in a rural Galilean town two thousand years ago, is a rather intriguing phrase: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Fulfillment: now that’s something I can preach on! Friends, let me tell you, this story is a whole lot more interesting than I originally thought.
First of all, the concept of fulfillment in this passage gets a bit messy. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the verb “to fulfill” as a state of being complete or the doing of an action to achieve certain criteria or requirements. For example, one could say that I have fulfilled the expectations of me by writing this sermon and actually showing up this morning to preach it.
Done. Check the box. Moving on.
In another arena, theological discourse, the idea of fulfillment is often closely associated with doctrines of eschatology and the Christian hope for eternal life in which at the end of time God will be all in all and God’s vision of Creation will be fulfilled. Fulfillment, in this sense, as something that comes in a state of absolute completeness in which there is nothing more left to achieve. Or, to bring things closer to home again, most (if not all) of us in this room have probably been asked at some point or another whether we find our jobs, personal relationships, or spiritual lives to be fulfilling. In other words, are they all that we could hope for or imagine? Or is something still missing? In any case, whether it be through the dictionary, colloquial usage, or the academics of Christian existentialism, it appears that fulfillment unequivocally denotes an ending of some sort.
This is where it gets tricky in the context of today’s story, because, well, Jesus hasn’t actually done any of what the scripture he’s quoting says yet! But maybe, just maybe, scriptural fulfillment is less of a holy checklist and more of an ongoing journey towards a more liberated life through a set of values and sense of service in the world. Maybe rather than proclaiming what he has achieved (as the language of fulfillment might lead us to expect), perhaps Jesus is laying out the mission statement for his ministry, his goals for redeeming the world.
In Luke’s gospel, the story of Jesus’ visit to his hometown comes right at the beginning of his ministry. He has just completed his time of temptation in the wilderness and is just barely starting to become known in the region by his teachings in local synagogues. Jesus is yet to perform any miracles, and he hasn’t gathered a following of disciples. All in all, so far at least, he appears to be a fairly ordinary Jew with a bit more insight than usual into the workings of God and how to live as a faithful person.
And so, as the observant Jew that he is, Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. We know from historical sources, that Jewish worship at this time period consisted of readings and interpretations of sacred texts given by members of the worshipping community. There would have been a set reading from the Torah cycle and interpretation by an official in the synagogue, but then an honored member of the gathered group would have been given the opportunity to choose a passage from the prophetic literature to read and speak about. As a guest in the space, this opportunity is given to Jesus, who decides to read from the scroll of Isaiah.
Luke’s witness to this event does not recount any single passage in Isaiah’s canon verbatim, however, it is likely that the passage he is referencing in this account is Isaiah 61, the first two verses of which read:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn.
This does not match up completely with the account found in today’s story, but it is close enough that biblical scholars generally agree that this is the passage being read by Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth, and its context in both accounts is important in understanding its role as Jesus’ “mission statement”. This scripture comes near the end of Isaiah’s scroll, as part of the prophetic literature that was produced following the Babylonian exile. One can imagine, that to a people who had been taken from their homeland, made captives, and horrifically oppressed, that these words surely would have rung sweetly in their ears.
So too, generations later, would the people in Nazareth, living in the occupation of the Roman Empire, have heard these words as a glimmer of hope for a new life of freedom. And so Jesus’ intentions to fulfill this scripture, declared through this passage at the beginning of his ministry, set the course for his life to come. Fulfillment, in this case, not meant to show the ending, but the beginning of a journey. Fulfillment as a statement of intent instead of a checklist.
But the work of fulfilling this scripture, if it is truly to be seen as a journey and not a one-time checklist, doesn’t end with Jesus, and doesn’t end in ancient Galilee. It needs to include us too. Because we know all too well that while the radical work and life of Jesus liberated many in his lifetime and after, the work that it will take to see the commandments of love and justice set forth by scripture actually realized in the world is far from over.
Yes, Jesus gave sight to the blind and release to the captives. Yes, Jesus brought good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed. Yes, in the course of his ministry he did all that he proclaimed he would in that one-sentence sermon in Nazareth. If fulfillment here denotes an ending, then those boxes can be checked. The tasks have been completed, the requirements met. But there is still so much to do. Oppression and injustice are powerful foes, so powerful that one lifetime, even one of the fully incarnate God, cannot hope to completely vanquish them, to truly be able to cross them off of that holy checklist.
We know this because we live in a world where the prison system incarcerates the most vulnerable and those who have committed minor non-violent crimes – all to make a profit. We know this because we live in a world groaning under the weight of capitalist systems that exist to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. We know this because we live in a world that persecutes the immigrant, the differently abled and neurodivergent, the queer, the non-white, and the very earth we stand on.
And even in the midst of all of this there is still good news.
There is good news because the very same Spirit that empowered Jesus in his liberating ministry all those years ago is alive and well in you and me. There is good news because even though the flesh and blood body of Jesus of Nazareth no longer walks this earth, our radical God, (though not a being among beings or thing among things in and of Godself) delights in being incarnate in every time and every space in all of God’s children. And all are God’s children.
There is good news because we are not alone on this journey; our triune God constantly keeps us company. God lives within us. Jesus sets the path and walks beside us. The Holy Spirit continually empowers us to do good works.
If, as the Psalm says, all the heavens and all the earth are going to be able to rejoice in proclaiming the glory of God, then there’s work to be done. There are chains to be broken and abundant good news to spoken. Love is the way forward.
May we have the courage to join Christ on this journey of holy fulfillment.