Today’s Gospel passage is usually called “the inauguration speech of Jesus.” After the temptation in the wilderness for forty days, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee and spoke in front of his hometown people in Nazareth. In his speech, Jesus announced the beginning of his ministry, the beginning of God’s new kingdom on earth. He delivered this speech on the Sabbath day at a local synagogue. It was the place he had been attending with his parents since he was a little boy. And on that day, he was in charge of preaching. He was not a rabbi, but a speaker called darshanim, like a lay speaker in our United Methodist Church.This speaker usually read from the scroll and made some comments on the verses.
So Jesus was a speaker, darshanim, on this particular day. A synagogue leader handed him the scroll. It was the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And Jesus found the place where the prophet says, “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). After he read this brief passage, Jesus rolled up the scroll, returned it to the attendant, and took his seat. It was a custom for a speaker to sit, rather than to stand. So as Jesus sat and everyone was looking at him in expectation of some commentary on this well-known old prophecy. Then, there comes the striking comment from Jesus, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today? Fulfilled? What does he mean?
Okay. Let’s look at the passage closely. The Bible passage that Jesus read was a very, very old prophecy, the one that dates back at least to the time of Isaiah, about 500 years before the time of Jesus. It was given as a promise to the people of Israel when they were helpless captives in Babylonia. And this promise was so famous that the audience of Jesus, the hometown Jewish people in Nazareth, certainly knew very well. For them, it’s like a dream, a very lofty and vague dream. Ever since the Babylonians held the Israelites captive, they have never been free. They have never become an independent nation again but only undergone great ordeals in history. And now the powerful Roman Empire rules over them. In this situation, there’s no way the promise to be fulfilled, the dream to really come true. But fulfilled today?
Considering that context, I, as a preacher, think Jesus could preach in different ways. He could direct people’s attention to the past history of Israel and the greatness of the prophecy, and encourage them to be faithful, like this: “In the past, our ancestors dreamed of a world of justice, freedom, and healing even under the oppression and suffering. They were faithful to the covenant that God made with Moses. So let us be faithful too.” Or he could empower people to hold a hope for the future, like this: “Along with Isaiah, we wait for the fulfillment of this glorious promise. We should believe that this word of God will be realized one day. So let us be hopeful.” But instead, what does Jesus say? His words don’t point to the past or to the future. He brings the audience attention to the present, saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus’ neighbors in Nazareth who gathered at the synagogue must have been shocked and confused by this bold comment. And some of them must have got provoked and even angry at Jesus, this homeboy, gone way too far. “Is today the day? Is this year the year of the Lord’s favor? Is God’s kingdom beginning today? Because Jesus says so?” They would challenge him.
But again, Jesus affirms, not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today, the promise of God has been fulfilled. Why? Because Jesus himself has come to the world and fulfilled the dream of God for the world…today. And this is the truth not only for the people at the synagogue on that day but also for all of us in this sanctuary today. We believe, the Spirit of Jesus is upon us; he lives in our hearts and walks beside us. Then, today is the day that God fulfills God’s dream through this Jesus in us. Today is the day that Jesus brings the good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind through our hands and feet. Today is the opportune day that we proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
These days, many churches live with nostalgia for the past glory and a fragile hope for the future. In the past, people were much more religious; in the past, every church was packed. In the future, the church will get better again; in the future, our children will return to the church. How about us as Christians? We sometimes say: in the past, I was confident in God’s love for me and felt blessed every day. Or we say, in the future, God will do something for me, and I will know God’s way for me someday. However, when our attention goes too far with the past and the future, our faith cannot take its root here and now. We think too conveniently, the past promises of God in the Bible will be fulfilled in the future. But then, when is our time to be part of God’s history? What does our faith in Jesus do here and now?
Let us stop wrapping ourselves with nostalgia for the past or vague hope for the future. I hope and pray that we ask ourselves whether we are afraid of struggling with the reality, the present condition of our life and our church, and whether we are trying to avoid God’s call to place ourselves in the middle of God’s work right here. Today, let us remember, through us, God wants to fulfill God’s dream for the world. Today is the day that the word of God is fulfilled. Today is the glorious day that we walk with Jesus on his path to the new life. Today is the day that we be in the ever active, ever loving, ever liberating presence of the Holy Spirit. Today, this day!
Do we believe in the God who is working in our hearts? Do we believe in the God who fulfills the promise here and now? Then make today count with your faith. Do you have people you want to forgive? Forgive them, today. Or do you want to be forgiven? Ask for forgiveness, today. Do you have someone who needs your prayer, care, phone call, or support? Reach out to them, today. Do you want to dedicate yourself to the mission of the church? Dedicate yourself, today. Do it today. Then, through you, the promise of God for the new life, for the new kingdom on earth will come true bit by bit starting from today.
Today is the day that the Lord has made. Today is the day that God’ dream has been fulfilled in our hearing, in our loving, and in our following. So, let us go now with the Spirit of the Lord and make today count with our hands and feet. And make it count with Jesus. Amen.
John Nolland, World Biblical Commentary, Volume 35-A, Luke 1:1-9:20, p 400.