Sunday, January 3, 2010
You come to church where you hear a video about work being done somewhere else – a country you’ve only barely heard of on a continent you’ve never visited. You are wholly unaware of that country, what it is like to live there, what language they speak, what food they eat, what the whether is like, what daily life is like. But, you come to church and the pastor and elders and other church leaders – people you typically trust - implore you to dig deep and give your money because the people in this country you don’t know are materially poor and/or they don’t know anything about Christianity. So, you’re supposed to give your money to meet their needs and help them meet Jesus.
You flip on the TV in the evening and happen across a story about rising unemployment and the working poor – it seems a segment of the population in our mostly wealthy country suffer are languishing in poverty. There truly are people in America who cannot afford any kind of health insurance, are undereducated or completely illiterate, live in unsanitary conditions that perpetuate poor health, lack opportunities for advancement or improvement, and sometimes don’t have enough food - yes, here in America. You’re a hard-working accomplished person and part of you thinks “in
You drive to work on Monday morning, and at the traffic light, in the median, is a guy with a sign. “Homeless. Desperate. Anything will help.” And you drive past and come to another major intersection and there’s another guy with a sign. “Will work for food.” Now come on! It’s one thing to be locked in a community or a situation where there is no way out. But there has to be a better way for the hungry individual to fight his problems and work toward a better life than to stand at a corner and beg for the spare change of willing donors, people who work for their money.
Around the world, around our country, and right here in our community, less than a mile from this spot and from the homes in which we live, people are struggling to make it. Poverty is real. There are children who go to bed not knowing if they will eat tomorrow. There are families who have had their very humanity stripped away because they have absolutely no way of knowing whether things will ever improve. But the reality of the world and of those who suffer is not an intractable situation. It is not hopeless because we aren’t just an assembly of hardworking Americans. We are the church, the body of Christ, the gathering of his followers. We live in the tradition of the very first believers who received the Holy Spirit. And we too have received the Holy Spirit. So we know God’s word in the Bible is God’s word for us – to show us what God is all about; to encourage us; and, to drive us to put our complete trust in God and to live as Jesus and the first disciples lived.
You and I – we come to church and hear the Bible we trust read, in it the very words of Jesus. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” That good news was not a hope for relief from pain in some far off future, or hope for better things in the next life. Jesus began demonstrating the good news and began establishing His kingdom before he was crucified. When he said God “sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” he meant right now. That “right now” continues in the age of the church, which includes the age in which we live. So, the work Jesus started, the work of bringing good news to the poor, is work to be carried out in the church. This is to be the life of Jesus followers.
Will every single sermon of 2010 and every Bible study be about poverty alleviation? No! We will deal with a number of themes as our church has many people with varied spiritual concerns. The compassion life of Jesus will though always be in the background and frequently as it is every year in the foreground. To open the year we are asking all small groups to study the Sunday morning texts which all come from the Gospel of Luke. The sermons and small groups discussions will align to bring awareness to all of us; and the awareness, which I believe is a gift of the Holy Spirit, will prod us to action – to live compassionate lives. This is no bleeding heart, guilt-inspired campaign, no initiative intended to salve the conscience of the opulent middle class American; this a gathering of disciples attempting to respond to God’s word in faith and deed.
We want what break’s God’s heart to break ours. We want to value what God values. We want to go where He leads. We want to become who He is leading us to become. With that in mind we will move into 2010 with a closer look at what Jesus is doing in Luke 4. But first, a note about poverty.
Consider what you think of when you hear the word “poor” or some group of people described as “the poor.” Ask yourself, what comes to mind? Are “the poor” a group of people who are “out there” in some unknown, seldom visited somewhere? Are “the poor” a group of people described as “they,” or “those people?” I suggest that the poor are in here. Now, don’t hear and then gaze around the room to see if you can figure out whom I mean. Every person suffers from spiritual poverty because of sin. My sins may be related to lust or rage; hers maybe related to sloth or gluttony; his may be related to lack of faith; someone on the other side of the room may deal with prejudice; someone on the other side of the room may commit sins of omission – not doing what he knows God wants him to do. Or, sins of greed. In myriad ways, we sin and thus are afflicted with spiritual poverty.
Spiritual poverty leads to relational brokenness. A man may suffer in that he is oblivious toward his neighbor; or he may openly hostile toward his neighbor. But all men and all women are locked in relational brokenness because of sin.
There is nothing to be done – we cannot by our will power stop sinning, but praise the Lord! We don’t have to. We need to stop sinning, but that much true. But, we have help. Jesus came to “bring good news to the poor” and “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Jesus is our hope and in the body of Christ, empowering through the constant presence of the Spirit, responding to our prayers from Heaven, Jesus is helping us live in His kingdom.
Our journey to awareness and compassionate living includes our admission, almost like a participant in a twelve step group. Every one stands, says his or her name, and admits the truth. “Hi. I am Rob. I admit that due to sin, I am spiritually impoverished and thus relationally broken.” It’s true of the millionaire and the pauper. Conversely because of God’s grace the Spirit empowers both the materially rich and the materially poor. Our journey to awareness and compassionate living is one in which we give and receive help. The woman with a sixth grade education who works 60 hours a week doing laundry and still needs food stamps to get buy has much to offer to a tenured university professor even as she has much to receive from that professor. On the road to relational wholeness and spiritual riches both make contributions and both need gifts of grace. Our commitment to live compassionate lives in which we champion the needs of the neediest in society includes us seeking tangible blessing those will are helping will give. We are recipients because we are poor and we are helpers because we are Jesus’ disciples and compassionate living is clearly what he leads us to do.
With that understanding of shared poverty and the commitment that we will give our attention to compassionate living, again we set our hearts and minds on the Bible and what we see in Luke 4.
Luke tells us that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit when he returned to
Jesus went home, to his synagogue, but he was a man and his hometown neighbors had no idea what he had become. He returns as a local boy made good. Already Luke writes, “A report about him spread through all the surrounding country.” Jesus had performed miracles, and the people who watched him grow up wondered if he wouldn’t show them some of his magic. The problem with miracles is they create impressions but rarely do they inspire transforming faith. The people heard Jesus was in the synagogue. They came hoping to witness a miracle. They got a sermon instead.
He was given the book of Isaiah and he chose a prophecy that many understood to be messianic. The assumption was when the messiah comes, we will see the release of the captives and the recovery of sight of the blind, and we the oppressed will go free.” Jesus’ statement that today the scripture has been fulfilled was tantamount to announcing the beginning of the Messianic age.
The synagogue crowd responded in three ways. First there was great admiration. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son”’ (v.22)? They immediately became admirers. But Jesus did not want or need admirers. He had no interest in people telling him how great he was. Admiration is fleeting quickly. Before December 2009, Tiger Woods had countless admirers. However, because like me, Tiger Woods sins, he is, for all his millions, poor and his spiritual poverty has yielded relational brokenness. This brokenness is where live. It won’t be fixed unless we realize that Jesus doesn’t want our admiration. He wants more from us.
The admiration Luke describes vanished when the crowd realized they weren’t going to be seeing any miracles. They knew Jesus’ family. They knew he was as broken and poor and insignificant as any other Jew. They wanted the Messiah to come an elevate
Do we need to change our expectations of God? Of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ? Do we need to rethink the Christian life before we have any hope of actually hearing the Spirit speak and receiving the blessings God wants to heap on us? The synagogue crowd asked for a miracle, they got a sermon. They expressed amazement at the sermon; Jesus told them they didn’t understand. At that point the crowd turned ugly and forced Jesus to the edge of the cliff on the outskirts of town.
Why did they get mad enough to kill him by mob action? Jesus told them the Messianic age had begun but they would never get it or be part of it, and they thought it belonged to them. Even in their poverty, the rural Galileans believed God was theirs instead rejoicing that they were God’s. The first two reactions to Jesus that day was (1) amazement, and (2) rage-filled rejection. There was a third that Luke unfolds throughout the rest of the Gospel and throughout the book of Acts. We see it in the final reading of the passage, verse 30.
The mob had dragged him to cliff’s edge with malevolent intentions and Luke writes, “He passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Jesus always went on his way which was God’s way. In his life, he was opposed or at least his progress was blocked by the temptations of Satan, misplaced Messianic hopes of the crowd in Nazareth, the familial pressures placed on him by his siblings and mothers, the misunderstanding, doubt, and fear of his own disciples, the religious and theological challenges of the religious experts, the Pharisees, the political opposition of the temple leadership, the Sadducees and chief priest, and the imperial pressure to conform applied by Rome. Jesus would not be cowed by this attempt on his life. He would not shrink from the terror of demons. He showed no fear of Herod despite the corrupt king’s unpredictable nature. The crucifixion fell into God’s time table that is the only timeline Jesus paid any attention to.
It’s a short verse but it is not an afterthought. In carrying out his mission of bringing good news to the poor, Jesus went on his way, God’s way. We read the Gospel, we pray, and then we have choices before. We can hear Jesus and be amazed. Oh he’s such a good moral teacher. Oh he’s such an important figure in history. Jesus does not want admirers and admiring him does get one any closer to his kingdom.
We can hear Jesus and become enraged because we are broken, spiritually starving because of sin. To yield to Him as Lord, we submit everything – our possessions, our dreams, our aspirations, our grudges, our attitudes, our relationships with others – everything to Him. And we don’t want to do that, so many consciously or unconsciously rebel against God and against the Gospel and try to throw the parts we don’t like off of some cliff. Jesus is not impeded by those who react to him in angry rage and his kingdom is not hindered by the sins of humanity. Jesus does not need admirers and is not intimidated by rage-filled haters.
A third way that we can respond to the Gospel is to see that Jesus is going on his way and we can follow. We give up control of our destiny. We surrender the need to have the final say-so in our own lives. We look to Jesus and we follow the way He is going. We become followers walking the Jesus way.
This means two things: first, we acknowledge that when he says he’s bringing good news to the poor, that means us. We are spiritually poor and relationally broken and on our knees through grateful tears we receive the grace of God and we know that it will come in His Spirit speaking to our hearts; it will come in the way we love on another and function as a community; and it will come when we receive all the grace the economically poor have to give to us.
Second, we acknowledge that just as we receive the good news, we are to share the good news. We have surrendered everything we have, so our time, our words, our hearts, our money, our talents, our energy are things we give to God to use in the bringing the good news of salvation and the rescue from poverty to the world around us.
The observant listener will note that I have not provided specific answers to the problems I introduced that the outset – the world mission offering called for at church; the alleviation of painful economic poverty that exists right here in our country; and, the proper response to the guy at the intersection with the sign begging for a hand-out. The truth is I don’t have all the answers because I am still spiritually poor. I am still in the process of receiving relationship healing. Throughout 2010, we will seek answers for the best ways for us as a church to be involved in compassionate ministry.
I know this. The starting point is to forget all preconceptions we have and to walk in the way of Jesus, following him. That’s the beginning of the good news. We are poor. Jesus has come for us. Why don’t we release all of the trappings of materialistic life, all the seductions of the world around us, all the temptations to be in control of our own lives? Why don’t we hand it all to Him? I invite you this morning. Come and walk the Jesus way, the beginning of the compassionate life, the beginning of the good news.