And here in comes that mission which Jesus refused to compromise in the wilderness. The power that he has been given by being “filled with the Spirit”is not to dazzle anyone, it is not to build a really cool big sexy church, it’s not to be the next focus article in “Christianity Today”, or to trend on Twitter, or capture the attention of the Bishop, or weave his way to political power, or to make Oprah’s reading list or the New York Times’ best seller list, or anything remotely resembling any of the things for which we tend to mark “success” in 21st century America. No, this mission is exactly what Jesus reads here from the prophet Isaiah.
It’s a great scene, one which I would love to see played out on stage. Jesus goes to the synagogue, just as he always does and should do (a more literal translation of “as was his custom” is “according to his custom”). He comes up to read and is presented the scroll of Isaiah. What I don’t know is if there was some prescribed reading from Isaiah which he was supposed to read or if he chose this text. Luke tells us that “he found the place where it was written…”, which indicates to me that he is looking for this specific passage. I imagine him up there in a brief but noticeable moment of silence finding this passage, he takes a breath to center himself, he looks out upon the congregation of souls waiting to hear the Word of God; and he reads:
“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.”
The congregation nods in affirmation of a great text. They know this man has some buzz about him (as indicated in verses 14 and 15), and so they’re interested in what he has to say about this text. That’s how it worked. A man would read a passage, and then he would sit down and comment on it. So Jesus sits down, but there is a moment here where he’s yet to say something. “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him”. What will he say about this? What’s his interpretation? What does he think it means for us here and now? And Jesus astounds them: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. Jesus has placed himself in the text as the subject of the one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord is. He is the one to bring good news to the poor. He is the one proclaim release to the captives. He is the one to recover sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free. It is he. He is the one. This is the mission that he has come to live out and that he will not compromise. We will see this mission throughout the remainder of the Gospel. Watch for it. This is like a prologue for Jesus’ entire ministry in the Gospel of Luke. Watch for it being lived out both in his teaching and his action. It is, indeed, his entire way of being.
And the temptation he faced in the wilderness will not be the last time he is tempted to compromise. He will be tempted again, only the stakes will be much higher. As verse 13 indicates, evil isn’t finished with him. And when the poor actually do start to receive good news, and the captives actually do begin to find release, and the oppressed actually do start to find some form of freedom, the “spiritual forces of wickedness in this world” will tempt him again to compromise his mission. Will he overcome?
As for us, here and now, I would be remiss not to call out the connection between Jesus’ mission here and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. whose life and work we celebrate tomorrow. As followers of Jesus, it is also our mission to partner with the Spirit of God to do the same. We are to be, regardless of your politics, workers and advocates of equality, good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed. This can be a hard thing for suburban America to embrace. As someone who was genetically, socially and economically born into privilege, it’s hard for me. We have hard work to do around this stuff- work that we must do, and work that we must let disrupt our relatively comfortable ways of being in our world. So let’s wonder about that together. Let’s talk, let’s wonder, and let’s see what the Spirit of God leads us towards. As we are on the eve of the day on which we honor Martin Luther King and are dealing with such a text as this, I encourage you all to take another 17 minutes and watch/listen to MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech. Listen and notice how far we’ve come, but, more importantly, notice and wonder about how far we have yet to go. Beloved, the work that MLK died for was a manifestation of the work for which Jesus came and died for and to which we too are called. We are not done:
Here is Paul’s message on this passage from January 17, 2016: