Called to Grow: Jesus' Big Words
January 15, 2017
There's a story about when Martin Luther King was a little boy, he was sitting in church with his mother, listening to his father preach with his typical flamboyance and conviction.
Little Martin looked up at his mother and said, "Mama, when I grow up I'm going to get me some big words."
And of course, we all know that when Martin grew up, he did just that. He got himself some big words. These big words were on display, most famously, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before thousands of people when he spoke out, "I have a dream today...” Tomorrow we commemorate Dr. King and his legacy of justice and racial equality.
Martin's big words were more than just powerful rhetoric. They stirred the conscience of a nation. They evoked a response. Many praised his big words and were inspired with hope and courage. Others were threatened by these words, filled with anger and hatred. In the end, it was Martin's big words, and the way he acted on them, that would get him killed.
In the story we just heard from Luke's Gospel, Jesus has got some big words of his own, and they almost get him killed as well. After being baptized by John in the Jordan River, Jesus is led out into the wilderness for forty days, where he is tempted by the devil. Then Jesus returns to Galilee, "filled with the power of the Spirit" and ready to begin his public ministry.
Jesus travels throughout Galilee teaching in the synagogues. Luke tells us that Jesus was praised by everyone and his reputation spreads through the whole country. Then he comes to Nazareth, his hometown. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. At the end of the service, the time comes when a section from one of the Prophets is read before the community is dismissed. Any young man from the community could do the reading and make a comment on the passage if he wished.
So the attendant brings out the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus stands up and volunteers to read. He unrolls the scroll and he finds Isaiah 61:1-2:
"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. "
When he finished reading, Jesus rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, and sits down. Luke tells us, "The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him." They were waiting for him to say something about this Scripture. In the synagogue, one stood to read Scripture, and then sat down to teach. After a long silence, finally Jesus speaks. Jesus speaks nine words nine really big words:
"Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. "
What does Jesus mean? Isaiah 61:1-2 prophecies about God's coming reign- the new age when God's kingdom will break into the present and bring the restoration of shalom- peace with justice. This will be good news for the poor and bring liberation to the oppressed and recovery of sight to the blind. It will be the year of Jubilee, a time when all debts are forgiven. The year of Jubilee became symbolic for the time when God's new age would dawn and he would bring salvation and forgiveness to his people.
So when Jesus says today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing, he is saying something remarkable: Today this kingdom is breaking in! Right here and now! It is fulfilled not just in Jesus' words, but in his very person!
When the crowd first hears these big words, they are impressed! People lean over and say to each other, "Wow, he speaks so well--with such authority and eloquence!" "Isn't that Joseph's boy? Well I'll be darned. Where'd he learn to speak like that?"
Was it only his speaking ability that amazed them? Luke tells us that they were amazed at the "gracious words" that came from his mouth, which implies "the words of grace" about which he spoke--about how God will graciously bring salvation to his people.
But Isaiah speaks of a big grace- a grace that extends beyond just the Israelites. And by the first century, so much of the Jewish community had forgotten this. They envisioned God's Messiah bringing salvation to God's people and terrible vengeance to the Gentiles, especially Israel's enemies. The hometown crowd does not understand just how big and deep and wide is God's grace. Nor do they understand what Jesus is saying about himself, that he is the Messiah. After all, he's their hometown boy. He grew up with their kids... just an ordinary guy.
So Jesus goes on to make his point. And this is what gets him in trouble. Jesus says to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!" And you will say, "Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum. Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown."
It is what Jesus says next that really riles them up. They will not accept him, nor will they accept just how big and wide is God' s grace. They are stuck in their narrow ways of thinking about the Messiah and the Kingdom of God.
So Jesus references two illustrations from the low point in Israel's history-the days of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha. These were days when the Israelites were blind to God because of their own disobedience. Elijah was sent to help a widow, but not a Jewish one.
Elisha was sent to heal a solitary leper, but that leper was not Jewish either. In fact, he was the commander of the enemy army! The point: God's big grace was being extended beyond Israel to those who were outsiders, even enemies! In other words, Israel's God was rescuing the wrong people!
Suddenly, it seems like Jesus'big words of big grace really start to sink in. And they are filled with rage! This is not the message they wanted to hear! And so they tum on Jesus. They kick him out of the synagogue, hustle him out of town, drive him up to the edge the cliff to throw him over.
There is a sadness and a sober warning in this story. You can hear the voice of Gospel of John dub over the scene: "He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God."(1:10-13).
Jesus' big words are being spoken to us today as well. He is risen and among us, and he calls us to accept him, to believe in him, to put our trust in him. But be warned: he is not the Messiah we expect him to be. We cannot put him in a box or force him to fit into what we want. We must take him on his own terms.
And to accept Jesus' big words about himself is also to accept his big words of grace for others, especially those we consider "outsiders." To choose to stand with Jesus is to choose to stand with those Jesus loves-the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, the weak and the vulnerable. It is to take up Jesus mission to extend this grace to all people, even our enemies.
This is where it gets so hard. We like the idea of extending grace to all people until we have to actually do it. Until we have to actually show mercy and forgiveness to the people who have hurt us, who seek to harm us, whom we deeply dislike or judge to be undeserving of grace.
In his book A Grace Revealed, Gerry Sittser tells the story of a woman named Sunday Pearson, whose brother, a young California police officer, was shot and killed in a drug bust. The accused murderer, a drug dealer named Fred, was convicted and thrown in prison.
Sunday did her best to pick up the pieces of her life. By God's grace, over time she was able to forgive Fred and move on. She and her husband reared their children and she excelled at her vocation. She rarely thought about Fred.
Twenty-five years later, Fred started to come to her mind more often. This is strange, she thought. Then one night, she heard God tell her that he wanted her to meet Fred. "Isn't it enough that I have forgiven him?" She asked God. To which God replied, "No, it isn't enough." Then God gave her a message for Fred: "Tell Fred I love him. Tell him I love him so much that I sent my only Son, Jesus, to die for his sins." That was the first part of the message. But there was a second one, too. "Tell Fred that it is not too late to become the man that I designed him to be."
Although she was initially confused and troubled by this, she obeyed God. After much hassle working through the prison bureaucracy, Sunday finally was able to schedule a meeting with Fred in the prison four hours away.
When Sunday arrived at the prison and made her way through security, her mind drifted back to her brother. She thought of all those years of suffering-the life of her brother cut so short, a wife and children left behind, a family bewildered and devastated by such a senseless act of violence.
The loud clang of the security door behind her jarred her thoughts back to the present.
Once she was searched and cleared by the guard, she made her way to the visitation room and sat down at a table in the comer. After several minutes, she heard the steel door open and, turning around, looked for the first time into the face of the man who killed her brother. She stood up, walked over to him, and taking his trembling hand, greeted him warmly. At that moment she was overcome with feelings of pity and compassion for this broken and terrified man who stood before her, his head bowed in shame.
They talked briefly. Fred expressed regret and apologized for the wrong he had done and the suffering he had caused. Then Sunday delivered her two messages. "God loves you so much," she told Fred, "that he sent Jesus to die for you." And then, "It's not too late to become the man that God designed you to be."
They talked for quite a while, and in the course of that conversation, Sunday experienced a miracle. Fred committed his life to Jesus Christ. This began a warm fiiendship that she and Fred continue to this day.
What an astonishing tum of events. This isn't the way the world works. A woman reaching out and extending grace to the man who murdered her brother? Someone who should be her enemy, the object of her hatred and bitterness, embraced as a fiiend? Where did she get the courage to do this? How did she find the words? It was Jesus who inspired her, his grace that overflowed from her heart and gave her courage. It was God who gave her big words of her own.
"Today," says Jesus, "this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Today, in Jesus, grace flows out and is offered to us all.
Are you, like Fred, in a place where you need to hear these words of grace? Listen: God loves you so much that he sent Jesus to die for you. Embrace him. Put your faith in him. It's not too late to become the person that God designed you to be. Now is the time. Today is the day.
Or maybe you are being called to extend grace to someone else, someone for whom it is very hard to show grace. Everything within you wants to stay angry, to get even, to see them get what they have coming. Perhaps God is giving you his big words to go and proclaim to them, perhaps God wants to use you as his instrument of grace.
For us all, it is only because of God's big words of grace, words embodied by Jesus himself, that we can be forgiven, set free, made whole. It is only because God loves us so much that Jesus came to die on the cross for us that we can finally become the persons God designed us to be!
Praise be to God for his big words of Amazing Grace!