Here’s the story before the story.
We have said that we are going to be camping out in the book of Luke for the next several weeks, to learn what Luke had to tell us about the birth, life and death of Jesus. And we have said that this man named Luke probably wrote his story about Jesus in the year 80 or 85 – about 50 years after Jesus’ death.
So let me tell you what was happening in the world in those days, and especially to Christians at that time. We talked about John the Baptist last week, and we mentioned briefly that he was beheaded in about 30 or so - while Jesus was still living. He was killed by the Roman governor Herod Antipas who was governor of Galilee. John was killed partly because he lashed out against Herod for having an affair with this brother’s wife. Herod was mad enough about that. And he was also killed because he was a threat to the Romans. All kinds of masses and masses of people were coming out to his camp beside the river and it looked for all the world to them like some kind of popular uprising against the Romans. Which of course they could not tolerate. So they killed John.
You may remember that Jesus had at least four brothers, and you may know that after his death, his brother James became the head of the Christian Church in Jerusalem – the first Bishop of Jerusalem as he is called. In about the year 62 or 65 James was stoned and then beaten to death. He was killed by the religious leaders (the Sadducees) acting on behalf of the Romans. We have talked about how the religious leaders collaborated with the Romans.
And right about that time, Emperor Nero was in power in Rome and as you know, he unleashed the first widespread persecutions of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. He is well known for setting Christians on fire and then using their burnings bodies to light the paths in his elegant garden parties. AND about that same time, Roman soldiers flooded into Palestine in larger numbers than ever before, and eventually they destroyed much of the city of Jerusalem, including the beautiful golden temple. These were hard years indeed for Christians, and Luke is writing to people who were constantly in danger and turmoil and at risk for their lives. That’s the story before the story.
Now think about the people in your lives. Do you know someone who is poor? Maybe a person who has lost her job, or relies on food stamps, or has huge medical bills, or somebody who has always lived on the edge, financially. A man who is homeless, perhaps, or very near homelessness. Maybe you know somebody who lives from one month to the next just barely managing to hold on. Think about that person now.
Do you know anybody in prison? Recall the stories you have heard about the conditions in prisons. Keep that person in your heart. Do you know anyone who is blind, or has very poor eyesight? Or is disabled in some other way? Has difficulty walking, or lives in constant pain? Every day is struggle just to keep moving and just to keep her spirits up. Keep that person in your mind for these next few moments. Do you know someone who has a sad heart? Maybe she is grieving a loved one, or maybe he is struggling with depression that doesn’t seem to lift. Or another form of mental illness. And medications aren’t really helping, and he lives in a deep cloud of sadness. Keep that person in your heart for these next few moments. Do you know somebody who is full of sorrow – who has had one experience of failure after another, and nothing seems to be working in her life no matter how hard she tries. Keep those people in your heart in these next few moments.
Now here’s the story. The story that Luke has just told us about Jesus is the first story of his public ministry. He’s grown up from the twelve year old boy we heard about a couple of weeks ago and now he’s the thirty year old man we heard about last Sunday. He’s just been baptized by his cousin John, and then he’s been in the dessert for forty days on a retreat – a deeply spiritual experience in the dessert - with God.
And on this day, he walked into the synagogue in Nazareth, where he had worshipped pretty much every week of his life. He picked up the Old Testament, and read from the prophet Isaiah – the very words we have read a moment ago. He read the passage and sat down to talk with them, and said, “I’m the one the prophet has been talking about. I’m the one who will bring good news to the poor. I’m the one who will release the prisoners and heal the sick and disabled. I’m going to heal those with sad hearts and comfort those who are filled with sorrow.”
It was his mission statement as he began his ministry. It was his introduction of himself to the people who had known him all his life. He spoke eloquently and passionately and his neighbors were amazed – that this young man, whom they had watched from a small child, and whom they knew as the son of their local woodworker – whose sisters and brothers they knew - could be so eloquent and could speak so well. They were amazed and proud of their home town kid.
And when they got over being surprised and excited, and very pleased, they began to have second thoughts. They were not at all happy to be reminded about the poor disabled beggars who sat on the street corners in their village and they surely didn’t want anybody telling them that they had some responsibility toward them. They were not happy to think about the ones who were prison whom they had neglected. And they didn’t want to hear about those who were sad and depressed and full of sorrow and grieving, and they didn’t want to be told that they should do something for such people.
And just as those thoughts were beginning to sink in a bit, Jesus went one step further. He reminded them that God’s love stretches to people way outside the Jewish faith. People like that widow up there in the country of Sidon in what’s now Lebanon - way north of the country. And people like Naaman the man from Syria. That really was too much for them to swallow – that somebody beyond their own race and their own faith and their own country could be loved by God. And before day was over, they had had a complete change of heart about him. They were furious at him, and drove him out of town and would have pushed him over a cliff if he hadn’t escaped.
And that was the end of Jesus’ first day on the job. Already he had created tensions between himself and the people in his synagogue. Already the religious leaders were furious with him because of who he was and what he said. Already he had announced that the poor and prisoners and sick and disabled and sad were going to be his first priority. Already he had started talking about the fact that God’s love is larger and wider than the Jewish nation and that God loves people well beyond the boundaries of that one small country. And it didn’t go well at all.
But none of that stopped Jesus. He continued to search out those who were ill, and cured them. Of blindness, and leprosy and hemorrhaging and fevers and lameness and those with severe osteoporosis. He healed those who were suffering from mental illness and even brought back to life again those who had died. People came from all over the country to hear him talking about God, and they believed him. He fed them when they were hungry and healed them when they were sick, and grieved with them when they were sad. He was critical of the religious leaders who were so concerned with picky little points of the law that they missed the great suffering that was happening right in front of them. He honored women and widows and children. He took out after the Romans for their unethical practices and the high taxes they were charging that pushed people into poverty. And he did all of that in the name of God. And in the name of the Kingdom of God.
But Jesus is not here anymore. He has gone back into heaven to hover over the world in great love and power and pity. And he has left us here to be his hands and feet in a world where people are still poor, and in prison and sad and sick and sorrowing. And they still need the Good News that Jesus brought. Jesus has left us to be his hands and feet and face and voice in a world that needs him desperately.
So think back now on the people whom you’ve been keeping in your heart these last few moments. Those who are poor or in prison or sad or sick or sorrowing. In these next moments of silence, think to yourself how you may be the hands and feet and face and voice of Jesus to them. How will you serve them as Jesus would have? How will you speak to them in Jesus’ name, or act for them in Jesus’ name?