Do you like surprises? If they are good, they are ok. However, not all surprises are good, at least at first glance. Jesus had an incredible ability to take people by surprise – and they weren’t always thrilled about it. Take, for example, Jesus’ surprise to the Nazarene congregation in his hometown of Nazareth. That Sabbath he went to the synagogue, as any observant Jew would. Synagogues of Jesus’ time generally did not have paid or appointed preachers and teachers. Any adult male can be called to preach or teach on the Sabbath. Can you imagine if we ran our churches this way? If an adult could be called at any time to preach or teach the scriptures on Sunday? It’s a huge responsibility. One of two things that would happen if we followed this practice: there would be an explosion of Bible study or there would be a rush for the door.
Jesus received a scroll from the book of Isaiah and asked to preach on it. He didn’t have to look back for a moment to find what he wanted. He went straight to Isaiah 61, a messianic passage of great significance to the Hebrew people, and read these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim deliverance to captives and sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the Lord’s year of grace.
And then, when Jesus was sure he had everyone’s attention, he closed the scroll, sat down and announced very simply: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled by listening to you.”
Surprise! The prophet Isaiah was inspired to write these words over 700 years earlier. For seven centuries preachers and teachers of the word of God have been preaching the coming of a Messiah who would upset the systems of the world. He would comfort the wounded, set the oppressed free, restore sight to the blind. The Hebrew people knew only too well what it was to suffer, to be held captive. They had waited hundreds of years for the fulfillment of this prophecy and were prepared to wait hundreds more if necessary. And now a poor nameless carpenter pretends to be that Messiah who would “To proclaim the year of grace of the Lord.” How would you react if you were in their shoes? Is it any wonder that the men in the synagogue tried to kill Jesus? Of course, he ran away. But we cannot blame the Nazarene congregation for their reaction.
As Dr. Paul Rees says, “The Gospel is neither a discussion nor a debate. It’s an announcement!” And that’s exactly how Jesus treated him.
He didn’t explain, argue or pontificate, he just announced this mind-blowing information and let the faithful make up their own minds. Even today, if we take this passage seriously, it has the same potential to blow us away. Jesus’ announcement tells us three important things about God.
He tells us that God is a God of hope. Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim deliverance to captives and sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the Lord’s year of grace.
Wherever Jesus went, he brought hope. He brought hope to the leper, exiled from his home and his community. He brought hope to the paralyzed man who was unable to care for his family. To people who felt worthless, or lost, or broken, or rejected, or beyond salvation, Jesus brought the message that God loved them – that they had a purpose in life. Even in Jesus’ last moments, as he died in agony on the cross, he offered hope of eternal salvation to the dying thief beside him. It was Jesus’ first act in life and his last act before death – giving hope.
In the old classic, “Hell”Dante imagines that the entrance to Hell is marked by a sign, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” Where God is, there is hope; where God is absent, there is no hope. This was the message that Jesus came to share with us.
Jesus’ announcement also tells us that God is a God of justice. Most of the world’s religions operate on a very simple assumption: you get what you deserve in this lifetime. If you are poor, God must want you to be poor. If you are sick or disabled, you are being punished for your sins, perhaps even sins you committed in a past life. It’s a simple but flawed equation: health and wealth are blessings from God. If you don’t have health or wealth, then God must not love you.
Jesus came to upset this vision of the world. This is no longer the case. He came to declare that God loves the poor, the blind, the sick, the oppressed even more because of their humble condition. There are no rejects in God’s economy. He announced that riches on earth have no meaning; it is a treasure in heaven for which we should strive. He showed that a healthy body is worth nothing if the soul is dead in sin. Jesus said a person could have 20/20 vision and still be spiritually blind.
For centuries, Indian society has lived under a rigid caste system in which each person is born into a defined social group. People born into the highest social group, or caste, receive the benefits of honor and respect. Then there are different levels, or castes, below. A person’s caste at birth will determine what job they can have, who they can marry, and what rights they have in society. At the lowest rungs of society are the Dalits, whose name means “broken, crushed”. Dalits are targets of violence and discrimination in Indian society. And now Dalits are persecuted for another reason: their faith. The Christian faith is quite attractive to Dalits. In reality, “80% of Christians in India are Dalits.” They choose to follow Christ even though they know the consequences they might face.
Why would Dalits, already targets of persecution and abuse, invite more such treatment by becoming Christians? Because in Christ we encounter a God who loves and uplifts those whom others would destroy. His heart is with those who suffer. He cares about those who are hurting, helpless, heartbroken, and in bondage. He will not leave us in despair.
More importantly, God is a God of freedom. In Mauritania, a small African nation, slavery is officially illegal, but it is still a reality for around 90,000 black Africans. Generations of Africans have been brought up with no idea of freedom, individuality or basic human rights. Slaves were not allowed to receive an education, marry without their master’s permission, or keep their own children.
An old slave explains that her withered and useless hands are the result of a punishment she suffered as a child at the hands of her master. She had been slow to round up her flock of sheep, so he hung her up by her hands for hours. Another woman, Fatma, from several generations of slaves, has escaped a cruel master, but she is far from free. As she says, “God created me to be a slave, just as he created a camel to be a camel.”
In Jesus’ time there were slaves who surely thought they were made to be slaves, that God had ordained them to be inferior; their oppression was inevitable. But Jesus continually demonstrated that God is a God of freedom and not of bondage. When Jesus walked this earth, he rebuked the power structures that oppressed people. And Jesus made it a regular practice to set people free. He freed the sick from their illnesses and the invalids from their handicaps. He freed sinners from the burden of their sins and demoniacs from their torment. He broke the chains of fear, confusion and anxiety in the lives of those he touched. God is a God of freedom. And he can free you and me too, as he did for a young woman who attended a women’s Bible study led by Lori Hoewing-Magic. The group was discussing the strongholds by which Satan binds us, such as negative thinking, anger, and fear. The study group had decided to meet one night at the beach to pray over their fortresses and then throw them into the fire, symbolizing their destruction by the power of Christ. The beach was packed that night; on one side of their prayer meeting was a gathering of about 30 Asian American Christians having a worship service. On the other side, a dozen people were drinking loud, vulgar beer.
While the women were praying, a young woman emerged from the party group. Tears streamed down her face as she approached one of the women and said simply: “I want to go back home.” The young woman gave her life back to Jesus that night. Before leaving, she said: “I feel so confused and yet I feel so good and so peaceful and free.”
“The Spirit of God is always a spirit of freedom.” That’s what it’s about. He speaks of hope; Justice; freedom. It was a surprise to Jesus’ listeners 2000 years ago, and if we really think about it, it’s a surprise to us today. Jesus came to share the good news that God cares about our despair, our oppression, our bondage. And someday Christ will return to establish an eternal Kingdom where these things don’t exist.