"To Bring Good News"
Scripture – Luke 4:14-30
Sermon Preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson
Sunday, February 7, 2016

Today we meet Jesus in Nazareth, in his hometown synagogue, where he's observed the Sabbath every week for some thirty years.

We can imagine the scene: Jesus slips in with his family, just before worship starts. Murmuring spreads throughout the choir: "Oh look, Jesus is home. Wonder what's kept him away so long." During the passing of the peace, his kindergarten Sabbath school teacher hobbles over and grabs his hand: "Welcome home!" she says. "I hear you were just Baptized by that cousin of yours! Sounds like you made quite a splash down at the Jordan." And when Jesus stands up to read, the attendant leans over to the acolyte next to him and whispers: "Oh I love it when he reads ... He has such conviction!"

Well, maybe that's not exactly how it happened. But you get the picture. Jesus is the beloved son, a child of the congregation, back home to deliver his first sermon ...

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Jesus reads, 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 ... And then Jesus sits down, every eye fixed upon him, and declares: Today the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

To our ears, the words Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah might sound a bit radical ... threatening, even. Jesus doesn't choose a "safe text" for his first sermon to his hometown synagogue. Jesus chooses words of liberation and restoration, words that challenge the status quo and envision a re-ordered world. These words from Isaiah are the ones Jesus chooses to introduce his ministry.

I can tell you one thing: if I'd said that during my first sermon in my home church, every eye in the place would have been fixed on me too ... but not in a good way. Based on my experience of many churches, I can imagine this reaction from Jesus' home congregation: The choir members, glad to see Jesus just moments ago, now struggle to hide disapproving glances. In the pews, the attendant leans over to the acolyte and grumbles: "That Jesus is really going to rock the boat around here." And Jesus' teacher mutters under her breath, "I didn't teach him that in Sabbath school."

But that's not how the congregation responds ... at least not yet. Instead, the text tells us, All ... were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. For the people of Nazareth, these are hope-filled words, words that announce God's power to heal and transform, words that bring good news to people longing for a Messiah.

But then Jesus continues. And the congregation's excitement quickly turns to rage. Because it soon becomes clear to everyone in this synagogue that the good news Christ proclaims is not just for them. The good news is not just for Nazareth, or for Galilee, or for Israel ... it's for the whole world. It's for people at the margins, and for those in the halls of power. It's for people who practice different faiths, and for those of no faith at all. The good news is for people who long for liberation, and for those who don't even know that they're captive.

That's why Jesus goes on to recall the stories of old. "Remember?" he says. "Remember how Elijah went to a destitute widow in Zarephath, even though there were plenty of widows in our own land? And remember how Elisha cured Naaman, the Syrian – the commander of our enemy's troops, not all the lepers in Israel? Remember how both of these outsiders received the good news and were made whole?

As it turns out, this is Christ's mission. The Spirit of the Lord has anointed him to bring good news to the poor of every land. God has sent him to proclaim release to every captive and recovery of sight to all the blind, to let the oppressed from Syria to El Salvador go free.

But this – this word is too radical.

So fury spreads. The congregation jumps to their feet. The attendant grabs the acolyte, saying, "We don't want to miss this!" The choir knocks over the modesty rail as they rush down the aisle and out the back door. And Jesus' Sabbath school teacher, struggling to keep up with the crowd bound for the cliff, pounds her fist and yells: "And good riddance!" They reject the Gospel and chase Christ out of town ...

I wonder – How often are we like that congregation in Nazareth? How often do we reject the good news Christ brings because it's too radical, or too threatening, or too demanding?

I certainly don't believe our congregation would run Christ out of town for proclaiming that the good news is for those beyond our walls – for the poor sleeping on our city streets and the oppressed fleeing war-torn lands. I don't believe this because I've already seen some of the many ways we bring good news to those in the broader community ... through gloves that help our neighbors weather cold winter nights, and by stocking the shelves of our local food pantries. We continue to raise funds to bring water filters to Guatemalan villages, so our sisters and brothers have access to safe drinking water. And two of our members have just spent two weeks in Congo, supporting the work and witness of partners there. I could go on, but you get the picture. We have embraced the calling to bring good news to those beyond our walls through our partnership, our advocacy, our service.

And yet, there is something about this mission to bring good news that many of us still find threatening ... or, at least, uncomfortable. There is an aspect of Christ's ministry that many of us tend to avoid. It's the part of our calling, as those Christ sends out into the world, that involves telling those beyond our walls the good news that we've heard within them. It's the part we call Evangelism ... and it terrifies us.

A few weeks ago, our worship centered on the theme of Spiritual Gifts; we read from First Corinthians about the many gifts of the Spirit – gifts that make us uniquely equipped to serve Christ in our own, particular ways. In our Living Mosaics service, we had examples of these gifts posted throughout the room. One sign read "Leadership," and another – "Prayer," and another – "Teaching." During the offering we invited the congregation to claim their gifts – to walk around the room and place post-it notes on gifts they felt they could offer. So everyone moved about the room, placing post-it-notes on signs that read: "Giving," or "Creativity," or "Service," or "Encouragement." Some filled up the signs that read, "Other," adding words to our growing collage; others ripped their post-its in half, so they could claim more than five Spirit-given gifts. And at the end of worship, every sign on the walls had post-it-notes representing the many and varied gifts of our congregation. Every sign, that is, except one ... the sign that read, "Evangelism." No one in the Living Mosaics service claimed the gift of Evangelism. Not even me: your Associate Pastor, whom you have called – in part – to support your Membership and Evangelism Committee.

Now, I don't think the gift of Evangelism is completely absent from this congregation. But, I do think we are slow to claim it. And we are not the only ones. For many Presbyterians, this is the most threatening part of our calling. And there are many reasons for this ... Some of them have to do with the legacy of Evangelism – with the church's history of "Fire and Brimstone" sermons and forced conversions. Some have to do with the word's association – that Evangelism denotes a certain kind of Christianity, or a certain kind of politics. Some of these reasons have to do with our own discomfort – because we find it difficult to talk about our faith. I think many of us would say that our calling to bring good news is uncomfortable. We wouldn't drive Christ out of the synagogue because of it ... The Presbyterian tendency is to do quite the opposite – to keep Christ and the good news he brings within these walls.

But we can't do that. We can't do that because the Spirit has anointed us to bring good news ... or – I guess I should say – to Evangelize. You see, the word "Evangelism" comes from the Greek euangelizo, the word used in this passage from Luke meaning, "to bring good news." And just as the Spirit sent Christ to bring good news, the Spirit sends us to continue his work.

But there's another reason that we can't keep this news to ourselves. And that's because it's too good. That's because the Gospel does liberate. The Gospel does restore. Through the power of the Spirit, the good news of Christ brings dignity to the poor and release to the captives; it brings wholeness to those who need healing, and hope to the oppressed. It brings joy to those longing for God's grace.

I think you know this already. I have a hunch that you join us within the walls of this sanctuary on Sundays because you've heard the good news proclaimed. I have a hunch that you give gloves to shield cold hands and food to fill empty bellies because the Gospel has blessed you. I have a hunch that you've committed yourselves to Christ and his church because faith has transformed your life.

Perhaps you've experienced good news when you were poor in spirit, and one of our deacons offered encouragement. Perhaps you were lacking in hope, and the choir's anthem lifted you from despair. Maybe this community has liberated you to use gifts you never realized you had, or helped you find release from fear. Maybe this community has freed you from the constant need for more, and freed you to be more generous. Some of you have experienced good news in the form of prayers that have helped restore you to health or renew your faith after a crisis. Some of you have built relationships here that sustain you when you are weighed down by grief, or overburdened by anxiety. Perhaps – for you – this place embodies the love of Christ, and has taught you how to love others better. Perhaps this church has helped you believe that a different world is possible – a world where the poor receive good news and the captives find release, where the blind recover sight and the oppressed go free. A world where all people experience God's grace.

Friends, we each have a story to tell about the ways we've encountered Christ. So tell your story. Someone is yearning to hear it.

The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving (Communion) ~ Gregory Knox Jones

God of creation, we give you thanks for the breath of life. You create us in your image, embrace us as your children and grant us the freedom to live abundant lives. Some days we are mindful of the blessings that make us rich – families that love us when we are at our best and when we are at our worst, friends that support us when life is difficult and celebrate with us when life is good, children who surprise us with their fresh ways of seeing, and bring us happiness with their uncalculating love. But, Lord, there are other days when we forget the gifts of life. On these days our thoughts are consumed by the armed conflicts that rob people of their lives, greed that wrecks the economy, cynicism that makes us callous, and suffering that leads to despair.

God, You shore up our strength when we feel beaten down, you bolster our courage when we face struggles, and you give us reason to keep forging ahead in hope even when a better day seems unlikely. Therefore we praise you, joining the song of the universal church and the heavenly choir: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory; Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is the One who comes in the Lord's name Hosanna in the highest.

O God of majesty, as we prepare to share the Lord's Supper, help us to be fully present in this moment. Help us to set aside any worry or distraction that seeks to rob us of this special time when past, present and future unite. Enable us to focus on our bond with you and our connection with one another. Forgive our failings, heal the wounds we have caused others and transform us into people who are more Christ-like. As we eat this bread and drink this cup, fill us with joy and compassion, inspire us to be grateful and considerate, and create in us a deep thirst for justice and peace.

Jesus taught us that the way to live is to love and so we offer ourselves to you with gratitude as we share this joyful feast: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.

Great God, this meal hearkens back to the resurrection of Christ and the assurance that we will live one day in your heavenly kingdom. Yet, it also reminds us not to be so focused on the next life that we fail to embrace the rich opportunities to experience your realm in this world. Help us to keep our eyes wide open for glimpses of unexpected grace, for challenges that push us to grow, for moments to share your love and for occasions to celebrate the gift of life you have given us.

Send us out into the world to live for others, as Christ lived for us. Through Christ, with Christ, and in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor are yours, eternal God, now and forever. Amen. Amen. Amen...