by David Baer, January 15, 2017
Text: Luke 4:14-30
“It’s not time for that right now.” As a father I find myself saying these words again and again. Why can’t we have toys at the dinner table? Why can’t we watch TV right before bedtime? Sometimes it’s the other way around. Why do we have to go for a walk? “Because it’s time to walk the dog. He needs a walk every day, and now is the time.” Why do I have to go to bed? “Because it’s bedtime.” As a parent you draw boundaries when it comes to behavior, but you also draw boundaries around time. I find myself the curator of the seasons the pass each and every day. I have to characterize them and describe them, to say what they are and what they are not, and to know when to hold fast and when to bend in the struggles between playtime and bedtime, homework time and reading time, family time and “me” time.
Charles Dickens begins his Tale of Two Cities with the words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” In the musical “Hair,” the cast of hopeful hippies looks to the stars to bring the “Age of Aquarius.” So many of the stories we tell have to do with characterizing a particular time, a season, a moment, and the way people live in it. “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York,” begins Shakespeare’s Richard III. Richard knows what time it is, and he hates it! Richard cannot reconcile himself to the time he’s living in, with his brother Edward IV on the throne, and so he works to subvert and overthrow the present season. He says, “Since I cannot prove a lover / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.” The story depends not only on what time it is, but how the people feel about it, and how they respond.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life and legacy we honor this weekend, gave voice to his disappointment over his Christian friends who urged him to cease his activism and be patient, because racial justice was coming, it was just a matter of time. He had a very different view of what time it was, and what kind of response was required. He said, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”1 For King, a season blossoming opportunities for transformation and justice is a time to act. Remember this urgency, hold onto it, because we’re going to hear it again in the gospel story.
Your life has times and seasons too. There is childhood, school days, adulthood. Maybe marriage and a season of forming a family of your own. Career and retirement. Friends and dear ones come into and out of our lives. There are unlooked-for and unwanted seasons too—illnesses and grief, unemployment, estrangement from those we loved. Your story has seasons—past, present, and future—and you have feelings about those seasons—hurts suffered, obstacles overcome, hopes yet to be realized. What time is it in your life right now? What response is that time calling forth in you?
This year we’ve been reading through the Bible and following the story of God and God’s people. We’ve seen a season of brokenness and alienation when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, a season of hope and possibility when God made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah, a season of slavery in Egypt and liberation and desert wandering, a season of settlement, rebellion, prophetic witness, and exile to Babylon and return. What time is it, now that Jesus has been born and walks among us? What’s the season, and how will it shape our story and our own character?
Today we heard the story of one Sabbath day in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. The Sabbath is a sacred time for the Jewish people, a day set apart for rest, for encounter with God in scripture and prayer. This weekly occurrence shaped Jesus—it was his custom, we’re told, to visit the synagogue, as he does this day. The observance on that day would have involved readings from the Torah—or the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible—and the Nevi’im, the Prophets. As a rabbi of growing renown, Jesus is invited to read and interpret the reading from the prophets appointed for that day. He stands up, receives the scroll, and finds his place, and reads the words from the book of Isaiah: “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 words quoted in the gospel come from chapter 42 and chapter 61 of Isaiah. These prophetic words were spoken in their own particular season, a season of exile coming to an end, when God forgave the people and gave them a new beginning. They talk about “the year of the Lord’s favor”: this was the Jubilee, the end of a period of seven times seven, or forty-nine, years, when debts are canceled, slaves are freed, property returned to its original ancestral owners. The Jubilee is a big reset button, and in the world of Isaiah, where Jews were returning from exile in Babylon, it means: “God forgives us, we are set free, we can go home again, we can begin anew.” Jubilee is a season of new beginnings.
But Jesus has been asked not just to read the scripture, but to interpret it for the present time. What does this word mean now, for his neighbors and friends, the families he grew up with? Jesus sits down—that was what preachers did in those days: stand up to read scripture, sit down to preach. Everybody looks at him. And he says this: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” What time is it? All of these people, so many of them hopeful, hurting, hungry, the people we know are going to seek him out—sick, grieving, guilty—they want to know, what is the season? And Jesus tells them: Now is the Jubilee. Now is the year of the Lord’s favor. It’s a new beginning. Your debts are released, your sins are forgiven. You are set free from bondage, and the blessings you lost are restored to you. And it’s happening right now, in your hearing.
New Testament scholar Matt Skinner says we should pay attention to that word, today.2 In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus is present, he brings a change of season that happens today. The angels crash down on the shepherds with good news of great joy: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:11). When Zaccheus, the crooked tax collector, says he’s going to pay back everyone he cheated four times over, Jesus announces, “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:9). When the thief on the cross confesses Jesus as king, Jesus transforms the worst day of his life by saying to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43). Jesus brings a new beginning that is as immediate as his presence. Because he is here, now, today, the time of God’s favor has come.
But yielding to this new moment means a loss of control and a radical openness to the new thing God is doing. And that’s where Jesus runs into trouble. He anticipates what his friends in Nazareth are going to say: “That’s great, Jesus! So, this means you’ll settle down here in town, right? Get married to one of our daughters. Preach to us, teach us, heal us, feed us. We’re so happy you’re bringing God’s blessings here, to us.” So Jesus reminds them of two prophets, Elijah and Elisha, who brought God’s blessings to those outside of Israel. God’s vision, God’s heart is bigger than what’s comfortable for us. It reaches out to draw in those who don’t look like us or talk like us or worship like us—yes, the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian were pagans to begin with, and yet God blessed them anyway.
And it’s this notion that the people of Nazareth can’t abide. Like Richard III, they can’t live, at least right now, in “these fair well-spoken days.” They can’t accept the year of the Lord’s favor, if that favor extends to people they don’t find deserving. And so they are likewise determined to prove themselves villains. They transform the Sabbath, that day for restoring and honoring life, into a day of execution for their hometown preacher, dragging him up to the edge of a high precipice. But Jesus’ hour has not yet come, it’s not his time, and so his slips right past them and disappears. But for the people of Nazareth, the moment has passed. Today, with all its promise, has become yesterday. God’s grace may bring other opportunities, but today, salvation has slipped through their fingers.
What time is it when Jesus comes to town? It’s a time of new beginnings, new freedom, release from guilt and sin. And it’s a time of new openness, breaking down walls that separate and alienate. And it turns out that you can’t have one without the other. You can’t embrace God’s new beginning in your life without embracing the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast. It’s not an optional tack-on. It’s not something that would be nice to strive for, once you’ve accepted Jesus into your heart. Jesus won’t come into your heart without the stranger. He won’t come into your heart without the undocumented landscaper, without your gay or Muslim neighbor. He won’t come into your heart without that guy or gal whose politics you despise. It’s both or neither.
The immediacy of Jesus’ words is meant for us too. Today Jesus is here with us. Today there’s a new beginning with our name on it, if only we offer up our hearts to be broken so that they can grow that much bigger. Today there is someone in your life whom you’ve written off, but whom God very much wants to bless. You don’t have to befriend this person or talk to this person right away… But can you pray for them? Can you begin to want God’s blessing for them?—a real blessing, not just a change that will make them more acceptable to you, personally. Let God worry about what needs to change. Can you pray for yourself to grow a bigger, more God-like heart? Salvation is present for you today… Don’t put it off, don’t let it slip through your fingers.
What time is it? The apostle Paul writes, “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Wherever Jesus is, it’s time for Jubilee, forgiveness, freedom. It’s time for a new heart and a new and right spirit that breaks down dividing walls and barriers of alienation. Seize the day. Redeem the time. Live Jubilee. Today, today, today! Amen.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail. 16 April 1963. http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html. Accessed 15 Jan 2017.
Matt Skinner, with Rolf Jacobson and Kathryn Schifferdecker. “Narrative Podcast #252 - Sermon at Nazareth.” WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=834. Accessed 13 Jan 2017.