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What to Do with the Rejects

January 29, 2012

This is based on my sermon this morning. The Old Testament Lesson was Isaiah 61; the Gospel was Luke 4:16-32.

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Jesus. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious word that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

At first blush, we can imagine that the people in the synagogue were pleased with what the Lord shared with them. What Luke tells us that they were amazed at His “gracious words.” They even marveled that Joseph’s son was able to discern the Scripture in such a meaningful manner.

The thing is, the Lord is rarely satisfied with superficial answers. Jesus replied to them: “I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

This is a little bit like me standing at the door greeting people after Church and everyone saying, “What a nice sermon, Brian” and then me saying to you, “You understand I was talking about you, don’t you?”

What Jesus said by reading the passage from Isaiah is that the “year of the Lord’s favor” is for  those who don’t deserve it… for those outside the “holy people,” for those who aren’t in the inner circle in Jerusalem.

Jesus refers to the widow of Zarephath. Zarephath is a small town in what is now Lebanon, near Sidon, so the widow was probably not a Jew. Naaman the Syrian was a general or commander of a nation that had been at odds with the Jews, yet God favored Naaman with healing of his leprosy.

When they realized that this is what Jesus was talking about, “All the people in the synagogue were furious.”

Were they furious because of what Jesus Christ read? No. They were furious because He told them that the Good News was for those who least deserved it, for people unlike them; for the Nazarenes who lived as rejects by the Jerusalem Jews; for the people of Sidon and Syria, who didn’t live in the Holy Land. They were furious because Jesus Christ had pulled them out of the comfort zone of things as usual.

What does God expect us to do with those who the rest of the world rejects?

First, we are to to preach good news to the poor.

What is our attitude toward the poor? If we were honest, we would likely say that the poor are rejects: We move away from them, we keep them in their own part of town, we give them token gifts at holiday times. In developing nations, up half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day.

There are poor all around us. At the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago they serve 53,000 meals a month to people who have no where else to eat. They host 560 overnight stays for homeless each night, have 120 enrolled in Bible study classes, and give assistance to 800 homeless a day.

In our own back yard, the Kokomo Rescue Mission serves 250 people per day and 120,000 meals a year at the Mission. In addition, they take 40,000 meals off site to people who can’t get there. According to their website, 53% of the homeless at KRM are under 45 years old and 20% of them are under 18. Some 70% are single parents.

What is the Good News for the poor? That they will be wealthy? That their problems will go away? That they will somehow be able to become as rich as everyone else?

In fact, the Good News for the poor is the same Good News for all of us: God loves you and cares for you. God doesn’t want to make you rich; God loves you and wants you to be whole.

Secondly, we are sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners. Jesus never says that those in jail or prison don’t deserve to be there. That isn’t “freedom for prisoners.”

The Truth is that Jesus Christ makes a difference in peoples’ lives behind bars. I know a group of women from Timbercrest who go to the women in jail twice a month, sewing, crocheting, sharing scriptures. These women know that even though they are visiting behind bars, the inmates they see can be free in their hearts.

The Gideons who go in to jail to share the Bible. They know that often their testaments are used for cigarette papers, etc., but to them, it’s worth it to hear a testimony like this: Bruce is a young man in North Carolina who was arrested with 19 felonies 35 misdemeanors. He was sent to prison labeled a “menace to society,” a habitual felon. In jail, a member of the Gideons came to his cell, used brown testament and led him to Jesus Christ. As Bruce shared, this is “what brown can do for you.” He accepted Jesus Christ, served his time, was released and is now a successful businessman, sharing the story of Christ with the Gideons.

Freedom doesn’t mean out of jail. Many people who are not in jail are not free: they are addicted to materialism, addicted to self, addicted to porn, addicted to money, addicted to drugs and alcohol. There are non-addicts, trying to cope with depression, anxiety, worry, loneliness. Some people are in bondage to others’ expectations, bondage to time, bondage to this life with no anticipation of the next.

What is freedom to the prisoner? Freedom is knowing that God will direct your life in such a way that you will not live under the law any more. In Christ, we are called to live above the law. As St. Paul writes in Gal. 5:22, 23, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, meekness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” That is freedom.

The third thing the Lord tells us is to proclaim recovery of sight for the blind. In His day physical blindness meant certain poverty, rejection, accusations of wrong-doing. You recall the account in John 9, where Jesus was tested by the elders – “who sinned that this man was born blind?” Blindness was seen as the consequence of someone’s sin, a punishment.

We remember the conversion of Paul (commemorated Jan. 25) when he was taken to Damascus in a state of blindness. The Church prayed for  him there and “things like scales fell from his eyes” (Acts 9:18).

There is blindness in things we refuse to see – sin in our living rooms on the TV and computer; sin in our community in the name of openness and tolerance; sin in society so as to not offend anyone.

Tragically, we fail to see that sin is blindness to the things of God.

To we who are blind, Jesus Christ tells us that we will see again! We will see Creation in ways we never have before, as God’s world, a gift for us. We’ll see circumstances differently, not as the world against us but as God’s will and plan fulfilled. We’ll see others differently, not with suspicion or hatred, but with love as neighbors, as people God Himself loves.

Next, Jesus announces release for the oppressed. Who are oppressed people? We’d like to think in the US not many are oppressed. We think of oppression as Christians in Arab nations whose religion is oppressed. In Sidon, where the widow of Zarephath lived, there is still a small Christian Church still exists, but can only have services when Moslem neighbors permit. We think of opporession as Christians in Communist China who worship underground, or Christians in Sudan persecuted by those who want the natural resources.

How about in the US: who do we oppress? The student who may not be a good athlete. The student who may not be good at study, but is great with their hands. The woman who experiences divorce. The Mexican who wants to rent the house next door (it’s OK to eat in his restaurant, just don’t move into my neighborhood). The man who just can’t make a right decision and suffers the consequences daily.

To all of these – the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed – to usJesus Christ proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor.”

How do we know God’s favor?

God’s favor is a way of life, healing of the soul through Jesus Christ. He said that “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He Himself is the rememdy for the poor, freedom for the imprisoned, sight for the blind, and release for the oppressed.

The Good News is:

You who are poor – either material poverty of poverty of soul – Jesus Christ is your Good News.

You who are imprisoned – either in man-made jails or in prisons of your heart and mind – you are set free in Jesus Christ.

You who are blind – physically blind or unable to see – the Light of God now shines in the darkness.

You who are oppressed – or who may be oppressing unintentionally – there is release in Jesus Christ. Your oppression is nothing compared to the peace of soul that comes in Christ.

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