Then [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
We are people of the promise. God promises eternal peace and gladness, justice and healing. He promises to turn our sorrow into joy, our weakness into strength, and even our death into life. Following Jesus means to stake our lives on what he and only he can do for us and through us.
Placing so much confidence in promises leads some people to think that Christianity is all pie in the sky. They suppose that we put our trust in vague assurances about what will happen someday far in the future.
Well clearly the pie-in-the-sky crowd never heard about Jesus’ teaching in his hometown synagogue. At Nazareth Jesus told us that the Gospel is about today. Yes, the Good News is about eternal life. But eternal life started the second Jesus showed up in the manger. Eternity starts today. Every day.
That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) By “today” Jesus does not mean that on that specific date in history the redemptive promises found in the Isaiah scroll were finally fulfilled. He means instead that in him God has already acted in a decisive way that creates each day as a radically new beginning.
Let me explain what I mean by reflecting on three questions.
First, how is today a result of what Jesus has already done for us?
Second, who are we becoming today as a result of what Jesus is doing?
Finally, what are we doing today in response to Jesus’ initiative?
A Fresh Start
Jesus has already done something for us that changes our lives forever when we follow him.
Following Jesus radically redefines our relationship with our own past.
Jesus has announced the year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee year. In Leviticus the law mandates a social, economic reboot every fifty years. Accountants should zero out every debt. Property reverts to its original owner.
Everyone gets a fresh start. The bad luck and poor decisions of the past will no longer carry over to today. The year of Jubilee is a universal do-over.
As it turns out, the people of Israel never celebrated the year of Jubilee. But in his hometown synagogue Jesus says that, in him, the year of Jubilee has finally come. Everybody has a radically fresh start. Today.
Jesus did not have only a political upheaval in mind. Instead, he is also talking about the regrets, the wounds, and the resentments that keep our hearts captive to the past.
Some of us can’t shake regret about things we’ve done or left undone. Our guilt and shame rob us of the present by driving us to make up for the past, to criticize ourselves harshly, or to spoil even sweet moments with a nagging sense of unworthiness.
We hear that wounds heal with time, but some of us have begun to wonder if that’s true. Loss, betrayal, and abandonment can linger in our hearts for years. Fearing further hurt we build protective walls only to shut ourselves away in loneliness.
Resentments toward others rob us of the peace and joy found only in the present. Some of us run and rerun old tapes in our heads, imagining what we might have said or what we would like to do at some future time to right a wrong done to us. All the while the one who mistreated us is sipping cocktails on a tropical beach blissfully unaware of our spiritual heartburn. And we miss the chances for joy and comfort right in front of us.
In Jesus, God releases us from bondage to regrets, wounds, and resentments. The Cross grants us forgiveness of our own wrongdoing, healing for our broken hearts, and reconciliation for our shattered relationships.
Some followers of Jesus scour the Bible for a three- or seven- or ten-step process for getting the relief we seek. In his hometown synagogue, Jesus said that God’s promise had already been fulfilled. The Gospel is Good News, not Good Rules. It is about what Jesus has already done to make things right for us, not what we have to do to make ourselves right with God, the world, or ourselves.
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection make each day a genuinely new beginning. Instead of paying yesterday’s debts, we can focus on the good that we can do today in the name of the Lord who has already set us free. Again. Today.
A Work in Progress
On this new day, Jesus is making us a new creation. And so we come to our next question. Who are we becoming through Jesus?
Listen to how the apostle Paul would answer the question. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Over time, the Holy Spirit transforms our character. It is not enough that we become better rule followers. Paul says that he was “blameless” under the law. But once he began following Jesus, he came to consider his outward moral correctness nothing more than “rubbish.” (Philippians 3:6, 8)
It is not enough to do certain things and to refrain from other things. Jesus wants our actions to arise from our abiding spiritual posture. He will not settle for a proper exterior covering over a soul in turmoil.
For instance, you may nod, and smile, and wave politely to the apologetic driver who cuts you off in traffic (and who then returns to her texting). All the while you are barely suppressing a volcanic emotional response and entertaining condescending thoughts about her IQ.
Jesus wants more for us than that. He wants us to be able to respond with compassion. Remember our own foolishness and frailty. Recognize it in another fragile, ruined person like us.
Notice, I said more for us, not more from us. It’s not that he’s sitting at the judge’s desk assessing our score on the charity scale. Instead, Jesus is working on us through the power of the Spirit. Today. He’s not finished with us yet. Just like he’s working on the crummy driver, the clumsy child, the grumpy store clerk, and the distracted spouse who irritates us or frustrates us or disappoints us.
Through the Holy Spirit Jesus is fulfilling his redemptive promises right now. Jesus is making us a new creation. Incrementally. Unevenly. Maybe even at times imperceptibly.
But following Jesus makes us works in progress who are learning to see ourselves and those around us as just that. Works in progress.
Jesus helps us today to be easier on ourselves and more tender toward one another. We’re not perfect yet, but in an odd way that’s where our strength lies. Acknowledging our imperfection allows us to see Jesus’ love for us as the gift that it is, and receiving the gift of unmerited love propels us to love our fragile, fractured neighbor.
Mercy and Justice
As we grow increasingly tender toward one another, we begin to see that our happiness can never be complete without everyone else’s happiness. And that brings us to our final question. How do we respond to what Jesus has done for us?
We respond by taking the needs and suffering and sorrow of others personally. The Gospel becomes for us not merely something we believe. The Good News is something we do, someone we become. After all, that’s exactly what Jesus modeled for us.
Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
Today, we do the Gospel when we help addicts recover, teach the illiterate to read, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, defend the helpless, visit prison inmates and befriend their families, and provide the destitute the means to die with dignity.
Today is a new beginning, because Jesus has kept his promise on the cross. The Holy Spirit is making us a new creation this very day. And our hands and feet are Jesus’ instruments for making a new world starting today. Today the Scripture is being fulfilled right in front of us.
This sermon was preached at St. Timothy’s, Alexandria, and at Christ Memorial, Mansfield.