By Jenn Strawbridge
“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
The Scripture readings for this evening are strangely meta. Like a photograph of someone taking a photograph, only this time it is with text. For first we read a lesson from Isaiah. And then in the second lesson, Jesus is reading a passage from Isaiah as well. We not only get Scripture quoting Scripture, but we also encounter Jesus’ first proclamation in a religious setting — his first sermon, so to speak — and his interpretation of the Scripture he reads almost gets him hurled off a cliff to his death. We have Jesus’ first public statement in this Gospel, and his first public death threat. And this is a rather worrying story for any preacher who seeks to interpret a biblical text.
And so we wonder what rules might lead to such a judgment. What boundaries did Jesus cross that would lead them to such anger? Could a sermon like the one Jesus preaches really get you killed? And how in the world did the crowd and religious leaders move so quickly from liking Jesus to wanting to throw him off a cliff? For in two places in this gospel narrative, Jesus’ words are described in a way that we all hope people might respond to our lectures and tutors might respond to our essays: for we are told that Jesus “was praised by everyone” and they “were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
So what does Jesus actually say in this inaugural statement in Luke’s Gospel? He reads, “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.” It’s a message of deliverance and hope in the midst of exile and oppression. It’s a message of care for the poor. It’s a message of restoration. So how could one be upset by this kind of message? For Jesus says to them immediately after he puts the scroll of Isaiah’s words down, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And this sounds very good. This first sermon is, in a way, Jesus’ mission statement. It sets out his agenda in this Gospel, and that agenda is to fulfill the promise of God’s help and God’s presence. It is the proclamation of “good news,” which we might note is the exact same word as “gospel.” And surely we can get on board with this kind of good news, this kind of gospel directed to the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed.
And yet think about what Jesus’ statement really means: this good news is actually not good news in general. The good news that Jesus proclaims is for the poor. The release Jesus promises is for those who are captive. The sight Jesus restores is of the blind. The freedom Jesus promises is for the oppressed. This good news is only good news if we are willing to confront and acknowledge what is difficult in our lives. Jesus offers words of comfort, to be sure, but such words only hold meaning for those living with discomfort. And this makes us uncomfortable.
It makes us uncomfortable because we spend so much of our time ensuring we have it all together. Whether it’s the image we project on social media, the one we give to our teachers, or the one we cultivate for our family or for our friends, there is so much pressure on us externally and internally to be perfect, to be healthy, to be whole, to be secure. We all have an ideal version of ourselves, and live with this tension between that ideal self and the self that actually greets us in the mirror each morning.
My ideal self is a prolific writer who gets every essay marked on time, doesn’t ever rush through prayer, exercises a lot, and sleeps eight hours every day. My ideal self is never passive-aggressive, never gossips, and doesn’t care what other people think about her. My ideal self sounds ideal. But my ideal self, like your ideal self, does not exist. My ideal self, like your ideal self, is a fictional person.
And while this is difficult to hear, we know it’s true. And its truth points us to the way that this first sermon given by Jesus is actually good news. But the only way we can hear it that way, as good news, is to hear it first as not so good news. And that not so good news is that we are not our ideal selves and never will be. And the good news is that God loves us anyway.
Jesus came to live in a human body because he loved actual humans and wanted to redeem and heal and forgive actual humans. Jesus does not love our ideal selves because they do not exist. He loves us whether we are impoverished physically or in spirit. He loves us when we are blind in sight and blind to the need in the world around us. He loves us when we might literally be captive and those who are captive to mental-health struggles and anxiety.
And the help and comfort and love that Jesus offers as he embodies the promises of Scripture, the promises of God to God’s people in Isaiah, the promises of release and sight and healing and love, are not just for us to receive, but are for us to share with others as well. For this is what a community of faith, this is what a College Chapel community, is all about. Are you blinded by fear? Come here to find courage. Are you captive to loneliness or anxiety? Come here so you are not alone and can find support. Do you worry that there is something else you need to be doing to be loved or accepted? Come here to be offered forgiveness and grace.
What this gospel promises, what Jesus promises in the good news he proclaims from Scripture, is that by the power of the Spirit, God is present. And God sees all, and loves all, even the parts of us we don’t want to be seen. Even the parts of us that we deem to be ugly and unlovable. God loves us enough to forgive us. God loves us enough to challenge us. God loves us enough to send us out to see and love others in a world that does not and often cannot see.
And you can perhaps grasp why Jesus was almost hurled off a cliff for these words. For Jesus doesn’t rule anyone out of the bounds of God’s love, and this is threatening. This is threatening in a world that prefers boundaries. This is threatening in a world that needs to know who is in and who is not. This is threatening in a world that is all too frightened by difference and finds it all too easy to discriminate.
And Jesus makes clear that the good news he brings, that the favor of God he proclaims, does not have such boundaries. And when he is challenged, the two examples he gives at the end of the second lesson of healing and care are examples from Scripture of a widow and of a Syrian leper. This may not seem significant, except that in both cases the one healed was someone deemed unlovable. In both cases the one brought back to life was considered an outsider. In both cases, the one offered compassion was, according to the rules, unworthy. In both cases, the ideal world of institution and assumption and boundary was shattered, and it was shattered by the proclamation of the good news of God’s favor to all.
We all have an ideal self to which we cling, and you may be here this evening convinced that no one could ever love you if they knew who you really are. But the good news of this passage of Scripture, the good news that almost gets Jesus killed the first time, is that God knows you, sees you, and loves you.
The Rev. Canon Professor Jenn Strawbridge is G.B. Caird fellow in theology at Mansfield College, Oxford.