Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and Christ Jesus the Lord,
It was customary in our Lord’s time for every grown-up to go to the local synagogue on the Sabbath, which was our Saturday. The people expected to hear Psalms and prayers, readings from Scripture, and some preaching. Preachers in those days had different styles, just as they do today. There were learned rabbis who put a lot of thought and scholarship into their sermons, but most people preferred to hear preachers who had the gift of putting insights from Scripture into everyday language. They liked sermons that were easy to listen to. Some things never change. Just like today, preachers who had the common touch and gift for words can often expect an appreciative following.
Things were different, of course, on the Sabbath when Jesus spoke at the synagogue in his home town. There were usually two readings from Scripture before the message. Jesus gave the second reading and then sat down to preach, for it was the custom in those days for preachers to sit while they spoke. Many of the people present didn’t like what Jesus said. They flew into a rage and brought our Lord to the edge of town to throw him from the top of a hill. Jesus knew that even though the folks of Nazareth didn’t want to hear him, others would listen, and with faith and gratitude, for as Isaiah foretold, his message was full of healing, the hope of freedom, and the promise of God’s everlasting favor.
The full version of the passage from Isaiah that our Lord read contains many gospel ideas: binding up, release, gladness, praise, righteousness – all blessings that come from Jesus. Also freedom from despair and steady strength of spirit. God offers these to every believer.
Isaiah wrote about the bad side of life, too – brokenness, grief, sadness. He breaks through the propaganda that tries to teach us that everything that happens is all right. He says that God knows the truth about broken hearts and troubled minds and the pain of mourning. God knows the troubles we face. He knows our concerns. What will happen to our families? Will we be safe? How can we cope with the pain or the loss of a loved one? Our concerns are real. God knows them and he works to bring healing.
We often try to solve problems on our own, thinking that our strength of character will save us or our earthly heritage or the good luck that seems to follow people in North America. Human cures and human strength are often not enough. The best healing and strength come from Christ. He turns ashes into beauty and despair into praise.
Consider the forgiveness of sins. The wrongs life inflicts on us can hurt deeply, but a tortured conscience can be the sharpest wound of all. It can drag us down and bring us exaggerated fears. The people who led Jesus from his own synagogue must have suffered afterwards. But had they listened to him when he spoke to them, they would have gained a fresh new outlook on the problem of guilt. Instead of rising to anger at the Lord, they would have rejoiced. Instead of being frightened and drawn to despair, they would have been sturdy oaks of righteousness, as Isaiah put it, for complete forgiveness is the great miracle Christ works in the lives of all his people. God heals through his mercy; the cleansing by his blood brings life. Forgiveness and salvation always go together. Gladness, freedom, and a spirit of praise come through God’s forgiveness.
Living with God day after day, washed clean in Jesus’ blood, Christian people grow skilled at the art of renewal. God uses us to extend his kingdom. Isaiah mentioned rebuilding ancient ruins and renewing devastated cities. After they returned home from seventy years exile, God’s Old Testament people worked to rebuild Jerusalem.
Rebuilding, restoration, and renewal include an unseen dimension that starts with forgiveness. We forgive people who cause us to worry about our earthly futures; we forgive people who deprive us of the love we need and those who stand between us and the good things of life.
In these and other acts of forgiveness, we not only help to preserve our own peace of mind, we also help to restore our neighbors’ consciences and heal hearts that may be broken. We act toward others as God acts. As Isaiah put it, we are called to be priests of the Lord. I don’t suppose we think about our special status in God’s eyes as often as we should, but our savior does place us in a unique category. He builds us up and expresses his confidence in us by giving us his work to do. He is the one high priest, of course, but we are deputy priests, so to speak. Peter put it this way in his first letter. “You also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God...You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, that you should show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
These are not just nice-sounding words to fill a few minutes before lunch. God restores us through forgiveness and gives us a spirit of rejoicing instead of despair so that we may act as priests for Christ in a fallen world. Like all Christian priests, we represent God to others by speaking about what he has done and by helping others find deliverance from the bad side of life through faith in Christ. We also represent other people before God, praying for them, asking for mercy, and bringing their needs before the throne of grace. Jesus equips his priests to help bring about the revived world of which Isaiah wrote, not by taking Jesus’ place but by following his example and by calling others to faith in salvation through faith in God’s grace.
If the folks in the synagogue at Nazareth had allowed themselves to absorb what the Lord was telling them, they’d have found what they’d been looking for from their religion: renewal and restoration together with a mission to the world outside God’s house. We’re well-positioned not to make the same mistake as they, for Christ is with us through his Word and rather than reject him, we do our best to welcome him. This welcome brings rewards for God then pours into minds and hearts that he has opened the good news about freedom, gladness, and a spirit of praise.
I hope we’ll take these words seriously. They’re not words we hear on the news or at work or when we discuss the current scene. But they describe for us the reality God has in mind, partly now through the gift of pardon, but fully realized later on in the next life, which we now dimly imagine as we cling to our savior by faith.
We can sympathize with the people in the synagogue at Nazareth because it takes courage to let go of the world and take hold of concepts from God like binding up, comfort, release, and strength of spirit. But priests of Christ like ourselves are well-equipped to receive the renewed life that Jesus holds out to us, both for ourselves and the benefit of the world around us that the Lord sends us to help restore. It’s a high calling to take part in heaven’s comfort and praise; it’s a great honor that the Lord displays his splendor through us. If we need a lift during the week or a word of encouragement, we do well to spend a moment with God’s Word and to recall our special status in his eyes. He gives us his best so as to bring out our best. To paraphrase Isaiah, he feeds us with the wealth of the gospel and the riches of his love. He will continue to comfort us and fill us with gladness and train us in enthusiasm for the tasks he sends us. In Jesus’ Name. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.