Secrets of the Text Revealed
Nothing like a good secret to pique the interest. I guess internet sites that feature the lost books of the Bible, hidden books of the Bible, secrets of the Bible get as many if not more hits than a Plain Jane Bible site. Those sites trade in the sensational, maybe the sacrilegious. But there are "secrets", or hidden gems, in ordinary texts like ours. They're buried by God to be found not lost.
The first two sentences in our text summarize the first year of Jesus' ministry that only the Gospel of John reports. Our text tells of Jesus returning to Galilee from the Jordan having been baptized by John. It tells of His fame spreading, His frequenting their synagogues, and everyone praising Him. But it doesn't tell you of Jesus turning water into wine, of Nicodemus' visiting Him at night, or the woman at the well.
The Holy Spirit leads Luke to skip over all that, and the chief point he takes away from the first year of Jesus' ministry is that He "taught in their synagogues." Luke opens the account of the second year of Jesus' ministry, the Great Galilean Ministry, by saying "He went to Nazareth, where He had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day He went into the synagogue." The implication being in some sense this synagogue was His. It's His home church. This probably means more for next week's text but it's hidden here.
Right out in the open is Jesus rising to read; this wasn't strange. Travelling rabbis would be asked or could volunteer which Jesus probably did as the text notes, "He stood up to read." And while the scroll of Isaiah was chosen for Jesus, don't pass up that "He found the place where it was written." The oldest copy of Isaiah we have is a 24 feet long scroll in 54 columns. You'd have to be familiar with just how far to reel to locate this particular reading. And since there were few copies of Old Testament scrolls because they were expensive and time consuming to make, most of them were found in synagogues or in the homes of the wealthy. Remember the Ethiopian treasurer had a copy. So, this particular Isaiah scroll could have been the very one the Boy Jesus learned from.
Jesus reads from 2 places in Isaiah. Chapter 61:1, then Chapter 58:6, and back to 61:2. You really have to know your Bible well and a scroll even better to do that. But Jesus does it to highlight one particular aspect of His ministry: forgiveness. You don't get that from most English Bibles. Of 38 English translations I checked, 27 say that what Jesus came to preach is good news to the poor. He gave what singer-songwriter Ann Murray asked for: a little good news today. No, the Greek word is euaggelizo [yu-an-ge-le'-zo] from which evangelize' comes. This verb is used in the New Testament for preaching the Gospel. You can trace it in Luke from Gabriel telling Zechariah that he has been sent from God to bring him Gospel. Then on the plains of Bethlehem the angel says to the frightened shepherds, "I bring you good tidings" that is I euaggelizo you. I evangelize you; I preach the Gospel to you. Then the ministry of John the Baptist is summed up, "So with many other exhortations John preached the Gospel to the people." And the next use of euaggelizo is Jesus reading from Isaiah that He has been anointed, He has been "Christ-ed", to euaggelizo the poor.
But wait there's more. This text is a veritable gold mine of forgiveness. Twice the word often translated forgiveness' is used. John the Baptist's father is told by Gabriel that John will give the people the knowledge of salvation "by the forgiveness of their sins." Then John is described as "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." And then Jesus reads from Isaiah where the prophet twice uses this same word for forgiveness. Only God's Word translation nails it. "He has sent me to announce forgiveness to the prisoners of sin." "To forgive those who have been shattered by sin." Now, the translation extrapolates on what we're prisoners of and have been shattered by, but it does so based on the Greek word for forgiveness. As professor of mine said, Here this Greek word "surely can mean nothing else than forgiveness,' God's great gift to men in Christ" (Buls, ILCW Gospel Texts, Series C, 21).
Jesus can jail break prisoners of sins because He went to prison in place of sinners. Having lived an innocent life in thought, word, and deed, having never so much as smudged the holy, pure flesh and blood He was born with, He won the right to free those kept in bondage by their sins. What Law can man, can you, can the devil point to that Jesus didn't keep in your place? Every now and then someone will be arrested, brought to trail, and the judge will determine there is no law against what this man did, so he is set free. There were plenty laws against what you have thought, said, and did, but Jesus kept them all in your place and so they're off the books now. Col. 2:14 shows how: He "wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us which was contrary to us. ..He took it out the way having nailed it to the cross." Rom. 5:13 completes the picture: "sin is not charged where there is no Law." "Go, you are free," the pastor says in Private Confession.
The same goes for forgiving those shattered by sin. The God Man Jesus can forgive those whom sin has shattered because He was shattered to hell, to dying, and to death in place of all sinners. He comes to those who awake to a Carrie Underwood moment of "Oh, no! what have I done?" and picks up the pieces of their sweet, shattered dream by sending their sins away from them. That's what this Greek word for forgiveness means "to send away from." That's the picture Psalm 103 gives of forgiveness: "As far as east is from west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us." And that's the picture John the Baptist uses for Jesus' ministry: He's the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world. If you're part of the world, your sins were on Him. Don't you dare think that your sins or that sin somehow fell off of Jesus before He got to the cross and so wasn't nailed there.
To emphasize who Jesus is and what He does is all about forgiveness not about rubbing your face in your sins, all about Gospel not just some generic good news, all about doing for you rather than you doing for Him, hear the ending Jesus leaves out. Jesus stops reading where He does on purpose. Is. 61:2 doesn't end with "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" but goes on to say "and the day of vengeance of our God." Gulp.
John the Baptist went on reading and preached accordingly. You remember that? How He called them a bunch of snakes; told them that the axe of God's judgment was aimed at their fruitless legs and was about to cut them off at the knees. You remember how John said the Lord would gather wheat and burn chaff with unquenchable fire? Today, stop where Jesus does. The Day of Vengeance of God is coming, but not now. Today is the day when all debts are torn up, all prisoners released, and all that was lost is restored. That's what Jesus says. He reads the passages from Isaiah purposely stopping with the year of the Lord's favor, acceptance, welcome and then says, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled."
Remember the grade school teacher who found a way at the beginning of each year to whisper in her kids' ears, "You know; you're my favorite"? Well, that's what Jesus says today. All the world may not accept you; you may not accept you, but the Lord doesn't care at all about that. He accepts you in Jesus. He is favorable toward you in Jesus. He is on your side. And if God almighty is on your side that means all the company of heaven is, particularly angels and archangels. When the Lord wants to show Jacob in his fearfulness that He is favorable towards him, what does He do? Both times, once when running from Esau and then when returning to meet his possibly enraged brother, the Lord shows Him angels. Those angels are still at work says Hebrews 1 being "sent to serve those who will inherit salvation." That's you as sure as you've been baptized into Christ; that's you as sure as you have been absolved in His name; that's you as sure as you have drank from His Cup of Salvation and eaten the Bread of His life.
One more secret the text has for us. Again it's a translation thing. Jesus doesn't say "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." He says, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your ears." This isn't a distinction without a difference. This is the difference between an ephemeral thing and a really present thing. This is the difference between hearing about something happening and something happening here. And what that is, is very clear.
Jesus is locating what's happening that is the Gospel being preached, forgiveness being announced to prisoners of sin and to those shattered by sins, and the year of the Lord's acceptance as going on today in your time and place. The Word fulfilled' is a Greek perfect. That's a decisive act in time that lasts forever and ever, amen. It goes on and on. What Jesus accomplished from womb to tomb - all the perfect living and all the guilty suffering and dying - has lasting consequence, ongoing effects in our time and place. Wherever Jesus is heralded, proclaimed, preached His forgiveness, His hope, His courage, His peace, His presence is there.
Take this in, drink this in, let this fill up your ears, your senses. Jesus stands and reads these particular passages from Isaiah. Then He sits. Jesus sitting lets those present know that He intends to teach them. In those days, teachers sat pupils stood. It's where we get the idea of a "professor's chair." But there is a gem hidden even here. All eyes are fastened on Jesus because they know this famous rabbi is about to speak. Then all the Holy Spirit records of Jesus' sermon is "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your ears." What? I want to know more. I want to know it all. Next week we'll get more of the crowd's reaction but no more of this address.
This is where the Holy Spirit ends Jesus' sermon. All the power and promise of the year of God's favor, all of His freedom from sin's captivity and relief from sin's brokenness are forever whenever and wherever Jesus is present. This is what is known as an "open secret." Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday After Epiphany (20190127); Luke 4: 14-21