This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and over the Internet.
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We have two readings today. Our first reading is from Luke chapter 4, verses 16 to 21 and then we flip back into the Old Testament to Isaiah chapter 61. So, Luke chapter 4.
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
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. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
Luke 4:16–21 (NIVUK)
Flipping back to Isaiah chapter 61, and those words that Jesus said, “The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me,” come from Isaiah chapter 61 and so we’ll continue to read from verse 3.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendour.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
Strangers will shepherd your flocks;
foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
And you will be called priests of the Lord,
you will be named ministers of our God.
You will feed on the wealth of nations,
and in their riches you will boast.
Instead of your shame
you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
and everlasting joy will be yours.
‘For I, the Lord, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
and make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants will be known among the nations
and their offspring among the peoples.
All who see them will acknowledge
that they are a people the Lord has blessed.’
I delight greatly in the Lord;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the soil makes the young plant come up
and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness
and praise spring up before all nations.
Isaiah 61 (NIVUK)
As you know, on Sunday mornings, recently, we have looked at some of the parables of Jesus in the gospels where he likens the Kingdom of God to something, a pearl, a net, a wedding feast. Somewhere a landowner goes into a field or to the marketplace. Jesus original hearers would not have been surprised at the examples that Jesus used, but would have needed a second glance or a second hearing at the twists in these tales. “I’m sorry,” they would have said, “Did you say that everyone was welcome into God’s kingdom?” “Did you suggest, Jesus,” they might say, “That God is rejecting the religiousness of those who should have known better? That there’s going to be some form of judgments upon those who didn’t notice Jesus as God’s chosen one?” In short, Jesus was saying that, in this topsy-turvy kingdom, the first would be last, the last would be first. Where the nobodies were somebodies, and in which the king ignores social expectations to go out and find the lowest of the low.
During lockdown, there was a lot of talk about what life might be after COVID-19 when it seems we’re some way off that. Even if this thought gives us a sense of weariness, and resignation of how things are, but how much do we need to look out for these restrictions? Why can’t we live under these instructions? What is it about this? What is it about humanity that we just can’t live by the rules? During lockdown, people started dreaming about this thing that became called the new normal. What positive things, if any, could we take from this awful condition COVID-19? Watch things from the past ought to stay in the past because there are better ways of being human?
In the parables, Jesus was pointing to a new normal, where everything was better for everyone. As the bride of Christ, the church, how are we responding to the parables of Jesus as we remain in the pandemic? Are we preparing for a new normal, where the whole world is treated differently, and where we are known as people who bind up the broken-hearted? Where we actively proclaim freedom and act, freedom for prisoners, whatever that might mean? To tell people that this is the day of God’s goodness, to offer comfort for those who want to rebuild ancient ruins. All imitating a just and the faithful God.
In Isaiah chapter 61, it’s not just about the really good stuff, it’s the wonderful stuff that’s wrapped up inextricably with the rubbish that’s going on in the world. As Christians, we don’t shield ourselves away from the dirt and the grime and the sin. We get involved in those difficulties and make things better. That’s the purpose of parables like you are salt and the light. We can’t make a difference unless we are in the mire alongside people who are stuck in it. That’s why there’s the blessing as well as hardship in Isaiah. That’s what the world’s like today. It’s not just lovely stuff, and horrible stuff compartmentalised. It is often both, and at the same time.
In the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22, which we looked at recently, the twist in this tale was where the king appeared to one of the guests who was not wearing the joyful wedding clothes, and was thrown out from the feast for not joining in the spirit of the party. On closer examination, we discovered that one interpretation of this was about the change that Jesus makes in our lives. If we are unwilling to wear the clothes of love, and justice and truth and righteousness and holiness, then are we really saying that we don’t want to be here at the party?
In Luke Chapter 4, right at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, he reads from Isaiah chapter 61, as we read earlier, at his local synagogue in Nazareth. It’s like this is his manifesto pledge. There are things that he stands for, just like the God of the Old Testament. It seems to me as clear as crystal, that those hearing him and seeing him at the synagogue are amazed. Isn’t this Joseph’s son? For Jesus the new normal that he declares, this is the kingdom of God. Is the best way of being for everyone and everything.
Isaiah chapter 61 talks about those whose God spirits is upon. It’s those who come along the downtrodden. Those who are bestowed a crown of beauty instead of ashes, a garment of praise instead of the spirits of despair. For those who delight in God, they are clothed with garments of righteousness as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and a bride adorns herself with her jewels. The picture is regal and holy. Isn’t the church known in the New Testament at least as the bride of Christ? How are we looking?
Towards the end of the book of Isaiah, Chapters 44 to 66, there are glimmers of God’s hope and blessings towards the whole world. In spite of present circumstances, hope springs eternal. In our run up to the end of November, in the run up to Advent, we’re going to be looking at some of these helpful and hopeful chapters of Isaiah, in the same way the parables of the kingdom point the way to a step change in the way that things are done. The blessings of Isaiah remind us that God was always in the business of transformation and of joy.
In his commentary, Barry Webb, part of the Bible Speaks Today series, headlines Isaiah chapters 56 to 66 as “Waiting for a new world”[Barry Webb, The Message of Isaiah: On Eagles’ Wings, ed. J. A. Motyer and Derek Tidball, The Bible Speaks Today (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), 219.] If he’d written it today, perhaps he might have entitled it, waiting for the new normal. These last chapters of Isaiah relate to the period following the arrival back of the first returnees from Babylon in around 516 BC. The people of God had been taken captive by the Babylonians when they swept into power over Israel 17 years before in 586 BC. Now they were being released back home, they can make their own way in the world again. Isaiah chapter 61 was literally freedom to the captives after life under lockdown.
Imagine the joy, the anticipation, the party, the very real sense of release, and relief. That’s why it feels like the year of the Lord’s favour because God has moved. People can return to their land once more, and find–well they find what others have pulled down. Their homes left in rubble on the ground. Villages, perhaps which gave so much comfort and security once have been torn down and burned or squandered. Even the holiest place, the temple, the home of the Jewish faith has been ransacked. No longer is that a feeling of elation there? We’ve gone from the good and the happy to the sad and disgusted and heartfelt. Why? This is why we find the lavish among the broken hearts and the troubles of the world because they always somehow travel together. Even without that thought, there’s still the sense that God is on the move and yet something bigger is yet to be unveiled. No wonder this is Jesus’ manifesto.
Imagine him in the local synagogue as he reads these words from Isaiah 61. Then he hands back the scroll to the attendant and then says, “These words are fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, this is it folks, watch me. Watch and learn. It’s not just a religious thing. It’s bigger than that. The Voice version of the Bible offers some commentary as we read Luke chapter 4 and helps us understand what it might have been like to have been at the synagogue that day.
Luke’s audience doesn’t divide the world into sacred versus secular or religious vs. political. For them, life is integrated. And for them, these “religious” words from Isaiah have a powerful and “political” meaning [as well]: because they see themselves as oppressed by the Roman occupation. Jesus’ words [suggest that His][of] “good news” describes a powerful change that’s about to come–a change that will rescue people from their oppression. His fellow Jews Jews have long been waiting for a savior to free them from Roman oppression. Jesus tells them their hopes are about to be fulfilled [in Him]. But then, just as people speak well of Jesus, he lets them know that their expectations are’nt in line with God’s plans. He tells them not to expect God to fit into their boxes, and suggests the unthinkable: that God cares for Gentiles, the very people who are oppressing them!
The essential message of Jesus can be summed up in this way, according to the Voice commentary. The kingdom of God is available to everyone starting now. When Jesus refers to the kingdom of God, he doesn’t mean something that happens after death far off in heaven. He equates the kingdom of God with God’s will being done on Earth as it is in heaven. The kingdom of God is life as God intended it to be. Life to the full. Life in all its fullness, peace, justice, abundance, love.
The kingdom is more than individuals’ lives. It’s about the transformation and renewal of all that God has created. The challenge about the kingdom and about the year of the Lord’s favour seems to be quite clear. If we as Main Street Community Church want to discover what it is to know about the new normal, let’s look at the way that God created and is recreating the world. Let’s follow the way we are created with all of our passions and our skills and our abilities in order to put to good use those things to ensure the world is put back to rights. Spend our finances in ways and on things we know bless God, and others; write to our local MP on issues that really matter, something to us or you individually; sign that online petition to the issues that matter to you. We all have different things that matter to us, different things that rile us, things that make us want to be the change that we want to see in the world, to quote Ghandi. There’s a host of stuff that we can do, but we also remember, it’s all done in the name of Jesus. That’s the motivation for it all.
The Prime Minister has a new slogan, one of many at the moment. The one I’m thinking of at the moment is, build back better. The plan to have new homes as a catalyst for an improved economy as Britain reopens after COVID-19. We wait to see what becomes of it, but the idea of build back better. Perhaps the notion that the Christian community can take really, really seriously. Not in a building of houses sense unless you’re an actual builder, of course, and then you do it to the glory of God, but rather decide in your heart now how it is that you will build your life, your whole life, so that it reflects what Jesus calls the kingdom of God. What Isaiah calls the year of the Lord’s favour. Getting back to normal: having homelessness as a problem. Getting back to normal: people on the breadline having to use food banks. Perhaps these things aren’t our normal, but for many people in the UK and across the world, they are, and it shouldn’t be. As we believe, as the church God has put his Spirit upon us, as Jesus was saying in Luke 4 and as we heard in Isaiah chapter 61. The spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me. If this is true, if this is fulfilled in Jesus, who now commissioned us to go into the world, what’s our part in this new normal? What’s your part? What’s mine? Activists, theorists, financial givers, prayers, pragmatists, people behind the scenes, as much as those movers and shakers up the front, everyone. Everyone is needed. Nobody is left out in the full kingdom of God because everybody has something to offer and to contribute in this kingdom. That’s the new normal. Let’s see this new normal as the kingdom of God. What if you or I were living that dream of how God envisaged how the world should have been? Now, let that hope actually be what it is as we pray, Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
This talk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Scripture quotations marked VOICE on this page and in the audio are taken from The Voice™. Copyright © 2008 by Ecclesia Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked NIVUK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked The Voice on this page and in the audio are taken from The Voice™. Copyright © 2008 by Ecclesia Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved.