The season of Epiphany is Spirit-filled. This morning’s gospel (Luke 4:14-21) reflects this theme. It opens following Jesus’ forty days of prayer, fasting and temptation in the wilderness.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,..
The Spirit had played a huge role in Jesus’ life from the beginning when the angel Gabriel told Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) At his baptism the Spirit had hovered over Jesus as a voice proclaimed you are my beloved son (Luke 3:22). The Spirit had led Jesus into the desert (Luke 4:1) and filled him with such power that people began to talk about him because of his teaching.
While Luke does not elaborate on the power of the Spirit, it seems that Jesus felt a greater sense of clarity, focus on his Father and an awareness of his mission. He experienced such a strong personal awakening that he became a magnetic personality… a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He … was praised by everyone. The Spirit animated his life in a way that showed.
Luke implies that Jesus chose the passage from Isaiah 61 because it told of his own experience of the Spirit but also because it represented a prophecy of what the Messiah would be like.
The passage that Jesus read continues,
… 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.”
Jesus’ anointing by the Spirit was a continuous process. It began at his conception, appeared at his baptism, led him into the desert, then to the time of teaching in the synagogues and it would continue through his ministry. The words of Isaiah about the Spirit mirrored his own experience. It became the ‘keynote address’ of his ministry.
Historically, the year of the Lord’s favor was a time of amnesty from debts and freedom for slaves (Lev 25:10-18).
In Isaiah’s context, it looked to the release of the Israelites, captive in Babylon. After defeating the Babylonians, the Persian King Cyrus freed the Jewish people who had been enslaved in Babylon. It was the sum total of good news, release of captives and letting the oppressed go free.
In a way, Jesus may have also chosen this passage to speak to a contemporary reality. The Romans had conquered Israel in 63 BCE and had ruled it through puppet kings with a mix of cruelty and punishing taxes. The people to whom he spoke felt poor, captive and oppressed. He was announcing that he had come to free them from this oppression, albeit in a way they may not have anticipated.
In adopting these words, Jesus wrapped his own ministry in a happy biblical reference. He offered the passage as a sign of a new beginning filled with hope, joy and salvation. As his ministry unfolded, he would expand the horizon beyond the Jewish people to include all peoples. In addition, his promise would penetrate deeper into people’s lives and expand more fully than could have been imagined.
When Jesus had finished reading this passage from Isaiah, he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Jesus did not elaborate on the words. He let them hang in the air as he deliberately rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
The congregation in the small synagogue probably sat in silent expectation of hearing something more from Jesus. They may have mused on the words of the passage from Isaiah 61 and its reference to the release of the Israelites from Babylonian captivity and wondered whether Jesus was speaking of their release from Roman domination. At the same time they could not reconcile their idea of a military leader who would overthrow the Romans with the person they saw in front of them.
As they sat, they might have wondered what Jesus would say next about them and himself. He had grown up in Nazareth. They may have been curious about whether he would refer to local events or people when he spoke. They thought that they knew him, but his emerging reputation as a teacher suggested a previously unrecognized quality about him. They may have wanted to hear about the source of his newfound reputation for wisdom.
Jesus broke the silence….he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
His words seemed to proclaim a new day for the poor, captives, blind and oppressed. He spoke of hope. His subsequent ministry would articulate how he would deliver good news, release, sight and freedom to these… and others.
At the same time his words left unsaid how or when this would happen. The gospel for today ends with the implicit question hanging in suspense.
…. and ‘soak’ in the words. How would Jesus have elaborated on the line? How would his ministry in the coming months articulate that single line? What specific ministry has the Spirit anointed you to do?