Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21
Last Tuesday I was with the daily #bringbackourgirls campaign vigil in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. This was their 649th day keeping watch and raising a voice for the abducted girls. On the drive back to my guest house with one of the organizers, we talked about their frustrations, fluctuations in attendance, from 500 at times to around 20 at others—how they have cried together, argued about politics and approach, been ridiculed by people who say “I can imagine you still out here once your hair is gray.” They gather daily to proclaim freedom.
Our passage in Luke begins–
4:14 “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.”
The “then” reminds us that this passage comes after something. It comes after something—and Jesus is “filled with the power of the Spirit.” Perhaps surprisingly he returns from the desert where we saw a feat of endurance. Directly after being baptized by John the Baptizer, as a sort of grand opening to his ministry, Jesus heads to the desert for fasting and prayer—and is tempted. In this same first verse there are three significant things noted. The first we just noted. Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit. The second is that he returned to Galilee and thirdly that a “report” about him spread throughout the surrounding area. We don’t hear why this report spread but apparently returning in this power entailed notable or newsworthy activity. At least part of this was teaching in their synagogues—for in the next verse we read “He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” He was a circuit preacher and he was gaining a reputation.
And then he makes it to his home town—Nazareth where his reputation—the news of his activity—has already arrived ahead of him. Until this point in Luke we have not heard Jesus’ teaching or even the scripture he was teaching. We simply know that whatever it was, was noteworthy and creating a stir. In this we still don’t get a whole lot of his content other than the scripture he chooses and one note of his own thinking.
4:18 “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, 4:19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
“to bring good news to the poor.” “proclaim release to the captives”
Recovery of sight–healing
Freedom for the oppressed
While we have two verses of the passage we only have a one line summary of what Jesus preached. “Today this is fulfilled in your hearing.” He claims that he is the anointed one of God and that this anointing carries these actions. One commentator notes, [quote] “It is interesting that in Luke’s Gospel, the first public word of Jesus as an adult, apart from reading Scripture, is ‘today.’ The age of God’s reign is here; the eschatological time when God’s promises are fulfilled and God’s purpose comes to fruition has arrived; there will be changes in the conditions of those who have waited and hoped. Those changes for the poor and the wrongs and the oppressed will occur today. This is the beginning of jubilee. The time of God is today, and the ministries of Jesus and the church according to Luke-Acts demonstrate that ‘today’ continued. Throughout these two volumes, ‘today’ is never allowed to become ‘yesterday’ or to slip again into a vague ‘someday.’ The history of the church does not, however, bear unbroken testimony to Jesus’ announcement, ‘Today the scripture has been fulfilled’” (Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, 62).
The writer is stating that in the two books Luke and Acts (the first and second volumes of writing by the same author) the focus in on “today.” It is not a recounting of history as gone and dead or a hopeful, idealized, or theoretical future just over the horizon but is showing Jesus and the early church as being and acting out the presence of God’s kingdom—of God’s presence in the world.
At the beginning of his ministry as recorded in Luke, this would seem to be a succinct statement of Jesus’ mission in his ministry. It is not, however, only a mission statement that sets a trajectory of the sorts of things Jesus will do but in saying “it is fulfilled today” he is asserting an arrival—this arrival though, needs to be continually acted out—for certainly, there remain captives of oppression, those suffering in poverty, as well as sickness and the marginalization of the sick. It is also a continuation and affirmation by Jesus of his mother Marie’s song before his birth. She said
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Jesus’ claim is not an outlier or overly dramatic statement but is part of a stream of witnesses to God’s care for the poor and oppressed. Jesus simply embodies this and brings its manifestation. The Brethren have consistently looked to Jesus as a foundation of our faith—of our understanding of God and how we live this out. This is proclaiming and enacting justice and freedom and release from dept and the bondage of oppression. These are the foundations of a true peace.
In this practice the unofficial mission statement of Jesus is of great importance.
#1 Jesus mission defines our mission and this is to bring freedom, justice, forgiveness, and healing.
Now this sounds like good stuff—freedom, justice, forgiveness, healing—hard to complain about that (in the abstract at least). When you start bringing in Mary’s song about the powerful being cast down now that starts to be challenging for some of us. But even apart from reversals in status and power actually living this is quite another thing. One such effort I witnessed was in the town of Lassa. Lassa is on the way to Chibok and has been heavily affected.
After a first attack unsuccessful attack in November 2014 the town was surrounded at night. I didn’t hear how many people were killed but saw the destroyed police barracks, a large Brethren church, one of EYN’s ministry training schools, part of the hospital…I was there primarily to see the Education Must Continue school. They have 16 teachers who are essentially volunteering their time and are meeting under trees and in an around a wrecked police barracks without books or furniture—trying to provide education for 2018 elementary school students. Rooms the half the size of this space in front of our pews seated maybe 70 students sitting almost on top of each other on the floor or on rocks. Students have gathered from surrounding smaller even more remote villages.
Many hadn’t been in school for over two years. Part of the purpose of my trip was to work to find support for such efforts. After visiting the students we were escorted by several motorcycles with armed local vigilantes as we went around the village. Even that night there was an attack about two villages out from there near the Sambisa forest. Though it was far from secure the teachers and organizers believed that education must continue even in the face of what they call “insurgents.” This is what bringing freedom to the oppressed looks like. This is what proclaiming the good news to the poor looks like.
Jesus mission defines our mission and this is to bring freedom, justice, forgiveness, and healing.
#2 From Nehemiah—upon hearing of the situation he is moved to action
In the passage we read from Nehemiah we don’t get much sense of the context of the scene. It starts, “all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel…. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”
The book starts out “The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah, In the month of Chisley, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, one of my brothers, cam with certain men from Judah; and asked them about the Jews that survive, those who had escaped the captivity about Jerusalem. They replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame, the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates destroyed.”” Nehemiah sits down and weeps upon hearing this. He prays confessing to God. Nehemiah is the cup bearer for the king. While this doesn’t sound like anything too impressive he was someone who needed to be fully trusted (since kings can get poisoned) and was often in the presence of the king. He is so upset by the news of Jerusalem’s trouble that the king sees it on his face—which is in fact a dangerous thing for Nehemiah since part of his job is to be happy and kings could easily have someone removed and killed.
Fortunately, this is not what happened. The king asked him what was wrong and Nehemiah had the courage to tell him and ask to go to take a look. By the time we get to chapter 8 where we read and we see the people reading the law, Nehemiah has gone to Jerusalem, secretly toured the broken wall at night, organized the people still living in area, began repairs, been threatened and mocked by surrounding groups who didn’t want the wall repaired, guarded against these same groups interfering, and finished repairing the wall in record time. In this context the people who have been surviving in the remains of a war torn area and away from their place of worship request the law—their Bible—be read to them.
Nehemiah heard the news of suffering and acted. He literally rebuilt walls but in the process also rebuilt a scattered community. In many places we witnessed the crumbling of structures—from the clinic at EYN headquarters which is rubble, to homes, businesses, churches, mosques, government buildings, and bridges which were bombed or burnt the physical destruction needs repair.
Often the walls look like they would work with a new roof but because of the heat of the fire even these seemingly intact walls will need to be removed. When talking with the associate dean of Kulp Bible College she said that when the tank exploded at the end of their road it shook the whole way up to KBC. Because it was rainy season the walls were more fragile and were damaged by this shock. Not knocked down but weakened. Not only were these destroyed walls and buildings huge investments and often the way of saving for the future but the marks visible destruction are constant reminder to severely traumatized communities. Even small amounts of support are significant. One friend told me that even if someone just receives one meal or one day worth of food this is a type of trauma healing since they know someone cares. I met a man from Chibok at the #bringbackourgirls vigil. He wasn’t Brethren but he remembered that back in 1983 a group of Brethren came from the US and physically helped build in his village. Now financially this doesn’t make sense—the plane ticket for just one of the US workers could hire local workers for days—but the significance of this humble support was immense, especially in times of such suffering as now.
So with Nehemiah we are moved to action–
#3 But these are big tasks and the Body imagery gives a direction in how to act
So with Nehemiah we are moved to action–But these are big tasks and the Body imagery gives a direction in how to act
Remember back to the comments on Luke. Jesus said that “today this is fulfilled in your presence.” He asserted that in his coming the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah were brought into the presence of those at the synagogue in Nazareth. In 1 Corinthians the writer uses the imagery of the “Body of Christ” for the church. In Christ’s physical absence we, the gathered community, become the presence of Christ in our community. We continue the work of Jesus—we continue the ministry of Jesus. In this reality the mission of Jesus becomes our mission.
But these are big tasks for an individual—the situation in Nigeria, much less the rest of the world and our communities and our workplaces. We, however, believe we carry them out as a body. Not only are we a body here but we are a body with EYN. They are not the helpless and we the helpers. They are not without gifts of the body. As we traveled fairly far into the northeast—well into areas formerly held by Boko Haram and still experiencing fairly regular attacks—I was surprised how some things looked so normal, at least on the surface. Passing EYN headquarters in Mararaba (past a few burnt out tanks) heading in direction of Chibok we passed through Uba. Uba had been emptied and at least 3 Brethren churches destroyed but the market by the road bustled. Despite continued threat people are moving back and attempting to get on with survival. Since many lost their livelihoods, possessions, and the value of property things are far from fine. But even in these difficult situation people continue on largely without external support.
My friends we are called as the body of Christ to continue his work of proclaiming freedom, healing. Our mission is this.