In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is the year of Yahweh’s favor, the eternal jubilee year of release from all debts. This is the pleasant time when He accepts you. This Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. There is good news for the poor, freedom for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the broken and oppressed. But is it still true today? Perhaps the year of the Lord’s favor is over; maybe it was only a year, or only the years of Jesus’ life, or only the years of the generation of the Apostles. Maybe it was something that only happened a long time ago. What evidence do we have that the Lord is in our midst, that He is fulfilling His Word here and now, that this is the time of His acceptance of sinners?
The people in the synagogue in Nazareth—people who knew Jesus well, who knew Him from childhood, who knew His father Joseph—those people were listening with rapt attention, focused completely on Jesus as He finished the reading from the prophet Isaiah and sat down to teach them. But He didn’t teach them, or at least He didn’t teach them the way they were usually taught. He didn’t give just another interpretation of Isaiah’s words. He said, “Isaiah said these things, and you are watching them unfold before your eyes.” It’s not deeper meaning or better understanding that Jesus gives them. He doesn’t compare and contrast what previous rabbis or teachers had said. Jesus begins His teaching with the words: Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your ears.
So far, so good. They marveled at His gracious words. And their surprise is due to the fact that they knew Him. They knew He was Joseph’s son; certainly they would have known if He had shown this kind of promise in school. But Jesus reads their thoughts: you’ve heard that in Capernaum I healed the paralytic and the official’s son, and now you will certainly say, “Physician, heal yourself;” that is, heal what belongs to you, what is close to you. What good is a doctor who can only heal those who are far away? It’s like the small towns from which famous people come: they put up signs, “this is the birth place of so-and-so,” they earn tourist dollars based on the fact that they knew some celebrity way back when. The report of Jesus has spread far and wide, and now Nazareth wants its share of what Jesus is doing. But Jesus says that no prophet is acceptable or received in his hometown. (Maybe that’s why they don’t send new pastors back to their hometowns…) The prophet Elijah was forced by Jezebel and Ahab to leave his own people, forced to hide out, forced into exile because of the idolatry of Israel. And after he puts to death the false prophets of Baal, Jezebel pursues him until he despairs of life and tells God to kill him. So Elijah wasn’t sent to any of the widows of Israel, but to a widow of Sidon—which, ironically, was where his enemy Jezebel was from. And the prophet Elisha faced the same idolatry, the same faithlessness. Yet he healed Naaman the Syrian, who was sent to him by the king of Israel. The point is that those prophets were not welcomed by their own people, so their miracles took place elsewhere and for others.
The people of Nazareth hear this and they simply prove that Jesus is telling the truth when, in their anger, they try to throw Him off a cliff. Strange, isn’t it? Jesus comes bringing the eternal favor of God to the earth, and when He tries to heal His own, they reject Him. He brings the acceptable year of the Lord, and they do not accept Him. If all you want is for Jesus to heal your body, and you refuse Him as God’s favor in the flesh, you prove yourself to be the descendants of Jezebel and Ahab, of the people of Nazareth, and of every attempt to have Jesus in some other way than the way He chooses to be with you. If you want a Jesus other than the one who goes to the cross, then you will be like those Samaritans who did not receive Him, because He set His face toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:53). If we will not have Him, He will go elsewhere and to others. Lord, have mercy on us and stay with us, as faithless as we have been!
In the end, for the Nazarenes and for us, there’s only one Gift of God: Jesus Himself. He doesn’t just bring gifts to men; He is the gift given to be received by all. What happened to Elijah and Elisha, and what they did, were just hints at what would happen to Jesus and what He would do. When Elijah raises the widow’s son from the dead, she says to him, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24). And after Elisha’s death, another dead man is thrown upon the bones in his grave, and comes back to life again. Jesus did not despair of His life as Elijah did, but He despaired of any life but the life of God. Like Elijah, He was pursued by the religious idolaters all the way to the cross. He raises the dead, but not everyone at that time, and not everyone in Israel. When He does heal or raise someone from the dead, He does it as a sign of who He is, to draw from our mouths the confession of the widow at Zarephath: You are the Man of God, and Your Word is Truth, because You are the Truth. Like Naaman, baptized in the Jordan when he took Elisha’s word by faith, you have been cleansed, believing the Word of Jesus. And when you, dead man, are thrown into the grave of Jesus at your baptism, you spring to life again—not because you touch His bones, but because you are buried and raised with Him who was buried and raised.
Strangely, the beauty of Jesus, God’s favor in the flesh, becomes ugliness to those who are perishing. They see only death, and no life. But equally mysterious is that to those who are being saved, the ugliness of the cross is the beauty of our release from sin and death. There is nothing but life that flows from the cross, and it is that life that is present here, where our Lord speaks to us. The bright beacon of Jesus’ healing word shines brightly here, and wherever His Word is purely preached and His sacraments given out according to that Word. There will always be the Nazarenes who reject and try to kill the only One who can heal them. But there will also be widows and lepers, the poor who know they need more than money, the broken in body, mind, and soul, the captives in exile, and those imprisoned by debts they can never repay. For them, for you, the jubilee of release and freedom and Good News has come. Because neither the “today,” nor the “acceptable” year are limited to that day or that year when Jesus first appeared. Today, in our home town, we hear the words of Paul, who preaches the present and saving Jesus: “Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (1 Corinthians 6:2).
Now, and today. For us, and for the whole world, time has been transformed. It is no longer made up of yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows; it is, for now, a single, gracious “Today”: by His death and resurrection, Jesus has broken open the unbreakable and irreversible march of time toward death and hell; at the cross, the “then” of judgment and condemnation became the “now” of salvation. Pray that He would gather all His own to Himself. “Thus says the Lord [to His people in Christ]: ‘In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages, saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear’” (Isaiah 49:8). Now, today, In His acceptable time, He has accepted you in Christ, the favored One. Rejoice, and do not grieve: the joy of the Lord has appeared, and He is your strength and life.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/22/16