a sermon on Isaiah 43:1-13 and Luke 4:14-21
preached on July 3, 2016, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
As we celebrate Independence Day tomorrow, there are many official proclamations floating around. Elected officials at every level use holidays like this one to affirm their support for the American experiment, claim that they are following in the line of our forebears, often more faithfully than their opponents, and remember the contributions of the military in getting us through the last 240 years as a nation.
But today we turn to a different kind of proclamation in the church: “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.” These are the words of the first Great End of the Church, one of a series of six statements of the mission and purpose of the church first adopted by the United Presbyterian Church in North America in 1910 and lifted up with greater understanding and purpose over the last thirty years or so as we have lived into our identity as a reunited denomination after the reunion of the northern and southern branches of Presbyterians in 1983 following over 120 years of separation. We will spend the next few weeks looking at these Great Ends of the Church, celebrating the gifts that these words bring us as we live together in this congregation and beyond and looking afresh at the mission of God that these words call us to do as we live these words out in our life together.
Proclamation is an integral part of what we do as God’s people. In our Presbyterian tradition, we have lifted this proclamation up with particular importance. Each Sunday, our worship is centered around the proclamation of the word, usually (but not always) in a sermon like what you are hearing now. This time of proclamation is so important that we place it right in the middle, recognizing that everything that we do in worship leads up to or follows from this point. Even so, the sermon is only the beginning of our proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind—we proclaim the gospel in our everyday words and deeds, showing God’s love, mercy, and peace as we live in God’s world and act with kindness and grace toward all creation.
But what is this gospel that we proclaim? What exactly is the gospel, the “good news” that we can offer the world? What is the salvation that we lift up for the world to embrace? Our reading this morning from the gospel of Luke gives us some helpful insights into a biblical and faithful understanding of these questions. In this reading, we hear about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, about the first chance he had to proclaim his ministry in his hometown. After making his way through the other nearby towns, he arrived back home in Nazareth and “went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.” When Jesus stood up to read, he found this passage in the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and used it to proclaim what he understood as the core of his message. Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson paraphrases those words from Isaiah that Jesus quoted this way:
God’s Spirit is on me;
[God has] chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
sent me to announce pardon to prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set the burdened and battered free,
to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”
This was a radical proclamation. The world was not all that favorable to such a message, after all. Such a day of peace, justice, and blessing stood in stark contrast to the carefully constructed way of Rome that insisted on putting the poor in their place and increasing the oppression of the oppressed. You’d have to be crazy to live in such a way. Everyone knew that Rome would quickly suppress any attempts to claim real power and control for anyone other than the emperor.
But even after this radical threat to the superiority of the emperor through a recognition that there was something greater than the way of Rome, Jesus kept on going. After reading these words, he began his interpretation of them with an even more radical claim:
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Not only would God send God’s Spirit upon someone, sometime, that person was Jesus himself, and that time was then and there. This made Jesus’ proclamation all the more astounding. Luke continues the story after our reading today, indicating that Jesus’ words so bothered the people of his hometown that they chased him to the edge of a cliff!
But the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind is equally challenging for us today. Our world is not particularly interested in hearing good news for the poor, release for the captives, or freedom for the oppressed. More often than not, the systems and structures of our world are set up to shut down such news, to suppress this good news by claiming that it is a bad thing to name the powers that are destroying us, to insist that we should keep our focus on the spiritual life and not worry about its implications on everything else. We lift up the voices of hate and hurt, the continual rush of violence all around the world, and the little acts of oppression that make their way insidiously into our lives. Anyone who speaks up to offer “good news” today that goes beyond hope for something in a world still yet to come is so very unlikely to be heard above the din of the world.
Even so, as God’s church, we are still called to offer “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind,” not because our words themselves will bring the salvation that we so desperately need, not because we expect or even demand a positive response to what we share, but because the world may need nothing more than simply to hear the good news of this gospel, this hope that there is something more beyond the uncertainty of our weary world, this promise that God has not forgotten us and is not done with us yet.
The church has traditionally called this work of proclamation “evangelism.” Evangelism can be a difficult word for many of us. For some, it conjures up images of forced conversations with strangers, bad street preaching, and even threats of eternal damnation. I know plenty of people who have ended up in the Presbyterian church because they don’t want to be a part of such things!
But the evangelism that comes in this proclamation for today is not so much about these things as it is about living out our faith in our everyday lives, about making it clear to all those we meet along the way that we carry good news and live it as best we know how. We let our words and actions bear witness to the saving love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. We recognize that the wonder of this gift is so great that we cannot hold it in or keep it just for ourselves. And we are so filled with the gratitude and joy that emerge from the depth of grace that we have received that we must invite others to join us on this journey of thanksgiving and hope.
In the midst of our broken and fearful world, we offer good news as we proclaim with boldness the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
In our world filled with so much need, we can join our words and actions with Jesus to “bring good news to the poor… 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.” And in a world so filled with the glory of God, we can join with heaven’s song of alleluia so that we are united in love and witness to God each and every day.
May God so strengthen us as we offer this proclamation of this gospel for today, that our world might know the wonder and joy that we share together here so that it can join in this song of grace and hope. Thanks be to God! Amen.