Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Bringer of Good News (Luke 4: 16-30)

I know you will be inspired by this message from my father, the Rev. Dr. William Craig, who challenges us to claim for ourselves, and to bring to others, the breathtaking goodness of the gospel which Jesus declared in his first public sermon... 
One day, a very winsome and charismatic young man returned to his home town, after some amazing experiences in other parts of the country.  He was welcomed home like a celebrity and the initial reports were full of praise.  In his travels he would teach in the local synagogues and this particular day was the Sabbath in his home town of Nazareth, so he went to the synagogue as usual.  And people flocked to church to hear him.  They were eager to listen to what he had to say because rumor had it that God’s Spirit was upon him.  But, of course, this being his home town, everyone knew that he was just the eldest son of Joseph the carpenter and his wife, Mary.
            Luke, the meticulous historian, writes that wherever he had ministered, Jesus “was praised by everyone.”  Read with me, beginning with vs. 16:
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;
                        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.”
            Who wouldn’t want that kind of good news?    These were marvelous words of prophecy that were penned hundreds of years before…words that promised liberty and deliverance for God’s people who had been dominated and oppressed by one super power after another.  Or, at least, that’s how they interpreted Isaiah’s words.  Let me remind you how these prophetic words came to be applied to people like most of us here today who do not have a Jewish background, for -- This was Good News for the World!

I. Good News for the World
            What happened that day was a turning point for that congregation and for the world – not only because of what Jesus said, but because of what he didn’t say…what he omitted.  The quotation from Isaiah which Jesus read ends with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  But when we actually turn to that quotation in Isaiah 61, we read “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (Is. 61:2).  People of that day longed for God’s messiah who would come one day to exact vengeance on Israel’s enemies.  And this young upstart dared leave out the very part of the prophecy they expected to hear and longed for God to fulfill.  Luke continues: 
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The custom of that day was for a rabbi to stand to read Scripture, then to sit down when he began his message.  Luke continues:  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 
            They stared at him, and Luke says that at first, All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  But the more the meaning of what Jesus said and didn’t say sunk in, they quit speaking well.  They were stunned at the implications.  And for Jesus to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” meant that he himself had come to extend God’s grace to Israel’s enemies and to open the flood gates of God’s love upon the whole world.  Any first impressions that were favorable soon turned hostile -- especially as Jesus went on to explain and to make crystal clear what he meant.  Beginning at verse 25:
            Jesus said: But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.  There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.
            It’s right here in the Scriptures, Jesus was saying.  Many years before, during the ministry of the prophets – Elijah and his successor Elisha – God graciously and mercifully ministered to the needs of non-Israelites.  One was a widow who lived in Sidon during a time of severe famine, and the other was Naaman, commander of the Syrian army, who suffered from leprosy, whom God healed.  Now, Jesus was saying:  “I have come to fulfill this promised outpouring of God’s grace upon, not just a few, but upon the whole world.  In the power of the Holy Spirit you are going to see the good news proclaimed world-wide!”  Good News for the World, and secondly, Good News that Transforms! 

II.            Good News that Transforms
            What if Jesus misspoke?  What if he was mistaken, misguided?  What if he hadn’t meant business that day in Nazareth?  Where would you and I be today?  Think of the way our Lord came, not only to deal with our sin problem, but also to make us whole persons.  No matter who we are today, we know what it means to be “poor” or lacking in some way….to be brokenhearted over something or someone.  We know what it means to be captive to the hurtful, painful memories of the past and the limited expectations we have for our futures.  As spiritual as we may think ourselves to be we are still so blind to our true position and place and potential in Christ.  We truly need to be set free, because we know that it means to be oppressed in some way from something we’ve brought upon ourselves, or by someone else.  But, by the grace of God, the more whole we become, the more God can use us as instruments of his healing to those around us.  Last Sunday, I asked you to remember your true address.  Today, we praise God that Jesus is not only in the transportation business, but also in the business of transformation, and each of us can look back and praise God that even if we have a long way yet to go, we can see by the grace of God how far we’ve come and how much we’ve grown.
            Continuing at vs. 28:  When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
            It was not yet his time, and he did not allow them to push him over the cliff.  But the time did come, when he allowed them to do their worst to him.  Picture in your mind the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus wrestled with the human drive for self-preservation and the higher way of obedience to God’s will, and he allowed himself to be betrayed to his enemies.  Picture a hill outside of Jerusalem where he willingly hung on a Roman cross for our sins. That sounds so weak.  We live in a day of terrorist cells, drone strikes and cyber warfare, when even individual citizens claim the right to own and use military style weapons.  How could such an act, not of self-preservation but of self-sacrifice, have any power?  What about the way of Jesus?
            I remember what Ernest Gordon shared one time, when he was chaplain of Princeton University, and told how he found Christ during the Second World War in the infamous Japanese prisoner-of-war camp by the River Kwai.  He was exhausted from months of labor on a starvation diet, and lay dying of a dozen tropical diseases.  His buddies gave him up to die and moved him into the death house at one end of the camp.
            But a Christian boy from his company volunteered to help him and to look after his needs.  His offer surprised Gordon, for it was so different from the “dog-eat-dog” attitude of so many.  Slowly Ernest Gordon was nursed back to strength, encouraged by the faith and determination of a young man who believed that God has a purpose for life which even the horrors of a death camp can’t erase.  Can the compassion of just one person actually make a difference in this world?  The compassion of that one young man led to the conversion of Gordon and a whole group of others.  The life of the entire camp was transformed as men regained the will to live.  They began making medicine from jungle plants, started a make-shift university, a library, an orchestra, and built a church.
            Wherever the Spirit of the Lord is at work in a life—whether in a prison camp in the middle of a jungle, or in the factories, schools, offices and homes and hospitals of our civilized jungles – there is the power of God to transform lives.  Last week, Polly got a call from a twenty-year-old she has known for years, who now lives out of state and in her first year of nurses’ training.  She is a perfectionist and is a wonderful, insightful, caring young woman, but she struggles with anorexia.  My Polly has a very special ministry of encouragement with her.  They talk by phone nearly every week, and my dear wife prays for her and encourages her in such a beautiful way. 
            Last Thursday she called to tell Polly about her instructor who is a Christian and noticed that she was struggling with one particular assignment.  The teacher met with her and listened to her story, and assured her that she was available to meet with her regularly if needed.  Right there, that nurse and professor who is also a Christian asked her if she could pray for her.  And this is beyond human understanding, but she is eating better, and we see her becoming more and more the whole person God intends for her to be.  For the first time, this young friend said, “I’ve gained ten pounds and it scares me, but food tastes so good to me now.” 
            She said that she and her instructor talked for quite a while, and the teacher shared with her about the time she was the nurse in charge of patients on a particular hospital floor late one night, when one patient started calling:  “Help me.  Help me.  Somebody help me.”  She went to his room and asked, “What’s the matter?”  “Help me,” he said again.  “You’ll need to tell me what’s wrong, so that I can help you,” she replied.  “I’m dying; I’m dying,” he said, “And I don’t know where I’m going.”  There was no hospital chaplain on duty.  “I’m a Christian,” she said, “May I pray with you?”  “Yes,” he answered.  And she prayed, placing him in the arms of Jesus.  A tear rolled down his cheek, and with a look of peace on his face, he quietly slipped away. 

III. Good News that Transforms the World
            There is transforming power in the Lord Jesus Christ, enough power, friends to transform the world!  Last Sunday I told you the story of Abu-Jaz, the young Muslim husband who met Jesus as the result of a miracle of multiplying macaroni, and has become a leader and teacher among Muslim background believers.  About half of these new believers come because of a dream or vision of Jesus, and step by step the Holy Spirit is transforming their lives, but don’t expect all of them to look like you or me.  You and I are culturally Western, and Muslims think that Christianity in the West is the same as Western culture.  They don’t know that we believers are as distressed as they are over the oppressive, immoral, promiscuous, self-indulgent and materialistic style of life that characterizes so much of our western culture.
            John 3:16 is a favorite scripture:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  And the next verse:  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him.”
Who would have believed that the Savior of the world could be reaching out to those we consider to be our enemies?  The leading authority on Islam in the U.S. is Dr. Dudley Woodberry of Fuller Seminary, who told me last week that the fastest growing Christian movement today is in – Iran!  There, and in other Muslim countries, it is happening quietly and gradually, like yeast that slowly leavens the whole lump.  Join me in praying for the Islamic world, won’t you?  Pray that God’s redemptive purpose will be fulfilled in ways beyond our imagining, ways that will be signs of hope as Christianity declines and loses influence in the West.  “Father, in the name of Jesus we pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in those countries, and also in our own.  “We are in desperate need, Gracious God.”
            Was it about 25 years ago that, after 70 years of Marxist oppression of religion in Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that there is transforming power in Jesus Christ.  He admitted two things:  that (1) Communists had been wrong to persecute religion, and (2) that the powerful moral force of religion was essential to the success of perestroika.  Is what he said any less true of what is needed in modern day America and the entire western world?  We miss the meaning of what God is doing today if we do not apply it to our own country and to our own lives.
            Claim who you are in Christ!  Every member of this congregation is commissioned by Jesus as a minister!  You are not powerless!  You have his compassion!  He has commissioned you and His Spirit guides you to bring good news to some in your own family and to others around you.  You have the power and ability to care and to do for them what that Christian soldier did for Ernest Gordon that transformed an entire prison camp.  You can counsel and pray for a young girl who is struggling and needs your support.  You can be the chaplain who prays for a dying man and helps Jesus usher him into the very presence of God.  You can offer hospitality to your Muslim or some other neighbor who needs to know the Savior who has conquered death, and forgives sin and gives the quality of life that is abundant and eternal.  Beloved, the Risen Christ says:  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you!”
            “The Spirit of the Lord is upon you;
                                    because I have anointed you
                                        to bring good news to the poor.
                        I send you 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.”
“Let it be, Lord!  Make it so, for your glory and in your name!  Amen!”

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