by Chris Ritter
Last week we looked at Jesus’ battle with Satan in the wilderness following his baptism. The first thing that happened after God declared Jesus to be his beloved Son was an extended season of spiritual warfare and temptation. Calling and conflict go hand-in-hand. Ministry is not meant to be easy.
This is why we need to pray for people who are answering the call to ministry for the first time. I love to see people start small groups, join a ministry, take a leadership role, or answer the call to full-time ministry. But almost without variation, the first thing that is going to happen is a season of spiritual attack. It might show up in their marriage, their business, their health, or their friendships. If Satan can, he will blow them out of the water before they even get their feet wet. He tried it with Jesus. And he will try it with you.
Satan never really gives up. Luke 4 tells us that he left Jesus “until a more opportune time.”
The enemy just switches from a short game to a long game. If he can’t win through an intense time of temptation or persecution, he will gradually work to shape your attitudes in the wrong direction.
There is always part of us that wants to believe that the Christian life, if lived correctly, should be easy. And Jesus did say, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” But he also said “In this world you will have trouble.” (You just don’t see that verse printed on a lot of throw pillows.) But Jesus always adds Good News to the bad news: “Do not fear, I have overcome the world.”
Let’s not make an idol out of easy. Following Jesus is not easy. I have been reminded of C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Screwtape Letters. It is really a book about the Christian life, but it is written in the voice of an experienced demon, Screwtape, writing to his younger, less experienced nephew, Wormwood. One of my favorite quotes:
“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Disciples of Jesus will always be swimming upstream. Just because life is easy, that is no sign you are headed in the right direction. Just because life is hard, that is no sign you are headed in the wrong direction. Jesus did everything right, yet he faced tremendous persecution.
At times, Jesus was popular. At other times, Jesus was extremely unpopular. Through it all, Jesus was still Jesus. He was not operating out of a pursuit of success. He was operating out of a pursuit of faithfulness. His motivation was in his purpose, and he knew he must leave the results to his Heavenly Father.
As we look at “Good Beginnings” I want to encourage you to visualize faithfulness, leaving the results to God. In today’s passage from Luke, Jesus first recorded sermon will end in his attempted homicide by his own hometown. If I had to give a title to this message, it would be “That Escalated Quickly.” Let’s read:
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:Luke 4:16-30 (NIV)
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
The Gospel of Luke is the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism. He is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. In verse 14 we learn that Jesus came out of the wilderness in the power of the Holy Spirit and began to minister throughout Galilee. Jesus’ home base at this time was Capernaum. Some of us visited there in 2016 and saw the magnificent excavation of the synagogue and the location believed to be Peter’s house. Jesus spent an undetermined amount of time preaching throughout the region and building a reputation as a remarkable rabbi and miracle worker.
These were times of heightened anticipation. The ministry of John the Baptist had triggered something of a grass-roots national revival. Messianic expectations were surging. In this environment Jesus travels to his home town of Nazareth. “As was his custom” he visited the synagogue on the Sabbath day and was greeted as both a hometown boy and a visiting rabbi.
Our church is blessed to have young people that go into the ministry. We love it when the come back home to visit and preach to us. There is a script for how these things are supposed to go. They tell us how wonderful we are and how much they learned from us. Then they proceed to show us how much more they have learned.
Jesus stood up to read the scriptures. The scroll of the Prophet Isaiah was handed to him. They didn’t have the Bible in book (codex) form back then. They had a collection of scrolls. Still today, these scrolls are the prized possession of any synagogue. They are hand copied, ornate, and very expensive to produce. If you go to worship with your Jewish friends (which I recommend), you will notice an elaborate cabinet where these are kept and from which the large scrolls are ceremoniously brought out.
Jesus chooses the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and turns to the passage we know as Isaiah 61:1:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,Isaiah 61 (NIV)
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
Everyone in the synagogue would have recognized this passage as a key Messianic text. “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me” is the very definition of “messiah.” In Greek, the word is Christos… Christ. Isaiah is referencing the Anointed One and his ministry.
It is interesting that Jesus stops his reading with “the year of the Lord’s favor” and does not go on to read “the day of vengeance of our God.” It is not that Jesus did not believe in divine judgement. He will certainly later preach on that subject at length. But his ministry would be an extension of God’s favor, not an extension of God’s wrath.
In the minds of First Century Palestine, the “Day of the Lord” had a two-fold purpose. It was a day of consolation for Israel and a day of judgment for everyone else. God’s favor for us… God’s wrath for them. That is what Messiah was supposed to produce: Good stuff for us, bad stuff to our enemies. Jesus interrupts that understanding. His coming would open up a season of Grace and Favor. It is only after this season that God’s judgement would come. And his favor would be wider and greater than they could imagine.
Isaiah 61 is, after all, about the compassionate ministry of the Messiah. He will preach Good New to the poor. The anointing is on Messiah to preach and teach God’s Word in a way that will lift up the lowly. He will emancipate the prisoners. He will grant recovery of sight to the blind. The bullied and oppressed will be liberated.
“The year of the Lord’s favor” is a reference to Jubilee. In the Law of Moses, the 50th year was designed to be a time when slaved were released, debts discharged, and family farms returned to their original owners. Those things that were wrong would be set right.
When Jesus finished reading, he sat down. In that context, the rabbi was expected to sit down in order to expound upon the text. Today preachers stand up to preach. Back then, they sat down to teach. The sermon Jesus gives is the shortest on record: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
At this point, Jesus has raised their eyebrows, not their blood pressure. They marveled at his words. They whispered to one another, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” The skeptical spirit in the room was in stark contrast to the reception he received throughout the rest of Galilee. There was no faith in the room… no openness to the Spirit. We learn elsewhere that Jesus “could do no great miracles” in Nazareth because of their lack of faith. The primary barrier to the Gospel is self-protective unbelief and Nazareth was overrun by it.
In response to their lack of faith, Jesus would quote a proverb. “No prophet is received in his own hometown.” The hardest place to preach is among those who think they know everything they need to know from you or about you. Jesus said, “You will quote to me the proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.'” Jesus seems to be referencing their desire to see the healing miracles he performed in Capernaum without them having the corresponding faith that those in Capernaum displayed. There can be no open heaven over closed hearts.
Things are going downhill in Nazareth, but the congregation was not yet a murderous mob. It was what Jesus said next that really threw them into a rage. Jesus would quickly reference two Old Testament stories about prophets.
The first reference is to Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. God used Elijah to proclaim a drought over all of Israel in response to the wickedness of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. As a result, Elijah become a hunted man. God hid him by the Kidron brook and caused ravens to bring him bread. When the brook dried up, God sent Elijah to the neighboring country of Sidon to be provided for. He found a little widow picking up sticks. She shared that she was making a small fire to bake the very last of her flour and oil into two small cakes for herself and her son. Then they would starve to death. Elijah instructed the woman to make something for him first. A big ask! Well, she did it. And still there was enough for he and her son. The same thing happened day after day. The Gentile widow received a blessing by receiving this Jewish prophet.
Jesus told the people of Nazareth: “There were many widows in Israel. But Elijah was sent to none of them. Instead, he was sent to Sidon.”
The other reference is to the Prophet Elisha who followed after Elijah. During his ministry, a Syrian general came looking for him seeking healing. Naaman had wealth and power… but he also had leprosy. His slave girl was a captive from Israel and knew Elisha’s reputation of a worker of wonders. Naaman travelled in desperation to find this Jewish prophet. Elisha did not even come out to meet Naaman. Instead, he sent word that he should jump in the Jordan River seven times and he would be healed. Naaman was offended. He was expecting to pay money to have some sort of incantation spoken over him. If he wanted to jump in a river, there were cleaner rivers back home in Syria. He started back for home in a huff.
Naaman’s servant begged his master to reconsider. If the prophet had commanded him to perform some difficult task or pay an elaborate sum, he would have done it. They had come this far. Why not jump in the Jordan River? What could it hurt? Naaman put his dignity aside and plopped himself in the waters of the Jordan seven times. On the seventh time, he came up healed.
In both these stories, Gentile outsiders get the blessing because they responded in faith and obedience. In the Gospel that Jesus would bring, everyone regardless of lineage or religious background would be eligible for salvation. They only need to respond in faith and obedience… they very thing the folks from Nazareth refused to do.
This is when they dragged Jesus out of the synagogue and took him to a cliff to throw him off. But this was neither the time nor the place for Jesus to die. He walked away from them.
Remember the expectations for Messiah: Blessings for us, curses for them. Israel misunderstood its mission in the great plan of God. God told Abraham:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.Genesis 12
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
Israel accepted the part about being specially blessed and chosen. But they forget the big picture. God wanted to bless the entire world through them. They were blessed… to be a blessing. We, too, miss God’s best for us when we forget that God wants us to be conduits of his blessings, not just recipients of his blessings.
There is a lot of talk lately about Nationalism. For the Christian, nationalism will always miss the mark. We love our nation. We pray for our nation. But our ultimate allegiance cannot belong to our nation. The Gospel is a universal message. Our mission is a global mission. Our true citizenship is in heaven.
As we study the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we are teasing out some principles for making our own good beginnings as we approach a new year and a new season.
First, Jesus came for our bad news, bound hearts, and broken places. To call Jesus our Messiah is to admit our own brokenness and need for salvation. The ministry of Jesus is a ministry of compassion, restoration, and liberation. The same Spirit God the Father poured upon Jesus can be poured upon us for fresh starts, renewed power, and Gospel freedom. Being flawed, bound, and broken does not disqualify us. It actually qualifies us for the new life Jesus offers.
Second, the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Ministry. Jesus said the Spirit was upon him to proclaim, heal, and liberate. Just like Jesus, our purpose is to be found in helping others. Sometimes we are tempted to see the Holy Spirit’s purpose as producing a certain feeling or peacefulness inside of us. The Holy Spirit certainly does that. But the ultimate purpose of the Holy Spirit is to enable us to bless others. Instead of praying “bless me,” we are empowered to pray, “bless through me.” This is a big key to living abundantly. The best way to make your life better is to make someone else’s life better.
Third, God’s love is bigger than we can imagine. Jesus came into conflict with the folks in Nazareth because they saw the role of Messiah as exclusively for their own benefit, and for the destruction of everyone else. Jesus, however, is a Messiah without Borders. There is no one outside his capacity to heal and save. Just think of the people you might be tempted to consider hopeless. They are not hopeless… because Jesus’ saving power is enough for them.
Luke places Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth as something of an inaugural address… a manifesto, if you will. Jesus’ mention of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian prefigures the universal mission of the church that would become evident in Luke’s sequel book, the Acts of the Apostles.
Consider Peter who was napping on a rooftop. The belief at that time was that Christianity was only for Jewish people. If a Gentile wanted to become a Christian, they had to become Jewish first. As Peter napped and waited to be called for supper, a vision came to him of a great sheet being let down from heaven. It was full of all sorts of non-kosher animals. I imagine pork chops, shrimp on the skewer, lobster tails, and bacon cheeseburgers. God’s voice said, “Arise and eat.” Peter’s response was “never!” He would never eat such unclean things. But God spoke: “What I have called clean, do not call unclean.”
Just then, some people from the household of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius came to find him. This Gentile had a dream of a man named Peter with the message of eternal life. The request was that Peter come to his home and share this message with his whole family. Accepting this invitation would require Peter to do something he never had done in his lifetime: enter the home of a Gentile. As he stepped across the threshold, he made these comments:
34 “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.Acts 10 (NIV)
Peter would recall those early days of Jesus’ ministry and how they set the stage for a mission bigger than he could have dreamed.
The final lesson I see about Good Beginnings is that opposition and hardship does not mean you are on the wrong path. Jesus was rejected and followers of Jesus can expect the same treatment. Jesus’ first recorded sermon did not go well by human standards, but failure is never final.
In his youth, Abraham Lincoln went to war a captain and returned a private. He started many failed businesses, went bankrupt twice, and lost twenty-six campaigns for public office. When Fred Astaire got his first screen test with MGM, the evaluation read like this: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Not handsome. Can dance a little.” He eventually would keep that note in his home in Beverly Hills to remind him of his rocky start. Stephen King’s first manuscript, Carrie, was rejected by thirty publishers. He grew tired of the rejection and threw his work in the trash. His wife fished it out and encouraged him to resubmit it. He is one of the best-selling authors of all time.
Jesus’ example teaches us to expect the occasional uphill battle, setback, and rejection. As we continue into the new season and new year God has given us, I hope we recommit to following our Messiah Jesus wherever he leads us. He still has a mission of healing, restoration, and spiritual freedom. The Spirit God put on him is now upon everyone who follows after him.
Lord Jesus, may we follow you without reservation and without the expectation of earthly success. Put your Spirit upon us that we may proclaim the Good News, bind up the broken-hearted, and declare your grace and favor in our divided world. In your holy name, Amen.