As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Good News Is Bad News Is Good News, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday January 27, 2019. The Reading was Luke 4:14-21.
Back Handed Compliments
The English language is a wonderful thing isn’t it? Our words have so many different meanings, all depending on where we place the emphasis. When my mum was working with refugees, helping other people to teach them to learn English, she would use the example of this sentence to show how difficult our language was, as this sentence can have different meanings all depending on where we place the emphasis.
Do I know Elvis Presley? Do I know Elvis Presley? Do I know Elvis Presley? Do I Know Elvis Presley? Do I know Elvis Presley? Do I know Elvis Presley?
Another example of this is the concept of backhanded compliments. Have you had one of those before? Where at first glance the words you’re being told seem good natured and are complimentary towards you, but by either the tone of the voice, or the words that are ommitted, it actually turns it into an insult.
“You look so beautiful today” – a wonderful compliment. But when the emphasis is placed on today – “You look so beautiful, today” then the implication is that you don’t look beautiful every other day.
Or calling out to someone that they’re the smartest person in the room. When they’ve just walked into a room by themselves.
Or maybe you’re trying to grow a beard and someone says “Well, it’s, different.” Implying that they’re not certain about the beard and thought I… I mean, this hypothetical person looked better without it.
Good news is bad news
Our language is so emotive, and when written down, we often lose a lot of that emotion. Sometimes we fail to see what is hidden behind the language. And that’s a bit of what is happening in this reading today. On the surface, there is nothing offensive about the reading. It’s a good reading. And yet, people got offended. If you read on in the story, you’ll see that they were so filled with rage, they were looking to throw him off a cliff. But why?
You see, some of what Jesus is saying is a bit like a backhanded compliment. Maybe a backhanded prophesy perhaps? Because while what Jesus is preaching seems like good news, it’s often not good news for the people who were there.
The Synagogue – much like many churches – was a social setting. And those with higher social standings were more likely to be up the front, where they could be seen. Liesl talked last week about how the offering was an open plate, where people could see how much you gave. In Matthew 23, Jesus criticises the scribes and the Pharisees, saying “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make there phylacteries broad” (that is, prayer boxes attached to their head. A bigger prayer box obviously means you’re more faithful than someone with a small prayer box) “and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.” So these are the people that were more likely to be in the Synagogue that Jesus was speaking at.
Who wouldn’t be at the synagogue? The poor. The captive. The blind. The oppressed. And who is Jesus proclaiming good news about? Them. Who is Jesus proclaiming that Good news to? Not them.
You see, for the people in the Synagogue, Jesus’ reading wouldn’t necessarily have been good news. For it to be fulfilled – as Jesus was claiming – would mean an entire upheaval of their society. The “year of the Lord’s favour” that Jesus speaks of alludes to the Levitical concept of the Jubilee year. That is, every 50 years was to be hallowed, and property was to be returned, and slaves were to be free. Great news for those that had run into difficulties. Bad news for those that had built up property and power. Hence, there’s little evidence that this concept was ever actually followed.
For the people in the synagogue, this good news was actually bad news. It doesn’t seem it on the surface, and at first hearing they probably thought it was a great teaching, and as we read “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”. But as they thought more about it, they realised that this good news, wasn’t good news for them.
We can live out Jesus’ tri-part faith
And the reality is that for most of us who are here on a Sunday morning – whether we’re in this church, or watching online, is that this good news isn’t directed at us. We aren’t the poor. We aren’t the captive. We aren’t the blind. We aren’t the oppressed. Therefore, if this scripture is going to be fulfilled, we have to accept that it will involve some change to our lives.
If we are going to see the poor lifted up, the homeless being housed, then we are going to have to accept that we will have to give – either through charitable giving or through taxes – to make it happen. If we are going to see the captive asylum seekers freed, then we are going to have to accept that they will need time to adjust to Australian life, that they will need some extra supports to recover from the trauma they have been through. If we are going to address the disadvantage that our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters face every day, then we are going to have to accept that it will mean some changes to our society, and that we will have to accept our role in placing them in that disadvantage.
And that’s not easy for us to do. Thankfully, we have a model in how we can do that. Jesus shows us the way forward. There are three things that Jesus does in this reading that I want to highlight for us today.
First, Jesus is “filled with the power of the Spirit”. We know that Jesus is God. But Jesus was also connected to God. We see him being filled with the spirit. We see him removing himself to pray to God. Even in the garden, before his crucifixion, Jesus is pleading, asking that the cup be taken away from him, and waiting to hear God’s response, saying “Not my will, but yours” – showing that he is willing to go with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We need to be connected to the spirit, removing ourselves regularly to pray and listen to what the spirit is telling us – as what the spirit tells us is what God tells us. One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Second, Jesus is strongly based on scripture. He bases his teaching on scripture and knows it well. He is also willing to draw on the wider canon of scripture. You see, Jesus is reading from the scroll of Isaiah. He most likely seeks out what we call chapter 61. Yet, this doesn’t paint a full enough picture for what he is intending to say. So he includes a line from chapter 58 as well, which declares this as the type of fast – or type of worship – that God desires. Jesus is well versed on scripture, and doesn’t just select single verses, but uses the breadth of scripture to inform him. In a similar manner, we must be well versed on scripture – and not just the single verses, the memory verses that we so often take out of context. No, we need to be willing to see the wider themes that are pervasive throughout scripture.
Finally, we need to be willing to accept that this upside-down kingdom that Jesus teaches, this kingdom where there is social justice for all, is a kingdom that we are willing to accept, and is a kingdom that we want to work to bring about here on earth – as it is in heaven. We need to accept that we are in a position of power and privilege, and that we are willing to give up that power and privilege in order to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, to let the blind see, and the oppressed go free.
These three things go hand in hand. We can’t be focussed on social justice if we are not built on the foundation of scripture and guided by the spirit. We can’t read scripture and be guided by the spirit and not want to see social justice for all. We cannot seek out social justice, being guided by the spirit, if we are not being fuelled by the word of God. Just like the trinity – three in one, one in three – these three elements are indivisible. We need all of them working together in unity.
Good news is bad news is good news
And so this Good news, which is bad news, is actually good news. For if we are willing to sacrifice our power and privilege to bring about this social justice, we will see God’s Kingdom brought down to earth, as it is in Heaven. It won’t be easy – we can’t just say it and have it be done. Instead, this will need to be “graciously given and practically hard-won”. Graciously given by those seeking to live out Christ’s teachings, and practically hard-won from those unwilling to hear.
But we have hope. As you know I’m a bit of a sci fi fan. I love my Star Trek, and I love Star Wars. In one of the recent movies, Rogue One, the Rebellion is holding a meeting, discussing what path they are to take. One character, Jyn Erso, puts forward a plan of action that would see them attacking an Imperial installation. She is questioned, with one character asking “You are asking us to attack an imperial installation based on nothing but hope.” She responds “Rebellions are built on hope.”
We are asked to be willing to sacrifice everything, to attack this imperial installation of power and privilege, and turn this world upside down. To bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. We do this, because we have hope. Our rebellion is built on hope – hope that we will see God’s Kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven.
Go and live out Jesus’ three part faith
So I want to encourage you to go and live out Jesus’ three part faith. Go and spend time connecting with the Spirit. Know the Spirit moving in you and be willing to be filled with its power. Go and spend time being well versed in scripture. Reading both small and large patches. See the intricate details, and the broader themes. And finally, go and fight for Justice, wherever you are able. Speak to politicians, talk about it with family and friends, attend rallies, sign petitions, donate to charities, be willing to give up your own time, power and privilege to see this change happen. Live in the hope that Jesus has promised, that we will see God’s Kingdom here on earth, as it is in Heaven.