Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 4:16-21
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
For generations, the people had been waiting for a Messiah to be with them, to dwell in their midst. They had been longing for hope and peace, for justice and righteousness. Many times they had read the Holy Scriptures which promised that a “prophet, priest, and king” would be born, and would dwell among them.
Hear the Word of God from Luke 4:16-21.
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.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
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.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Sometimes it helps illuminate the power of a positive statement when it is stated in the negative. Nike has millions with its products that utilize the phrase: Just Do It. The marketing campaign would sound very different if they said: Just don’t do it!
Or how about Coca-Cola? “Coke is it!” sounds very different from the marketing phrase: “Coke is not it!” You get the point. A revealing Bible study technique is to restate a positive Biblical statement, especially one that is well known, into a negative statement.
For example, when a small group of young adults tried this on a retreat, one of them chose Psalm 23. After claiming “the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” a young woman then read these words: “The Lord does not care about me; I will always be in need.” When we apply that bible study technique to these verses from Luke 4, we notice a dramatic turn from hope to despair. The scripture, stated negatively, claims: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring bad news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that many, many more will become captive, and that those who now see will become blind. The Spirit has sent me to ensure that the oppressed remain oppressed, and that the year of the Lord’s favor, the year when debts would be forgiven – well, forget that.”
The theme of Hope has seemed particularly poignant this year, because there has been so much despair. There have been many things that renew a sense of despair – Rising numbers of coronavirus cases….Intractable political divisions… Crushing loads of debt for countless people….A return of cancer cells…. A pandemic of anxiety along with an inexplicable number of suicides… Frightening weather patterns…..Continuing violence…school shootings… When levels of despair and anxiety and fear grow, the proclamation of hope becomes that much more urgent.
Our world needs some good news to balance all that is disconcerting and worrisome. Good news is present and at work, if we but look a bit more closely. Jesus said that he had come to bring good news to the poor. When I think of the poor, I am reminded of the young woman on the Netflix show “Maid”, who scrapes by from paycheck to paycheck, having to decide, like so many, whether to buy food or medicine at the end of the month.
It gives me hope when I consider that God cares about teenage parents. It is hopeful in the show “Maid” when the young woman gets connected social services, when she receives access to assistance with childcare and with health insurance coverage for her child. Hope can look very much like a government voucher or an insurance card. It gives me hope when I consider that God cares about the persons who are currently without a home. Most recently, Dekalb County and Legal Aid of Georgia worked together to help get a former teacher named Scott off the street. For Scott – hope looks very much like a new id card, and a renewal of monthly disability benefits. Hope looks like a hotel room just before some really cold and rainy and uncomfortable nights.
Hope looks like the promise of getting into transitional housing, and enjoying a more secure future. Jesus said he came to proclaim release to the captives. It gives me hope when I consider that God cares about those hundreds of young men in the Dekalb County jail on Memorial Drive.
When I drive by that jail, I am tempted toward despair, but I am reminded that I am not alone in my concern for them. There are many other persons who are interested in their welfare and trying to bring changes. One of our youth parents serves as a counselor at the Dekalb County jail. She sits with those desparate young men every day, listening to their concerns, seeking to connect them to services.
For them, hope looks like this mother of high school students stepping into a counseling room, offering hope simply by her presence and by her direction. Jesus said he came to give sight to the blind. It gives me hope when I consider that God cares about the blind and the lame and the deaf.
It gives me hope that God’s people care about those who have speech disorders. Recently Arthur Blank, through the Arthur M Blank Family Foundation, gave 12 million dollars to expand the Center for a Stuttering Education and Research. Arthur Blank has struggled with stuttering all his life. He claimed that stuttering can have a real and deep impact upon your life in a whole variety of ways – hindering everything from personal relationships to job interviews to work presentations. In this case, hope looks like a successful business person funding research that just may enable others to be successful.
Jesus said he came to let the oppressed go free. It gives me hope that God cares about those who have been oppressed by systems which have not been accessible to them. One of our church members changed jobs recently. He is now working with a tech start up that is creating a new form of online banking for the poor. This new form of banking will provide access for millions not only to basic banking services, which has been a challenge to many under the poverty line, but also offer small credit for those who are scraping by on the margins.
Our current system has huge gaps, and this new effort will meet a real need for poor people. For the poor, hope looks like access to online mobile banking accounts and access to a small amount of credit at a reasonable interest rate. This could spell a much needed end to the abuses of payday loans and loan shark operations, which charge extravagant interest and fees to those who can afford it the least, turning a debt of a few hundred dollars into thousands of dollars over the course of a few months.
Our church member said that this has been the most gratifying job he ever had. Hope can look like a new tech start up. One of our sister churches, North Avenue Presbyterian, has been involved for years with Street Grace. Street Grace seeks to set free those who are have been trafficked for the prolific sex trade in Atlanta, and provides young woman and men safe housing and hope for a better future.
Hope can look like a group of concerned citizens supporting a local non-profit. It gives me hope that God care about these things. God cares about the poor and the prisoners and the blind and the oppressed and those in debt, and God cares about you and me.
We are all God’s children, and when the least of those among us discover hope, we all can rest a bit more easy. The angel proclaiming Christ’s birth to the shepherd cried out:
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2) Jesus proclaimed good news both to those who are poor in things and to those who are poor in spirit. He proclaimed freedom to those who are captive – those who are captive to their own doubts and fears and anxieties, those who are captive to illnesses and addictions, as well as those who are literally captives to others, bound in prisons or bound by the attitudes of those who have power over them.
Jesus proclaimed recovery of sight to the blind. He healed the man born blind and he brings healings and wholeness still, offering new insight and understanding to those who have been blinded, offering truth to those who have been manipulated for economic or political gain. And Jesus came to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee year, when people would become free of crushing debt, when people who must work far from home would be able to return to the land of their ancestors, when those who have long been at odds, whether siblings or sibling nations, would finally be reconciled, when the world would slow down long enough to enjoy a Sabbath rest from over work, worry and concern.
Jesus was anointed by the Spirit of God to proclaim good news, through what he said and how he lived, and by virtue of our baptisms, we too are anointed to proclaim good news, by what we say and how we live.
One of the foundations for hopefulness is the realization that we are not alone. The Zephaniah passage that Alex read today proclaimed more than once: “The Lord is in your midst.” God is with you. And we remember especially this time of year that the name “Emmanuel” literally means “God with us.”
We are reminded by the Christmas narrative that Jesus was born into the world to be with us, to move into our neighborhood and share our fears, and taste our tears. And through the gift of the Holy Spirit, he is with us still. And through his gift of the Church, we are here, with and for each other.
We are God’s hands and feet in the world today, and we are called to proclaim hope, to live hope. One of the most profound ways that we can proclaim hope is by simply telling a friend or loved one: You are not alone; I am with you.
Your loved one’s need this year may simply be that you help ensure all is ready when the guests arrive of the holidays, or it may be for you to hold their hand during rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, or your loved one’s needs may be for you to walk with them through the valley of a broken relationship.
You and I are called to proclaim hope by offering the presence of one who cares. The spirit of Jesus will guide your steps to those in need. May you see with the eyes of Jesus and courageously speak those words that he spoke so long ago: I am with you; I am for you; I love you. Be not afraid.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church