It is now (probably) almost a year since Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit and began his public ministry. He has returned to his home town of Nazareth and there, as was his custom, he has gone to the Synagogue to worship. He is invited to read the scriptures and preach, and the passage that he read was from Isa 61:1-2, which was a prophecy of the Messianic Age, i.e. the period when Jesus would proclaim salvation, referred to here as ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’.
The term ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ is an allusion to the Hebrew Year of Jubilee, a time that came around once every 50 years and was when slaves were freed, debts were cancelled, and ancestral property was returned to the original family. Whilst the Messianic age was more than a calendar year, there is a parallel between the liberation of slaves, debt, etc and the liberation proclaimed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Of course, the former is of a tangible nature while the liberation provided by the gospel is spiritual in nature.
Now, Isaiah 61:1-2, which Jesus read, is a passage which, if taken literally, implies some fairly radical things:
Firstly it seems to suggest that the Gospel is primarily for the benefit of the poor and therefore implies some disadvantage for those Christians who have material wealth. Secondly, it indicates that blind people would all have their sight restored. Thirdly, it seems to support radical insurgent uprisings among revolutionists to liberate captives and to free the oppressed. Indeed, it is a passage that has sometimes been used by rebel leaders and some theologians who advocate rising up against oppressive political regimes.
But Jesus disappointed those Jews who were anticipating a Messiah who would take up arms and lead a revolt against the Roman occupiers of their land. He did not seek earthly power, to be crowned as an earthly king. Rather, what he subsequently taught was that the true enemies were not the foreign invaders but spiritual foes.
And rather than advocating insurgency, the Gospel passage for today indicates that it is the Gospel itself that liberates us.
Illustration: Ropes Course
I would like to illustrate this by getting you to imagination yourself walking a plank. The plank that you are to walk is part of a Navy ‘Confidence Course’ which is designed to develop teamwork. It is a narrow plank suspended 2m above the ground, supported by ropes, (so it sways as you walk upon it). For us today it represents the path on which we walk through life and if you can successfully reach the other end you receive God’s blessings.
Now, initially I am going to blindfold you, tie your arms to your side with a rope and weigh you down with a sand bag tied to your waist. In this condition, you will represent the person who wants to run his or her life independently of Jesus.
What chance do you think that you will have of reaching the other end of the plank without falling off? I would say, two – Buckley’s and none!
But the Gospel indicates that Jesus came to help us make it across. In the passage for today Jesus says (if I may summarise his words) that he has been anointed to bring Good News of liberation. The Gospel liberates us, and enables us to get across the plank to receive God’s blessings because it does three things:
I. The Gospel gives us support
“Now hang on!” you may say, “verse 18 says that the good news is only for the poor!” But we need to ask “who are the poor?”
In the Hellenistic world (i.e. the Greek culture) in which this Gospel was written, the Greek word used for ‘poor’ certainly referred to those in social and economic poverty. But in Judaism, this word also carries the idea that ‘the poor’ are those who rely entirely upon God for their existence – so the Jews understood ‘the poor’ to be those who are humble and pious.
The writer of the Gospel, Luke, certainly places some emphasis throughout this Gospel upon the material and economic side of poverty; but, he also seems to see the poor as the ‘lowly’ or ‘humble’ who are exalted by God.
So, it seems that the poor are those who are humble and rely upon God. These people may well include those who are in material poverty; but can also include those who are materially well off. In other words, it is the attitude of the person towards God that is important.
Therefore, I suggest that the Gospel is not just intended for those who are materially or economically in poverty. It also has something to say to you and me. The Gospel is good news for those who are prepared to accept it because it provides us with support.
Now let us return to our illustration of walking the plank:
I think that we have agreed that blindfolded with our arms tied to our sides and a sand bag tied to our waist, we are not going to make it across the suspended plank. But the person having to walk across was not left on his own. Support was made available in the form of two other people who walked on each side of the plank and offered up a stick on each side. As you attempt to walk the plank, you could, if you should so choose, use the sticks to gain some balance.
The sticks represent the Gospel. If we are humble and accept Jesus’ assistance in the form of the Gospel, we are likely to find it much easier to get across. The Gospel provides us with support.
But we are still handicapped by the blindfold, bound up arms and weight of sand. So let’s read some more of Jesus’ claim in the passage for today. The second thing that we see is that …
II. The Gospel brings sight
We know that Jesus physically healed and brought recovery of sight to a number of blind people. Is this all that he is prophesying here? I suggest that it is more than this:
When Jesus restored the sight of the blind man on the road to Jericho, he told the man that it was his ‘faith’ that had saved him. (Luke 18:41)
And on the other side of the coin, when Jesus told another blind man who had his sight restored by Jesus that he ‘came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see and those who see may become blind’, (John 9:39-41) some Pharisees who overheard this, and who could see physically perfectly well, understood Jesus to be implying that they had a spiritual blindness arising from sin.
Therefore, I conclude that in saying that he has come to bring sight to the blind, Jesus is referring more to the ability to see spiritual truth.
It is the ability to see God – to see something of the wonder and majesty and nearness of God in his creation, and to see God in other people. We are, after all, created in God’s image. Jesus had this ability – he saw something good in all people, no matter who they were. Very often their goodness was corrupted by evil or self centeredness; but nevertheless, Jesus saw something that was worth loving, regardless.
It is also the ability to see the truth of the Gospel and its way of salvation offered through the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. And if we receive the Gospel, and accept Jesus by faith, our spiritual sight will be restored.
Returning to your attempt to walk the plank - having received the Gospel, you will have received spiritual sight, and so now I can remove the blindfold. I think that you will agree that you will now find it much easier to walk across the plank to receive God’s blessings.
But there is still the handicap of the rope binding your arms and the weight of the sand bag. These handicaps represent the spiritual bondage arising from sin and the burden of guilt that many of us carry around. And with these handicaps, our person on the plank is still likely to fall.
However, the third thing that our Gospel passage for today tells us is that …
III. The Gospel liberates from spiritual bondage
When Jesus was criticised by the leader of a Synagogue for healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath, he replied in terms of freeing the captives. He said, ‘Ought not this woman …, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage …’ (Luke 13:16). It is apparent then, that what Jesus had in mind when he talked about liberating the captives and freeing the oppressed, was liberation from spiritual bondage.
The good news that Jesus brought to the poor is that the Gospel frees us from being bound up by guilt, and from being captive to sin and the self-centred nature.
And it also frees us from oppression. What forms of oppression? Again, I don’t think that this is referring to physical oppression; but rather, to spiritual and emotional oppression when we are weighed down by a sense of guilt, and the struggles of life.
So, having received the Gospel, I can finally remove the ropes binding your arms – the bondage of sin; and take the sand bag off your waist – representing the spiritual and emotional oppression that arises from guilt.
Now, being assisted to retain your balance, being able to see, and being freed from the ropes so that you can use your arms to maintain balance, you are easily able to cross the plank to receive God’s blessings.
To conclude, Jesus message is that in our Christian walk, the Gospel liberates us. And it does this in three ways: it gives us support, it brings sight and it liberates us from spiritual bondage. For those who accept the Gospel, it enables us to get across the plank of life to receive God’s blessings.
Now, I would like to provide just one postscript to this story. Sometimes, we are accused of spiritualising the Gospel too much, and it is certainly not my intention to leave you with the impression that Christians should only be concerned with spiritual liberation.
Jesus’ teaching and the example that he provided when he lived among us indicates that Christians certainly should have a concern for social injustice. Jesus is concerned for people who are in material poverty or who are oppressed in some way. He does demonstrate concern for justice, equality and dignity of all men and women. And he showed just as much love and compassion for the social outcasts as for other people.
But the passage that we have examined today should not be used to justify insurgency. Rather, it is indicating that it is the Gospel itself that supports the Christian, restores spiritual sight, and frees us from the burden of sin and guilt.