As Was His Custom

Luke 4:14-21

14 Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. 15 He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. 17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, 19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. 20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” (CEB)

As Was His Custom

Jesus and I have at least one thing in common. (It’s kind of nice to be able to say I’ve got something in common with Jesus). It is my custom to worship God weekly. Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, “as was his custom.” It suggests that worship is important enough that even Jesus needed to attend organized public worship at the synagogue once a week. This was his custom, his habit.

It makes me wonder why, for some people, it is not their custom. Oh, I’ve heard all kinds of arguments and reasons.

Some people say they don’t like organized religion. They say they can worship God on their own. Good luck using that excuse to Jesus whose custom was to attend organized religious worship services in the synagogue every week. Nothing in the Judeo-Christian tradition says the worship of God is a solo-only event. Yes, we can worship God on our own, but public worship with the gathered community has always been primarily important. Our faith is personal, but it’s not private. It’s communal. If organized religion was good enough for Jesus, what makes those Christians who think they don’t need to participate so special?

The excuses I appreciate the most—for the simple fact of their honesty—are those who admit that they’re just too lazy or tired to get up on Sundays because it’s their only day to sleep in. They know they’re not committed, and they don’t care. Worship of God is not a priority for them, but at least they’re honest about it.

Not too long ago, I actually had a guy introduce himself to me at a funeral. And he said he was introducing himself so I would know who he was in case I had to do his funeral. He’s a member of First UMC, but doesn’t feel like it’s important to come. In fact, when I invited him back, he smiled and said, “Probably not.”

Others say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” I just kind of stare blankly when I hear that one because I have no idea what they mean. I don’t think the people who say it know what it means. I think they just want to use words that sound ethereal and wispy. “Spiritual but not religious” doesn’t exist. Neither Judaism nor Christianity have ever allowed for any such idea. When Christians use the word spiritual we’re talking about things pertaining to the Holy Spirit of God who gave birth to the church. The Holy Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost in order to empower the Church for the transformation of the world.

You want to talk about spiritual? We’ve got your spiritual right here in the church. We’ve got connection to God through worship, prayer, service, witness, Christian community, baptism, Holy Communion, repentance, forgiveness, songs, hymns, opportunities for generosity, Scripture, and even—on occasion—a decent sermon. Connection to God through means of grace is spirituality. But, believe it or not, it’s also religion.

Jesus had a custom of attending the public worship of God every week. In fact, it was at an event of public worship in organized religion that Jesus announced his ministry after he had been filled with the Spirit’s power through baptism.

Honestly, when you look at the early church, the only thing these Christians had going for them was this Spirit-filled ministry to the poor, oppressed, and neglected. They didn’t have a big membership roll. They didn’t have a building. They didn’t have a budget. They didn’t even have much of a staff other than a few apostles and leaders. All they had was the Holy Spirit and a mission to bring good news.

We have somewhat the opposite problem. We have members, we have staff, a building, a budget (that’s not yet passed, but we’re getting there), but do we have the power of the Holy Spirit?

Jesus returned to Galilee “filled with the power of the Spirit.” He chose to read from the Scroll of Isaiah and read chapter 61 verses 1-2a. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” Jesus’ ministry was empowered by the Holy Spirit. Is ours? And how do we know? Whatever our answer ends up being, these are questions we need to ask ourselves often.

If our ministry is driven and empowered by the Spirit, there will be a kind of urgency to it. And it will look like the ministry of Jesus. Individual Christians and the gathered community of the Church should understand our purpose and mission in light of Jesus’ purpose and mission. Our self-understanding should be informed by Jesus’ self-understanding. The way Jesus understood his ministry should be how we understand our ministry.

So what did Jesus’ ministry look like? His quotation of Isaiah 61:1-2a is not an accident. It’s the definition of his ministry. It’s the core values and mission statement of his ministry. Jesus claimed to have come for this: “to bring good news to the poor… 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.” (c.f. Lk. 4:18-19, NRSV). Luke’s Gospel makes it very clear—uncomfortably clear—that Jesus’ ministry is to the poor, oppressed, captive, and marginalized.

The message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke differs from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.” (c.f. Mt. 5:3). In Luke, Jesus simply says, “Blessed are the poor… Blessed are the hungry… But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” (c.f. Lk 6:20-25).

It’s challenging for those of us who are not identified by these adjectives to hear. To us, it can sound threatening. The idea that Jesus came to shred the very economic structures from which we benefit can be frightening. It requires courage to hear this message of what God means. It requires faith. The United Methodist Church’s mission statement is, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It’s that transformation of the world part that can scare us away from the mission of Jesus Christ. Transformation implies change. It points to a future that’s unknown.

And yet, to understand our mission—to recognize what God has given us to do in mission—is as important for us as it was to Jesus. Knowing our mission means knowing our purpose. Doing our mission means living with purpose.

We have to remember that the message here is ultimately good news. It’s really good news for all. We also need to remember that everything we have is from God. Jesus taught in other places that those who have been given much need to share with those who have little. Giving and generosity are spiritual matters: disciplines to which we are called by God. That way, justice, righteousness, and mercy are all served. It’s not only money, but time. The ministry of Jesus requires an investment of one’s self.

If we forget what the ministry of Jesus was about and focus on peripheral things, then we’re not really living the Spirit-filled life. The message of Jesus, and many of the prophets before him, was to call our attention to the plight of the poor. Through the prophet Amos, God accused Israel by saying, “…they have sold the innocent for silver, and those in need for a pair of sandals. They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:6b-7a, CEB). God then lists the crimes of the rich against the poor, even mentioning things like cheating the poor and unfair taxes.

This is good news even if it’s not easy. The truth of God’s message for us is that when we care for those who are poor by being present with them and meeting their needs, when we release those who are captives by working on their behalf, when we free the oppressed by breaking the destructive systems that hold them down, that’s when we’re living by the Spirit. That’s when we’re living the good news. That’s when we’re participating in the ministry of Jesus.

We benefit from this work of ministry, too. When we minister in this way, we’re building bonds of community, we’re making opportunities to love and to be loved, and we’re experiencing the life-giving Spirit of God by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

We need to remember the central focus of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—which is to say we need to remember what we’re about. The ministry to which Jesus was called compelled him to go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit to show God’s mercy to the poor, captive, downtrodden, marginalized, and oppressed. Through this ministry, Jesus transformed the world. Through this ministry, so will we.

It was the custom of Jesus to worship God each week with the gathered community. And it was the custom of Jesus to serve the poor every day of the week. What are our customs? And how might we need to refocus and rededicate ourselves to the ministry of Jesus Christ?

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, and we are called to bring good news to the poor. We are sent 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.

It’s time to roll up our sleeves.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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