Why Was Jesus Sent?
A sermon based on Luke 4:14-21
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 24, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
One day a minister caught some children stealing cherries from his cherry tree. “Do you know what Jesus would say to a thief?” He sternly asked them. “Sure,” a cheeky child answered as he dashed away. “ He told a thief on the cross, ‘Today thou shall be with me in Paradise.’” 1
Lots of pastors and churches and Christians like to think Jesus is about pulling into line cultural misfits and condemning sinners. The little joke I just told kind of knocks that idea down a few notches.
In Luke (23:43) one of the last things Jesus does, indeed, is to tell a criminal he’s getting into Paradise. When others were mocking and bullying Jesus on the cross, that criminal in the throes of death made an effort to end oppression by stopping another nearby criminal from bullying Jesus. He said
“Do you not fear God, since you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for, we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he asked that Jesus remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom.Jesus responded: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
That Paradise bound criminal’s only acclamation about Jesus was to note that Jesus had done “nothing wrong.” His only request to Jesus was to be remembered.
Notably the criminal did not follow the modern formula we often hear is necessary to be “saved” by Jesus. He did not expressly state remorse. He did not ask forgiveness of sins. He did not pray that Jesus come into his heart. He did not even express a belief that Jesus is divine, in fact, as we heard he called Jesus a man.
What that Paradise bound man on the cross did was stop in the moment what oppression he could, and then merely asked to be remembered. His very human efforts – which may seem like a small bit of compassion– were remarkably efficacious. They led to Jesus being mocked no more by anyone who heard that the criminal’s effort to stop oppression of Jesus. Shortly after, Jesus died and was able to let his Spirit go saying “ Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.”
We all know that Jesus’ life and teachings and death and resurrection have continued rippling in time. In fact, one way to understand the Pentecost story in the Luke/Acts tradition is that the Spirit that led Jesus, the Spirit he commended to God, that very same Spirit has come back and landed on all of us ever since the first Pentecost.
Jesus’ Spirit-filled life and death led to a resurrection that allows his Spirit to continue on . . . in others . . . us! But that lowly nobody nameless criminal’s final act also continues to ripple in time too. His stopping the bullying, the mocking, the little bit of oppression that he could, mattered– a lot. That oppression stopping compassionate criminal gave Christ himself the blessing of a short time of peace which allowed Jesus to die – to be released– as peacefully as he could in those awful circumstances. That criminal gets into Paradise. He gets remembered.
Jesus, of course, gets remembered and into Paradise too. But Jesus’ ripples in time are enormous because he repeatedly does oppression stopping acts like the nameless criminal – only over and over again– making a tidal wave splash with his existence in the ocean of life.
Jesus’ Spirit becomes enmeshed with God’s Spirit at the end when he dies, but we are also told in Luke that the Holy Spirit was with Jesus all through his ministry. It is that Spirit that comes back on Pentecost and has filled the Church ever since.
Two weeks ago we considered how the Holy Spirit came from heaven like a dove and landed on Jesus at his baptism. We have just briefly discussed what happens to the Spirit after Jesus’ death, but today’s lesson, is about that Spirit’s initial effect on Jesus in his ministry.
In our lesson Jesus gives his first sermon which also ends up summarizing his entire Spirit powered ministry. We are told
“[F]illed with the power of the Spirit” . . .
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.”
Then Jesus proclaimed “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Listen carefully to the list of what Jesus – empowered by the Spirit– was anointed to do:
to bring good news to the poor;
to proclaim release to the captives;
to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind;
to let the oppressed go free; and
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Those five things are what matter, they are why Jesus came and why what Jesus did made all the difference. Note that there is nothing in Jesus’ proclamation about him being a blood sacrifice to or for a vengeful God; nothing about creating a choice to believe in him or suffer in hell forever; nothing about making it so people have to ask him to be in their heart; nothing about requiring confession or remorse for sins; and certainly nothing about Christianity being an exclusive route to Paradise.
What there is, is a whole lot of work going on for the poor and the captive and the blind and the oppressed. And there’s one thing NOT going on that is of utmost importance. That text Jesus that reads is from Isaiah 61 verses 1 and 2. Jesus we are told found that scripture and read it . . . well, here’s something we cannot tell from just reading the Gospel Lectionary lesson, Jesus did not actually read all of Isaiah 61, verse 2. He left off the part that references coming to proclaim (and I am quoting) “the day of the vengeance of our God.”
Christ’s very first public sermon, his very first public pronunciation of what he was empowered by God’s Spirit to do including cutting off the notion that he in any way represented God’s vengeance. Jesus did not proclaim that. He cut it out intentionally.
I love THE Jesus Luke tells us about! He has guts. And he is not a literalist by any means. If the Bible has words that are not loving or about the love of God he’s modeled what to do about it, set them aside for the purposes of ministry on Jesus’ Way. If it is good enough for Jesus, it is certainly good enough for us.
We can understand that Jesus’ excising Scripture about a mean god means that all the stuff we hear about God smiting people or tossing people in hell out of vengeance, is not something Jesus came to do, or wanted, or had anything to do with.
Jesus cut God’s vengeance out of his sermon, out of his theology, out of his purpose and fulfillment of scripture. Talk about Good News! Knowing that Jesus excised the proclamation of day of the vengeance of God right out of his reading of Scripture, that alone is enough to get me cheering for Jesus!
But Jesus did not just come as an atheist to a vengeful god. He doesn’t reject God, he rejects the idea of a vengeful god. And he sure as heck doesn’t reject the powerful messages in scripture that call us to help the poor and the captive and the blind and the oppressed. Jesus embraces those messages that he reads from the text. They define his Messianic role. 2 He shapes his ministry and his life around them. In so doing Jesus also creates a plumb-line for us to measure our ministry as church and our own work as Christians. 3
Many churches and Christians focus on self-help and self-salvation from the vengeance of their idea of a god. Some are even quite obsessed with it, making it the telltale sign of their version of Christianity “Are you saved?” they will ask, typically meaning do you believe in your heart what they do so you will not be thrown in hell by their vengeful god. The very type of god Jesus cut out of his ministry from the start.
When some Christians think of saving others it is very often this personal salvation from hell in the afterlife that tends to concern them. They want people to follow what scripture they pick out as important. But our Lectionary lesson today says not a word about such things. But it does inform us what scripture Jesus found of utmost importance and what he cut out of his theology.
The salvation aspect for Jesus from the start is about rescuing others not from a vengeful god’s hell, but from the very things that hurt others and deprive them of a full life here on earth. Jesus wants us to help save people for sure, but it is not from God’s vengeance, it’s from the cruel things in life that we can do something about, poverty; lack of liberty; blindness; oppression.
The plumb-line Jesus has established is not to utter magic words to force us or others to be Christians so we can feel good about the afterlife because we have a golden ticket out of hell and torment set up by a vengeful god. No! Jesus’ plumb-line is to do what needs to be done to end hurt and harm in the world. That includes stopping harm that comes toward us, for sure, but it also includes stopping harm of others.
As Jesus followers we have a duty to
bring good news to the poor;
proclaim release to the captives;
proclaim recovery of sight to the blind;
let the oppressed go free;
proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And . . . to cut out all reference to the vengeance of god.
Those are the ministries, the acts, that the Spirit-powering Jesus led him to do. It’s what Jesus leads us to do too. It’s what the Pentecost Spirit calls us to do even now.
May we let that Spirit do that work though us, happy in the knowledge that the God of Jesus never was, and is not, not, not vengeful.
1. I modified this joke which I found at page 4 in More Holy Humor, a fun book of church related jokes by Cal & Rose Samra,
2. Craddock, Fred, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, p 62.
3. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 1, p286
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