This text has been with me from the beginning of my ministry. I can take you back to that synagogue in Nazareth, its people, its sights, sounds, maybe even its smells. But how can I take this text, this Jesus, into the 21st century where you live? By talking about rights.
Jesus has no right to speak about grace in the eyes of the world. Isn't He the son of Joseph? What does the son of a carpenter know about grace? Your world feels the same. If you study the words of Jesus in a comparative literature class, how are they going to fare over against those of Ovid, Virgil, Homer, Plato, Cicero?
Jesus has no right to be speaking about grace in the world's eyes. In the words of the Doobie Brothers, "Jesus is just alright" with them but not much more than that. There's just not much practical use to Jesus. "Do now what you did in Capernaum." Go over to Children's Hospital and heal some suffering kids. In a TV show, a cop is by the hospital bed praying for his shot partner. She wakes up to hear him and says, "What are you doing?" He replies, "Praying for you." She says, "Yeah, well ask Jesus to send some Vicodin, will you?" In won't take you long in your world to hear people echoing these same sorts of sentiments about Jesus. Instead of words of grace, why didn't Jesus impart to the ancient world the principles of basic sanitation? That would have helped a lot more people.
The final reason Jesus has no right to speak words of grace to the 21st century world is lack of reality. Though the words of Jesus are better attested, better documented than any ancient writer, you won't find people dismissing Plato, Cicero, or Sophocles as unreal. But Jesus, that's another story, and I use the word "story" advisedly. Have you seen that commercial for Diet Dr. Pepper? Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, a Leprechaun, and other storybook characters are with a Diet Dr. Pepper delivery guy in an "I Exist" support group. The group laughs the Dr. Pepper guy to scorn for expecting people to believe a satisfying diet drink exists. To the 21st century world Jesus is just another story and has no right to speak anything to them.
Jesus speaks anyways, and notice where He starts: People have no right to grace. He uses two examples from His hearer's past. Elijah who fed a pagan window during a famine and Elisha who healed a pagan general of leprosy. God is the one behind their actions. God sent Elijah to help that pagan window, and God got the pagan general healed.
Do you get the point? Maybe these examples from the 9th century B.C. church don't resonate in your 21st century church. Can you see that rather than justifying His right to speak grace to them as we sometimes do when we're confronted with unbelief Jesus speaks law to them? Jesus says the God of grace let faithful, believing, praying widows die of starvation and fed a pagan, unbelieving, complaining one. The God of grace let skin rot and appendages fall off of His people but healed the pagan general who had defeated them in battle. They can't get their head around words of grace coming from Jesus, so He stuffs their ears with acts of grace that choke them. Drunkards walk away from crashes after killing an entire family of Christians. Hugh Heffner lives on in his 80's while a young Christian father dies of cancer. O.J. Simpson lives while a wrongly convicted Christian dies.
People, either outside or inside the Church, have no right to grace or to an explanation for it. All the unbelief, all the hatred, all the violence in this text comes from their believing the opposite. They do have that right. The 20th century "Jesus Christ Superstar" had unbelieving Herod accurately singing, "So, you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me that you're divine; change my water into wine." In the 21st century you have the atheist college professor proving to his class that Jesus isn't God because He can't even stop a piece of chalk from breaking.
The supposed "Christian" answer to this is the dropped piece of chalk bounces off the atheist's shoe and ends up unbroken in his pant cuff, but this is no answer. This is Jesus acceding to the demands of others. This is Jesus proving Himself. The world says that if Jesus is God and Savior He should prove it to them; make them believe; do signs; pass their litmus test for divinity and grace. He should answer all their questions. Explain to them why their high school friend died tragically and senselessly. Answer them why their alcoholic father was allowed to beat them. Tell them why their college friend got such a horrible disease at such a young age. Yes if Jesus answers all their questions; does what they think is right, then Jesus can be their God and Savior. Such people don't realize how close they are to grace; they are as close as the fleeing Jacob was at Bethel when he told Jehovah if you'll do this, this, and this too then you'll be my God.
You see; people have rights. They have a right to a God who makes sense to them. A right to a God who does the practical thing of helping others. A right to a God who can prove Himself to unbelief. They have a right to grace. No they don't. They only right they or any other fallen person has, including you, is to go to hell and suffer forever for everyone of your sins.
The world says Jesus had no right to speak about grace; Jesus says people have no right to grace; and I am sent by Jesus to say that no one has the right to disbelieve Jesus.
We are all under the condemnation of God, and not one of you really believes I have to prove this to you. You know "We've all sinned and fall short of the glory of God." You know that out of your heart proceeds no good thing but only murder, lust, greed, and unbelief. You know what God said to Noah about the world before the Flood and the Church afterward is true of you too: The imagination of your heart is only evil from your youth onward. Long before anyone said the first "yes" to you as a child, they had already said many more "no's."
I don't have to prove to you that you sin. You may deny that with your lips but your heart agrees. And I don't have to prove to you that Death stalks you because of your sins. Death whispers, "You're mine; if not today then tomorrow and if not then it's only a matter of when not if." Oh you try to drown out the cold, sure whisper of Death with activities, with health, with lots of life, but you know Death has a claim on you that you can't deny or even disagree with.
And Faust isn't the only one who sold his soul to the Devil. We all did by sin. God said the soul that sins dies. The Devil shows up with your sins, and says, "You belong in hell, in eternal death with me." And what can you say in return? You can pretend with Scrooge that the accusations of Jacob Marley are all in your head; you can cover your ears and rush at the Stephens who preach the Law to you. But the Devil remains with Death in tow pointing at your sins, and as in a horror movie the mouth of hell opens to relentlessly pull you in. And sometimes it's not only in nightmares that you find yourself screaming.
This is where God shows up in the Person of Jesus preaching grace to all based on His Work. Those in the synagogue said this is what Jesus was doing. "All spoke well of Him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from His lips." How would that have sounded to Old Testament ears? It would be grace to be told that Jesus had come to keep the laws of God that only condemned them. It would be grace to be told that He had taken away the 10 Commandments that hung over their heads like a giant "to do" list by doing it in their place. It would be grace to be told the Death and damning they rightly feared for their many sins of thought, word, and deed were going to be suffered by Jesus in their place.
That's how it would sound to Old Testament ears, but does it sound any different to you? It is grace to be told that Jesus has come to deliver the whole world from Sin, from Death, and from the power of the Devil. It is grace to be told that the sins you mourn, the Death you fear, and the Devil you can't outsmart are not going to drag you to hell. Jesus allowed Himself to be dragged there to pay what you owe; a bill once paid is no longer owed.
Graces such as health, wealth, success, long life, or an upbeat personality are distributed where and when it pleases God. If they're graces, there can be no logical, rational, explanation for the where and when. But here is where I'm really going with this. If the Lord could call a stake in Paul's flesh not only a messenger of Satan but a grace, then I can call sickness, poverty, failure, a short life, and a dour personality graces too. So whether you have abundance or scarcity, gladness or sadness, illness or health, whether you have what makes sense to the world or what makes no sense, it's as John said it would be from Jesus: It's grace for grace.
No one can predict what grace he or she will receive in this physical world. It may be what all the world can look at and call grace. It may be what only the Lord can look at and call grace. But the grace that literally came pouring out of the mouth of Jesus was for everyone. People have no right to disbelieve that Jesus kept the Law for them. No one has a right to disbelieve that the guilt they feel in body and soul has already been taken away from them. No one has a right to believe their sins or just that one particular sin somehow didn't make it to cross.
On the contrary, everyone has the right to believe that Jesus' Words of grace found today in Baptism, Absolution, or Communion forgive their sins and rescues them from Death and the Devil. Everyone, you included, you especially have the right to believe it, to trust it, and to live the rest of your 21st century life in the grace of Jesus that is also mercy and peace to sinners. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany (20100131); Luke 4: 21-32