This sermon was preached at the Norwin Church of the Nazarene in Irwin, PA, on Sunday, 9/25/22. All Scripture references are from the New International Version, as accessed at BibleGateway.com.
Yesterday, I had an eye exam. All the tests that the optometrist put me through to check my vision were high tech and impressive. I’m glad that my eyes are still strong and have no ailments that she could detect, other than my ongoing farsightedness, which requires me to wear glasses to read. The experience got me thinking about what ailments can affect our sight. One condition is glaucoma. According to my optometrist, glaucoma is tunnel vision. Little by little, and usually with a person not even noticing, peripheral vision – everything off to the left and right – begins to disappear. Soon, vision deteriorates until all a person can see is limited to a narrow band in front of them.
In Luke 4, Jesus met a group of people who suffered from gospel glaucoma. They lived in the very town where Jesus grew up, the town of Nazareth. This was a tiny farming village, perched high on a hill, with probably only 200-400 people living there. It’s little wonder that when Philip told Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael replied: “Can any good thing come of out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). As descendants of Abraham, they were confident that God’s blessings were for them, but didn’t seem to realize that their spiritual outlook had become too narrow. Jesus was determined to help them understand that they were suffering from tunnel vision. To help focus our thoughts, let’s answer three questions raised by the story of our Lord’s rejection at Nazareth:
- What is the gospel?
- Who is the gospel for?
- How can we broaden our spiritual vision?
WHAT IS “THE GOSPEL”?
The word “gospel” is the English translation for the Greek word ευαγγέλιο. The gospel is good news. The importance of the story of Jesus on that sabbath day in Nazareth is underscored by the fact that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the incident (Matthew 13:54-58, Mark 6:1-6, Luke 4:14-30), but it is Luke that provides the most expansive account. Luke 4:16 says that Jesus was at the synagogue on the Sabbath, “as was his custom.” He never missed an opportunity to be in the Lord’s house. On this day, Luke recounts, Jesus stood up to read, and they handed him the scroll that contained the prophet Isaiah. Jesus could have chosen a darker reading, perhaps from the earlier part of the scroll, but he didn’t. Instead, Jesus struck a hopeful tone, choosing Isaiah 61:1-2. Luke 4:18-19 records the words as follows:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
When you compare this to what appears in Isaiah 61, the quotation is almost exact, except one thing: Jesus stops the reading in the middle of verse two. He omits the part that speaks of “the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus knew his audience. He himself had grown up in Nazareth under the cruelty of the Romans. He knew that people when they came to synagogue needed a reason to hope. They needed encouragement, and Jesus gave it to them, at least at first.
When he was done reading, he turned the scroll back over to the attendant, then he sat down. Everyone was looking at him. You can sense the tension in the air, the pregnant pause, then Jesus says: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
Let’s stop right there for now, and return to our question: “What is the gospel?” I remember singing the Nazarene youth group:
Love, love, love, love
The gospel in a word is love.
Jesus loved us, died to save us,
Love, love, love.
It was a fun song, and we’d sing it in a round, dividing into three groups. It has a inspirational message, but any song we sing must be understood in context. Because of the other preaching I heard in my church week-in and week-out, here’s what I understood it to mean: Jesus came to earth and he died so that – if I accept him into my heart, repent of my sins, and am reconciled to God – one day when I die, I’ll go to heaven to live with him. That to me was what the word “gospel” meant.
Let me be clear: I still believe that! But what I’ve come to realize is that my understanding was too narrow. While true, it was incomplete. I had a case of “gospel glaucoma.” In fact, what the words of Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 show us is that God’s vision for the gospel, the good news, is so much broader than heavenly salvation alone. It is earthly salvation, too. People aren’t just “souls” journeying to heaven, as if their bodies are less important. God is concerned about out eternal destiny, for sure, but he also cares about the here and now. Are you poor? Jesus cares. Are you in prison? Jesus cares. Are you blind? Jesus cares. Are you oppressed? Jesus cares. If Jesus cares about the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, and the oppressed, then how can those who wear the name “Christian” not also care?
The story of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth is a spiritual vision test. It shows us whether our scope has increasingly restricted itself to just part of God’s vision or whether we still see the full spectrum of what the Church’s mission is all about. I ask myself, and I ask you today: How’s our vision? Is our gospel narrow, or is it holistic, addressing both soul and body?
WHO IS THE GOSPEL FOR?
Beyond the question, “What is the gospel?”, a second question awaits our answer: “Who is the gospel for?” Earlier, we saw how Jesus began in an encouraging way. We know that his listeners that day appreciated his tone, because Luke tells us in Luke 4:22 – “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” They even turned to each other and asked: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”
What happens next is much darker. David Neale observes: “Jesus seems intent on provoking his hometown residents” (Neale, Luke 1-9, New Beacon Bible Commentary, 121). He reaches back into the history of the Old Testament, and references the stories of two non-Jews, of two Gentiles. He speaks first of the widow of Zarephath, to whom God sent the prophet Elijah, and secondly of Elisha healing a leper, the Syrian commander, Naaman. (See Luke 4:25-27; 1 Kings 7:8-24; 2 Kings 5:1-19). What was Jesus saying? Not only was their view of the content of the gospel too narrow, but their view of who the proper recipients of the gospel were needed broadening. These were Gentiles that Jesus cited, but more than that, they were Gentile nobodies. Who has less standing in society than a widow? And though Namaan was an important commander, he was also a leper, an untouchable. Jesus was broadcasting what his ministry would be all about, of preaching good news to the marginalized, to society’s outcasts.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of seeing people. As a hospice Chaplain, my downfall is that I can become too task oriented. I’m expected to visit with patients a, b, and c, and when that’s done, patients d, e, and f await me in another nursing home. This means that I can become so focused on the task that I get in a hurry, blind to the needs right in front of me. The other day, I was at an assisted living facility. My assigned visits were complete, so I walked quickly down the hallway, heading for the parking lot. “Hi” I said to an old woman slowly making her way down the corridor, as I stepped around her wheelchair and kept going. Her response? “Hi, goodbye.” That stopped me in my tracks. I turned around, walked back to her, smiled, looked her in the eye and said: “I’m so sorry I was in a such a hurry. My name is Greg, and I’m one of the Chaplains. What’s your name?” She smiled in-turn, and said: “My name is Peg.” We chatted for a few minutes, then I went on my way. Peg had nothing to offer me. She was confined to a wheelchair, just one of any number of patients living out the twilight of their lives in obscurity. Some are well-loved and well-visited; others, not so much. Do we see them?
There are so many other marginalized people, people to whom Jesus wants us to bring good news. Maybe it’s Susan, the single mother who already works two full-time minimum wage jobs, cobbling together just enough for herself and three young children. She felt the dread rise inside her when she learned her rent was going up yet again, and now she’s discovered that another little one is on the way. Susan spends her last dollar to cross the state line to get a legal abortion. Do we have a word of gospel for her? Or perhaps it’s Ryan, the gay 16-year-old who just came out to his family, whose churchgoing parents angrily threw out of the house. He crashed on a friend’s couch, nowhere else to turn. Do we have a word of gospel for him? I’m glad the gospel is for me, and I’m glad it’s for you, but sometimes I wonder: Do we have gospel glaucoma? Isn’t the gospel broader than you and me? Isn’t the gospel also for Peg, Susan, and Ryan?
Things didn’t end well for Jesus that sabbath day in Nazareth. Remember when we said that Nazareth was perched up on a high hill? Luke 4:28 records that the worshipers became so enraged by his words that they led him to the brow of the hill, so they could throw him off the cliff. But God wasn’t done with Jesus yet. Verse 30 says: “But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” If anyone from Nazareth joined Jesus in his mission, Luke mentions nothing. Jesus escaped his hometown all alone.
HOW CAN WE BROADEN OUR SPIRITUAL VISION?
So far we’ve answered two questions. First, what is the gospel? We saw that the gospel addresses not only the needs of the soul, but also the needs of the body. Secondly, who is the gospel for? It’s for all of us, including those most marginalized in our society. Finally, how can we broaden our spiritual vision?
Unfortunately, while the progression of glaucoma can be slowed, modern medicine has yet to uncover a way to reverse the damage caused by the disease. Thankfully, Jesus shows the way for gospel glaucoma to be healed. The answer is the first six words of Luke 4:31: “Then he went down to Capernaum.” Verses 31-37 picture Jesus teaching on the sabbath, and how a man with an unclean spirit cried out: “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Jesus immediately told the evil spirit to be quiet, and cast it out.
In Nazareth, Jesus announced what his ministry would be all about, including setting free the oppressed. Now, he did exactly that, liberating a man whom the devil had held in bondage. Here’s another category of untouchables, but Jesus loved him and delivered him. If we want to be cured of our gospel glaucoma, if we want to catch a glimpse of God’s broader vision for our world, then we must remember these words: “Then he went down…” Gospel work is humbling work. It is working with love among the last, the least, and the lost. Let’s not pretend that people will welcome us with open arms. The very first words to Jesus from this demon possessed man were: “Go away!” Think about that. His own people in Nazareth tried to kill him, then his very next encounter was with someone who didn’t even want him there.
The key to Jesus’s success, and the key for us as well, is found in verse 14: “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…” It is operating in the power of the Holy Spirit that makes full-spectrum gospel ministry even possible. It is only the Holy Spirit who can open our eyes to see the needs of those around us, fill us with the love of God, then give us a word of gospel to speak into the lives of people who just need hope. Yet I wonder: Like Jesus, are we willing to go down to the Capernaums all around us? In serving the marginalized, God will broaden our tunnel vision and help us see that the gospel is good news for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.
I want to be a preacher of the gospel, a broad gospel, an optimistic gospel. I want to serve a God bigger than the puny god who can only save us out of the world but can’t save the world. The good news today is that our awesome God is up to the job, and Jesus proclaimed that loudly-and-clearly in his hometown synagogue. Are you tired of gospel glaucoma? Then join me in proclaiming a gospel of soul and body, a gospel that reaches everyone, including the marginalized. In the power of the Holy Spirit, let’s go down to Capernaum.
Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Patrick M. Kearney, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons