During the summer of 2003, I made what turned out to be a rather memorable and important phone call in my life. It was a summer between high school and college for me, and I’d been accepted to Wheaton College outside of Chicago. The college sent emails to all the incoming freshmen connecting us with our freshman roommates. I got an email from Wheaton saying Nick Strosser, here’s his phone number, from Spokane, Washington, give him a call and figure out how you’re going to coexist for a year together in a closet-sized dorm room. So I called up Nick in Washington State. Pretty quickly, I realized that Nick was an interesting, intriguing guy. In fact, he combined different aspects that you don’t usually think go together in a single human being.
Nick said, “Yeah, I’m football player. I’m an offensive lineman, actually. I play center for my high school team and we’re one of the best high schools in Spokane,” and I was like thinking of a jock: a big, muscular, broad-shouldered guy. And then in the next breath, he was saying, “but I’m coming to Wheaton to be a tenor voice major in the Conservatory of Music.” And as I listened, there indeed was a high pitched voice on the other end of the line. And he said, “so I’m coming to study music. But that’s not my real passion. Really, what I want to do is go study medicine. So I’m just doing music to set up medicine.” As we continued talking, like many 18 year old boys do, we eventually got around to the topic of girls. And Nick said, “you know, I’ve never had a girlfriend. I’ve never been in a relationship, never been kissed. And frankly, I’m a little intimidated by the entire dating scene,” and then he went on to say that once he got to Wheaton, there was nothing he was more excited to do than to find a girlfriend and have that first kiss.
Here’s a guy that seemed to unite a lot of opposites. And so as I hung up the phone that day, I was wondering, who are you? What kind of human being unites all these things in one person?
A couple of months went by and we both arrived at Wheaton. I think I beat him to the dorm room. I remember I was hanging up something on the bulletin board when he came down the hallway and walked through the door. There he was framed in the door: broad-shouldered, muscular, high-pitched, gregarious, and as it turned out at certain times in his life, girl crazy. Nick Strosser, this unity of all these different things, and a guy who has become a great friend to me. A great gift from God to me.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had that moment where you’ve heard about somebody and you know something about them, and you’re wondering, what are they really going to be like? What is our moment of introduction going to be like? How are they going to bring together and integrate all of these different things that I’ve heard about them that don’t seem to go together?
Opposites Unite In Jesus
In this season, at St. Stephen’s, we’ve been looking at stories of epiphany where biblical characters meet Jesus for the first time. When they meet him, the light bulb goes off. As Bill Henry said in one of his recent sermons, they think, oh, that’s who you are. This is who the Messiah really is. This is the Savior that God has sent into the world. In our story today from Luke 4, Jesus comes back to his hometown of Nazareth. He’s been out in other towns preaching the gospel in great power and doing miracles, and the people of his hometown, if you can imagine this, are hearing these reports about this young man that they thought that they knew. All of a sudden they’re seeing him in an entirely different light. And the question in their minds as he comes back home to address them in the synagogue must have been, who is this guy?
What we’re going to see in this story from Luke 4 is that Jesus Christ, in his person and in his mission for the world, unites a set of attributes that often don’t go together in other religious systems. There’s something about Jesus that unites things that seem to be opposites, and precisely because he can unite them, he has a glory and a beauty that leaves everybody else behind. It’s this beauty that he’s calling you and me into as we would follow him, whether you’re a Christian, or considering the Christian life.
I want to show us three ways in this story that Jesus unites different attributes in a surprising way. First, he comes in the power of God’s Spirit, but he is also grounded to God’s Word. Second, he brings God’s healing for the soul as well as the body. And finally, his ministry is all about providing both God’s comfort and God’s affliction. As Jesus unites all these things, my prayer today is that you and I would be able to have that moment where we say, Oh, yeah, that’s who Jesus Christ is. This is the life and the love of God for me through Jesus. And it’s that life that he’s calling me to as well if I would follow him.
Spirit and Word
So let’s dive into the story from Luke 4.
The story begins as Jesus comes in God’s Spirit, grounded in God’s Word. We pick up the story in verse 14.
And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.
What’s so striking about the Gospels is that every time you turn around Jesus is doing remarkable things, and he is always doing it in the power of the Spirit. When he’s baptized, the Holy Spirit of God comes down confers the blessing on him. When he’s resisting the devil in the desert, it’s the Spirit that gives him the strength. Every time that he does something of an active healing or great teaching, there the Spirit is, empowering him to do it. It happens all the way up until the moment of the cross, where Jesus fulfills the mission of God, in the power of the Spirit of God, for all of the people of God. This is a striking thing, because though Jesus God himself is living a human life. What he models for us is that every human life that would follow after God has to depend on God’s own power. Though Jesus is the Son of God, in fact because Jesus is the Son of God, he can live a perfect human life dependent on God’s power, moment by moment, saying, Father, I need your strength, I need your ability, I need you to enable me to carry out my next task.
So Jesus comes with this new and vitalizing energy of the Spirit. But as you see in the beginning of the story, the first thing that he does when he comes to Nazareth is to open up the Scriptures and begin to teach from the Old Testament. Now, again, this is striking. Though Jesus speaks the very words of God, he himself is looking back to the Old Testament and saying, this is my grounding. The Word of God is what supports my ministry, and I am coming as fulfillment of everything that God has already promised. So Jesus comes with this new power of the Spirit, and yet he is grounded in the ancient words of God. This is his combination to affect an amazing change in the world around him.
Strength and Beauty Through The Union Of Spirit And Word
As we think about this combination, it is the unity of these things that will make the Christian life truly strong and truly beautiful. This point applies to everybody, but I am thinking especially of middle school and high school students who are in a situation where there’s often great difficulty to live out the Christian faith. You may be in a situation where there’s pressure to be popular on social media, to get enough likes, to have your Instagram followed in a certain way, or to find your place among your friends. There are going to be plenty of temptations about how you navigate those social waters, and you’re going to need to be disciplined by the word of God, to know what the truth is, and what God’s design is for you. At the same time, there’s other kinds of pressures: needing to do well in school, and to bear up underneath all the other things that you’ve got responsibility for. There is no way you’re going to have the energy or the power to do all those things on your own. If you think, how am I going to be a faithful teenager as a follower of Christ in this world, the answer is you simply cannot do it unless the Spirit of God and the Word of God are giving you the power and the guidance day by day, moment by moment. If it’s true even of Jesus Christ Himself, then how much more true is it for the rest of us.
Practically, if you want the Spirit of God, pray this prayer about 100 times a day: Lord, this next thing that I need to do, I know that I cannot do it unless your power is flowing through me. Give me the ability to do this. Also, make time every day to be in the Scriptures, to allow the truth of God to soak through your mind so that you can be a person walking in the truth. As one theologian summed it up, “if you’re all Word and no Spirit, you’re going to dry up. If you’re all Spirit and no Word, you’re going to blow up. But when you’ve got the Word and the Spirit together, that is when you grow up into maturity in the Lord.” That is what Jesus is modeling for us, if we would follow him. That’s how we carry out this mission.
Soul And Body
But now, secondly, what is it that Jesus came to do, and what is it that he is calling us into as well? We pick up the story in verse 17.
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 proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
This is like the moment in a Clint Eastwood movie where the western town goes completely silent. Everybody’s peeking out over the sides of the doors. They’re wondering, in this tense silence, what is going to happen next?
And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
When Jesus shows up in Nazareth he comes with an amazing message that couldn’t get any bigger. He’s saying that the hope that the Jewish people have had for centuries, waiting, longing, desiring for God to send his great salvation, has finally arrived. This thing that had been prophesied in the Old Testament, and throughout all the prophets, he says, it begins today with me, as he unfolds the Scripture from the book of Isaiah. He goes way back, even before Isaiah to this ancient text in Leviticus 25, and he shows us the very heart of God for his people. He shows the very thing that God wants to do for the human race. Notice in this passage, in verses 18 and 19 the words “liberty” and “freedom” are proclaimed over and over again. This is a reference to Leviticus in the Old Testament, to something called the year of Jubilee.
Now, the year of Jubilee was God’s instruction to the Jewish people that every 50 years they had to cancel all of the debts of the nation. Every family would get to hit the reset button and start over. So if your family was in deep debt and lost your land and everything else, you knew that every other generation God was going to say, I’m giving you your land back. And the reason that God put this in the Old Testament is because he was saying, as a father of my children, I don’t want you to be in bondage. I don’t want your life to be under oppression, I want you to be free. And if bad things happen to you, I want you to know that my liberation is coming.
This idea of Jubilee got picked up throughout the rest of the Old Testament and it became a metaphor for the kind of salvation that God provides. In the Old Testament, God’s kindness to his people is both spiritual in nature, a spiritual liberation, and it has earthly implications. The kind of love and grace that God wants to show is primarily about heaven to come, but what God intends to do also matters on earth right now. So when Jesus reads this paragraph he is saying, I’ve come now to provide the greatest liberation possible, the forgiveness of your sins. If you are a human being who has a sinful record–which is every last one of us–if you’ve had that experience of guilt, and you know what it’s like to have done things that you simply can’t undo, the word of Jesus Christ to you is, I took care of it, I’ve paid for it, you’re free. You’re in the clear. I came to liberate you.
Jesus comes to give sight as well. No longer do we have to be in spiritual darkness and in unbelief. He shows us the very character of God, the nature of the Creator who made us. Jesus comes to bring liberty from oppression, from all the destructive spiritual practices, addictions, bondage, and everything else that is destroying our lives, spiritually speaking. So when Jesus comes into the world, the first great thing that he does is a spiritual deliverance.
Beauty And Glory Through The Union Of Soul And Body
I want to make sure that we see that this is the intent of what he’s saying. If you take somebody who is economically poor, and you think, what does this person most need? The answer is, that person needs the same thing that I, an economically rich person, needs. He needs to be reconciled to the living God, the Father who loves him and who has poured out his grace in Jesus Christ. And yet, as soon as you’ve seen that God has these immense spiritual plans for your soul and this hope in heaven to come, there is combined in it a secondary earthly implication in that the salvation of God must have a social effect. Frankly, if the message that Jesus brought was simply I’m going to save you in the day to come, but it did nothing to alleviate pain now, it wouldn’t have been that credible. It wouldn’t have been that moving. How could anybody have known that he was serious about saving their soul if he didn’t show them kindness to their earthly condition right now?
In following Jesus, Christians ought to be about the business of showing immense compassion to this world. All throughout the rest of the gospel of Luke, Jesus is healing people of their sickness as he forgives their sins. He’s telling stories like the Good Samaritan, saying, even if you have an enemy who is broken down into a ditch, go and show compassion on them. Go out of your way to be a person of grace and kindness. It is precisely in unifying these two things, the earthly and heavenly, that my mission will be accomplished. This is where the power and the beauty of God is uniting the spiritual with the earthly.
This came home to me years ago, when I was a college student at Wheaton. I participated in a ministry called the Emmaus Ministry. We would go down into inner city Chicago and chat with people on the streets. A lot of people that we talked to were in pretty rough conditions, often addicts, often homeless, often in dark places. Many times, somebody in this ministry described it as a, quote, “suffering-alongside-of ministry,” since we would bring as much light and hope as we could. These were people in a dark place.
I remember there was one night in December. It was like 20 degrees outside. Now I’m from Buffalo, and I pride myself on being able to handle cold, brutal winters. But with the 20 degree temperature and the windchill colder than that, this night I was getting destroyed by the Chicago winter. As we walked around the streets I was just ready to get back in the car. I had forgotten to bring gloves. My hands were numb. I just wanted to get out of there.
Before we left, we decided to talk to one more guy on the street. So we went up to him and we did what we usually did: we passed out some cookies to him. We asked about his story; we shared our stories. We shared a bit of the gospel with him, and then we prayed for him. Very simple. 5, 10 minutes at most, and that was it. As I reached down to say goodbye to him and then to go back to the car, two things happened that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
I reached down and I shook the man’s hand. As I did, I noticed that his hand was much colder than my own hand was. I thought that I was out there suffering for the sake of the gospel, and yet this fellow was colder than me, and he was going to be out there all night.
The second thing that really staggered me is that when I looked up into his eyes, he was fixing me with a gaze of immense gratitude. The look in his eyes said, thank you so much for coming down here, and dignifying me by talking to me and giving me these cookies and praying over me. Thank you so much for treating me like a human being. I know that you guys don’t have to be out here, but you’re here anyway, talking and caring for me.
Friends, the Christian life is way more credible when the message of spiritual salvation is coupled with social and earthly action. And the thing is, the sacrifice doesn’t always need to be some massive sacrifice. That’s the point of my story. It was a small thing, a couple hours on a Friday night. A willingness to be a little chilly, to pass out some cookies to this man. And as Jesus says in the gospels, even these small acts of sacrifice will not lose their reward. Even giving a cup of water to somebody in my name, can have great spiritual power.
I hope that we are, in fact I know that we are, the kind of community that wants to integrate all of these things together. I was thinking about it this week. Kamala and I have been around St. Stephen’s for about 10 years now. In that time, my family has discovered that this is a spiritual family, though we’re not perfect. There are a lot of people here who have loved us and care for us, and I am grateful for what God has done through this church family. As I look around at the kinds of things we’re doing in the community, I think there is cause for a great deal of excitement. Through the Fellowship program, we’re influencing the business world. Through Side-by-Side, we’re lifting up single moms and their children. Through the Center for Hope we are caring for families in Ambridge. We can keep going down the list of ministries. As I look to our future, I think there is cause for great excitement to be part of this community. I know you don’t always see it, but as a pastor, I see new people coming into our church, and I see our church body as a whole with talent, with resources, and with a heart to affect change in this community. I think the next seasons in St. Stephen’s life are going to be really exciting. And if we keep to Jesus’s mission, I think the community around us will say, that is a compelling church. They’ll have that moment where they say, Oh, yeah, that’s what Jesus is supposed to look like. Oh, yeah, there’s the beauty and the glory of God. That’s something that we are doing. I’m excited to experience more and more of that at St. Stephen’s.
God’s Comfort And God’s Affliction
Which leads me to my third and final point. If that’s what the mission is, then how do you get in on it? What do you have to do to enter the party of what Jesus is doing? We come to our final set of contrasts, God’s comfort and God’s affliction, as this nice story from Luke 4 takes a rather surprising turn. Here’s the end of the story.
And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.”
Jesus is preaching the sermon and he comes in riding a blaze of glory, and they’re all pumped up to see him. He announces salvation from the book of Isaiah and the crowd goes wild. The people are all speaking well of him. He could have just ended the sermon right there. Then he makes this very uncomfortable, insulting turn in his sermon, and he starts speaking to people directly saying, all of this salvation that I’ve just talked about is something that I’m not sure you’re going to experience.
He then goes on to talk about some stories from Israel’s history that was part of their painful past. He says, you remember the period of Elijah and Elisha when the people of Israel basically stiff armed God? Israel said, we don’t want you anymore. God, we’re going after these idols. We refuse to humble ourselves before you and before your word.
In those times God turned his favor away from his people and instead directed it to non-Jewish people, to a widow named Zarephath, and to Naaman the Syrian. He took all the things that the Jewish people were supposed to enjoy, and he gave it to other people instead. So as Jesus finishes his sermon that was supposed to be this great homecoming, he points his finger in the faces of the very people who grew up with him and he says, this salvation is not for you.
It’s a pretty bold strategy. It’s not one that I have attempted in my own ministry has a preacher. Not surprisingly, the people have a rather nasty reaction.
When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.
Imagine, this mob is right at the breaking point. They are one more provocation from going over the edge. Presumably by the Spirit of God, they are just calm enough that Jesus escapes.
But passing through their midst, he went away.
It’s a stunning conclusion to what should be such a hopeful passage. I’ve come to bring liberation! And yet they’re trying to kill Jesus in the end.
Jesus is doing in this passage what he always does throughout the gospels. He is saying to the people of Nazareth, the salvation that I have come to provide is something that you have absolutely no claim to. You do not deserve the kindness of God. All the people of Nazareth had to do was say, Jesus, you are absolutely right. We have no claim over God, we have no right to demand this. But in fact, we humbly ask you to provide the salvation for us. Every single person in the gospels who comes to Jesus on those terms receives healing and forgiveness of sins, immediately. Humility leads to salvation every single time. And yet all who stiffen their backs and stiffen their necks, with the pride of their hearts coming out, saying, we are not interested in that kind of salvation–every last one of them turn either sadly or angrily away.
It’s a profound word as we think about the nature of living out the Christian life. If you really want to be a Christian, the way you get in is by saying, I’m not worthy to be in. The only qualification for being part of Jesus’s church and Jesus’s kingdom and Jesus’s mission is to say, this is a gift. I’m not the kind of man or woman who deserves this based on my own life. But dear God, have mercy on me, a sinner. The moment that becomes the posture of your heart, you’re on the inside, and God can do amazing things through you.
The Big Secret
As I close, I want to finish with this note of hope. To have this kind of humility is really the most joyful and the most exciting aspect of the Christian life. Frankly, this is the big secret. The big secret to being a human creature made by God is that in laying down your life to Jesus Christ, you find your deepest fulfillment and joy.
This past week, I had a chance to visit several people from our church for different meetings, getting to know them better. I visited one young couple with a new baby, and we were sharing a bit about our journeys to faith and how we were growing in the Lord. And the husband was sharing how over the past several years, his career in finance has hit a number of difficult spots. And though he’s pretty successful, and has a pretty good job, he was discovering that the more he clung to his ego and the more that he found himself trying to control his own lot in the company or in life in general, the more anxious he was getting, the more anger he was bringing home to his wife, and the more difficult things seem to be.
Then he described how the Lord over the last six months had begun to teach him a new way of living. And his phrase was, “I’ve discovered that there is power in powerlessness.” He said, “The moment that I admit that I can’t do everything, that some things are outside of my control, and that I’ve got to relinquish my life into God’s hands–all of a sudden the pressure is removed. The anger, the anxiety, and the frustrations are greatly lessened. All of a sudden I can be the worker, the husband, and the man that God is calling me to be.”
And he left me with this great image. He said, “You know, when you get to this place of desperation, and you call out to God, the good news is that you discover it’s never a long distance call. The moment you get to that place and you call out to God, you realize that’s exactly where he is. He’s just waiting for you to say, dear God, have mercy on me. Please help me your child.“
One other brief story. I met with a woman and her her husband, a middle aged couple, and the woman described a time early in their marriage where it was so difficult to be a wife and mother that the marriage was beginning to come apart. Parenting was difficult; work was difficult. She told me the story of how she went into a church to drop her son off for daycare, and there she saw on the bulletin board a poster saying, “Women’s Bible Study.” She was not a religious person at the time, but she was so desperate, so out of answers, she said, God, I will try anything to fix my life. In going to that study and meeting other women and learning to read the Scriptures, for the rest of her life God absolutely transformed her because she was willing to say, I am a person who needs liberation. I am the person who needs the grace of God.
Friends, I think this is an incredibly hopeful message from Luke 4. Think about what Jesus Christ has done in this world through his power and through his grace, rewriting human history by the combinations of these attributes. This is what he’s calling us into in the next season of our lives. If St. Stephen’s is the sort of church, and you and I are the kind of people, who are able to combine the power of God’s Spirit with the truth of God’s Word, a concern for the spiritual salvation of those around us as well as the earthly care of our communities, and to unite all of that with this profound sense of humility knowing we don’t own or earn any of this–we’re just beggars, sharing with other beggars how to find the grace and love of God–that will be an incredibly compelling picture to the world. That’s when the world will sit up and take notice and say, Oh, yeah, that’s what Jesus Christ is like. Oh, yeah, that’s what the kingdom of God is like. Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what I need in my life as well.
Let’s pray together. Lord, we thank you that there are no limits on your grace and your power. Jesus, we thank you that you came into Nazareth speaking the truth, speaking comfort and speaking offensive words to get us to wake up to how desperately we need you and how much grace and kindness you’re going to do to us and through us. We pray Holy Spirit that you would give us that sense of where we can serve this week, and this year, and show us how we can depend on you day by day. We ask this in Christ’s strong name. Amen.