A Surprise Birthday Party - Lucy Reid | January 29, 2019 |
The setting for the gospel (Luke 4: 14-21) is that Jesus has been baptized and gone on a 40-day retreat in the wilderness, and now his public ministry is just beginning. He’s benn doing a teaching tour of synagogues in Galilee, and now Jesus is in Nazareth, his hometown, as the speaker at his synagogue. It seems he chose a specific reading from the prophet Isaiah, which was a selection of verses from chapters 61 and 58:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
He then rolled up the scroll and sat down, and “All eyes were fixed on him.” This is the dramatic moment of expectation for a preacher. The congregation would be expecting a teaching message or interpretation of the text, but instead Jesus applies the words to himself: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.” He is the one who has been anointed to bring and be this good news. And it’s today – not in some apocalyptic future.The good news starts here and now. He’s ready to begin. This is his mission statement: to bring good news and liberation to the poor, the captive, the oppressed, the blind.
We sometimes assume that Jesus’ core mission and purpose was to die. For example, in the hymn How Great Thou Art we sing that “God, His Son not sparing, sent him to die…” And his mission did indeed cost him his life. But Jesus himself is saying here that his mission is to bring good news. He’s to embody the Jewish concept of jubilee, shalom. Healing, restoration, right relations. And that understanding shaped everything Jesus did in his ministry – blessing the poor, raising them up, healing the sick, setting people free from captivity to all kinds of things, opposing the oppression of the ruling religious caste, and military invaders. Announcing God’s reign here on earth. Bringing abundant life.
Bear in mind the context of Israel at the time. They had been conquered and oppressed as a nation repeatedly over the past few hundred years, by the super-powers of each era: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians and now by the mighty Roman empire. At the time of Jesus there were at least four different approaches to this suffering:
The Herodians – They supported the puppet king Herod, and urged the people to compromise with Rome and lie low until God would fix thingsThe Zealots – They advocated armed rebellion to rise up and overthrow Roman rule and get back to Jewish religious ruleThe Essenes – This group withdrew totally from the wicked world and prayed in the desertThe Pharisees – These religious leaders called for absolutely scrupulous observance of the laws of Moses, and tried to enforce ethical correctness to win God’s favour
Now Jesus is saying that God’s reign is at hand, and a new way of living, believing, behaving is about to begin. God doesn’t need to be appeased or cajoled: God wants to give us the kingdom. And it begins not with political compromise or armed rebellion, but with the announcement of good news for the poor, liberation for the captive and oppressed, healing for the sick. And it will happen person by person, bit by bit – like a mustard seed slowly growing into a huge bush, or some yeast gradually transforming the whole batch of dough. God’s kingdom is close at hand, here and now, hidden and awaiting our discovery.
If that is Jesus’ mission, it’s our mission too: to bring and be good news for a suffering and corrupt world. It’s not just a private, personal matter of feeling right with God: it has a communal, societal dimension, as we live in the way of the kingdom/dream/project of God. We might be called naïve (by Herodians), or weak (by Zealots), or secular (by Essenes), or incorrect (by Pharisees) for trying to live by the ethics of the kingdom, such as non-violence, justice for all, compassion for the poor and outcast, love of enemies, forgiveness for those wanting to make a fresh start. But those are clearly the ethics of the Beatitudes, of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt. 25, and in so many other parts of the gospel of Jesus.The gospel affects every aspect of our lives in the world. And the kingdom isn’t in heaven when we die if we’ve been good enough; it’s here, now, if we have eyes to see and hearts to trust and believe.
In his book The Secret Message of Jesus, Brian McLaren, tells a story from Tony Campolo, an American preacher and teacher. Tony was visiting a US city, and being in a different time zone he was wide awake one night, so decided to go for a walk. He ended up at about 3 am in a coffee and doughnut store. Sitting with his snack, he overheard two women talking nearby. They were evidently sex trade workers, on a break. One told the other it was going to be her birthday the next day. “Well, what do you expect me to do about it, Agnes?” said the other. “Buy you a cake?” “No,” said Agnes, “Noone’s ever done that. I’ve never had a birthday cake or a birthday party. I’m just saying it’s my birthday tomorrow, that’s all.” When the women left, Tony asked the coffee shop owner if they came in regularly. When he learned that they did, he said he’d like to arrange a surprise for Agnes the next night. And so they made some plans.
The next night, around 3 am, when Agnes and her friend walked in, Tony, the owner and his wife and some others all shouted out, “Surprise!” and presented her with a birthday cake complete with candles, then sang “Happy Birthday.” Agnes was so astonished and moved she burst into tears. And when it was time to blow out the candles and cut the cake, she asked if she could keep the cake whole so she could bring it home and just look at it for a while. After she left, Tony gathered everyone together to pray for the women. “I didn’t know you were a pastor,” said the shop owner. “What church do you belong to?” “Oh,” said Tony, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3 o’clock in the morning.” “No way!” said the man. “There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it.”
There is a church like that, and it’s the church of Jesus – in many forms and many places. It’s the sort of church we’re meant to be, as we carry out his mission.