“Good News to the Poor” / Luke 4:14-21 / 27 January 2019
It never goes well when a hometown boy goes back to the church where he grew up and claims to be the messiah. At least, if that’s how folks heard Jesus’ words, then you can’t blame them for being skeptical. Old Lucy, who used to bounce him on her knee in the nursery; an aging Mr. Evans, who taught a young Jesus in his Sunday school class; all the folks who stood by and watched him grow up—of course they could never accept the claim that Jesus is the long-awaited one of Israel. They knew too much about him and his family. Or perhaps they knew too little, like the ever-looming question of Jesus’ paternity. But Jesus is not exactly saying that he’s the messiah. He’s not making any grand and lofty claims about himself. All he’s saying is, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and God has called me…to bring good news to the poor; 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.” He’s the village carpenter, and he’s come home to reinvent himself under this new banner. He’s just telling people what his life is going to be about from here on out. Good news to the poor, release, recovery, freedom from bonds. If you were to stand in front of your church—as Jesus did that Sabbath day so long ago—if you were to stand in the presence of this congregation and tell us what YOU are all about, what would you say? What’s your life’s topic sentence, your song?
The Washington Post recently published a piece written by a hospice physician that asked, “What’s the last song you want to hear before you die?” The writer had entered the hospital room of a dying woman to find her family playing her an old Elton John song on an iPhone. It was “Crocodile Rock,” one of those vaguely familiar songs that most people have heard, even if they don’t remember the name. The family was embarrassed to disturb the solemn stillness of the hospital with such a silly old song, but they said apologetically, “She really loved this.” And so the doctor shared his musings with the Post. Then someone on Facebook shared the article with a band of Presbyterians and asked them, “What’s the last song you want to hear before you die?” The question caught people’s attention, and it got 127 answers. What do you think they said? What would you say? The answers ranged from predictable to unexpected, from pious to borderline blasphemous. Songs that kept resurfacing were Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, Morning Has Broken, Be Still My Soul—all of which are popular at funerals. Of course, Precious Lord, Take My Hand was a popular choice, as was Abide with Me, which was written by a minister dying of tuberculosis. And because this was a bunch of Presbyterians answering the question, many specified that they wanted to hear their song played on the bagpipes, which seemed like a lot to ask, but wishes are wishes. And if Precious Lord, Take My Hand, played on the bagpipes, won’t hasten your soul to glory, then I don’t know what will.
But others had less reverent answers. Someone requested I Will Survive. Another few folks from my generation wanted to hear the Star Wars theme. One wag suggested Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, “because it’s really long.” An older person said that they wanted to hear anything written in 2042. Still another specified Happy Birthday to You—100th birthday, to be exact. Another person wanted to hear No Hard Feelings, by the Avett Brothers. I looked it up, and it’s good, very good. Still others simply picked songs, much like Crocodile Rock, that served as the soundtrack to the best days of their lives, regular old top forties, stuff I mostly didn’t recognize by Carly Simon and Rush, or stuff I did recognize by Air Supply and U2.
Well, what’s it going to be? What’s the music of your life? The writer of the article thought music in hospice care was a great idea because, “Listening to familiar music can release neurotransmitters such as dopamine,” making one’s passage more joyful. What song do you want to hear? It’s really hard to pick just one. I did not share my answers on Facebook, but since this is what we’ve come to, in the life of the world, I did consider making a deathbed playlist on my cellphone. Oh, I know it sounds morbid, but we might as well harness technology to suit our purposes, right? There would be no bagpipes at all, and very few songs that other people would even recognize. The first one that came to mind was a song from the late 80s called A Familiar Face, by that obscure alternative band, The Ocean Blue. It’s a dreamlike song with wise words that used to make me feel like all would be well. Then I thought of a song by a Cameroonian singer that was popular when I lived over there, in the 90s. Cameroon has over 100 tribal languages, and the song is sung in one of the many tongues I do not know. I understand not a word of it. But its music has always spoken to me of things eternal. And as long as other people are using movie songs, I might do Into the West, by Annie Lennox. Her voice sounds like childhood to me. Finally, there’s a tune I’ve heard nearly every Sunday of my life for the last 28 years, a tune as old as the Protestant Reformation. You know it as the Doxology, but it’s also used to sing Psalm 100, All People That on Earth Do Dwell. Solemn, medieval, familiar, using the words of my favorite book of the Bible (the Psalms), giving all glory and thanks to God. That’d be a nice exit.
Ah, but let’s not be gloomy! We’re not talking about exit music here in the Book of Luke. No, on the contrary, we’re talking about Jesus making a grand and glorious entrance—which is probably a lot harder to do. Of course, Luke’s gospel is filled with grand entrances—as the Christmas story proves. But once that triumphant entrance was made, with its shepherds and angels and kings, Jesus’ life fell silent for many years. It seemed like a great, splendid gate with wrought iron and pillars, but leading nowhere. Jesus remained unnoticed well into adulthood. But the Spirit that hovered over his bed of straw in the form of a star, in the night skies over Bethlehem, continued to watch over him as he grew. By the time he stepped into the chilly baptismal waters of the Jordan, the Spirit was still haunting him, lingering nearby on the wings of a dove. And now that Spirit swooped upon him with its talons drawn. Now that Spirit drove him out into the wilderness to meditate on the life he must leave behind and the one he must take up. That swooping Spirit has anointed him to bring good news to the poor, release, healing, freedom, and justice. And what’s the first thing he says when he steps into the pulpit in his home synagogue at Nazareth? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”
At first, I read this passage and shuddered because it looked like Jesus had gone into the pulpit completely unprepared. They handed him a Bible book, he read, then he preached. But upon reflection, I understood that Jesus was quite prepared. His whole life had been leading up to this moment. Jesus had chosen his theme song very intentionally, as he reinvented his life and mission. He chose a passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and God has called me…to bring good news to the poor; 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.” Interestingly enough, Jesus has done what all preachers do from time to time; he’s dropped the unpleasant part of his Bible passage, for Isaiah 61 goes on to say, “the day of the vengeance of our God.” But this is the song of Jesus’ new ministry and life, where vengeance has no part.
No, no vengeance here, but good news, recovery, release, freedom. And not just any good news, but especially to the poor. And not just any release, but especially to the prisoners. This is the banner that Jesus raises over his own life, this is the stated purpose that he pronounces over it. And while it’s certainly true that you and I are poor in certain respects, and blind in some regards, and imprisoned by the things we love—or hate—too much to let go, it’s also true that Jesus is talking here about the truly oppressed, the truly poor, the truly imprisoned. He loves us all, but the disadvantaged and the marginalized of this world are his first priority. Don’t blame me! He could have picked any verse he wanted from the Hebrew Bible to kick off his life in ministry. He could have played them any tune at all at his debutant sermon. And this is the one he chose to define him.
We’ll return to that in a moment. But first, I wonder why Jesus decided to get himself type-cast? You know what type-casting is. It’s when Hollywood decides that an actor comes across as a bad guy, and so they only ever assign him the role of the villain. Or they might decide that an actor just seems too innocent, or too comical, or too serious to play any role except one kind. Type-casting is why we were all so amazed when Vincent Price started doing cheese commercials in his old age. We thought the man slept in a coffin, and here he was peddling cheese. Type-casting is why actors who starred in famous TV shows like Friends and Seinfeld end up disappearing altogether. Jim, from The Office, is trying his hand at action movies, but truly, no one can imagine these well-known TV actors as anything other than what they’ve always been.
Shouldn’t Jesus be a man for all people and all occasions? Why would he want to get himself type-cast merely as a patron saint of the outcast and downtrodden? Can you imagine being known for just one thing, throwing your life behind just a single slogan or line? With all human compassion and respect, no one wants to become the Dell Dude. You remember him. He appeared on about 26 very successful Dell Computer ads from 2000 to 2003. He was an easygoing, chirpy, West Coast sort of teenager who finished every ad with his famous tagline, “Dude, you’re gettin’ a Dell.” Ben Curtis, the actor who played the Dell Dude, got caught buying marijuana in the Lower East Side, and Dell fired him. He claims that he got blacklisted from all future acting gigs because of the marijuana conviction. But honestly, a little bit of weed isn’t going to break Hollywood’s heart. If Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp can still get parts, then it’s not about an actor’s drug use. It’s because when people see this guy, all they can think is, “Dude, you’re gettin’ a Dell.” When you identify yourself with a single cause, you risk sacrificing all of life’s other possibilities for a single thing. Then you’re no longer seen as a full, rounded human being with depth, and angles, and privacy, and mystery, and joys, and woes. Now you’re seen as a cereal box cartoon character, and anyone who dislikes your brand dismisses you on sight. Isn’t that the risk when a public figure ties himself or herself to a single idea? Isn’t that what happens when we take up slogans, and choose theme music, as Jesus is doing right here at the beginning of his ministry?
Perhaps. But if your choices are to throw your life’s energies into a single principle or else to never quite decide what you’re all about, then surely it’s better in the end to choose one thing over many—or none. Better to concentrate than to dissipate. Jesus is coming out strong with a new identity, one that’s been visited on him by the Spirit, that’s been haunting him, and one that will drive him in the end to take up a cross. His life has a purpose, and that’s a beautiful thing: good news to the poor, healing to the broken.
Hafez, the medieval Persian poet, said, “The words you speak become the house you live in.” This is the house that Jesus built for himself, the song he chose to be his theme. He lived for it. He died for it. He lives again in us and through us…for it. If he had tried to be a jack-of-all spiritual trades, history might have forgotten him. But he declared himself instead under a single banner—a friend of the marginal and the guilty. Jesus knew that a bannerless life is a directionless life, a life cut adrift, tossed like a small boat by the waves of private whims, buffeted by the winds of culture, pushed about by the gales of fleeting happiness and loss. A bannerless life is without roots, adaptable, easily moved about from place to place. It’s flexible and resilient—those are some of its strengths. But when the storm clouds gather overhead, we all need a spiritual and emotional refuge to come home to—a sense of who we are and what we’re about. We all need to know our life’s tune. Jesus chose for himself a single song, one by which he could live and die. What’s your song? Can the world hear it? Is it anything like his?
This is one thing I love about writing funerals and memorial services for people that I’ve known down through the years of sharing church life together. Preparing a funeral gives me an opportunity to talk with the person’s loved ones, see sides of them I never got to see, learn things I never knew. And then I sit with their memories, listen for recurring themes, and piece together the notes, and the pauses, the chords, the sharps and flats that made up the song that they chose to dance to in this life. That’s the thing: we’re all going to dance. Some will just dance to whatever music is playing at the time, never knowing that the musician takes requests. Jesus chose his song: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and God has called me…to bring good news to the poor; 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.” It doesn’t matter what song you hear when you die. What matters is the song you play while you live. What’s your song? Amen.