Luke 7:18-23 (click to display NIV text)
May 5, 2013
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
John the Baptist announced the coming of the Messiah, calling people to repentance. Later he baptized Jesus and affirmed him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Those who heard the message of John and took it to heart were ready to receive Jesus and follow him. Then John was thrown into prison by Herod. It was at this time that John sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he was the Messiah, or should they wait for another to come. It is not clear whether John was expressing doubt in Jesus, or whether he just desired a word of clarification for himself or maybe for his disciples. What is clear is that he wants to know from Jesus what it is that the Messiah is to do.
Jesus tells John’s disciples that in watching him, they have seen and heard the fulfillment of scripture concerning the Messiah. His answer leads them to specific scriptures.
Isaiah 29:18-19: “In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see. Once more the humble will rejoice in the Lord; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.”
Isaiah 35:5, 6: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy.”
Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.”
So Jesus is doing what the Spirit of the Lord told him to do. What the Spirit told him to do is found in scripture. Jesus is the Messiah who listens to the Spirit and the Word, and does what he is told to do.
In Jesus’ day there were people who had physical conditions that made normal life impossible for them, and they were considered to be “sinners.” Very little was done to help them, except some limited charity. But mostly they were left alone to beg or survive however they could. The blind might receive some assistance in guiding them where they needed to go, but mostly they were left to beg. The lame or paralyzed were forced to sit in one place each day and not move until someone was willing to carry them. Lepers were excluded and made to live in isolation from the community. The deaf were left out of conversations and especially left out of the hearing of the Word of God. The poor were dependent upon the offerings that were set aside for them.
Jesus changed the thinking of ancient society and through his people the thinking of much of the world. Jesus began a great cultural shift with these words. His words took root in the church and in its understanding of the call of God. The vocation of the church became that of Jesus the Messiah. The great Christian calling became one to care for those people previously ignored.
From the ministry of Jesus arises a new compassion that fuels medical research and care, and the enormous energy that has been given to help people with physical disabilities. Rather than isolating people or calling them sinners, our society has come to believe in what Jesus said and did, so that in every way possible the blind should be helped to see, the deaf should be helped to hear, the lame should be helped to walk, lepers should be cured and the poor should be helped and lifted up. This is hard work, it is generational work, it is work carried on by individuals and by institutions. Progress is often slow, but all of this work has Christian roots and remains today central to Christian vocation. Followers of Christ are to become doctors and nurses and physical therapists and practitioners of sign language and researchers and missionaries and preachers and people involved in all manner of work to help those who are poor or disabled in any way.
Last week Jay Phelan talked about the number of people in the early church who died, not because they were martyred, but because they stayed in the cities where there was plague in order to care for the sick and dying and then died themselves of these diseases. In our own tradition of Pietism, the care of those in need came directly out of the experience of conversion to Christ as Savior. Eric Hawkinson wrote,
“The experience of grace softened the heart toward the other. Those who had been forgiven were ready to forgive; those who had tasted compassion became themselves compassionate. Hence, there flows from the revival a mighty tide of benevolence, at first spontaneous and unstructured, later ordered and institutionalized. The Mission Friends showed in a palpable way their concern for the wayfarer, the men who followed the sea, the sick, the child and the old.”
That is to say, first you meet Jesus, and come to a personal experience of salvation, and then you enter into a vocation of the Messiah. In some way in your life you do what the Spirit tells you to do, just as Jesus did what the Spirit told him what to do.
I ran across this quote that made me smile: “Someone said of the composer Gustav Mahler when they saw him on the streets of Vienna: ‘He did not look like a great man walking down the street. He looked like someone doing an imitation of a great man walking down the street.’ ” That was not a compliment to Mahler, and there is much that can be phony about trying to imitate someone, even Jesus. But I think we can turn it around and say that we are in fact to imitate Jesus while we are walking down the street. You are not Jesus. But you can embrace the vocation of Jesus. You can do what the Spirit tells you to do. You can agree with the Word of God.
Last week the Central Conference Annual Meeting was held in the town of Dolton ,in a church that looks like Jesus in its community. The town is a suburb near to Chicago, a town that looks old and in need of revitalization. The unemployment rate is 25 per cent. This church cares about the people of its community. They run a very large food pantry four days and week along with a soup kitchen and a mobile food center. They feed tens of thousands of people who come from a wide area. This is a church that cares about young people, and the pastors walk the streets talking to young people who might be in danger of joining gangs or causing trouble. They invite them to their outreach programs, and even have a boxing program for youth in their gym. One member told me there are no gangs in Dolton because of the ministry of this church to young people. This church has embraced the vocation of Jesus found in Luke chapter 7.
Jesus said that part of what he was called to do was to proclaim good news to the poor. The early church took that up and then started preaching good news to Gentiles. Good news is the news of forgiveness of sin, faith in Christ, the conversion of the heart that makes us friends with God. Good news comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The last part of Jesus’ statement is “the dead are raised.” It is the Messiah who dies for the sins of the world and is then raised so that death is not the winner, but God is. This is the good news we proclaim. By faith in Jesus Christ we have forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
In Communion we receive the Messiah and the vocation of the Messiah. By eating this bread and drinking this cup we are making a commitment to follow Jesus. We make a commitment to do what the Spirit and the Word of God tell us to do. Because Jesus the Messiah was faithful to his call, even to death on the cross, today we celebrate new life in the Kingdom of God.