In 1958, Clifton Hillegass and his wife started a publishing business in the basement of their Lincoln Nebraska home. They began with Shakespeare, explaining the great works of literature in plain English for non-English majors to understand. Hundreds of titles later, CliffsNotes have become the study guide of choice for students cramming before the exam, for undergraduates who can’t finish the assigned reading, for anyone who only wants to know the important stuff.
Luke’s Gospel appreciates a good summary too. After forty lonely days and forty famished nights, struggling with whether to be the carpenter or the Christ, Jesus thwarts the Devil’s wilderness temptations and returns to his boyhood home. There, he stands up in the synagogue to preach his inaugural sermon, his manifesto of ministry to come.
If today’s text, as Jesus intended, is the canon within the cannon of Christianity, then what do we learn about God?
Luke 4:14-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 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 bring good news to the poor. He has sent me 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.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus proof-texted Isaiah’s prophecy, including Gentiles instead of judging them.
Scripture isn’t equally weighted, some verses are more Gospel than others.
If the world won’t care for the poor, then God will.
Will Willimon was invited to preach in a impoverished downtown congregation. Expecting to preach 30 minutes into the service, he didn’t stand up until 1.5 hours in because of 6 hymns, lots of speaking and clapping… Willimon asked the pastor why the service was running so long? The pastor answered, “Unemployment runs nearly 50% here. That means that, when our people go about during the week, everything they see, everything they hear tells them, ‘You are a failure. You are nobody. You are nothing because you do not have a job, you do not have a fine car, you have no money.’ So I must gather them here, once a week, and get their heads straight. I get them together, here, in the church, and through the hymns, the prayers, the preaching say, ‘That is a lie. You are somebody. You are royalty! God has bought you with a price and loves you as his Chosen People.’ It takes me so long to get them straight because the world perverts them so terribly.”
Regrettably, Christianity too has been part of that perversion by succumbing to the wilderness temptations: Turning stones into bread to feed our own gluttonous habits. Bowing to the idols of Empire to secure our worldly authority. Ascending the pinnacles of superiority to look down on others.
But if the abridged version of scripture instructs us on where God is going when we forget, then here are the bullet points:
If the culture clamors for high society, then Jesus soils himself with menstruating blood, touches the untouchable and takes up residence in the leper colony.
If the predatory lenders exploit the minimum-wage worker, then Jesus ushers in the year of jubilee, bankrolls the interest, and forgives all debts.
If indentured servitude shackles the alien in bondage, then Jesus is the ambassador of amnesty, becoming a slave for the world’s freedom.
If the blind and bludgeoned are quarantined behind closed hospital doors, then Jesus relentlessly moves towards suffering, crucifying his own body to as the divine physician.
But if there is one word highlighted in bold type for every student of faith to memorize on their hearts, we learn thatGod’s love isn’t experienced in the regret of yesterday or the fantasy of tomorrow, but rather right now. Jesus said, “Today.” Today the wait is over. Today the last will be first. Today the kingdom is coming. Today the Spirit has anointed me. Today the scripture has been fulfilled.
While CliffsNotes is no substitute for the entirety of God’s Word, it does help us get straight about the important stuff. So the next time you’re cramming for the exam of life, uncertain about the mission statement of Messiahship, or the job description of the Church, or the definition of discipleship, just reread Jesus’ first sermon entitled, “Good News to the Poor.”