Slow

Small

Simple

Still

Are You Still With Me?

So, friends, I’m curious: why are you here? 

Why are you a Christian? 

How are you hoping to benefit by being part of the Church? 

Here’s another way to ask the question: what if Jesus were to show up at your church, and take the pulpit, and say, “you know that thing you’ve been praying for with all your heart? — you’re not going to receive it. Someone else will! but not you. In fact, someone who totally doesn’t deserve it — someone you can’t stand — is going to receive everything that you long for; but you will not. In fact, I’m calling you to a life of sickness, and poverty, and helplessness.

“Are you still with me?”

That is the question I’d like you to keep in the back of your mind as we go. 

… 

But first, a recap: 

Once upon a time there was a kingdom ruled by an ancient dragon. And this dragon loved power above all things. And he taught the citizens of his kingdom to love power. Because the best way to stay in power is to keep your subjects divided, fighting each other for scraps of power and privilege. 

But there were these whispers, ancient prophecies that said the dragon had stolen the kingdom from its rightful king. And the prophecies said that one day the rightful king would send his son to drive the dragon out forever. 

The day arrives. The baby prince is born in secret. He grows up. He trains for battle. And then, when his Father says he is ready, the prince goes out to take back his Father’s kingdom. 

First the prince goes to a prophet, who officially anoints him king, just like prophets used to do in the days of the ancient kingdom. Then the prince goes into the desert, where the dragon meets him. The dragon negotiates with the prince, trying to persuade him to compromise. But the prince will not: he has been called to win back his Father’s kingdom, and that is what he is going to do.

So the prince returns from the desert and declares war on the dragon, and that is what this passage is about: these are the first shots of a war that will go on until Chapter 10, when the dragon’s army breaks and retreats, and the prince continues his triumphal march to his capital city. 

… 

So, as Luke tells us beginning in verse 14, Jesus returns from the desert and crosses the Jordan River — just like Joshua did in the Old Testament. And just like Joshua, he begins to conquer the land. He starts preaching in the power of the Spirit, and everybody really enjoys his preaching. 

But he is not just preaching, as we’re about to see: he is also doing some amazing miracles! So he gets really famous really fast. 

Then at some point in his speaking tour (verse 16), he passes through his kampung. So he goes to synagogue — Jewish “church” — and he volunteers to preach. And of course they let him, because he’s famous! 

So they hand him the book of Isaiah, he opens it, and reads this passage (verse 18): 

[18] "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, [19] to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 

Then he closes the book, passes it back, and sits down. And everybody stares at him. Because in those days the preacher sat down to preach. So he starts his sermon with (verse 21): "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." 

And he goes on…but Luke doesn’t write down Jesus’ sermon. He doesn’t need to. We already know that this is Jesus’ declaration of war on the dragon. And we know he would have preached through that passage. He would have started with: “‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me.’ I have been anointed King, specially called by God for one task: ‘to preach good news to the poor’. That means preaching to those who don’t usually get a chance to hear much good news. 

“But there’s more: ‘He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners’. That means I have come to make war on the dragon’s kingdom, and rescue all his citizens. 

“But there’s more! God has sent me to proclaim ‘recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed’. That means I have come not just to set the dragon’s citizens free, but to re-program their brains. He has taught them to love ambition and power and privilege. I am going to give them sight to see their deception, to change their lives! 

“I have come,” Jesus would have said, “‘to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor’. I am here to announce that the true Kingdom of God is here. I am the King, and I will defeat the dragon!” 

And the people are like, “yeah man! This is good news for us!” Because, after all, in verse 22: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

See, to the people of Nazareth, this is a “Home-Town Boy Makes Good” situation. They’re sitting there going, “hey, that’s Joe’s boy innit? And me and Joe, we went way back. And I’ve heard that Jesus has been doing miracles next door in kampung Capernaum. So I should ask him to heal this bad leg of mine!” 

Well, Jesus knows just what they’re thinking. So he says in verse 23: “I know what you’re all thinking. You’re thinking, ‘hey “Doc”, you’ve been healing people next door in Capernaum; don’t you think it’s time to hook us up too?’ 

“Well,” Jesus goes on, “I’m gonna tell you the truth: ‘no prophet is accepted in his kampung’. Sure, you want me to do miracles for you. You want the power and privilege that might come from being related to a guy like me. But you’re not actually listening to what I’m saying. In fact — let me make a prophecy here — once you understand what I’m saying, you’re gonna reject me!” 

And everyone’s like, “…okay. So what exactly are you saying, Jesus?” 

So Jesus gives them an example from the Old Testament: 

“Do you remember the Prophet Elijah? There was a famine in Israel for three years. Now, do you think Elijah’s relatives were starving to death? Do you think they might have wanted a miracle from their miracle-working relative? Instead, God sent Elijah out of the country, and a total stranger — a non-Jew — benefited from Elijah’s miracles. 

“And then do you remember Elisha? I’m telling you lots of people in Israel were dying of leprosy, cut off from salvation, cut off from the possibility of going and sacrificing and getting their sins forgiven. Do you think they might have wanted a miracle from their miracle-working Israelite prophet? Instead, God told Elisha to heal Naaman the Syrian — a non-Jew, and the war-captain of the enemy army!” 

And at that point the people are like, “…okay, so you’re saying that the ‘Spirit of the Lord’ that is upon you has told you not to do any miracles for us, but to only do miracles for everybody else — people who aren’t even related to you? Even non-Jews: our enemies and God’s enemies?” 

“Yep. That’s what I’m saying. 

“Are you still with me?” 

But the people are not still with him. 

See, they missed a key point of Jesus’ sermon. He has come to preach to the poor, to re-program the captives. That means un-doing the people’s dragonish obsession with power and privilege! The Spirit allows Jesus to heal people in other towns because those people are poor and they know they are poor. They don’t think they deserve healing. And because they approach humbly, confessing their need, Jesus heals them. 

Now, the people in Nazareth are also very, very poor. But by contrast to the people in the other towns, they’re now thinking, “pay up, dude! You owe us!” 

Why do they think Jesus owes them? Well, remember, Jesus lives in an Asian culture. He was born in the east, not the west. And in Asian cultures — actually, in almost every culture of that time — who you are related to means everything! Your family determines your identity, your destiny, your status in society. And now Jesus, “the son of Joseph”, the descendant of King David, is going to be the miracle-working, world-conquering Messiah? That’s great news for anybody who thinks they are related to him! Perfect health, infinite wealth, infinite power — the people of Nazareth think they’ve just won the lottery! 

And now Jesus has just snatched that winning ticket away and passed it off to some random guy! Because it is against his mission to indulge dragonish ambition and power lust! He has come to defeat that way of thinking! 

Now, put yourself in Nazareth in that moment. I’d be ready to kill. Wouldn’t you? 

So the mob grabs him, drags him out of town, and tries to throw him off a cliff. And that cliff is still there. Archaeologists have discovered that it was the town dump. 

But Jesus walks right through the crowd and goes on his away. 

… 

So he continues his speaking tour in verse 31. He goes to Capernaum — or, back to Capernaum, a nearby town — and on the Sabbath he preaches again, and again everybody is just really impressed with his preaching! 

— except one guy. Suddenly, from the middle of the congregation, there’s this out-burst in verse 34, "Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are---the Holy One of God!" 

It turns out nobody knew that congregation member was possessed by a demon. And I think we can imagine the scene: people screaming, trying to get away; because everyone knows that when these guys go crazy people get hurt. 

But then: [35] "Be quiet!" Jesus said sternly. "Come out of him!" Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him. And: [36] All the people were amazed and said to each other, "What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!" [37] And the news about him spread throughout the surrounding area. 

The people are even more amazed: not only does Jesus preach with authority, he commands demons with authority — something that no one else is able to do. Because at this point the dragon still rules the earth virtually unopposed. His demons are like an occupation army: their only job is to keep human beings from rising up in rebellion against the dragon. 

So the people of Jesus’ time lived in terrible fear of evil spirits. In the garbage pits of Judea archaeologists have discovered thousands of anti-demon amulets, all created by the Jewish version of bomoh. Most villages had at least one exorcist; and in fact travelling exorcists were normal in Judea at this time. That is probably what the people thought Jesus was at first: just another travelling exorcist. 

But now he has turned out to be the best exorcist they’ve ever seen! The other exorcists of that day were a lot like the bomoh of today: they used magic incantations and written spells, they would burn sacred plants and try to persuade the demon to leave the victim. But Jesus doesn’t use “magic” of any kind. He speaks. And the demon leaves. Just like that. 

And the people are completely floored. They have never seen anything like this before. No one has ever had authority like this over the dragon’s occupying army. 

… 

Now, after the synagogue service is over, this random guy Simon invites Jesus over for lunch. But Simon has an ulterior motive: his mom-in-law is sick with a high fever. And maybe this fever is caused by a demon. And Simon has just seen Jesus cast out a demon simply by speaking. 

So Jesus drops in for lunch, and then they say, “oh, by the way, mom’s really sick with a high fever.” So (in verse 39) Jesus rebukes the fever. It leaves her, and she gets up at once and starts to put lunch together. Just like that. 

And it is interesting that Jesus “rebukes” the fever, because that is the same word Luke uses when he tells us that Jesus “rebukes” demons. Is Luke trying to suggest that all fevers are caused by demons? No — though that is what many people believed at the time. 

No, what Luke is showing us is that Jesus is going to war against every tool the dragon has ever used to imprison humankind. When the dragon took management of the earth away from Adam, he brought in demons to help him control the population; now Jesus is casting out those demons. The dragon brought in sickness and death to help him control the population; now Jesus is casting out sickness and death. The dragon brought in ambition and power-lust to help him control the population; now Jesus is casting those out too. 

… 

Apparently all this has made quite an impression, because as the sun is setting the people bring all their sick to Jesus, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them. Just like that. 

And we should pause here long enough take note of one thing: what time of day is it? Sunset. Is Luke just giving us some descriptive flavour here, or is the time of day significant? 

Well, by this time we’ve figured out that Luke doesn’t waste any words. This is not for decorative effect, nor is he giving us an FYI, “oh, by the way, it was sunset.” Luke is hinting at another tool the dragon has used to keep the people in captivity: God’s Law. 

Oh, but actually it’s not God’s Law; it is a distortion of God’s Law that holds the people captive, a distortion introduced by men who serve the dragon. 

Let me explain: in the Old Testament, God’s Law said, “on the Sabbath Day, take a break. Get together for worship. Relax. Don’t do any work; don’t travel for work.” Now, that was meant to be a gift to God’s people. Just like we in Malaysia get a “gift” every three weeks or so: “oh, another holiday weekend? (sigh) Well, if you insist…” But the dragon’s servants had taken this gift and turned it into a curse. They said, “look, God’s Law says, ‘don’t do any work; don’t travel for work.’ That means you’re not allowed to carry anything, and you’re not allowed to walk more than two hundred steps. If you do, God will curse you.” 

And remember: this is the Sabbath day. So people are afraid to carry their sick and dying relatives to Jesus because they think they’ll be cursed by God if they do! They have to wait until sunset, when the Sabbath is officially over. Which is complete nonsense! Legalistic rules like that have nothing to do with God’s Law! 

So with this phrase “when the sun was setting,” Luke alerts us to Jesus’ next battleground: he is going to be dismantling the dragon’s legalism, false rules that keep the people living in fear of God’s curse. Jesus is going to restore God’s Law to what it was originally meant to be. Luke is saying, “pay attention! We’re going to hear a lot more about this topic in future!” 

… 

So the sun sets, the people bring their sick, all of them are healed, and in verse 41 demons came out of many people, shouting, "You are the Son of God!" But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ. 

— why does Jesus keep the demons quiet? Because they are blowing his cover. Remember, the “Son of God” concept is still very hazy at this time: the people are not yet ready to realize that God himself is walking around among them! — 

And at daybreak — having worked all night — Jesus goes out to a solitary place; a desert place. This is the same word used in verse 1 when Luke writes Jesus was “led by the Spirit in the desert”. So this chapter begins with Jesus in the desert, and here he is, at the end, back in the desert. Why? Does he need a break? Is he an introvert who needs “alone time”? Is the desert the best place to meet God? 

Some people have tried to suggest this, but no: for Luke, a mountain is where you go for rest and prayer and fellowship with God, just like Mount Sinai and Mount Zion in the Old Testament. For Luke, the desert is a place of testing, of battle. It is no coincidence that the people of that time believed the desert is where demons live. 

In other words, Jesus, after fighting sickness and demons all night, is led by the Spirit back into the desert to continue the battle. Jesus is so eager to win back his Father’s Kingdom he is taking the war into enemy territory! 

But the people can’t leave him alone. They look for him, and when they find him, they tried to keep him from leaving them. 

Why? Well, put yourself in the town of Capernaum at that time. A travelling preacher has shown up, and in a single night he has healed every illness, cast out every demon in town. Don’t you want to keep him nearby? 

I’d be there with the rest of the people saying, “hey, why don’t you stay? We’ll build you a mega-synagogue with stadium seating, and we can have healing rallies every night. And it’s a ministry, so we won’t charge people…very much.” 

So the town of Capernaum is making a similar mistake to the town of Nazareth. 

Nazareth thought, “yes! Health and wealth and power from Jesus the Dragon-Slayer (who owes us for being related to him)!” They totally missed the fact that by thinking like this they were serving the dragon. 

Now the people of Capernaum, who began with humility, are thinking, “wow! This guy is a great Dragon-Slayer! Let’s keep him all to ourselves!” — totally missing the fact that by thinking like this they are still serving the dragon they hate and fear. 

Fortunately, Jesus is not easily tempted. The devil failed to persuade him to set up his own kingdom; these people also fail to persuade him to set up his own lucrative Healing Ministry. Instead, he says, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent." [44] And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea. 

And here, at the end of this section, Luke highlights again Jesus’ true mission: he has come to preach. Is he a great healer? Yes. A great miracle worker? Yes. Is he the greatest exorcist who ever lived? Yes. Does Jesus list these great accomplishments on his CV? No. When the people say, “hey, stay here, do great things for us!” Jesus says, “I’m a preacher. I’ve got to preach.” 

And this is the beginning of a major theme of Luke’s: preaching is how God’s Kingdom is built. Preaching is how captives are set free, how the blind are given sight. Not through miracles, not through exorcisms, not through healings — through the preaching of the Word of God. 

But as usual, Luke has already hinted at this idea. Remember Mary, Jesus’ mom? She experienced all kinds of unusual and miraculous events concerning her son, but Luke makes it clear that she and Joseph didn’t really understand what was going on — until the very end of Chapter 2, where Luke writes this famous verse: “But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” That word “things” is the Greek word “rhema”, which means “spoken things”. She was not convinced by miracles, but by the “spoken things” that Gabriel, and Elizabeth, and Simeon, and Anna — and her own twelve year old son! — said to her. 

And remember John the Baptist? At the beginning of Chapter 3 Luke says “the word of God came to John in the desert”. Well, guess what word the original Greek uses for the “word” of God in that verse? It’s not “logos”. It’s “rhema”. “The ‘spoken things’ of God came to John in the desert.” 

And remember the devil? He is the first guy — but not the last guy — in Luke’s book to say, “Jesus, I don’t care about who you say you are; do a miracle for me, and then I’ll believe your words.” 

So Luke has been slowly and subtly setting up his paradigm almost from page one: the true disciples of Jesus listen to their King’s voice. Only the dragon and his followers demand miracles from the Son of God. 

… 

And this brings us back around to the question we are always supposed to ask of scripture: what does this ancient literature have to do with me? 

Well, what if Jesus stepped up here today and said, “you know that thing you’ve been praying for with all your heart? — you’re not going to receive it. I know that many of you are ill, and grieving, longing for relief, but I’m not going to heal you of those things yet. Because the truth is the dragon’s cancer has spread system wide. If I just cut it out of you all at once, there would be hardly anything left to save. 

“Instead, I’m going to heal you slowly, over many years, through my voice. Little by little my words are going to re-wire your brain, reformat your heart. Little by little those cancer cells will become healthy flesh. 

“But this healing process will require your entire lifetime to complete. There are no miracles for this kind of healing, no shortcuts. It will be long; it will be hard; but I will be with you every step of the way. 

“Are you still with me?” 

And this is a fair question for Jesus to ask. After all, the Father asked him this question just last week. At the heart of the devil’s temptations was the Father’s testing voice saying, “Son, the road will be long; it will be hard; but I will be with you every step of the way.

“Are you still with me?” 

And Jesus’ answer was, “Yes, Father, I will follow you! even to death if you lead me there.” 

… 

So: what if Jesus does not give you all the benefits you were hoping for in this life? Are you still with him? He is still with you, even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. 

I know there is a severe temptation today to respond like the people of Nazareth. There are certain teachers out there in the world who are saying, “Jesus is our brother, our Saviour! Therefore he owes us health, and wealth, and power.” Friends, that is the opposite of Christianity. Nazareth fell under Jesus’ curse for that kind of thinking. Not only did they fail to receive health and wealth and power, but they also failed to receive the Word of Life: Jesus never went back. 

The way of Christ is the way of the Cross, friends. Any teacher who tries to tell you otherwise is a false teacher. 

Does this mean that Christians never enjoy health, or wealth, or some measure of power in this world? No. Sometimes God does entrust those things to us — and that is the operative word: “entrust”. Anything he gives us is given us in trust that we will use those things to serve others and not ourselves. 

Which is actually what happened to the people of Capernaum: Jesus gave them everything that he denied Nazareth. And what did they want to do with it? “Lock it up! Keep it safe! A resource like this is much too valuable to just give away! I mean, come on! We’re talking about our future here! We’re talking about the future of our children!” 

Friends, this too is a severe temptation. Let us not give in to it! Let us remind one another that if we enjoy health and wealth and power, then it is God’s call upon us to be generous with those things! 

Jesus was sent to preach the good news of the Kingdom in the other towns; not all of us are called to be preachers, but we are all called to share the benefits of the Kingdom in the other towns — in the whole world. And I promise you, we will be held accountable for how generous we are with our resources. As Jesus says later on in Luke’s book, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” 

So friends, be careful what you pray for! God may just give it to you — and then it will be your responsibility to do something godly with that resource! 

Let us be generous. And above all, let us be faithful to the King who set us free — even if we don’t get all the benefits we expected. 

… 

Let me finish with some concluding unscientific postscripts, some literary nerd stuff: 

Luke has already hinted that the next time Jesus visits the temple Satan is going to ambush him there. Here, in this chapter, a demon ambushes Jesus in a synagogue. Jesus won this battle; is he going to win that one? 

That’s called foreshadowing. 

Earlier in this chapter Luke showed us how Nazareth welcomed Jesus at first, and then turned against him. Now, in the last verse of the chapter, we are told he keeps on preaching in the synagogues of Judea. Will Judea also turn against him? 

That’s called foreshadowing. 

In this chapter, Luke shows us that because Nazareth kicked Jesus out, all Judea benefited from his preaching. Later on, in Chapter 8 of the Book of Acts, Luke shows us that because Jerusalem kicks Jesus’ followers out, all the world benefits from their preaching. 

Coincidence? I think not. That’s called foreshadowing. 

And it shows us that God is the God of history, and that misfortune is not always actually misfortune: sometimes we suffer that others might benefit. 

And that is called the Way of the Cross. 

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