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The Critical Transaction

Most Broadway musicals begin with something called an overture. The writer of the musical tries, in the early moments, to give us some sense of all the melodies, the tunes that are going to be heard throughout the next hour or two of the musical.

I suspect the biblical writers had that sort of thing in mind as they began to open up to us the story of Jesus in the four Gospels. In the earliest chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you have introductory stories, out of which flow the great themes that will be seen again and again in the life of the Lord. Therefore, these early stories are important to know.

In the early chapters of Luke, Jesus has come north to Galilee. Galilee is a region as well as a lake. Galilee as a region is about fifty miles square, with dozens and dozens, scores and scores of little towns and villages. The most prominent geographical point of Galilee is the lake, about fifteen miles north to south, and five miles at its widest from east to west. Around this lake is the great bowl of the Galilean countryside. It's into this area that Jesus comes.

At the southern area of the Galilean region is the city of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, from a boy into adulthood, where he served as a carpenter, probably providing for much of the needs of his family. Just at the top of the lake is this small town of Capernaum, where Jesus spent most of the last three years of his life. This was the springboard to his entire public ministry. It's between these two towns that Jesus moves back and forth in his early days. As a teacher or a rabbi would, he goes from town to town, from village to village. Among the most important visits he makes, in this overture period, are visits to the town of Nazareth and the town of Capernaum.

In this particular passage, Luke 4:16-21, we have the story of his first visit to Nazareth. He will go into the synagogue and open the Scriptures, read, and make some comments. There are four things I'd love for you to observe.

Jesus emerges into the fullness of his identity as the Son of God.

The first of the thoughts that leap off the page at me with some degree of enthusiasm are found in the first words of verse 14: "Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit." Jesus is walking and moving and acting "in the power of the Spirit." This phrase appears three times in just a brief section. Chapter 3:21-22: "And as he was praying, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him." Chapter 4:1: "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led into the desert where he was tempted." Chapter 4:14: "Jesus came to Galilee in the power of the Spirit." When you see a phrase repeated so frequently in a short space of time, let me suggest it be taken seriously.

Luke is saying to us that Jesus is emerging now in the fullness of his identity as the Son of God, co-equal with the Father. When you see Jesus, you see the Father. We can hardly understand the dynamic of that comment in the twentieth century. But in the first century, it's an important comment. To be filled with the spirit of your father was to say there was nothing between you and your father. You are as one. "And he who hath seen the Son hath seen the Father." Therefore, Jesus walking about in the fullness of the power and the sense of the Holy Spirit is one who is representing, in every way, his Father God.

Luke's book is not just about a great moral teacher or a wonderful philosopher. His book is not just about an exceptional human being in the religious world. His book is the revelation of God in the world, walking among human beings in fleshly form. He has taught us that Jesus is not half man and half God; Jesus is wholly man and wholly God. In a rational world, that's incomprehensible; but it's the mystery that the Scriptures have taught for these two thousand years, and that we gladly embrace when we say "I follow Jesus, the Son of God." Therefore, when he speaks and when he acts and when he calls, we had better listen.

Jesus confronts the people with their need to change.

In Mark 1:14, we have a reference to the same overture. After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee proclaiming the good news, or the gospel, of God. He said, "The time has come. Repent and believe the good news." At the boiling point of Jesus' public message, the key word will be "repent." You'll see it over and over again in all the Gospels. It means "change"—acknowledge that what you are, what you have been, and where you are going needs change.

In business terms, this would be called the critical transaction. This term refers to the one single event that all businesses need to have happen, the event that legitimizes or justifies everything else the business does. For example, in the airline business, the critical transaction is not when the plane takes off or when the mechanic fixes the plane. No, the critical transaction is when someone buys a plane ticket. It sounds so simple. But, if people do not buy plane tickets, nothing else can happen. The critical transaction happens at the counter. Interestingly, businesses often pay the people responsible for the critical transaction the lowest salaries and give them the poorest training.

Now, the critical transaction in a church, what would that be? This is something we've discussed in our pastoral staff training sessions. I've come to the conclusion that the critical transaction in a church is the moment someone says, "I want to or need to change." Until someone says Jesus' words, "I repent" or "I want to change," there is really nothing of value a church can do for them. It can entertain people, I suppose. It can inform people. But this is not what a church is constructed to do.

A church is meant to be a place where the power of Almighty God can be felt through the strength of the preaching of the gospel. But, it can only make sense in the heart, in the mind, through the ears of the person who says, "I need to change and grow." The church can't do anything for unrepentant people. That's why a lot of churches are not making it today. That's why a lot of people going to churches are having a less-than-exciting experience, because they go with expectations of the gospel that are different from what the gospel is supposed to provide. The gospel is only useful for people who want to change.

A lot of people don't want to change. Their defense mechanisms against change read like a book: Denial—"I don't need to change. Everything is fine." Blame—"Well, there are some changes that are necessary, but they're everybody else's fault." Defensiveness—"Well, that's just your opinion." Or, the other one we're doing a lot today is, Vindictiveness—"Yes, changes are necessary, but it's all your fault and I'm going to sue you if you don't change." So many people today have built walls around themselves and never look within themselves and ask the question, "Where does change, growth, and development have to happen in me?"

E. Stanley Jones, the great missionary evangelist of the Methodist church in India for years, went around the countryside holding what he called ashrams, or retreats. People would come for two to five days in the pursuit of spiritual renewal. When they got there, he would gather them in the first meeting and say, "I have three questions I want you to wrestle with in the next moments. The first question is: Why are you here? The second question: What do you need? And the third question: What do you want God to say to you?"

I think that no worship service, no Sunday school class, no small group, no retreat ought ever begin until people stop for a moment, sit reflectively, and wrestle with those three questions. Why are you here? What do you need? What do you want God to say to you? As Jesus spoke in synagogues and to people in the countryside, in effect, that's what he was constantly saying: "Folks, I've come to offer you an opportunity for change. But my opportunity and my message will make no sense to any of you unless you come to me with softened, opened hearts, ready to say, 'I have a deep need which I sense only you can meet.'" When it comes to the gospel, nothing works in any valuable way unless a woman or a man says at the beginning, "I need to change."

Jesus proclaims his emergence in messianic ministry.

Jesus stands up to read, and the text for the day comes from Isaiah 61:1-10. But Jesus reads only four or five verses. Listen to them again: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he's anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and to release the oppressed and to proclaim the acceptable or the year of the Lord's favor." Now drop down to verse 21: "And having read the Scriptures, Jesus sits down. Today what I just read has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Suddenly you realize that he's not given just another Bible reading. He has pronounced a fulfillment of a prophecy. The Son of God says, "Something is happening, ladies and gentlemen, in this room right now, which Isaiah predicted five, six hundred years ago." There's something important here in the overture. Notice the four groups of people who are the target audience in Isaiah's passage. They are the poor. The imprisoned. The blind. The oppressed. Notice the one who fulfills the passage. He has been anointed. He is to proclaim. He is to liberate. He is to release. Powerful words.

The poor. When we hear the word poor, I suspect virtually every one of us thinks: "We live in a country where there's no need for a person to be poor." Many of you have parents who were poverty stricken in the Depression years, or during the war years, and you're not poor. We have a culture that tells us that there's no reason why a person should be poor. That may not be true, by the way, but that's what we have told ourselves. When you go back to the first century, that way of thinking was not true. If you were born poor, you died poor. There was no way a poor person could bounce out of poverty in any way, shape, or form. The poor were always poor.

The imprisoned. We live in a culture where, if you get a decent lawyer, you can get sprung. Prisoners often get out. There's little reason for most prisoners to think of themselves as being in a hopeless condition. But in that day and age, if you were a prisoner, you didn't get out. There was no appellate system. There were no trial lawyers who could plead your case. Most likely, you died as a prisoner.

The blind. Disease was rampant in this ancient period. Lots of people were blind or went blind during the course of their lives. Once you went blind, you didn't see again. There was no medicine, no cataract surgery or other procedures that we take for granted in the wonderful world of medicine. No, when you were blind, you stayed blind.

The oppressed. That's a slavery word. There was no release of slaves in those days. If you were born a slave or captured as a slave, you died a slave. This is the first important thing about this reading that Jesus has focused on. His ministry is to people who are in an absolutely hopeless state of affairs, who are totally powerless to beat their situation.

In a wonderful book called The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite theologian, has looked at this paragraph and said, "Jesus has seized an economic metaphor to describe his target audience." Yoder and others would say Jesus is telling us that his ministry, in a very physical sense, is a ministry to the literal poor, to the literal prisoner, to the literal blind, to the literal slave. I think Yoder is right. One of the blind spots in the evangelical church has been its failure to understand how desperately Jesus cared for the physical poor. We can't spiritualize everything in the Bible. There's a lot there about genuine poverty and oppression, and all the implications of racism and the violence of our cities. If Jesus were walking the earth today as he did then, he wouldn't spend most of his time in places like Lexington. He'd be in the Bronx in New York, and he'd be in Dorchester and Roxbury where people really understand suffering. I think he'd express a bit of impatience at some of us who really don't care about these things.

Others have come along and said Jesus is using an economic metaphor to describe the spiritual condition of people. I also agree with them. I'm really on safe ground here. I think Jesus shows in his ministry that he not only cares about the physical poor, but he also uses this metaphor to go into the souls of people.

"Today the Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." I have always looked at this as Jesus announcing his emergence in messianic ministry. But there's something else here in addition to that. Jesus is saying something about the crowd that was listening to him. "You are the poor," he is saying to that synagogue in Nazareth. "You are the blind. You are the prisoners. You are the enslaved." Who, me? Me, with my Harvard degree? Me, with my secure job in upper management for Hewlett-Packard? Me, with my civil service job from which I can't get fired? Me, with this healthy body I've got, this lovely family I have? Me, with my nice car? You're talking about me in terms like that?

I can hear the synagogue in Nazareth reacting like that. I can see the prophetic finger of the teaching Christ as he begins to elucidate upon this Scripture. "I want you people to know I'm not looking at the surface of your lives—where people categorize you in terms of the model of your car, or the town in which you live, or your degree, your job, the money you've got, or the clothes you wear. I want you to know I am looking right at the center of your souls. Do you know what I see, men and women? I see poverty. I see imprisonment. I see blindness. And I see enslavement. And I've come to speak to people like you."

When I looked at that passage for the umpteenth time this week, I suddenly shook my head and thought, That's what Jesus would say if he came to Grace Chapel. "You're a swell group of people, folks, easy to love, nice to be around. But when I look down to the depths of your souls, let me tell you what I see."

Jesus restores us to freedom.

For all those people who look into their own souls and say, "I need to change," have I got good news for you! Look at the last phrase of Isaiah: "I've come to proclaim the acceptable year or the year of the Lord's favor." What Isaiah refers to and Jesus reaffirms is something in Leviticus 25 called "The Year of Jubilee." In the ancient Hebrew mind, the Year of Jubilee was the fiftieth year in history. It was the year when all debts were settled. If I had to give you my property because I was so poor I couldn't eat, on the fiftieth year, you gave the property back. It was as if God said in the Book of Leviticus, "Every fiftieth year with no conditions, no qualifications, I want everybody to push the reset button and go back to life as it once was. There is a new start for everybody every fiftieth year." Think of it. Are you heavy into MasterCard or Visa these days? Fiftieth year, you're free. Jesus says, "You know that Year of Jubilee? That's what I've come to announce. This is a Jubilee coming, folks, and the poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed, are all going to be freed, if they will say, 'I need to be changed.'" That's the gospel. That's what the cross made possible. That's what Jesus came to give, and that's what the overture is telling us about the forthcoming years of Jesus' life.

There are so many of us who need to be freed. The energy we use to cover up and to smile nicely and to pretend that underneath, there is nothing of concern—who are we kidding? We're no different than that synagogue in Nazareth. We're just everyday folks, and we need to change, too.

I remember listening to the Barbara Walters interview with Greg Louganis. He had won six or more Olympic gold medals. People had said that he was possibly the most perfect diver that history would ever see. During the interview, there came a point where he could hold it in no longer, and said something along the lines of: "I'm HIV positive. I've lived a life that I've had to keep secret from everybody. I've been so fearful of telling about what's going on in my life that I've jeopardized the lives of other people, but I couldn't tell you my secret." As I watched him talk, I wondered—what made it so necessary for this man to have kept his deceit to himself? What is there about a system that said to this man "You're not in a safe world where you can tell us what's happened"?

I would love to have gone up to Greg Louganis, put my arms around him, and said, "Friend, if there's no other place of safety, I know of a community where there are people just like you who have gone beneath the surface of life and said, 'I need to be changed.' There is a place. There is a word. And there is a person who can change your world." I think this man resembles all of us. We are the kinds of people Jesus came to save.


So I throw the questions out to you one more time. Why are you here? What do you need? What do you want God to say to you? That's the overture to this wonderful story of Christ, and we will see him repeat this story over and over again. The question left waiting, dangling before us is: Do we have the ears to hear what he says to us?

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

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Sermon Outline:


In the earliest chapters of the gospels you have introductory stories, out of which flow the great themes that will be seen again and again in the life of the Lord.

I. Jesus emerges into the fullness of his identity as the Son of God.

II. Jesus confronts the people with their need to change.

III. Jesus proclaims his emergence in messianic ministry.

IV. Jesus restores us to freedom.


Do we have the ears to hear what Jesus is saying to us?