When I played sports growing up (field hockey and lacrosse), I was often told that I was “scrappy.” I think that meant I wasn’t always as skilled as the other players, but I refused to let that hold me back. I would usually come out with a few bumps and bruises, and during one memorable lacrosse season I received the superlative award “Most Likely to Be Carded.” Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved the Flyers. They’re scrappy, too. Or better yet, gritty. As is Jesus’ message: it takes heart, it takes determination, and it isn’t always pretty. Let me know what you think!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you’ve been following along with our sports sermon series, you know that this week it’s all about Gritty, the newly unveiled mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. And you might be wondering just what exactly Gritty has to do with Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth. Gritty is a seven-foot-tall, furry orange creature with googly eyes. Legend has it that Gritty emerged after construction work on the Wells Fargo Center, where the Flyers play, destroyed his natural habitat.
Really though, the Flyers realized they were one of only three teams without a mascot, and wanted to get in on the fun. In designing Gritty, they agonized over every detail. How tall should he be, how long should his hair be, how big should his eyes be. They even debated whether or not to give him a belly button. But one thing that was never in doubt was his name: Gritty.
Because if one word encapsulates Flyers’ hockey, it’s gritty. From their early days as the first expansion team in the NHL, through the golden years of the 70s, and to today, the Flyers have been proud of their reputation as a rough-playing crew. In the 70s, in the course of winning the Stanley Cup two years in a row, they earned the nickname, “Broad Street Bullies.”
They had a reputation around the league for their physical, rough style of play. Dave Shultz set a league record with 472 penalty minutes. Others teams criticized the Flyers, though, saying that they weren’t doing things the “right way.” They weren’t respecting the game.
But in 1976, the Soviet Red Army team was touring the US in exhibition games. They’d been cleaning up. No one could beat them. They played like a well-oiled machine, every move perfect. The final game of the exhibition series would be in Philadelphia. Suddenly, the Broad Street Bullies, instead of being the black sheep, were America’s last hope for victory.
Their play was so rough, that the Soviets left the ice, refusing to play. Only after they were threatened with the loss of their salaries did they return. The Flyers won easily, 4-1. The Bullies had proven that you could beat perfect precision with a lot of heart and some good old-fashioned grit.
You might still be wondering, “What does this have to do with Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah?” What is gritty about that wonderful promise that Jesus has come to announce the year of the Lord’s favor? To bring good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free?
Jesus is, essentially, declaring his mission statement to the gathered crowds at the synagogue. Last week, I mentioned that turning water into wine was Jesus’ first public act of ministry in John. In Luke, it’s this reading. This is the very first thing Jesus does after being baptized and then tempted by Satan. He’s telling us what his ministry is going to be about and although it might not seem like it at first, it’s going to be gritty.
Jesus comes to bring good news, to announce God’s salvation. But good news isn’t always easy news, or comfortable news. Sometimes, it’s challenging news. Notice how specific this announcement is: good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Freedom for the oppressed. What if you’re not a captive? What if you’re not only not oppressed, but privileged? What if you’re not poor, but might in fact, have more than enough? This good news just got a little more complicated.
When Jesus mentions “the year of the Lord’s favor,” he’s talking about the Jubilee year. The time, every fifty years, when all debts are forgiven, all slaves are freed, all lands are returned to their original owners. Good news if you’re a slave, or in debt, or lost your land. Not so great if you own slaves, or own debts, or acquired land in the last fifty years. This good news is starting to seem a little offensive.
People are starting to question whether it’s good news at all. The very next thing that happens after our reading today—the people of Nazareth, Jesus’ friends and neighbors, people who have known him all his life—they run him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff, because they are very sure that this is NOT good news. They don’t succeed, but others will, later on, when they crucify Jesus for living out this very mission. They didn’t think it was good news, either.
So, what do we think? What do we think of this Jesus who has come to bring salvation, who has come to announce the year of the Lord’s favor? Is it good news for us? Or is it troubling? Perhaps it’s both. Because the announcement of the year of the Lord’s favor might mean difficult things for us. It might mean giving up some of the things that make us privileged in the name of justice. God’s jubilee might mean that we have to adjust the way we do things.
But Jesus’ announcement—that he has come to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free—it is surely good news for us and for all people. It might be complicated, it might be messy, but it is most definitely good. Because it means that God comes to bring salvation, not for the perfect but for the imperfect. Not for the healthy, but for the ill. Not for the righteous, but for the unrighteous. Not for the strong, but for the weak. God comes to bring salvation, that is, for us.
God comes to free us from what keeps us bound, to make whole what is broken, to bring hope where there is despair, forgiveness where there is pain and new life where there is emptiness. And not just to us, but to all society. In the Jubilee year, the land itself was restored and renewed. God’s salvation is for all the earth, that our world and society might be set free from hate, from evil, from greed.
And that salvation is now. Jesus gives possibly the shortest sermon ever after he reads from Isaiah. Just nine words: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Today. God’s good news, with all its complexities, with all its grittiness—it isn’t waiting from some distant future day. Today, this day, God brings release. Today, God brings liberation. Today, God brings healing and renewal.
Because today, we receive the same one who declared his mission in Nazareth all those years ago. May we receive the healing, hope, and good news he brings. And may we make his mission our own. Amen.