This sermon was delivered by Wendell L. Griffen, pastor of NewMillenniumChurch in Little Rock, Ark, on January 24 2010.
Luke 4:14-21is essential reading for anyone who desires to understand Jesus because it records what Jesus said he understood his purpose to be in life. This is not a commentary statement by Paul, John, Peter, James, Luke, Matthew, or some other religious figure. It is not an editorial statement by a Jesus admirer or critic. It is nothing less than the personal purpose statement of the purpose-driven Jesus.
However, Luke 4:14-21is nowhere quoted in one of the best-selling books about living with purpose. Remarkably, The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, pastor of SaddlebackChurch in Orange County, California, one of the most influential mega-churches in America, never quotes the personal purpose statement of Jesus Christ. The Purpose-Driven Life is a commercial hit. Many Christian congregations study it during the Lenten season. Passages from Scripture are cited in every chapter. Luke 4:14-21 is not cited anywhere.
We should ponder how well a Christian congregation or individual can accurately comprehend its mission, its purpose, and rightly function in obedience to Jesus Christ based on studying a book that flagrantly omits any reference to the personal purpose statement of Jesus Christ that is found in each of the synoptic gospels. That observation does not deny the importance of purpose, by any means. Rather, it shows how people can be considered well-known authorities on a subject while disregarding the most authoritative source on it.
I pray that we will not imitate Brother Warren, either as a congregation or individually, whether you find his books about purpose helpful or not. As we try to understand our purpose I hope we will intentionally and frequently be guided by what Jesus said concerning his purpose. If Jesus truly is Lord—as we claim and sing—and if we are His followers, then we should be following His sense of purpose in ministry. It is one kind of error when we stumble while trying to live out the purpose of Jesus. It is something else—and I dare to say the height of religious arrogance—for Christians to claim that we are living for him without even giving lip service to his personal purpose statement.
Doing so suggests several things. It suggests the possibility that we do not realize that Jesus had a sense of purpose. It suggests that we believe Jesus sensed his purpose, but don’t know what he said about it. It may suggest we know that Jesus sensed his purpose, said something about it, but that we don’t think what he said is worth our attention, let alone our obedience. It may also suggest that we believe Jesus sensed his purpose, said something about it worth noticing and obeying, but that we think our purpose is elsewhere. Perhaps we reject His purpose in favor others we find more tasteful, comfortable, or profitable.
Some people seek purpose in religious ceremony and rituals. Some people find purpose in congregational or denominational politics. Some people find purpose in private spirituality or in something else. Whatever we recognize as the inspiration for our purpose becomes the driving force for our actions for God.
We learn a number of things about living with purpose for God from what Jesus said about his purpose. Let’s examine them together.
Understanding Purpose is Primary! Jesus chose to read the passage from Isaiah 61 the first time he visited his hometown synagogue in Nazareth at the outset of this public ministry. In doing so, Jesus showed us that knowing one’s purpose is a basic, fundamental, and primary element in honoring God. Understanding purpose provides a foundation from which we can live for God and interact with the rest of the world. That is why it is so important that people are nurtured to understand what God has in view for their lives. Without that foundation, we will build our lives on foundations that are not God-inspired or God-focused.
The Holy Spirit provides our purpose in living for God. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … 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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ [Luke 4:18-19].
Robert Parham, Executive Director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tennessee (also the publisher of EthicsDaily.com), has written that “Luke 4:18-19 is one of the most ignored, watered down, spiritualized or glossed-over texts in many Baptist pulpits, evading or emptying Jesus’ first statement of his moral agenda.” Robert adds that in those verses “Jesus said the gospel was for the poor and oppressed, speaking to those at the margins of society. Jesus was announcing that he came to liberate from real oppressive structures the marginalized—the impoverished, the war captives, the poor in health, the political prisoners. Jesus came to turn the economic structures upside down, instituting the year of Jubilee when crushing debts were forgiven and slaves were freed.”
Jesus did not go around building religious social clubs. He did not pander to the powerful. Jesus was not interested in getting a faith-based grant from some politicians but in doing some faith-based advocacy and ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit to people who were frequently ignored and exploited by the religious, political, and economic system of his time. His ministry was not guided by a profit-motive, but by the purpose of God to liberate people from despair, poverty, oppression, moral and physical infirmities, and from a sense of being estranged from God and each other. His ministry focus was guided by the Spirit of God.
Let’s be clear. Jesus did not envision himself as leading a prosperity ministry. Jesus did not see himself as having been sent by God to make comfortable people feel religious, but to make poor, oppressed, imprisoned, afflicted, and outcast people understand and experience their welcome status in the economy of God. Jesus came proclaiming a social gospel because justice is always the social effect of divine love and righteousness. Where there is religion without an urgency to proclaim and effect justice, the inspiration for that religion must be understood as different from the Holy Spirit who inspired Jesus.
Religious ceremonies and rituals do not establish justice, for all their other benefits. Jesus did not say he was inspired to build great cathedrals, but to bring people out of oppressive situations. If we profess to follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit who guided him must also inspire and anoint us. Unless we are inspired and anointed by the Holy Spirit, we will find purpose from a source that Jesus did not claim or follow.
Purpose directs what we do and the people we touch. Jesus did not minister to sick, poor, oppressed, and outcast people by accident, but on purpose. He visited Zacchaeus the tax collector on purpose. He chased corrupt lenders from the Jerusalem temple on purpose. He warned about greed and violence purpose. What are we doing on purpose in obedience to the purpose of Jesus? If his purpose truly informs our living, what are we intentionally doing? Where are we intentionally doing it? Who are we intentionally serving, confronting, challenging, and delivering?
Purpose directs what we do and the people we touch. Purpose is what gave Jesus power. Purpose is what drove Moses back to Egypt. Purpose is what guided Elijah to confront the idolatry of his time. Purpose is what sent Jesus to Calvary and kept him there while his critics mocked him and dared him to come down. Purpose is what guided Martin King back to the South when he might have enjoyed a more comfortable life in the North after he completed his formal education.
Sisters and Brothers, the Holy Spirit is purposely concerned about people without healthcare. What are the followers of Jesus doing in obedience to that purpose? The Holy Spirit is purposely concerned about children who are being condemned to second-class living because their families are not nurturing them to enter the world as thinkers and the public education system does not care about them because of where they live and where their ancestors are from. What are the followers of Jesus doing in obedience to that purpose? The Holy Spirit is purposely concerned about adults who have given up on themselves because so many other people have told them they are not valuable. What are the followers of Jesus doing in obedience to that purpose?
Are there poor among us? Then the purpose of Jesus should impel us to address the causes of that poverty. Are there oppressed people among us? Then the purpose of Jesus should impel us to address the systems that keep them down, and the despair that prevents them from seeing a way out. Are their wounded and afflicted people among us? Then the purpose of Jesus calls us, pleads with us, and impels us to enter their suffering experience and be divine agents of liberation, healing, recovery, and hope.
Make no mistake, my friends. This is not a call to tourism Christianity where we drop in on suffering people at times and under circumstances we find convenient. This is a call to travel the Jericho Roads where people are beaten, bruised, and abandoned by the systemic powers of our time. It is a call to enter into the experience of people who are cast out of life because they are different. It is a call to walk like Jesus, live like Jesus, pray like Jesus, love like Jesus, heal like Jesus, be criticized like Jesus, become labeled as subversive like Jesus, and even to suffer like Jesus.
Let us not fall prey to the error of The Purpose-Driven Life and erect a religious system that manages to ignore the fundamental purpose of Jesus Christ. Let us hear the Spirit’s call about that purpose for our time, our place, and our living. Then, like Jesus, let us dedicate our lives to fulfilling that purpose to the glory of God. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.