How does one capture, in words, a life in love with God? That’s a great part of what I love about our faith experience. I like to think of religion as a framework upon which we have relationship with God. And, as in any relationship, how we express ourselves – the words we use and how they shape what we mean – bear the potential for great excitement. Words are vessels of creation.
Take our gospel lesson for today. There are some fascinating things going on in this scene.
First of all, it’s another “beginning moment” in Luke’s gospel. It’s Jesus’ first public speech. Speech is not, actually, the best term here, though. Sermon is a little closer. But “prophetic demonstration” might be most apt. Words.
Jesus has come to his home town, after having been baptized out by the river and subsequently having spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. He returns, filled with the power of the Spirit – his wilderness experience, perhaps like so many wilderness experiences, having strengthened him. And his being filled with spiritual power, this being announced at the very beginning of today’s passage, characterizes all that will follow.
He enters the synagogue on the Sabbath and, being one who regularly participates in the religious life of the community, comes forward to read. He’s handed a scroll. It’s the writing of the prophet Isaiah. He chooses a passage and speaks,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the 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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then, dramatically, he rolls up the scroll, returns it to the attendant, and sits down – sitting being the posture of the teacher. All eyes are on Jesus. The passage he has chosen is familiar to them. It’s writing from Isaiah which references two main themes. The first is the Jubilee Year in Judaism. This was when, every fifty years, all things would be set aside for liberation and restoration – when slaves would be treated more like hired hands, and all Israelites would return to their ancestral land. Debts forgiven. Isaiah Chapter 61 was interpreted in first century Judaism as a reference to the Jubilee and to the restoration, after the exile, which it envisioned.
The second theme was that of the Spirit of God, and how that Spirit rests on the speaker for the purpose of proclaiming good news to the poor. It’s a moment of “Messianic Expectation”. And so, with accepted interpretations of the words of their beloved prophet, and with a delicious sense of hopefulness, the assembly sits in expectant wonder. How would the strange young rabbi affirm their hopes? A pause. Silence. And then,
“Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!”
Jesus claims to be anointed by the Spirit of God to do what these words said:
• Proclaim good news to the poor
o It’s already apparent to his listeners that Rome has created an entirely new class of poor tenant farmers
• Free the prisoners
o Implying those who Rome holds against their will
• Proclaim new sight for the blind
o Be they physical healings or the removal of spiritual blindness through his insightful teachings or both.
Surprisingly significant is his use of the word “today”. The liberation he proclaims is not postponed until after death, or on the other side of apocalypse, that may include the literal destruction of the space-time universe. One simple word plants a seed – the seed of his message that the kingdom of heaven is among you.
We noted earlier that this moment in Luke’s gospel is another “beginning moment”. These moments are important. First things matter in the gospels. They set the tone and name the priorities for the narrative to come. It’s fair to say that Luke has a particular gift for literary use of such moments. His beautiful birth narrative, for example – the story of Jesus’ birth – functions, in the minds of many scholars, as an overture, much the way an overture would function in an opera or even musical comedy. It introduces themes that will be expressed in greater detail as the story unfolds. For example:
• In the birth story we hear of Mary’s being overshadowed by the Spirit, and in her song which follows: a litany of ways God will send away the rich and powerful, while the hungry are filled with good things.
• We hear of God coming among us, as a baby, in a remarkable and unexpected way – really, against all odds.
• And we hear of God’s messengers, the angels, proclaiming the good news of his birth to the most unlikely listeners, poor shepherds. These themes will resurface over and over throughout Luke’s story.
For example, in today’s initiating moment, we find the first explicit mention of the poor. Those who are at the bottom of society are, like the shepherds, the Spirit’s chosen recipients of the good news. And as the gospel unfolds, the poor will be repeatedly identified as:
• Worthy hearers of the good news
• As recipients of God’s kingdom
• As a sign of Jesus’ ministry
• And as guests invited to the feast.
The good news must be good news to the poor.
And so, Jesus in the synagogue, announces who he is. His words declare that everyone in the synagogue can no longer see him simply as a village carpenter, or as Mary and Joseph’s son. He is the one they have been waiting for all their lives – and their parents’ and grandparents’ lives – and all the generations before them.
Jesus sees the whole story of his people coming to fulfillment in his time and, in fact, in his own person. Its fulfillment begins today, and it begins here. Throughout Luke’s writing, the Spirit will guide and empower people for the work of prophetic ministry. And it starts with Jesus.
Furthermore, the words Jesus says are important not just in their content, but in their source. Jesus isn’t making this stuff up. He deliberately situates his ministry in the ongoing promises and commitments made by God in the story of salvation. The hope and prophecy of Isaiah provides the theological springboard from which Jesus launches his mission.
Jesus’ words are a call to real life – to real people – and in real time.
Ever the unconventional savior, however, Jesus has no interest in being the Messiah that has been expected for generations. His reign is, shockingly, not immediately focused on displacement of the ruling class. How, then, can he bring good news to the poor or freedom to the oppressed? He will do it, as we’ll see in the coming year of Luke, through persistent befriending of the poor, the outcasts, and the little people of his day. And this actually includes those who seem to be his enemies. He’ll listen to them. He’ll eat with them. He’ll soothe the maladies that diminish their lives. And he’ll simply keep on like that until he falls victim to those in power. And even then he won’t respond with vengeance, with threats or with anything like self-interest. He’ll go calmly toward death, stopping along the way to heal a slave’s ear, comfort the women who weep for him, ask forgiveness for his murderers and encourage his fellow condemned. Throughout, we will see his real messianic mission – the epiphany of God’s glory in action.
God’s story is always related to human need.
• For the dying, the gospel is God’s strong word of resurrection
• For those who struggle with guilt, the gospel is God’s assurance of forgiveness
• For homeless refugees, the gospel may be freedom in a new land
God’s purpose and action are always related to human need. The gospel is never truth in a vacuum – a theological statement that may or may not relate to one’s life. The gospel is God’s truth, it’s God’s message, God’s action. The gospel is God’s word to a particular person, a particular need, a particular historical situation.
You see, God doesn’t leave us where we are. That’s the point of messianic deliverance. A change in your condition will always accompany an encounter with the Divine. Radical change is what Jesus talks about in this moment in the synagogue, and we’ll continually to see how he doesn’t merely affirm the condition of his loved ones. But do take note that he’s all about the kinds of reversals of fortune that are not as focused on change in one’s environment as they are about change in the loved one.
It can be no surprise to you that Jesus came to bring change. And perhaps the best part of the good news is that the change doesn’t begin as a concept or an idea. It’s a person. In today’s initiating gospel moment, the first person singular is used three times (in verse 18 of this passage):
• The spirit of the Lord is upon me
• Because God has anointed me
• And sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free
Jesus is the change. He is the model we imitate, and as such, he bears the potential for great excitement and creativity.
How exciting and creative you ask?
Imagine if religion organized in his name could come together to organize billions of people and trillions of dollars to tackle the challenges that our economic and political systems are afraid or unwilling to tackle. Our planet is ravaged by unsustainable human behavior and out-of-control consumptive economic principles. What would it be like if following Jesus happens in such a way that each of us changes our selves. And then each one reach one. You’ve heard this before.
Christ’s reign is at hand. The Commonwealth of God is at hand. It’s not out of reach or unattainable. And it’s not in hand, already attained. It’s simultaneously in reach and not yet seized – a gift already given, but not yet fully received, opened and enjoyed.
That’s the real beauty of a life in love with God – each and every day this scripture has the potential to be fulfilled in your hearing.
This sermon was delivered by The Rev. Edwin Chinery on January 24, 2016.