Weekly Seeds: Anointed

Sunday, January 23, 2022
Third Sunday after Epiphany

Focus Theme:

Focus Prayer:
Spirit of the Living God, be upon us and fill us with your anointing so that we may bring good news, proclaim release, recovery, and restoration.

Focus Reading:
Luke 4:14–21
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because 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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

All readings for this Sunday:
Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12–31a
Luke 4:14–21

Focus Questions:
1. What is your experience of the Holy Spirit?
2. What does it mean to be “filled” with the Spirit?
3. What does it mean to be anointed?
4. How does the ministry of the church fulfill the text Jesus quoted?
5. What more needs to be done to manifest this scripture?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Imagine being in the congregation that day. You enter the synagogue with a certain expectation of what will transpire. Things progress normally until the scripture is read. You’ve heard it before but not like this. The words are familiar but something in the reading seems new. You look at the man who is reading from the scroll. He looks familiar–there’s something you recognize in him. You know you’ve seen him before but, again, something seems different so you aren’t quite sure that he is who you think he is.

You look around and realize you aren’t the only one. Everyone is staring at him…in awe…in wonder…with suspicion…with fear. You read a range of emotions crossing the faces who cannot look away from this man who has cracked open the words written on the scroll. He’s seated now. The scroll returned. But, the congregation isn’t ready to move forward with whatever it is that normally comes next. After a moment, he begins to speak, and his words astound you.

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This was not the first time Jesus entered the synagogue or participated in communal worship. Earlier in the gospel account, Jesus left the family caravan who were observing the passover in Jerusalem only to be found by his frantic parents in the synagogue where he was asking questions. At that time, he was still a child in age, but the maturity in his interaction with the religious rulers belied wisdom and knowledge beyond those years. In this week’s text, he also demonstrates that he possesses something beyond expectations of those around him.

He has returned to Nazareth after a time teaching and preaching in other locations in Galilee. Nazareth is home, and something draws him back there. Just one month ago, we celebrated the Day of Christmas, one of the high and holy days on the Christian calendar. It also serves as a bit of a reunion. Members of and friends of our faith community enter our doors and screens to join in the gathered community even if they never think of doing so the rest of the year. Something draws them back. I cannot count the times, over the years, when I have thought I was meeting a visitor, when in fact, that person had long-standing ties to the congregation. They may have moved or changed faith communities, but something brought them back home.

We know that there are many animals that have an innate sense that will direct them back to their home no matter how far they may journey. Perhaps, we have the same. Jesus certainly found his way back to Nazareth throughout his ministry. This was the first time he does so after his public ministry launched.

Perhaps, Jesus was looking for the comfort of the familiar to surround him as he took these bold steps and made these stunning proclamations. He’d been baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist. The Voice from heaven announces his identity and the Spirit confirms it. Right after that, he retreats into the wilderness. Perhaps he wanted to process what happened. Maybe, he just needed solitude after a very public moment. Maybe Jesus was an introvert who needed to refresh and recharge and that’s why he so often retreated and even avoided the crowds. Perhaps, that moment in the water when the Trinity showed up reminded him how much that companionship was part of him, and that move away from the people was really a move toward the rest of the Godhead.

Whatever the intention, Jesus found the devil in the wilderness, and at the very least, that was a disappointment. The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus was tempted by the devil for forty days. Only a few moments of that interaction were recorded, but we get a sense of how taxing and draining that interaction would have been. On top of the isolation found in the wilderness, Jesus fasted during that time. It’s not clear if the fast was always part of the plan for the retreat or if it was in response to the presence of the enemy. We do know that hunger is a source of vulnerability, and Jesus had to overcome the adversary’s attack from the outside while experiencing hunger pangs on the inside.

It is after this experience that Jesus returns to Galilee in general and quickly makes his way home in Nazareth and in the synagogue:

According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus gave a programmatic inauguration speech in the synagogue of Nazareth, his hometown, on the Sabbath. Unlike the other evangelists, Luke arranges Jesus’ first public proclamation into a small scene: As a pious Jew, Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath for worship. After the reading of the Torah, he does the second reading, the Prophet reading, as every member was allowed to do in that time. There is nothing out of the ordinary. (Marco Hofheinz)

Jesus was a worshiper and it shouldn’t surprise us that his homing signal brought him to the place, time, and community of worship. When given the scroll to read the text, he looks for a specific reference to declare his mission but that also defines his current state. He begins by saying those words, prophesied by Isaiah but that also described his current condition, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Throughout these early days of public life, the Spirit was a constant companion and guide.

The Spirit descends at the baptism of Jesus and continues to journey with him. It was the Spirit that led him into the wilderness, and the Spirit who filled Jesus for the journey into Galilee. And, as the text within the text proclaims, the Spirit anointed him.

The anointing has purpose attached to it. The Spirit actively moves, guides, and directs toward some greater action and activity. There’s a reason that the Spirit was present at Jesus’ baptism, an act of public declaration. There’s a reason the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness and into a place of vulnerability.

I think we often consider Jesus to be invulnerable because of his divinity, but to be human is to be vulnerable. That’s part of the humbling that Jesus embraces as the Word becomes flesh. Vulnerability, in some respects, means to be subjected to unmet needs. In the wilderness, he fasts from food. It’s a voluntary act, just like the rest of the incarnation, but that doesn’t mean it comes easily or without cost. Jesus was hungry. In fact, he was famished, deprived of a basic need. He experienced the hurt and harm that comes from being in such a state.

That had to shape his ministry. The Spirit led Jesus to compassion, “to suffer with.” One of my seminary professors, scholar and theologian Terry Wardle, constantly reminded us that the greatest source of our ministry would arise from our greatest weakness. In that, we follow in the path laid down by Jesus led by the Spirit.

We might believe that Jesus was anointed in the baptismal waters of the Jordan, but he was at least equally anointed in the vulnerability of hunger and temptation in the wilderness. The testing and trials of life forge us like that fire that John the Baptist assured his followers that Jesus (and by extension the Spirit) would use to baptize believers. In either case, the anointing cannot be separated from the purposes of God. Jesus knows what he is called to do, in part, because he has experienced the deprivation, vulnerability, and suffering of those he came to release and favor:

In the Gospel of Luke, right from the onset, one comes across a class of people suffering various forms of oppression, whom Jesus made the very aim of his earthly ministry. In Luke 4:16-19, at the beginning of Jesus’s earthly ministry, there is a presentation of the course that his ministry would follow. This is why Uwaegbute (2013, 141-157) calls the presentation of Jesus’s earthly ministry in this text “Jesus’s manifesto to his people.” A cursory look at this “manifesto” reveals Jesus’s interest in those who are “down-and-out” in Galilean society. This group of people included the heartbroken, the captives, the blind and the oppressed, among others. At the heart of the “manifesto” lies Jesus’s interest in the liberation of this group of people—physically, socially, spiritually and economically. Although Jesus only refers to it implicitly, this also includes political liberation. The interest of Jesus in this group of people may not be separated from the everyday harsh realities that characterized first-century Roman Palestine. The marginalized had to contend with oppressive domination by the Romans and other elite groups of their time. (Kingsley Ikechukwu Uwaegbute)

This text argues against a Jesus only concerned with individual salvation. Luke reveals Jesus with a preoccupation with the kindom of God in its realization, restoration, and recreation. When Jesus reads from Isaiah, he reads a text about a vision for God’s people not singular persons. The good news is communal and rejects individualism even as Jesus demonstrated great care for individuals as beloved of God. But, it does seem a great diminution of the anointing of the Messiah to relegate a movement to enact the kindom on earth to an individualized faith development and security plan.

Even the divine is communal. The Voice, the Human One, and the Spirit have a joint reveal at the time of baptism. The Spirit, as demonstrated through Luke’s writings, abides with Jesus in an active way. We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus instructed his disciples to wait for the Spirit to descend upon them to launch their ministry leadership given that was what Jesus did to launch his.

Ultimately, we know that his hometown did not receive this message well, but before that, we have this moment. They are stunned, perhaps as much by the messenger as by the message. Surely, they heard Isaiah recited in worship before, but not by someone who read it like he wrote it. They’d heard the promise of jubilee, but they never had the experience of jubilee–the year of favor. See, there’s no evidence that Jubilee–the fifty year cycle and celebration accompanied by the forgiving of debts–was ever observed. After millenia of it never coming to pass, their view of it had to have changed. Perhaps, they rationalized the promise of jubilee into something else, less tangible and more symbolic. Perhaps, they began to expect it represented a reality for the afterlife, not obtainable in this one. Jubilee might have become a vision for heaven rather than a hope for earth.

But, here comes Jesus–grace emerging from one groomed and nurtured among them–challenging them to believe in what’s possible. The kindom has arrived and it’s coming. It’s been fulfilled in their hearing. The text within the text articulates a series of reversals. Fortunes change, status transforms, blessings replace hardship, and the low and exalted find leveled positioning. Even more than that, favor jettisons debt and jubilee supplants brokenness.

The Christian church in many corners of our world gathers for worship with little expectation beyond going through familiar acts with familiar actors. Those are good things, but too often, we settle for a good experience when we ought to be seeking jubilee. We can too often be led by personal preferences and local power dynamics instead of the leading of the Holy Spirit. Each of us, collectively and individually, have been called to participate in the kindom of God, but too often, the anointing gets separated from the purpose.

Epiphany and the season after it, invites us to observe anew what has already been exposed to us. Just like the people hearing Jesus read words that were familiar, we have the opportunity for a fresh reading, a renewed vision, and a persistent hope rising from compassion. Anointed.

Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“They knew our names and they knew our parents. But they did not know us, because not knowing was essential to their power. To sell a child right from under his mother, you must know that mother only in the thinnest way possible. To strip a man down, condemn him to be beaten, flayed alive, then anointed with salt water, you cannot feel him the way you feel your own. You cannot see yourself in him, lest your hand be stayed, and your hand must never be stayed, because the moment it is, the Tasked will see that you see them, and thus see yourself. In that moment of profound understanding, you are all done, because you cannot rule as is needed.”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Water Dancer)

For further reflection:
“But there is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.” — Rachel Held Evans
“God is not looking for people who act like Christians. He wants us to be Christians! The word Christian means “anointed or Christlike one.” Jesus did not go around “being good”; he went around “doing good” and releasing all who were oppressed. What has he anointed you to do?” — Lisa Bevere
“Me too, I make do, I anoint what cannot be fixed.” — Hélène Cixous

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.