Shaped by God’s Word
Sunday, January 27, 2019
Third Sunday after Epiphany Year C
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Shaped by God’s Word
In you, O Lord our God, we find our joy, for through your law and your prophets you formed a people in mercy and freedom, in justice and righteousness. Pour your Spirit on us today, that we who are Christ’s body may bear the good news of your ancient promises to all who seek you. Amen.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
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, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
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. 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
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
1. What is the deep hope that we share as people of faith?
2. How do you think your community would have responded to Jesus’ hometown visit?
3. What do you “take to be the heart of the gospel”?
4. What is the gospel’s “certain attitude toward possessions”?
5. How might Jubilee “work” today?
by Kate Matthews
Jesus has come home to Nazareth, to his own congregation, the one that watched him grow up, the place where “everyone knows his name.” So far, in Luke’s Gospel, we haven’t heard about Jesus healing sick people, multiplying loaves and fishes, casting out demons, or bringing anyone back from the dead. However, according to N.T. Wright, Jesus has been preparing for this for a long time, like a brilliant musician practicing or an athlete in training: he’s been praying, studying, and passing a grueling test out there in the wilderness.
About that test, Matt Fitzgerald observes: “One might imagine that his encounter with the devil would leave him empty, but in verse 14 Luke echoes the claim of 4:1 and affirms that Christ’s tank remains full.” And Ruth C. Duck reminds us that we, too, need that time in training, that time apart: “What wilderness,” she asks, “must we engage to emerge filled with the Spirit?”
Praised by all
While our reading begins by describing Jesus as “filled with the power of the Spirit” (v.14), all we’ve been told so far is that he’s been teaching in some out-of-town synagogues, and, according to Luke, “a report about him spread through all the surrounding country” so that he “was praised by everyone” (4:14-15). But it turns out, as we will learn in verse 23, that Jesus has been performing some works of wonder out there, in places like Capernaum.
Maybe it was stories about those deeds that drew the crowd and built up their anticipation, more than the power of his preaching: Jesus, it seems, was a sensation, and people were eager to see what he would do, not just to hear what he would say.
Staying with the tradition
“Small town” hardly begins to describe Nazareth, since the entire village consisted of only a few hundred folks, about the size of a medium-sized United Church of Christ congregation, and the setting in this scene may not have been an actual building but just a gathering of faithful Jewish people. Kim Beckmann turns to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed to draw this picture of Nazareth and the Judaism in which Jesus was raised to be both faithful and observant.
In fact, Jesus’ inaugural address to his hometown, in which he lays down the main themes of his entire ministry, is in elegant and powerful continuity with his Jewish prophetic ancestors: “Jesus,” Beckmann writes, “sings Isaiah’s song of good news for the poor, in the key of his mother Mary of Nazareth.” A few chapters on, Mary’s song in the Magnificat, from the Gospel’s very first chapter, still rings in our ears, and in our hearts.
A special text
It’s not that every text isn’t important in its own way, but this one is special. Surrounded as we are these days by the inflated and sometimes incendiary promises of political candidates – however lacking in specificity they may be–we might better compare this speech to the inspiring inaugural addresses of leaders in the public sphere: what gets said here today will be the plan, not just a promise, for the days ahead.
The heart of Jesus’ message and mission, the big picture, is in this short sermon/Bible study containing a few verses from the book of the prophet Isaiah but significantly omitting Isaiah’s line about “the day of vengeance of our God.” Alan P. Sherouse sets the scene and describes a quietly dramatic moment: “Inside the synagogue, the meticulous pace of Luke’s narration signals the importance of the moment. Action slows. Every motion is described.” In this way, Luke “creates suspense” until we hear “the first public words from Jesus’ mouth…’The Spirit of the Lord.'”
After all, as Sherouse notes, this is the Gospel of Luke, with the Spirit right at the center of the entire story; he calls this passage “Luke-Acts in miniature.”
Grace for everyone?
N.T. Wright suggests that Jesus’ omission of revenge from his mission would have offended those first-century Jews who understandably hungered for God’s vengeance on a whole host of enemies and oppressors–a wholly human longing, it seems. So it wasn’t his eloquence, Wright says, that “astonished” them but his “‘speaking about God’s grace–grace for everybody, including the nations–instead of grace for Israel and fierce judgment for everyone else.'”
Wright sees Jesus drawing on “the larger picture in Isaiah…of Israel being called to be the light of the nations,” and presenting a Messiah who “has not come to inflict punishment on the nations, but to bring God’s love and mercy to them.” Next week, we’ll spend more time on the crowd’s reaction, in the verses that follow this week’s reading, but Wright finds reason for their violent response in today’s passage.
A sermon following the text
Craig Evans explains that the Jewish people at the time of Jesus spoke Aramaic, so an explanation had to follow the reading of the Hebrew Scripture, much as we today follow the Scripture reading with a sermon. At first it seems that Jesus’ sermon couldn’t be much briefer, just one line, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” but the text says, “Then he began to say to them” (v. 21).
If they were indeed “amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (v. 22), perhaps that line was only the beginning of the sermon, and we aren’t given the rest of it. It’s intriguing to think about where Jesus went with his message, but surely he never strayed from speaking about opening the eyes of the blind and bringing good news to the poor and oppressed.
A people hungry for good news
Richard Swanson helps us to sense how Jesus’ words must have moved the hearts and re-ignited the ancient hope of the poorest and the powerless among his people; he explains, for example, the “why” of Jubilee, the practice–or at least the vision of the practice; it was the dream of God, after all–of restoring, every fifty years or so, land and possessions to people who had lost them.
This kind of restoration may offend our capitalist notions of private ownership and what we see as “fair,” but Swanson explains the need and the “rightness” of forgiving debt and giving back land. (Barbara Cawthorne Crafton calls Jubilee “that all-bets-are-off year” when even “bad real estate transactions [are] redeemed.”) Swanson reminds us of the nomadic roots of the Jewish people, who wandered a long time before making their way into the Promised Land. When they arrived, they understood that the land wasn’t really theirs but God’s, and they lived on it as God’s guests, as stewards of God’s land.
Jubilee as response to God
Jubilee is a wonderful acknowledgement of, and response to, the way we humans get things all out of whack, and before you know it, somebody has way too much, and others not nearly enough. Jubilee is the vision that makes things right again, God’s way of restoring, Swanson writes, “the original balance and connectedness” among the people. While scholars debate whether Jubilee was ever actually practiced, it still served as a vision of what Swanson has often described as “the right-side-uping of the creation” by God that they were faithfully and fully anticipating.
Jesus isn’t coming back home to preach a new message that offends ancient traditions, like some sort of trouble-making radical enamored of “current thinking” that he learned out there, in the wider world–quite the opposite, in fact: “Jesus has just rung a bell that echoes back to the first entry into the land,” Swanson writes. “Old hopes are often domesticated hopes, at least for people young enough to have been forced back on the oldest, more durable hopes. What if in this scene Jesus learns something about this old passage, these old hopes, by watching the faces of the old ones in the gathered congregation?”
A wondrous thought: that Jesus himself, in reading the Word aloud, has his own epiphany, or at least a deeper understanding of what is really happening here, and his role in it.
Those who refuse to see who Jesus is
Was Jesus “just” a good rabbi, a really good preacher, someone whose sermons moved people, at least for the moment, or was he much more than that? Renita Weems observes that Jesus “claimed that he was God’s agent of promised salvation.” And this salvation, scholars of Luke’s Gospel assert, is often described as, or at least facilitated by, “opening the eyes of the blind” or “restoring sight to the blind.”
Yes, there are stories of such healing on two levels: sometimes Jesus actually made a physically blind person see, but other times he had the much more difficult task of getting the spiritually blind to open their eyes to the truth. Just as regaining physical sight changes the whole life of a person, so opening our minds and hearts to the truth of the gospel transforms all of us who “have eyes to see,” and, we might add, “ears to hear” or better, “to listen.”
Whom is grace for?
According to Marcus Borg, Jesus’ speech, while it comes from the tradition of those who were listening, must have clashed with what Borg calls the “social world” of Jesus, the culture and the holiness code that surrounded him, the social and religious understandings that said those poor people, those blind people, those debtors, and a host of other folks just didn’t measure up to the purity that marked the insiders and kept the outsiders, well, outside.
At first, everyone was admiring Jesus’ gracious words, and then it occurred to somebody to “consider the source”–and suddenly familiarity started to breed contempt, and someone asked, “Hey…wait a minute, isn’t this just Joseph’s son? How can he be sounding so smart, and how can we take him seriously?” No wonder that Jesus responds by saying that no prophet is accepted in his hometown (more on that next week, when we continue to verses 21-30).
God’s economy in our own social world
Perhaps it’s too easy to read this text and assume that we would have reacted differently than the crowd did that day, gathered around Jesus on the Sabbath. On our Sabbath, we go to church and often hear a similar message, and yet, when we leave our houses of worship and return to the rest of the world that God loves, have we closed our eyes to what is really happening?
For example, have we closed our eyes and our hearts to the challenging reality that, as Beverly Gaventa puts it so simply, the “gospel demands a certain attitude about possessions.” How would you describe that “certain attitude”?
God owns it all
Ann M. Svennungsen reflects on the economic implications of the Jubilee, which not only benefitted the poor but also presented “a hope, a challenge to all private ownership rights, and an affirmation that God owns the land and that God’s economy supercedes human economies.”
Those are strong words, and difficult, maybe even dangerous, ones. It’s hard to believe that such a message would go over well in a number of communities that claim the name Christian today, as we too feel trapped in a system that, more and more, seems to be producing wealth for a few and poverty for too many.
What shall we do?
What’s a church, what’s a follower of Jesus, to do? Have we lost our way from the course Jesus set in this inaugural address? As Christians, we’re not just studying history, the biography of someone who lived a long time ago. We’re reading our own biography, our own operating instructions, our flight plan, our “Mapquest” directions for life.
Jesus’ inaugural address is about the politics of compassion, and he tells us to “Be compassionate as God your Father/Mother is compassionate.” That’s the better translation of Luke 6:36, Marcus Borg says, not “be merciful,” but “be compassionate.” As Borg says, in an age of excessive individualism, we would rather talk about “a thousand points of light,” each one of us doing our thing to better the world, rather than the idea of the community re-shaping itself, re-ordering its priorities, changing the system and transforming our relationships, whatever it takes, to meet the needs of all of God’s children and to extend a compassionate response to the suffering of the world.
Borg observes that mercy may suggest one person bending down to someone in need, but compassion–that means feeling with another, right alongside them. Not from above, but from right alongside.
Could we say the same thing?
How does the church follow those operating instructions, that path of discipleship? As Robert M. Brearley puts it, “we have buildings, budgets, staff, and members, but do we have the power of the Holy Spirit?” Could we walk into our churches on Sunday and proclaim, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” or on us?
Several writers have interesting responses. First, Ernest Hess speaks of our current interest in clarifying our purpose in life, helped by Rick Warren’s best-seller, The Purpose-Driven Life. Hess finds it “surprising and troubling” that Warren doesn’t include this passage from Luke in the many passages from the Bible in his book. “Apparently,” writes Hess, “this succinct and powerful statement of Jesus’ own purpose is not considered relevant for informing a Christian’s ‘purpose-driven life.'” Strong words about a popular book in our contemporary culture!
The song of Mary
Barbara Cawthorne Crafton recognizes the gap between how things are today (or were back then) and the songs that Jesus and his mother sing–of healing and justice and all things made right. But “Scripture,” she says, “is much more full of hope than of journalism.” She compares it to the political/social reality at the time of the Declaration of Independence, years before the revolution was won: “All political ideas live in the human imagination before they become flesh in the human community. So it is with all prophecy.”
The important lesson for us, Crafton says, is to “remember how we first received the messianic hope in the Gospel of Luke: justice and healing for those who suffer illness and wrong….Today we understand this eschatological hope to be not only about God’s agency, but about our own.”
Indeed, Carol Lakey Hess calls this little story from Luke a kind of “plumb line of Jesus’ teaching” that can “measure our work,” not focusing on “righteousness” so much as seeking those in need and responding as Jesus would. I think Hess is right on when she speaks of “[w]hatever we take to be the heart of the gospel” that “will be the central shaping force in our life of faith.” What do you “take to be the heart of the gospel”?
What is the heart of the gospel?
Indeed, our churches have spent so much energy and time in arguing over that which is not at the heart of the gospel, or that which goes against its core message, that we’ve squandered resources, both physical and spiritual, for preaching and living the gospel itself. It’s not only justice that matters, or inclusion; it’s spiritual healing and wholeness, for it’s salvation that we are about, it’s opening the minds and hearts of those who are closed to Jesus, not just salvation in the sense of making our way to heaven or persuading others to accept our “correct” beliefs.
Svennungsen describes the challenge to balance “justification and…justice” in our ministry: “The sight Jesus brings is meant for those made blind for lack of vitamin A and for those blind to the love and grace of God.” What a challenging thought for churches, especially for those holding annual meetings during this time of year, an excellent moment in the life of the church to re-examine our ministries and the way we do them, and discern where we are next to that “plumb line of Jesus’ teaching”!
A life transformed
A last word, from Barbara Brown Taylor, draws our attention for a moment to Luke, the writer of this Gospel, who tradition says was a doctor of medicine. Taylor is inspired by Luke’s example of a life transformed: “I like to think that Luke never resigned his job as a healer. He just changed medicines.” Instead of physical remedies for the body, Luke “told stories with power to mend broken lives and revive faint hearts.”
This is our call, too, as “evangelists” who preach the good news, and speak the words of new life: “People talk, and lives change,” Taylor writes; “People talk, and other people are made whole.” The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, too, and we too are anointed to bring good news to the world that God loves so well.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Walter Brueggemann, 21st century
“What a stunning vocation for the church, to stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful – and to think, imagine, dream, vision a future that God will yet enact.”
Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, 20th century
“Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.”
James Baldwin, 20th century (about the March on Washington 1963)
“That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain that dream one dreamed in agony.”
William Sloane Coffin, 20th century
“The lack of material well-being among the poor reflects a lack of spiritual well-being among the rest.”
Khaled Hosseini, “The Kite Runner,” 21st century
“…there is a God, there always has been. I see [God] here, in the eyes of the people in this [hospital] corridor of desperation. This is the real house of God, this is where those who have lost God will find [God]….”
Alice Walker, 21st century
“Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”
“Wake up and smell the possibility.”
Graham Greene, “Brighton Rock,” 20th century
“You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
Charles Chesnutt, North Carolina storyteller, 20th century
“There’s time enough, but none to spare.”
Fulton J. Sheen, 20th century
“Patience is power. Patience is not an absence of action; rather it is ‘timing’; it waits on the right time to act, for the right principles and in the right way.”
Ansel Adams, 20th century
“Sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have somone click the shutter.”
Charles M. Blow, 21st century
“There is no wrong time to do the right thing.”
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