Jan. 23, 2022 Third Sunday After Epiphany The text is 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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
Last week’s lectionary reading recounted the story of Jesus’ first “sign”; his first miracle and first act of public ministry. We read in the gospel of John that he turned water into wine at the wedding celebration in Cana. This morning, Luke chooses to bring us a rather different episode in the telling of Jesus’ mission and ministry. He has already spent forty days in the desert, filled with the Holy Spirit, and tempted by Satan. Having defeated the power of evil, Jesus remains filled with the Holy Spirit and he has begun his ministry, preaching and teaching in the towns in the region of Galilee. He has been warmly received by those he has been teaching and now he has returned to his hometown of Nazareth, and since it’s the Sabbath, he attends the local synagogue. The custom at the time was for lay persons to read from the Torah and then offer their comments on the application of the Scripture to daily Jewish life.
And, what was expected from this common practice in the synagogue was that the Scripture reader, the “darshanim” would analyze the reading and explain its significance for the people at the time it was written, and often its relevance to the lives of those hearing in the present. The Isaiah passage that Jesus read in the synagogue was written at the time of the exile of the Jewish people to Babylonia around 500 BC, and was a foretelling of the restoration of Israel. Isaiah prophesied that God would redeem the people and their homeland, and that all that afflicted them would be made right. The predicted release of those held captive, the restoration of sight to the blind, and the freedom promised to the oppressed; Isaiah calls these things together the “good news” that the Spirit of God has proclaimed to Israel.
Now, Jesus might have expanded upon this prophesy by reiterating that Isaiah was a great prophet and that this good news was certain to come at some point. Or, he might have elaborated on the passage by announcing that this freedom and healing as promised by God were imminent and that these things would take place very soon. Thirdly, Jesus may have downplayed Isaiah’s prediction of the coming of this good news, suggesting to the people that they should remain patient and faithful in hope that God’s promise might someday come to be fulfilled. But instead, Jesus gives what amounts to a sermon, consisting of just nine words, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Next Sunday we will hear how the people responded to this rather unimaginable proclamation made by their former neighbor and their unfortunate reaction to it. But, for now, let’s consider exactly what Jesus meant, even though he didn’t come right out and say it. “This good news that Isaiah prophesies, well it’s me”. Jesus is the “Good News” of God, sent to free not only the people of Israel, but the whole world from the oppression, captivity, and blindness, either physical or otherwise, that plague humankind. And we celebrate this coming of the “Good News” every time we read the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the writers of the Gospels, the telling of the Good News itself, and the very root of the word.
In these nine short words, Jesus delineates who he is and what his mission and ministry entail; in short, the epiphanies continue. The nature and purpose of Christ, first realized by the Wise Men, demonstrated at the wedding in Cana with the turning of water into wine, are now proclaimed by Jesus himself.
This proclamation is surely not what the people expected; after all, even though Jesus was gaining some attention in the surrounding area, he was still the person they knew from childhood. As far as they knew he was just another workingman’s son, a carpenter’s kid. And they very likely haven’t really forgotten the whole issue of Mary being pregnant with Jesus before she was married to Joseph. So, again the warm welcome Jesus initially received from his neighbors was soon replaced by their intention to literally throw him off a cliff at the outskirts of town. There is much to be said about this response to the Good News and the reasons why people were so incensed upon hearing it, but let’s save that for next Sunday.
For now, perhaps we should examine just one of the words in Jesus’ one-line sermon after his reading from Isaiah, in fact, the first word; “today”. With these five letters Jesus announces that the prophesy has been fulfilled in him, and that the release, the sight, and the justice that were promised are happening today. Talk about a bold proclamation! Not only does he state that he is himself the Good News, but that the promise of God made through Isaiah is brought to fruition today! This perhaps lends itself to some degree of clarification; does Jesus mean that the achievement of all that is promised by God happens on the very day he proclaims himself as Savior? Or, more likely, is he letting the people know that it is the present that counts when considering the needs of others? There isn’t anything that can be done to change the past; and the future, well the blind seek sight today. The captives require release today; the oppressed yearn for freedom today. The promised “year of the Lord’s favor” can’t wait for the fifty years that the Scriptures refer to. In fact, next year is too far off to wait; things need to happen today, things need to change today. And when Jesus spoke to those he addressed in person, he literally meant for them to act as if the coming of the kingdom of God was happening during their “today”. And, when we read his words, we recognize that they are meant for us in our “today”, our right now.
And, just as Jesus directed his words to the gathering of the local faithful in his own community, they remain relevant for us, today. “Past” and “future” always seem to conjure up images of what was and what might be. The problem with this as that very often these notions tend to draw our attention away from the “today” that Jesus deems so important. The Kingdom of God is now.
Yearning for a return to the way things used to be only serves to deprive people of taking advantage of what is good today. And, looking only toward the future, well, while planning is worthwhile, this too can cause us to lose sight of what is currently happening round us. Jesus tells us that the Good News is now, what is God’s will for God’s people must be fulfilled now, today. Focusing on times in the past when churches in America, and indeed this very one was filled to the rafters with the faithful, this will only serve to reinforce the feeling that “our best days are behind us”. And, if we overemphasize the future, believing that all that matters is yet to come, well then, we open the door to fear, worry, and anxiety.
Research tells us that there is a high level of both nostalgia and anxiety among churchgoers in this country. Many faithful Christians find themselves longing for a return to yesterday and yet filled with doubt about tomorrow. Neither “then” nor “later” should be the focus of those who follow Christ Jesus; just as he proclaimed in the synagogue, the fulfilment of the kingdom is “now”, today. We must choose to direct our hearts and minds, and ultimately our efforts toward bringing the Good News to fruition today; for ourselves and for our neighbors. Remaining in mourning for the loss of the past and living in fear of what the future holds only draws our attention away from what can be accomplished today.
This is an invitation to everyone to heed Jesus’ words, to recognize and accept that we have been called to act on his behalf, in our “today”. The actions we take today, the decisions we make today, these will determine the future for God’s people in this place. There are unfilled openings on the Congregation Council today, there is a need for custodial work in the building today. Our homeless neighbors need more “We Care” kits with needed provisions today; the people who rely on food donations are hungry today. The offerings that the church relies upon to fulfil its mission are less than is needed to pay the bills, today.
You are encouraged to prayerfully consider your response to Jesus’ announcement that he is the fulfilment to Isaiah’s prophecy, that he is the Good News sent from God to care for the people. While Jesus remains with us through the Holy Spirit, only we are here on the earth today.
St. Teresa of Avila wrote: “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world, yours are the feet with which He walks to do good, yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are His body. Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
It’s up to each of us to act on Christ’s behalf, we who call ourselves followers of his Way. There is much to do, starting “today”.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, we long for the past, yet we fear what the future might hold. Help us to not dwell on what was, nor to be anxious over what may be. Guide our thoughts and actions toward accomplishing your will for that which you wish us to do now. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose Good News blesses the world today and every day.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.