Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us!

I guess it must have been Jesus’ turn to be the lector. 

Back in Jesus’ day, it was a normal part of Jewish synagogue worship that a person in the congregation, not a preacher, nor a rabbi nor some other formal religious authority, but a person known as a darshanim, a "speaker" or a "teller" would read from the scroll and then comments on the passage.

In Jesus' day it was normal for the speaker to take biblical verses literally out of their textual context-- because historical criticism or understanding the historical and cultural context of the passage is a modern development-- and the speaker would apply them to the religious, political, and ethical questions of the day, as if it were written for that very day. And it was not like modern fundamentalism either. Preaching involved making the ancient story, the wisdom of the prophets, the interpretations of the rabbis, alive for the day.

So, when Jesus was handed the scroll, he looks for a particular reading from the prophet Isaiah:

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.

Jesus rolled up the scroll and handed it back to the attendant. Everyone looks at him, waiting for his comment--his interpretation of these ancient words for them. Would he address the occupation and oppression of the Roman empire, or perhaps his own ministry that is gaining attention throughout the region? What would Jesus, their neighbor, say?

Jesus might have preached on the wisdom of the old prophet: "In the past, our fathers and mothers envisioned a world of justice, freedom, and healing. The fullness of abundant life in a land of milk and honey as God covenanted with Moses."

Or he might have elaborated on the world to come: "We, along with Isaiah, await the fulfillment of this glorious promise! One day, the poor will be lifted up, captives set free, and the blind will see! Oh, how we long for that! How we pray for that! But it seems so slow in coming."

Jesus could have appealed to his friends' sense of theological nostalgia--How great Isaiah was!--or their fragile theological hope for a better future. The kingdom of God will come! 

But he surprised them when he said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

They were shocked! Astounded! And not in the Inspector Renault kind of way (as in the classic scene in the film Casablanca.) No, they were truly and genuinely shocked.

What do you mean that the Spirit of the Lord is HERE? Now? Today? Do the poor hear good news, are prisoners are being released, do the blind and where are the oppressed receiving justice? This is the year of Lord's favor, you say? 

Have you been watching the news, Jesus?  Do you see how crazy things are? And you’re telling us that the kingdom of God is here today? Are you crazy? So Jesus' furious neighbors decide to throw him off a cliff. But he just shrugs them off, walking through the angry, confused crowd.

In a congregation like ours, is easy to focus on memories of the past and our hopes for the future. Speaking of the past may means stories of the past, people we’ve known or from long ago, the story of our buildings and structures. Speaking of the future is often wrapped up in future programs, or maybe our hopes for God, our desires for answered prayers, for our children to hold onto faith or "come back to church." Both past and future are important to vibrant communities; the whole biblical witness is the ongoing story of healthy and life-giving practices of honoring our ancestors and embracing a hopeful future.

But both "past" and "future" of faith have their shadow sides. Overemphasizing the past results in excessive nostalgia--the belief that the past is better than either the present or the future, where the past stop teaching us but becomes the ideal. Overemphasizing the future--the belief that all that matters is that which is to come--can result in doubt, and anxiety, and a sense of perpetual dissatisfaction.

A recent survey from Public Religion Research discovered that the majority of churchgoers in the United States express high levels of both nostalgia and anxiety. By strong majorities, religious Americans--particularly white Protestants, across every stripe and style, both theological conservatives and liberals--believe that "our best days are behind us" and that the future of society is bleak. In particular, the survey says that mainline congregations are caught between idealizing the good old days and fear that some promised future will never arrive. As a result, today is lost. When only look at the past or the future, today becomes a kind of spiritual no-man’s land.

But "Today" is where the spiritual action is--because today insists that we lay aside both our memories and our dreams so that may live in the present. In God’s time, everything has a role. The past teaches us the work of our ancestors—both the accomplishments and the failures, the disappointments and the joys. The future looks for hope, faith that looks forward. God is always present, so living faithfully "today" places us in the middle of God’s sacred drama as actors and agents in God's desire for the world. "Today" is the most radical thing Jesus ever said.

Jesus is saying, "Look around. The Spirit of God is at work, right here, right now. God is with us. Just as I AM promised our father Moses at the burning bush, 'I will be with you.' This is the sign of God's covenant. The God of all history is here with us. Right now."

Jesus invites us to open their eyes, to see the burning bush, to be attentive to God's promise to abide with Israel in the land, and see that God is keeping God's promise. Jesus is inviting us to see even more deeply, past human sin, injustice, trials, and the evils of human life into the love and compassion of God. If we can see, experience, and grasp that God’s love is at work in the world now, our fear recedes, our hatreds melt away, and we can recognize that in all of life, God is with us. The clarity of grace, mercy, and justice transforms fear into compassion, giving us the power to walk in the way of love God intended.

In a very real way, the Spirit was upon Jesus. And it is also upon us, his friends and apprentices. Jesus said "today" and Isaiah's words, Isaiah's prophecy, is a powerful invitation to all of us who follow Jesus to act on behalf of God's justice right here, right now.

The text might have been read: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us,

   because he has anointed us

     to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent us 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. 

Living in God's promise is not about yesterday. Neither is it about awaiting some romanticized, fantasy future. It is about now! Jesus' friends were astonished to hear this. But the reality is that God has given us everything we need to live out God’s promises right now, in the place God has placed us. Even today, in this place and this city, Jesus' sermon remains as clear and poignant and important and urgent as ever: Today God’s promise is being fulfilled in your hearing—in this community, in this time, in this city, God’s redeeming, saving, love and mercy are at work. Today.

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Here is a link to the bulletin for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany.

Here is a link to a video of the liturgy at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater

Here is a link to a video of the sermon.

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