Ordinary Time 3
January 24, 2010
William G. Carter
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.”
In a magazine, there was a cartoon. The cartoon showed three men sitting in a row behind a long table. A microphone has been placed in front of each of them. One man was pictured in long flowing hair and a draped white robe. Another was battered, a wreath of jagged thorns on his head. The third was swarthy, with dark curly hair and a pointed nose. The caption said, "Will the real Jesus Christ please stand?" [David Buttrick, Preaching Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988) 23.]
Everybody sees Jesus from a different angle, including the writers of the New Testament. For Matthew, Jesus is the Teacher of Righteousness. Like Moses, he climbs a mountain and teaches a new Law to his disciples. After Easter, he gathers them on a mountain and gives them a great commission, namely: to follow his teachings.
For the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is an exorcist, constantly battling the powers of evil. Even after Evil nails him to a cross, Jesus emerges from the tomb to continue his saving work. He is the Strong Son of God turned loose in the world.
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus comes to reveal God. "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made God known." (John 1:18)
But for the writer of Luke's Gospel, the word that best summarizes the person and work of Jesus is the word "prophet." Jesus is a prophet.
What comes to your mind with the word "prophet"? Do you see a fortune teller? Or the seer who gazes into a crystal ball and predicts Super Bowl scores?
Every Advent, I find myself in New York for a day. I keep my eyes peeled for a person with shaggy hair who walks down Broadway wearing a sandwich-board and screaming "Repent for your sins! The End is near!" A lot of people think that's what a prophet should do: shout at people and make them nervous. As an old-fashioned radio preacher once claimed, "The truest test of prophecy is this: a prophet predicts doom of the sinner."
In the story we heard today, Jesus is a different kind of prophet. He is a biblical prophet. He stands squarely within the tradition of the prophets of Israel. In place of the sandwich board, Jesus wears a prayer shawl. Instead of screaming angry threats, he reads scripture. Rather than standing on the fringe of the community, Jesus sits in the middle of the synagogue, the traditional posture of a preacher. There isn't the slightest hint that his eyes are wild or his hair is shaggy. He issues no burning cry for repentance, nor does he burden people with guilt.
According to the writings of Luke, Jesus is rooted in the faith of Israel. Luke alone says Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day. He reports that Mary and Joseph dedicated the infant Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem. At age twelve, he celebrated Passover in Jerusalem with his family. As an adult, he worships in the synagogue on the Sabbath. When it was his turn to read the scriptures, he was so well-versed in the Bible that he can find his place without using a table of contents.
And Luke says Jesus was a prophet. His role had nothing to do with his appearance. It had little to do with his familiarity with the traditions with Israel. Rather it had everything to do with his sense of timing. The prophet Jesus says, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
That is striking. Jesus could have said "yesterday," as in, "Yesterday, this scripture was fulfilled." Looking backward holds some appeal for us. To believe in God is, in part, an act of memory. We recall everything God has ever done. We remember the creation of the world and the Garden of Eden. We remember getting out of slavery in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, and entering the promised land. We remember Jerusalem, and Babylon, and returning home to Jerusalem. We remember Bethlehem, Golgotha, and the empty tomb. "If I forget you, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth." (Psalm 137:5)
Remembering is an act of faith. This is no idyllic memory of "good old days" that never existed. Look back, and you can see where God's hand has guided us over the years. Our memories can comfort us. "Yesterday" is a secure place to stand.
It's easy to live in the past. All of us do it, even preachers. I have a friend who is a minister. She is a wonderful storyteller. But there's one curious thing about her. The only stories she tells come from her college days. If she wants to speak about love, she tells a story about her first boyfriend in college. If she wants to talk about temptation, she speaks of dormitory parties. If she wants to preach about discovering God's purpose for her life, she speaks about discerning God's will during midterms in chemistry class.
One day somebody asked, "Preacher, why do you tell stories about college?"
She thought about it for a minute and said, "I guess those were the days when I felt most alive. Back in college, I felt very close to God."
"But preacher, that was twenty years ago. Has God has done anything for you since then?"
It is a comfort to live in the past. But that's not what the prophet Jesus said when he spoke in the synagogue. He did not say, "Yesterday the scriptures were fulfilled."
Neither did Jesus say "tomorrow." Maybe we thought he would say, "Tomorrow the scripture will be fulfilled." Or at least he could have said, "Someday the scriptures will be fulfilled." An announcement like that could move our hearts toward hope. It could give us something to anticipate.
Twenty centuries have come and gone, and the world is still a mess. We know it. We wait for God to do something. As someone reminds us, it is no wonder that, in the time of Jesus, all the wonderful stories people told began not with "Once upon a time," but with the words, "When the Messiah comes . . ."
• See a beggar on the street, hollow eyes gazing over an empty cup. "I'm sorry, friend, but someday, when the Messiah comes . . . "
• To every crippled person, with twisted limbs folded beneath him. "I'm sorry, friend, but someday, when the Messiah comes. . ."
• To every prisoner straining after a ray of light in the narrow window. "I'm sorry, but someday, when the Messiah comes . . ."
• To every parent consoling a daughter assaulted by a Roman soldier. "Now, now, child, someday, when the Messiah comes . . ." (Fred B. Craddock, "Hoping or Postponing," National Radio Pulpit, 1978.)
Looking ahead can become a way to live, a way to put our problems in perspective. Every time we see misery, injustice, and poverty, we can say, "Someday God is going to straighten this out. The day is coming when God will set everything right." Just say the word "tomorrow" over and over again. It can galvanize your hope and strengthen your resolve. It can also buy a little time.
One day, a wife said to her husband, "Honey, when are you going to wash those dirty dishes?"
"Oh, don't worry. I'll get to them a little later."
She said, "When will you get to them?"
He said, "Probably later this afternoon. Or maybe tonight. Or perhaps next Tuesday. I'm not sure; but don't worry. Someday I will wash those dishes."
Lazy husbands will tell you: you can get a lot of mileage out of that word "someday."
The people wanted to know, "Jesus, when will God scrub up our dirty world?" I suppose Jesus could have said, "Someday the Kingdom will come." He could have said that, but he didn't.
No, he went into the synagogue instead. It was the same familiar worship service. He looked around the congregation and saw the same faces. He stood and opened the scriptures from the familiar scroll. He found his place in the sixty-first chapter of the prophet Isaiah and read the words, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to proclaim the favor of God." They were the same old words from Isaiah, which announced the same old hopes for the future. Everything was familiar and predictable.
But then, the prophet Jesus hurled a Word that shattered the status quo. The word he said was not "yesterday," and the word was not "tomorrow." The word was "today." Jesus said, "This is the day. The time has come. Today the scriptures are fulfilled."
I pause to remind us that "today" can be a dangerous word. It is the kind of word which creates hatred and opposition. A lot of people refuse to accept "today" as the day for anything. The chief reason? Because it reminds people of what they already know. That's dangerous!
When Martin Luther King Jr. came preaching to the people in our country, he did not say anything new. His message was two-hundred years old: "We hold it to be self-evident, that all people are created equal." Dr. King looked out and saw people who were not treated as equals. He perceived others for whom this truth was not self-evident. So he went from city to city and said, "Today is the day when we will take seriously our own Declaration of Independence." Gunshots rang out and cut him down. Why? What radical act did he commit which took his life? In the tradition of the Bible's prophets, he reminded people of what they already knew and said, "Today is the day."
It is risky to stand up and speak of God in the present tense. When the prophet Jesus said, "Today the scripture is fulfilled," he turned memory into an mission statement. He transformed hope into an assignment. He claimed the beautiful poetry of Isaiah as his job description.
But the question remains: is today the day? Is this day really the day?
Jesus said, "I have come to preach good news to the poor." Well, that is a noble thought, but what about us? The poor don't live on our streets. They don't move in our circles of friends. Even if they did, what kind of good news would we say to them? It is far easier to feed them from a distance, and send a few dented cans of creamed corn from the food pantry. Instead of getting involved, it is possible to perform a small deed to ease the conscience and avoid talking face-to-face…
Jesus said, "I have come to proclaim release to the captives." That is another difficult assignment, because it involves speaking to those in captivity. Some of them are imprisoned behind bars. To proclaim release means to go where they are, and to speak a word that their jailers will not appreciate. Still others are captives in another way, confined by forces such as prejudice or sin. It will not be easy to announce their freedom.
And Jesus said, "I have come to proclaim new sight for the blind." Tell me: do mere words have that kind of power? Can words help people to recover their vision? Can words remove cataracts or focus one's sight? We are only talking about words. What can words do?
And Jesus said, "I have come to liberate the oppressed." Wait a minute! That sounds so political. With every oppressed person, there is an oppressor. For every person who is held down or held back, there is somebody else who is doing the holding. Do we want to get tangled up in setting free the victims and the underdogs? That can be messy work. There are some respectable people we know who could exposed as oppressors. If we get involved, we might lose friends and make enemies. It is far easier to play it safe and hide out in a comfortable church.
Jesus said, "I have come to proclaim the year of God's favor." Why, that be the most difficult task of all. Imagine it: announcing all people are valued by God - not because of what they do, not because of where they live, not because of how much they earn, and not because of the level of their religious activity - they are valued because God is delighted with them. That may be the most difficult announcement a prophet ever makes. Who is going to believe it? The people to whom we are sent are more accustomed to measuring themselves by the world's yardstick and earning their own way. Jesus comes to people who don't ever feel like they measure up, and he announces to them the unrestricted acceptance of God. A lot of people cannot perceive the breadth of such mercy. How can anybody say, "This is the year of God's favor?"
I do not know, except to announce that Jesus said, "Today is the day." Check the calendar: not last Thursday, not next Tuesday. Jesus said, "Today is the time of God."
And he was right.
For anybody who would follow the prophet of Galilee, for anybody who would bear the name of "Christian," today is the acceptable time to share the love and justice of God.
This is the day. Do you believe that?
(c) William G. Carter
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