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Psalm 19:1-6 & Luke 4:14-21
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, or made powerful by the Spirit.News that he was back spread far and wide through the countryside. He taught in their meeting places to everyone’s acclaim. Then he came to Nazareth, the place where he had grown up…
This is Luke’s start of the ministry of Jesus. It’s a dramatic story, but the Lectionary leaves out an important part with this morning’s cut. See, this ends with us thinking that Jesus is just being bold, stating that scripture is making history, right here and now – implying that it’s coming to fruition in him, like he’s the delivery of salvation. But the story continues after the part you heard read, after Jesus continues his sermon, calling out his fellow townspeople for their xenophobia and fear, challenging them that God’s liberation will arrive neatly prepared and packaged. That’swhen the gathered congregation grabs Jesus and drags him to the edge of a cliff, intending to throw him to his death. It is the same passage used for the sermon at my own ordination by the Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers, who took the opportunity to say – are you sure, Chris? There’s still time to back out of this whole preaching thing, ’cause you may come into it on fire to change the world and then get in trouble for just changing the bulletin.
When Jesus first arrives in Nazareth, the text tells us, he comes in the power of the Spirit, or made powerful by the Spirit. He comes with power. So I’d like you to picture what that might look like. What’s the first image that comes to mind if you say that someone walks into the room with power? Are they riding a white horse? Do they have on a particular kind of clothing? A suit with a power tie? A uniform? A cape? Do they have on bright, red heels? Are they carrying a weapon or brandishing a staff or a scepter? Do they have an entourage? How do we know when someone has power?
Well, I want us to notice something with Jesus. He comes with power before he ever says a word. I mean, he’s been teaching other places, he’s got a rep, but a rep only carries you so far. Preaching is far more than the speaking of words. You have to showsomething. Aren’t we more likely to hear the words of a person who has been there, more willing to get military advice from a combat veteran, or parenting advice from someone who has kids, or savior advice from someone who has felt like he needed to be saved?
Jesusliveshis words. He builds a reputation as the guy who eats with the sinners and the destitute, the unclean and the marginalized. He heals, in the face of a system that casts out people deemed “useless” or “used up.” He redeems and gives hope to those who have been so oppressed as to feel unworthy of such love, and, I have to assume, it is THIS kind of work that he has done in the these other meeting places all across the countryside. So when he shows up, it’s with more than words, it is with words made real by experience and life. The word, friends, has to be made flesh.
I’m not even sure that we recognize that kind of authenticity as power, yet it is exactlywhat the Spirit leads him to develop. That’s what his “40 days in the wilderness” is all about – a metaphor for the deconstruction and reconstruction of his soul that forces him to examine his claims, not just be able to say them louder than anyone else.
He pulls out the Isaiah text and reads,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
God 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.”
That list starts off with bringing the good news to the poor, who are the very people Jesus plants himself in middle of, not as the center of charity, but as a politically provocative statement. Luke has several options in Greek to say “poor,” but he choosesptochos, which means those without resources, those reducedto begging, those destitute of wealth, education, property, prosperity, hope. Ptochosare the ones who have been madepoor. In the Isaiah words, made flesh by Jesus, they are to be liberated from systems that imprison and disable and crush people, in direct violation, Isaiah says, and Jesus embodies, of God’s will.
This is why he says that scripture is fulfilled, that it is coming alive right now, for his ministry will be a complete redefinition of power, known in his example. He will have toredefine power, for his people think they already know what it is. They have seen it in full force. Rome is power. The armies and the senate, the emperor and the empire – that’s power. But the power that Jesus brings denies that power’s legitimacy, picking up all of the people that “imperial power” discards and discounts. The power of Rome determines who matters and who doesn’t. The Power of the Spirit says, either all of us matter or none of us do. There’s little else more “fleshy” than that, my friends, for Jesus proclaims, in the words of the prophets before him, that there is life and death, and we are to choose life, and the things that give life. If our resources and wealth and abundance do not serve those on the margins, then we are on the path of death, we are serving a different power than the one that resides in and on Jesus of Nazareth. He uses the words of scripture to shine a light on his own time, his own space, his own hometown, seeking to reveal for them how they perpetuate the very systems they decry.
Who are the poor, the blind, the unaccepted, the ptochosnow? Is it the 40 million living in poverty right now, in the wealthiest nation on earth? Is it the 35 million without access to healthcare, those who cannot get clean water to drink, or even participate in the very political systems that imprison them because of voter suppression or the “New Jim Crow” that locks up more black and brown people than anywhere else in the world? Is it the parent fleeing violence and poverty in a distant land, come to the place of immigrants to seek asylum and met with a wall? Is it the almost half of transgendered youth who attempt suicide in our nation because there is no room for them at the inn? Where is the preaching that turns our eyes towards them? And what happens to the preachers who give those words flesh? What happens to the prophets, in the church and beyond the church, who point out our complicity with these unholy systems?
Jesus escapes the crowd dragging him to the cliff – I probably should have said spoiler alert there – and continues this ministry of word and action, taking every chance to turn people’s eyes toward the edges. So when we call for universal healthcare, when we demand criminal justice reform, when we seek the liberation of people of color from the racist systems we have created all around them, and chant “no wall,” we do so on the platform of Jesus Christ, the word made flesh. Let us not get caught up, as Rev. Barber says, in the puny language of left and right. We are not talking politics here, friends, we are being political. We are announcing the new kin-dom, the new empire of God’s love and justice, injected into our own systems, transforming them from cruelty to compassion, from punishment to promise, from hierarchy to hope.
We know all about power, friends, at least we think we do. We see the world’s version of it on display every day. We see it in an exchange between high school students and an elder in the Omaha tribe on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We see it in the slow uncovering of corruption, lies and manipulation that gets played out before us in excruciatingly slow details, and we see it in a shutdown that finally broke not when right and left came together for the people, but when the people shouted out – when flight attendants’ and air traffic controllers’ unions said we’re going to shut down the airports and grind this thing to a halt. We see it in the constant battering of “build a wall,” when we know that the walls are really being built are in our own hearts. Yes, we know all about power. But power is power onlywhen it sets others free, only when it builds up others, only when used for the betterment of those around you.
How do we know that?
Jesus of Nazareth, come in the power of the Holy Spirit, come to give us life,
come to show us a better way.
Thanks be to God. Amen.