This sermon is based on the readings for the Third Sunday in Epiphany, Year C, in the Revised Common Lectionary.
It’s easy to get confused. We miss the first episode of the new season, or even just last week’s installment, and we turn on the television at eight o’clock on Sunday night and we don’t have any idea what is going on with our favorite characters in the show. The same thing can happen here in church. We open the bible and read a short passage and, unless we know what is happening in the greater narrative, we aren’t sure what is really going on or how to interpret it. This morning is a case in point. So it’s going to be very important for us to set the stage a little before we dive into today’s Gospel reading from Luke.
Let’s back up a little. Jesus is baptized by John in the River Jordan, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21,22).
Then Jesus is led by the spirit in the wilderness where, with his identity firmly established, he makes some decisions about how he will live out his vocation and mission as the Son of God. Jesus declines to win over “followers” by turning stones into bread and buying their allegiance by meeting their physical and bodily needs. He declines to gather people to his cause through the use of might and force. And he declines to make our belief in him a matter of science by throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple so that the angles will bear him up keeping him from dashing his foot against a stone, thereby proving who he is. Jesus chooses to offer us the opportunity to Love, something that cannot be bought forced, or proven. So the devil departs from him until an opportune time (Luke 4:1-12).
That brings us to today’s Gospel… “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country” (Luke 4:14). Jesus begins to preach and teach and then he goes home. He goes to the synagogue, stand up to read, and when the scroll is handed to him he reads them a beloved passage from the prophet Isaiah. He says, “I have been ‘anointed,’ I have been ‘sent,’ to proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives, to give sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.” Jesus chooses this passage of scripture to tell us that something new is happening; that God is breaking into the world in a powerful and transformative way: and that this is the day, the moment for which we have all longed.
Now if this was Matthew’s Gospel we might have heard this story a little differently. Matthew had a tendency to spiritualize Jesus’ words, to make them less earthy and present. While Luke’s version of the Beatitudes say:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20a).
Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes say:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
Luke has a particular passion for the poor, the marginalized, for women in his society. Luke is concerned with the people on the periphery. Luke says blessed are you who are hungry “now,” blessed are you who weep “now,” for you shall be filled and laugh. When Jesus, quoting Isaiah, says “I have been anointed,” and “I have been sent,” and “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” he is not talking about someday, in the future, in the next life. He is making a pragmatic, earthly statement about the impact that his presence will have on us today.
Here in his “inaugural address” Jesus is laying out his agenda for the next three years of his ministry and he is doing it in Nazareth, the place where he was brought up.
Now, even in your hometown, this would be a pretty aggressive and ambitious agenda for an inaugural address, even if you had been elected with a huge mandate from the people. It would take someone with a lot of influence, the ability to work the halls of power… In first century Palestine it would have taken a king to pull all of that off!
But that’s not the path that Jesus chose when he went into the wilderness to decide his path forward. Time and again we see Jesus reject and avoid the kind of power it would take to make the kind of changes that would bring good news to the poor, release the captives, give sight to the blind, and free the oppressed. Jesus refused in the wilderness to accept that kind of power and, in the end, he chooses instead to allow us to nail him to a tree.
So how does this work? Jesus is describing his vocation and mission as being about how we live together in this world, how we relate to one another, how we relate to God, how we relate to the world around us and yet he declines, again and again, to assume the power he needs to bring that mission to fruition.
Let’s go back that decision Jesus made in the wilderness just before our reading for the morning began. Love cannot be bought, forced, or proven. “If you can’t say ‘no,’ it isn’t love.” Jesus chose allow us to say “no” and he allowed us to nail him to a tree, to exhibit and manifest the very worst that we are capable of, to erase all doubt from our minds. If you will allow me to play with Paul’s words just a little:
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height , nor depth nor anything else in all creation…”
even experiencing the stark reality of all that we are capable of at our very worst
“…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).
So what does this have to do with the here and now, with the way that we relate to one another, the way that we relate to God and the world around us? Everything! Jesus came to show us that nothing can separate us from God’s love and Grace. Our salvation, our place in God’s embrace is secured! We are saved! As my friend Tom Ferguson, former chaplain at Saint Francis House says, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
So just take a moment and let that sink in. Let it wash over you and see how it feels. I know. It’s hard! We would almost prefer to think that we can somehow earn, deserve, or merit out place at the banquet table. To accept it as a gift is to give up control and power. But we say it all the time… maybe in the deep dark recesses of our ego we don’t really believe it… but we say it is by God’s grace that we are forgiven, redeemed, and saved.
So do you have it? Are you feeling it? Good! Now that we have been relieved of the burden of our own salvation, now that we have given that responsibility to the only one who can actually effect it… let’s get back to that ambitious agenda that Jesus laid out in his inaugural address.
The poor will hear the good news, the captives will be released, the blind will see and the oppressed set free when we are transformed by the truth that Jesus came to share with us. When we know and proclaim that we have all been saved, that God’s grace and love extends to all of creation, that we are beloved of God before we can even begin to respond… we will be the ones proclaiming that good news, releasing the captives, giving sight to the blind, and setting the oppressed free. It is the good news of Christ’s ongoing presence among us, God’s refusal to abandon us even when we are at our absolute worst, that will transform us and, in turn, empower and enable us to transform the world.
I don’t know if you’ve seen it but there has been a lot of chatter in the media, polls results released, studies done, all of which point to the fastest growing faith denomination in the country… the “nones.” I said that at the early service today and someone, on their way out, told me they thought I was talking about a rush of people joining convents. Nope. N o n e s are people who claim that they have no religious affiliation at all. They get to that question in the poll where it asks them to check their religious affiliation and the check the box next to the word “none.” Somehow a growing segment of our population believes that what we have to say, what we have to offer, the Good News that we proclaim isn’t important, doesn’t matter, is irrelevant to their lives.
That just doesn’t make sense to me! How can the truth that God loves you, that God has always loved you, that God will never, no matter what happens or what you do stop loving you be irrelevant to someone’s life? How can the proclamation that we are all included in the grace and light of God’s love be of no matter? How can the transformation that all of this makes possible be unimportant? It can’t!
So here’s what I think… If the “nones” are the fastest growing “faith denomination” in our nation it is because we haven’t done a good enough job telling people that they are in! We haven’t done a good enough job telling people, and maybe it’s because we don’t even really believe it of ourselves, that God already loves them and that nothing will ever change that! If the “nones” are the fastest growing “denomination it is because we have spent way too much time and energy worrying about whether we, and the people around us, have managed to secure our own salvation!
I hope and pray, that here in the season of Epiphany when we recollect and celebrate God made manifest in the world, that we are able to proclaim god’s presence in ourselves and in one another. I hope that we can look one another in the eye and say, I know that I have a place at the table. I know that you have a place at the table. I know that all of creation will be at the table. And, thanks be to God, there is nothing that we can do about it!