Sermon: We are not the messiah (but we can change the world)

Sermon for Williamstown2
4th of January 2016

 Luke 4:14-21
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

One problem with following the Revised Common Lectionary, the collection of readings used by Anglican and Protestant Churches in the English-speaking world, is that it jumps around. Last week we heard about the miracle at Cana from the Gospel According to John, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in that gospel; this week we’re back in the Gospel According to Luke, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s gospel. The two gospels have Jesus beginning his ministry with two very different acts: turning water into wine; and reading Isaiah in the local synagogue – and despite what the Revised Common Lectionary would have us do, we can’t just leap from one gospel to another as though Jesus came home from the wedding and went to the synagogue. Today’s gospel reading begins: ‘Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee’. The ‘then’ doesn’t mean ‘after the wedding at Cana’, it means ‘after Jesus had been tested in the wilderness by the devil’, a story that the Revised Common Lectionary doesn’t give us until the first Sunday in Lent, three weeks from now. Following the Lectionary around can be confusing!

Both Matthew and Mark also have the story of Jesus returning to his home town and reading from a scroll in the synagogue. In all three gospels it ends badly, although you’ll have to wait until next week to find just how badly. But only Luke puts this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and only Luke names the scroll from which Jesus was reading. It’s only in Luke that we hear the great words from 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 favour.’

Interestingly, the version of Isaiah that Luke gives us isn’t an exact quotation. In his reading Jesus does something that I would never do, and stops halfway through a verse. In Isaiah the passage ends: ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God’. (Isaiah 61:2). It seems that Jesus is more concerned with the proclamation of good news than with the proclamation of vengeance. And Jesus seems to have added a verse that isn’t in the original. ‘To let the oppressed go free’ doesn’t come from the 61st chapter of Isaiah, from which the rest of the passage comes. It has been taken from the 58th chapter of Isaiah, in which Isaiah is telling the people of Israel: ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?’ (Isaiah 58:6)

All of that is quite technical and may seem unimportant. Do we really care where Luke places this story in comparison with where Mark and Matthew place it? Does it matter that Luke quotes Jesus as mixing together two passages from Isaiah? Well, yes, because all of these details tell us how important this story is; how theologically significant this event is. This isn’t just Luke telling us what Jesus did one day when he was in his hometown. This is Luke giving us the key to his gospel.

Luke’s gospel is the pre-eminent gospel for the poor. It is only in Luke that we hear the ‘Woes’ after the Beatitudes, so that we are not just told ‘blessed are the poor’ but also ‘woe to you who are rich’. People who have the time to count such things have found that in the New Testament, one out of every sixteen verses is about poor people; in the gospels it is one of every ten, and in Luke, one verse out of every seven refers to poor people.[1] According to Luke, good news to the poor and oppressed is at the absolutely core of Jesus’ ministry and message. Jesus’ mission as the messiah, the anointed one, is revealing God’s kingdom of peace and justice, and that kingdom is not just a kingdom of spiritual freedom from oppression, but a kingdom of basic, down-to-earth, physical and socio-economic freedom.

When Mary was told that she was going to bear a son Luke tells us that she sang the song we call the Magnificat, praising God for bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly; filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away empty. Her son follows in his mother’s footsteps with his own declaration of what God is doing in the world. To all the poor, the outcast and the excluded, Jesus brings good news. The time of God has begun, here, today, and the longings of the poor, the oppressed and the imprisoned are being fulfilled.

The prophecies of Isaiah that Jesus quotes were addressed to the entire nation of Israel. All the people were commanded by God to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, share bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into their houses, and to cover the naked. The kingdom of God is the place in which all these things happen; the messiah is the one who initiates it; but that does not mean that human beings can leave it all up to God. Isaiah spoke God’s words to the people of Israel; and in the same way Christians hear Jesus quote the words of Isaiah and know that we, too, are called to share in Christ’s ministry to the world. This is a terrifying responsibility.

Luckily for all of us who are baptised into this awesome responsibility, we are not the Messiah. We are called to follow Christ; we don’t have to individually be Christ. In fact even Jesus himself did not have to be the Messiah by himself. He was filled with the power of the Spirit as he went about his ministry; it was the community that is God the Trinity that enabled Jesus to fulfil the scriptures.

 

Head, Body, Legs

From Head, Body, Legs by Won-Ldy Paye, Margaret H. Lippert and Julie Paschkis (2002)

We are to be Christ-like as members of the body of Christ, the Church. Christ is one body with many members, Paul reminds the Corinthians. In one Spirit, Paul writes, we are all baptised into the one body. The unity of being one body doesn’t mean uniformity, obviously: ‘If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? … If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body.’ We are all different, unique individuals created by God. But we are all God’s beloved children and it is as these beloved children, united in our baptism, that we are called to follow Christ.

The Church, the body of Christ, is made up of literally billions of Christians. It is these billions, working together, who carry out the mission of Christ. It’s impossible to be a Christian alone. None of us can individually bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. Trying to save the world by ourselves just leads to burnout and frustration. Following in Jesus’ footsteps and serving the world for which Christ died can only be done together, as members of the one body, with different, God-given, gifts, using whatever abilities we have for the greater good.

Throughout this Year of Luke we will hear a lot more about God’s particular care for the poor and the oppressed, and we will be reminded again and again that following Christ includes doing our part to work towards God’s kingdom in which the longings of the poor, the oppressed and the imprisoned are fulfilled. As we hear this, we constantly need to keep in mind the reassurance that we are called to do this work in community. It may seem impossible for any of us, with our small and individual gifts, to make a difference in the world. But every gift we have has been given to us to contribute to the whole body of the Church; and as part of the worldwide Church we can make a huge difference in the world. Together, we can proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, as Jesus did in that one small, local synagogue in Nazareth. This is the calling into which we have been baptised, and the God who called us is faithful and will not fail us. Amen.

[1] Jim Wallis, from a program called ‘Let Justice Roll’ on 30 Good Minutes, a weekly ecumenical and interfaith program on WTTW 11 (PBS) in Chicago, First air date December 16, 1990, available at: http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/wallis_3410.htm.

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