Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 24, 2010

2010.01.24 “Are We The Ones We’re Waiting For?

Central United Methodist Church

“Are We The Ones We’re Waiting For?”

Pastor David L. Haley

Luke 4: 14 – 21

January 24th, 2010

       “Jesus returned to Galilee powerful in the Spirit. News that he was back spread through the countryside.  He taught in their meeting places to everyone’s acclaim and pleasure.

       Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been reared. As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written,

       God’s Spirit is on me;

       he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,

       Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind,

       To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

       He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”  – Luke 4: 14 – 21, The Message

It’s an experience with which we are familiar.  You just did it, yourself.  A speaker rises to speak. There is a pause; we wonder what they will say? How do they look? Nervous?  Composed?  Do they look like a person with credibility, whose words we will trust?  Will they be humorous?  Serious?  Will what they have to say engage us, be interesting? Or will they rapidly lose us, such that we tune them out.  We can think 3 faster than we can talk, so as people speak, if’s not engaging, our minds quickly go elsewhere.  All these questions are asked – and perhaps answered, in those moments of anticipation just before a speaker speaks.

For example, I once watched a speaker graphically illustrate the power of non-verbal communication. The speaker, who was a woman speaking primarily to an audience of men, removed her shoes, then her jacket, placing them on a chair. She then unbuttoned the top of her blouse.  At that point, she had the rapt attention of every person (man) in the room.  Only then – having made her point – did she begin to speak.

It is such a scene described in today’s Gospel.  Though far removed in time and space, set among people who dress differently and speak differently than all of us, the scene is yet familiar to us.  The lectionary divides the text into two parts:  today we hear what Jesus did, and how it applies to us; next Sunday we hear what the people did, in response to what Jesus said, and how that applies to us.

In his hometown synagogue, Jesus rises to read the Scriptures.  Among other things, what Luke is telling us that Jesus was a faithful Jew, regularly worshiping in the synagogue, not someone who darkened the doors only at Yom Kippur and Passover.

We should also be clear that neither the congregation nor the setting would likely have been grandiose. “Small town” hardly begins to describe Nazareth, since the entire village was about the size of a medium-sized United Methodist church, about “two to four hundred villagers.” And the setting may not even have been an actual building but a “gathering” of faithful Jewish people. This was the Judaism in which Jesus was raised, in which he was both faithful and observant.

So Jesus rose to read. He was getting quite a reputation, this Jesus, hometown boy, at least in other towns in Galilee.  But these people had known him since his youth: were they proud of their native son, and expectant, or doubtful, cynical of anything he could possibly tell them.  Almost certainly Mary was there: would we have be able to pick her out by the beaming radiance of a Jewish mom proud of her son, or by her white knuckles gripping the seat in front of her? 

The assistant gave Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, but Jesus chose the passage, Isaiah 61.

Does it sound familiar?  It should, because it’s the practice we still follow in worship today, the reading and hearing of the Word of God. We have the technology to supplement the reading of the Word, which in a visual and image-oriented society almost seems archaic, but for which – in Christian worship – there is no substitute.  It is a two millennia old ritual at the heart of Christian worship.

Do you appreciate that in our tradition we read more Scripture that most evangelical or fundamentalist churches? Do you appreciate the wealth of translations available to us, to make as clear as possible to us what these ancient texts are saying?  Do you appreciate the use of the projected text, which enables us to follow the text for ourselves, to both see and hear, and thus remember twice as much. The projected text is also helpful when the Lay Reader is not Sir Lawrence Olivier, which most of us are not. I have never been of the school that says the Lay Reader should be the best reader in the house; I believe the reading of the Word of God to the people of God should be the honored privilege of every member – even the lowliest – of the congregation.  Isn’t that part of what St. Paul was trying to tell us in Corinthians?

And so, perhaps tracing the text with his finger, Jesus read:

            God’s Spirit is on me;

            he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,

            Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners

                   and recovery of sight to the blind,

            To set the burdened and battered free,

                   to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

All the activities in this text are tied together in the “year of the Lord’s favor.” Does this refer to the Jubilee Year as proclaimed in Leviticus 25:10?  In Israel, the Jubilee Year was to occur every fifty years in Israel when the land was to lay fallow, all debts were to be forgiven, and all slaves freed. Confusion abounds as to whether or not the practice was ever truly instituted. Yet, the Jubilee Year has influenced such practices as the statute of limitations in our day.  The practice of the Year of Jubilee would not, however, play well on the North Shore of Chicago.

But surely Jesus’ words must have moved the hearts and re-ignited the ancient hope of his people, even if they were baffled by such “gracious words” from a hometown boy, all grown up and famous beyond the confines of his village. Asks Richard Swanson, ‘What if – in this scene – Jesus learns something about this old passage, these old hopes, by watching the faces of the old ones in the gathered congregation?”  (Provoking the Gospel of Luke). 

        But does it seem to you, as it may have seemed to them, that Jesus was overemphasizing “me” as he read the text? 

Which brings us back to who Jesus is, what he preaches, and how that message still shapes us today, as those who claim to be his disciples. Was Jesus “just” a really good preacher, someone whose sermons moved people, at least for the moment, or was he more than that? Jesus was claiming to be more than a rabbi. He claimed that he was God’s agent of promised salvation. And so it is, at the same time, Jesus’ inauguration and Jesus’ agenda, an overture to what is to come.  It will include not only a physical but a spiritual interpretation, not only personal but social, and would include not only helping the physically blind to see, but the much more difficult task of getting the spiritually blind to see as well.  

Finished reading, he rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the assistant, and sits down, the traditional teaching pose of a Rabbi. Because the people spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew, it was traditional for the reader to add an interpretation, just as we follow the reading of Scripture with a sermon.  Now every eye in the place is upon him, intent, listening, and he says: “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.” The Scripture may be old and ancient, but led by the Spirit, Jesus makes it new, for now.

And so the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann observes: “Thus we have, in these texts, the juxtaposition of Torah and Spirit, the old tradition and the free-breathing imagination of the Spirit. The church is Torah (or Scripture)-based and Spirit-led.”  And so must we ever be.

Because there’s reading, and then there’s READING. And so even for us today, the reading of the word should never be something rote, something to entertain us or even to expand our head-knowledge of what happened once upon a time, but a transformational experience, as the Spirit makes the word come alive anew.  It’s a stirring thought to think that Jesus himself, in reading the Word aloud, has a kind of epiphany, or at least a deeper understanding of what is really happening here, and his role in it.  We should all of us, always, be open “to new meanings and messages in old cherished stories and verses,” listening for a still-speaking God to change our lives, to affirm, in the words of 16th century Pilgrim John Robinson, that “The Lord hath yet more truth and light to break forth out of his holy Word.”

And, of course, there is also the matter of timing, the right moment, even for Jesus himself: “Sometimes it takes the right text finding the right person at the right time in her or his life. He saw himself differently after reading the scroll. So did those who heard him read that day.”  Just when we least expect it, so may the Word of God work in us. 

Renita Weems has an encouraging word for both preachers and hearers this and every Sunday: “There’s always the chance that this Sunday might be the right Sunday for the man staring glumly at you from the third pew to hear the text read in a way that he cannot avoid seeing his life on its pages. Remember: just because you can’t see him weeping doesn’t mean that he isn’t weeping inside” (New Proclamation 2001).

What would happen if we read and hear Scripture, as Jesus read and heard Scripture, not as something written long ago and far away, but as God addressing us, as God’s agents, as Jesus did, in his hometown synagogue on that Sabbath day.  This is the time, and this is the place, and we are the people we have been waiting for. 

Just one example.  This week, Jim Wallis of Sojourners’ Magazine appeared on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with host Jon Stewart. If you watch The Daily Show, you know Jon Stewart – though sometimes irreverent – entertains a national audience every night by making fun of the news.

Sojourners’ Magazine, on the other hand, is an evangelical Christian journal whose stated mission “is to articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world.”

Jon Stewart said:

“It seems to be against a general sense of fairness when you bail-out a company and they say, “Thank you very much for the money – do you mind if we use half of that to buy a jet?”

In response, Jim Wallis said:

“They say it’s a scandal and a shame. I say it’s a sin – of biblical proportions. We find ourselves in a situation where if you didn’t laugh about the state of things, you’d cry. One of every 10 Americans is out of work. Last week’s earthquake in Haiti shocked us with its terrible toll on the hemisphere’s poorest people. Wars rage on around the world. Back at home, Wall Street’s big banks are refusing to help Main Street while simultaneously handing out huge bonuses.  Americans are angry – and yet we feel helpless.”

Wallis proposal was that we begin moving from helplessness to hope by reclaiming our deepest values, which he discusses in his new book, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street — A Moral Compass for the New Economy.  In Rediscovering Values, Wallis argues that all along we’ve been asking the wrong question. We’ve been wondering when the crisis will end. But we should be asking, “How will this crisis change us?”

And so in the book he goes on to argue:

  • Why Biblical economics matters now more than ever
  • What the “new normal” will look like
  • Where the “real” war on the family is coming from – it’s not where you’d expect
  • Why things like laptops and TVs get cheaper and cheaper, but education for kids costs more and more
  • How churches can help rebuild civil society and a common-good culture


This is the time, and this is the place, and we are the people we have been waiting for.

             God’s Spirit is upon us;

             God’s chosen us to preach the Message of good news to the poor,

             Sent us to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery

                   of sight to the blind,

             To set the burdened and battered free,

                   to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

      You’ll have to come next Sunday to hear what happens next.


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