Friday, January 22, 2016

Hearing the Prophet: Luke 4:14-21

When I served in Vermont, our interfaith council hosted the MLK Day observance along with the Peace & Justice Center.  One year, instead of finding a speaker to talk about King, we opted to invite people to listen to a recording of King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from 1964. His words were stirring, but his preacherly cadence electrified the moment. People listened because he spoke with the humble certainty of the prophet.

 Even as we near fifty years since his assassination, King keeps instructing us through his speeches and his life. He was a person who used nonviolent methods to transverse a turbulent era. A man given many opportunities to claim celebrity, settling instead for his modest self-description of being “nothing more than a Baptist preacher.” King was a powerful person of faith, thanks to his formation in a faith community, growing up, learning the refrain of scriptures, living out his faith journey.

One cannot give enough importance to the role of faith formation. It is a necessary part of making a person more grounded in the faith that they believe in. That is one distinctive of Luke’s Gospel. Throughout his story of Jesus, Luke demonstrates that Jesus was raised in a household that took faith seriously. In infancy, Jesus is circumcised and presented at the Temple. As an adolescent, Jesus remains in Jerusalem while the family returns home from pilgrimage. From the time of his baptism to nearing his death, Jesus is often found in fervent, reverential prayer. Jesus keeps the faith well, immersed in the traditions and customs, and most importantly, the sacred text of Law, Wisdom, and Prophets. Jesus spoke with an authority from above, but he also spoke from a place within himself that only comes from keeping the faith seriously. He listened to these scriptures and let them simmer deep down in his bones. That humble certainty fueled his ministry as surely as the power of the Spirit empowered Jesus.

In the Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Book of Acts, the Spirit, the Spirit of God, provides the spirit that drives the Christ and the first Christians. It is Luke that holds that the Spirit brings the power to speak, to act, and to go forth, bringing about the good news. Jesus is empowered, and likewise the Church that follows the Christ is dependent on the enlivening force of the Spirit. He speaks prophetically, as one with authority and grace.

So, when you read a passage like this one, we preacherly types feel just a tinge of envy at how this “sermon” unfolds. Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah and gives an opening line that gets the crowd talking: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Preachers would give most anything to have folks on the first line! (Oftentimes, the sermon is a bit like watching a baseball game. You hope that it doesn’t go into overtime!)

Jesus goes on in his commentary on Isaiah by anticipating some of the criticism that he would get. There were some who expected Jesus to provide the same help he was giving elsewhere. Others were skeptical that Jesus had the abilities to heal and teach that was spreading around. He invoked stories from scripture about the “outsiders” being the most likely to follow God. Jesus disturbed this crowd by reminding them of what they ought to know: the ongoing refrain within the scriptures that made provision for those in need.

Jesus is about the work of God, bringing the good news. The promise of Isaiah is being fulfilled in Jesus’ work. Yet in rustic Nazareth, it took people a little by surprise to hear that sort of authority in their midst. After all, they knew Jesus as the son of a carpenter. Jesus was not considered learned by these folks. No Ivy League credentials. Not even a divinity school degree. Jesus befuddled the home crowd to no end. How did this boy of Joseph develop this ability? And a few started to mutter, “Who does he think he is?”

In her book on the spirituality of raising children (perhaps you will find it to be most appropriately entitled “In the Midst of Chaos”), author Bonnie Miller-McLemore tells of worshiping in a Lutheran church where the sanctuary was adorned with a large sign that said “May the Spirit of God disturb you.”

Miller-McLemore writes,
These words were posted to honor Gertrude Lundholm, a Lutheran woman who deeply shaped and inspired all generations in the community and who had died only the week before. During Eucharist, she would pass the peace in just this way. “May the Spirit of God disturb you,” she’d say as she embraced her neighbor.

What did Lundholm mean? “Many Christians, she told a friend, “seem to think the peace of God is just about their own internal peace of mind, as if being a Christian is kind of like being a kind of tranquilizer. But God intends to stir us make us notice new things, to keep us from being complacent.”  (In the Midst of Chaos, p 16)

The erring of many churches is to settle for comfort and familiarity, thus negating the ongoing need to evaluate their ability to be a faith community that is able to reach out and to include others, especially those who are really “other” in various ways to the majority of the congregation. Christ is a confounding figure for us. He spent time in the midst of those who were forgotten or made to feel forgotten by the majority around them. Yet there is a certain degree of taming that happens when we read the Gospel from a place too secure or within a community of faith too self-assured. “May the Spirit of God disturb you” sounds like a bit of ire at first. Perhaps it is the word of blessing we need most. It may allow us to hear anew the hope found in “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The reading from Isaiah is stirring, again, perhaps you hear the thunder of a Dr. King delivering these lines. The trick for us, however, is to ponder these words of Isaiah for ourselves. How do these words challenge? How do these words give hope? How do these words prompt us from hearing to doing?
The Nehemiah reading from earlier in the service reminds us that it is important to spend time together reflecting on the scriptures. In a time of renewal and rebuilding, the people of Israel took opportunities to hear and contemplate the reading of sacred text.

We’re going to try an experiment during the sermon. Rather than me talking, we’re going to let the Isaiah text simmer a bit. We’ll hear the passage from Isaiah read twice. Between each reading will be some silent time to reflect. After the second reading and a time for silence, I will invite you to share what words, phrases, or thoughts are on your mind as we close out the sermon time.

“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.”

What did you experience in hearing and thinking about these words? What does this story of Jesus help you see as important to the life of faith lived by yourself or this congregation?

Let us pray...

Call us, O God, to become deeper disciples of our faith in You.
Confound us, O Christ, to live the Gospel more inclusively.
Disturb us, O Spirit of God, that we might be more vulnerable and attentive.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, AMEN.

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