Proclaiming the Year of the Lord’s Favor: A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 2016

 

 

As I’ve walked around our building the past few weeks, trying to negotiate my way around painters, tilers, electricians, and carpenters, I’ve noticed that my own feelings of anticipation and excitement are growing. I’ve heard others express similar feelings. Everything we’ve worked so hard for over the last years, all of the meetings, the conversations, the fund raising, the visioning, all of it has brought us to this point. It seems like the closer we get to completion—2 or 3 weeks away, the more our excitement is spiking as we look forward to taking ownership of and living into our newly-renovated and expanded spaces. We’re almost there.

At the same time, as I walk around Grace, I notice all the things we didn’t do, the product of decisions we made to limit the scope of our project to keep within our financial resources. In a way, I think that’s a positive thing, because even as we celebrate and enjoy all that we’ve done, we will have some very visible reminders of the work that remains ahead, the work we have to do in the years to come. We won’t be able to sit back and relax.

I’m also heartened by all of the ways in which even as so many of us have put our energy, our hearts and souls, and bodies into the work of this renovation project, at the same time, we are also continuing to explore how we might engage in ministry and mission in our community in new ways. So, on Wednesday, after having spent some six hours on construction related meetings on Tuesday, I and others gathered to talk about racial inequities and injustice and strategized how Grace can participate in efforts to create a more just city. Next Sunday, Christa Fisher, chaplain at the Dane County Jail, will be preaching at both services and leading an adult forum. We hope to connect with the our neighbors at the jail in concrete and meaningful ways.

After this service, we will have a brainstorming session to which everyone is invited, where we will begin thinking about another amazing opportunity—our participation in Open Doors Madison on April 24. We’re getting free city-wide publicity. It’s an opportunity to show the whole city our beautiful facilities. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to show the city our programs and ministries and invite them to connect with us. It’s a marketer’s dream!

All of this points to one central reality in our common life at Grace Church. We are on the cusp of a new, exciting era in our history as we celebrate the work we have done and our beautifully renovated facility, and as we live into the mission to which God calls us in this city.

There may be no better gospel reading for our particular moment than the one we just heard. It is Luke’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus has just been tempted in the wilderness and Luke reports that “filled with the power of the Spirit” Jesus begins his public ministry, a preaching tour through the synagogues of Galilee. Eventually, he finds his way back home in Nazareth. When he gets there, his reputation seems to have preceded him. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. We can imagine that there’s quite a crowd in attendance; people want to know what the fuss is about, they’ve heard about Jesus’ activity in Capernaum and the other towns of Galilee.

So Jesus stands up, reads from the Torah, and sits down to interpret it. The text he reads is itself dramatic: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, 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.”

Luke puts this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to tell us something very important about Jesus. It’s a summary of the key themes of Jesus ministry. We can see how important it is for Luke by recognizing how he has changed the story from the versions in Mark and Matthew. In both of those gospels, the visit to the synagogue in Nazareth comes after a significant portion of Jesus’ ministry. Both gospels put it after big chunks of Jesus’ teaching and a number of his healings. For them, it is only a story about Jesus’ rejection in his hometown. They don’t tell us anything about what Jesus said. By placing it here, by putting these words in Jesus’ mouth, Luke is telling us to pay attention—this is what Jesus is all about.

So Jesus reads these verses, then he sits down and tells the congregation, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The people are amazed by the power of his words. There are several fascinating things about this text. In the first place, we see Jesus behaving like he’s supposed to do. He’s a good Jewish boy, he goes to synagogue on the Sabbath, he knows his scripture. But then, when he begins to speak, he blows away people’s expectations. Perhaps the congregation was expecting to hear how all this might happen when the Messiah comes. Instead, Jesus tells them, it’s happening right now!

Another key element of the text is the importance of the spirit. It’s something Luke stresses throughout his gospel, and I’m sure we’ll have more to say about it as we go through the gospel this year in the lectionary. Today’s reading begins, and Jesus, filled with the power of the spirit. And of course, the words Jesus reads from Isaiah begin with the phrase, the Spirit of God is upon me…” So, Jesus filled with the spirit, proclaims the year of God’s favor, preaches good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, proclaims release for captives, and freedom for the oppressed.

To put it into contemporary language—this is Jesus’ mission statement according to Luke. He makes this clear later in the gospel when the John the Baptizer, now in prison, has gotten word of Jesus’ activity. He sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the Messiah or if they are to wait for another. Jesus response to them, and to John is “Go tell John what you have seen, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the poor have good news preached to them.”

Jesus’ mission statement, but is it ours? I suspect that, just as in the case of the wedding at Cana, where our usual focus is on the miracle, here, we want to see Jesus’ words as relating only to him, and to his miraculous powers. But we’re not so easily left off the hook. If we follow Luke’s gospel, and then read in the book of Acts, which is the second half of Luke’s story, we see the same emphases being stressed. In Acts, the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, do amazing things, like give sight to the blind and set the oppressed free.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to share with him in his ministry and in his proclamation of good news. We are called to do great things. And the standard by which we should judge ourselves and our work is the Gospel. And it’s not inappropriate that we use this passage as our guide. Is this the year of the Lord’s favor? How are we going to bring good news to the poor? Help the blind to see, the lame to walk, the oppressed go free? Do our ministries match up to that job description? If not, why not?

The work we have done over the last years that is culminating in our renovations reflects an amazing amount of effort on the part of so many people, sacrifices of time and energy, financial generosity. We have done great things! It may even be that looking back, we can see that our work has been empowered by the Holy Spirit. Others will be able to see tangible signs of what we have accomplished and the new life that thrives here.

But the Holy Spirit doesn’t rest. It continues to move, inspire, lead us forward. This year, as we celebrate what we have done, may we experience the Holy Spirit’s continuing presence in our midst, and follow it forward into new places and new possibilities as we share the good news of Jesus Christ, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and bring new life and new hope to our neighborhood and the city.

 

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