24 January 2010

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany - "TODAY"

So, there they were, gathered at the Water Gate into Jerusalem, the east side of the city, where anyone could gather, even those who were not pure. And they gathered as one to hear Ezra the prophet read to them from the law of the Lord, the great God. And he read: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."

And they read from the law, hearing all that God had told them in the days before their captivity in Babylon and their exile from the promised land. And the people of Israel saw their sin, how they had strayed from God, becoming strangers to him and a people without a Creator. They knew that the four hundred years of their captivity to foreign kings was of their own doing, and they knew that nothing could ever repay that debt. And they wept for their sin, in grievous sorrow, but also in the joy of a new opportunity to be God's people. And the prophet Ezra told the people "Do not weep, for this day is holy to the Lord your God, and God’s joy is your strength." So the people obeyed, hearing the word of the Lord from the prophet, and having it explained to them by those who could read the law and understand what it said, what it demanded, and what one could and could not do under the law to be right with God.

The psalmist wrote this about the law: "The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent. The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes." This is the same law that the prophet read to the people; the book of God for the people of God. And it reads: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." The psalmist is right: this is a good thing, to hear this commandment and follow it. And the psalmist continues: "Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me." Yes, Lord, keep us from being presumptuous, from saying and doing things that are not ours to say, from being that which we are not. And help us always, Lord, to love you with all our heart, soul, and might.

Come forward in time with me, now, about 550 years or so. There they are, gathered in a synagogue in a small town near the Sea of Galilee; the men in their prayer shawls, observing the Sabbath and preparing for the reading from the book. There was a new energy in the room that day – Jesus, the son of Joseph the carpenter, had come home from teaching in many of the towns around the area, and he was going to read and teach this day, too. So when they handed him the scroll of Isaiah, a hush fell on the room, and everyone sat forward to listen. And he read from the scroll of the prophet, words they had never heard together before: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…" He continued, reading about release, sight from blindness, and hope for the hopeless. And then, he sat down to teach, to interpret, to explain to the people what the prophet said, what he demanded, and what they could and could not do under the law to be right with God.

Keep me from presumptuous sins

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…"

Let the words of my mouth & the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight

"Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing…"

One might suppose that the people didn't know just how to receive this word of Jesus, this teaching from the law of God. The psalmist prays to be kept from presumptuous sins, a good prayer, a RIGHT spirit in the sight of God. After all, we must be humble and let God be God, right? And, on first glance, it seems that Jesus is doing just that. Note the story from today's Gospel text – Jesus is teaching in all the synagogues, but when he returns home, he goes to church on the Sabbath, just like always and just like everyone else. But when the word of God comes out of the mouth of Jesus, strange things begin to happen, and it's hard to know what one is supposed to see in this text.

Jesus says that the promises of the prophet have been fulfilled. That must have sounded as strange in Jesus' time as it does today. He says, "God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor;" and our welfare system still can't keep up. Jesus says, "God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives;" and still our prisons are overflowing. Jesus says "God has sent me to proclaim sight to the blind and the year of the Lord's favor," and still we can't see as a church which way God is calling us to go forward, and the church around the world is struggling with scandal, hypocrisy, and apathy. It would seem to be the height of presumption for Jesus to say these kind of things today, and I doubt that there's ever been a time when it would have seemed otherwise. The Spirit of the Lord may be upon Jesus, but he still looked like the son of Joseph the carpenter to them.

So, here we are: gathered in Ames, Iowa, listening to people read from the word of God, and trying not to be too presumptuous. After all, we can't free captives, can we? We can't give sight to the blind, or liberty to the oppressed, can we? We can't tell the poor anything but the truth, and we know from our self-help groups, Dr. Phil, and Oprah, that the captives need to break out of their bondage themselves, right? So for us to say that Jesus is right, well, do we want to be connected to this kind of presumption? In a word, yes, and for God's sake, we better be about it quickly!

It is NOT presumptuous for Jesus to say these things, and it's not presumptuous for us, either. Jesus isn't saying these words for some 'other' group of people who need God's help while we watch in approving silence – the word of God, when Jesus speaks it TO us, is fulfilled FOR US and all those who hear his voice. The people in our reading from Nehemiah needed interpreters for the word of God because they didn't understand what the law said, what it demanded, and where it directed their attention: Jesus, the LIVING word of God, is the end of interpretation because HE is the one of whom the word speaks, HE is the one the word of God demands, and HE is the focus of attention whenever the word of God is heard.

Here’s what I think Jesus is saying: “These things are true, I MEAN IT. It's a done deal – the gospel is now real and present – good news, release, sight, and freedom are fulfilled when I speak. I PRESUME to proclaim good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and the year of God's favor because I AM the good news, I AM the light to give the blind their sight, and I AM the embodiment of the year of the Lord's favor. Whenever and wherever my promises are spoken and believed through the power of the Spirit, there the blind will see, the captive will be set free, and even the poorest of the poor will believe that the joy of the Lord is their strength."

The word "today" means a lot in Luke's gospel:

  • In the days of Emperor Tiberius…
  • In the days of Caesar Augustus…
  • When Herod was governor of Judea…
  • "TODAY this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Tiberius, Augustus and Herod are not the ones who will bring sight to the blind, release to the captives, light to the world: that is GOD’S work, and Jesus is the one who is doing it.

TODAY we have heard the same good news, and TODAY Jesus is still speaking and doing God’s work.

Not President Obama. Not Governor Culver. Not President Geoffroy. Only Jesus brings news of the year of God’s favor, and only Jesus can make us part of something larger than ourselves: His own living body, fellow children of God, at one with all the saints of every time and place. TODAY this is happening – because Jesus brings good news whenever we hear his word and receive his promises. TODAY this is happening. Right here. Right now.

What bondage, what blindness, what poverty could you be healed from TODAY?

  • Maybe you spend too much time with the idiot box
  • Maybe you have run up your credit cards and don't know how to get out
  • Maybe you bought into the idea that if you were only sexier, only thinner, only more glamorous the ones you love might notice you more.
  • Maybe you presumed that all the church should do is teach morals and provide coffee.
  • Maybe all your 'maybes' are keeping you from being filled with God's Spirit and believing that Jesus' words really are FOR YOU.

So, here we are, today. But today is different: Today you are not captive to the bad decisions, bad theology, and bad behavior of the past. Today, because Jesus has presumed to speak, you are set free, regardless of the bondage that may have held you in the past.

Today is different. Today you will not be oppressed by the fear of what will happen tomorrow. Today you are no longer oppressed by the future and its uncertainties. When you know that the hand of God holds the future in a firm, yet tender grasp, what worry is there about tomorrow?

Today is different. Today the spiritual poverty under which you have struggled is beginning to lift, and the good news is this: your spiritual poverty is being replaced by the opportunity to live for others, to work against poverty in all its forms, to be a child of God who is blessed to be a blessing to the world.

Today is different. Today you will see more clearly the world God has given you and your place in it. Today the Spirit of God is upon you and will be your sight in this present darkness. You can show the light of Christ to those living in darkness. You can

Today is different because Jesus Christ is here for you. Presumptuous? Heck yes – if Jesus can do this, you'd think he'd go even farther. Maybe he'll get really presumptuous and promise to raise the dead, too. That would be just like Him.

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