The Work of the Spirit

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 & Luke 4: 14-21 (22-30)

 © Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 21st January 2007

They were all proud of him.  It was a story of small town boy done good.  He was popular on the preaching circuit.  Word was spreading that he was an exceptional teacher, popular and in demand, everyone praised him.  Everyone praised him.  After making his way in the world, he returns home, to teach, to preach where he was raised, among the people who nurtured him, in the presence of people who were, no doubt, proud of their boy, of the name he was making for Nazareth.  This humble carpenter’s son, raised to the rank of teacher, is a teacher worthy of an invitation to offer a formal reading of scripture during worship in the synagogue.   Only a respected teacher was allowed to read scripture. 

You can just imagine all of them beaming with pride, can’t you, maybe not even paying attention to what he’s reading, but just relishing the moment, saying, “That’s little Yeshua up there, can you believe it?”  He stood up to teach (Jewish teachers stood when they taught; the Greeks preferred sitting, hence the origin of a professor’s chair).  Jesus stands and the attendant hands him the scroll of Isaiah.  He carefully opens it.  Probably, the text was not chosen, it was left up to him, which means Jesus went searching for it.  He knew where he wanted to go, to the beginning of what we call Isaiah 6.  Remember the scroll didn’t have chapters and verses then, which means he knew scripture, he knew where he wanted to go.  He goes to a text written when Israel was in exile, under the oppression of the Babylonian Empire.  Jesus now reads these words to a people exiled in their homeland, to a people subjected to the savage physical and economic brutality of the Roman Empire, which was particularly harsh in the Galilee, where taxation was very high.[1]

Jesus chooses to read – the very first words we ‘hear’ from Jesus the teacher in Luke’s gospel,[2] the first thing he says publicly as teacher is from Isaiah, which tells us something.  This is what he said:  “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.”  He rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, and sat down.   It would have been appropriate at this time for Jesus to teach or preach on the text, to offer the sense or interpretation of the text (like we see in Nehemiah 8).  They’re waiting.  “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him,” Luke tells us.   Maybe they’re wondering what impressive interpretation he will give to dazzle them, “Wow” them, make their chests swell with pride?  Let’s hear the famous teacher teach!

But then he says the unexpected, filled with the Spirit of the Lord, who loves to do the unexpected, Jesus begins to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Now, notice the next verse, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  With a bit of sarcastic humor, someone says, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  (I think we need to hear this question with a kind of New York-Jewish accent.)  Wow, impressive.  But it’s almost as if they didn’t hear him, didn’t realize what he just said, didn’t hear the Word of God – they heard the words of scripture, but really didn’t take them seriously.  It’s as if they bypassed the text and were more impressed with Jesus’ performance, it seems.  They weren’t taking the word and works of God seriously. 

Why do I say this?  Because the tone changes in verse 23.  Jesus knows what’s going on.  He confronts the crowd saying, “Sure, no doubt you want me to do here in my home town the things that you heard I did in Capernaum.”  They want to use Jesus and Jesus knows he’s being used.  In other words, Jesus says to them, “It’s not about you.”  Then he tells them of a time when there was famine in the land and Elijah the prophet was sent not to Israel, but to a widow in Sidon; or when Israel was overwhelmed by leprosy, no one was cleansed except when Elisah visited Naaman the Syrian – outsiders both, beyond Israel.  You see, “It’s not about you.”  The prophets don’t serve the people first, they serve God.  The prophets don’t belong to the people, they belong to God and God – God’s prophets, God’s message, God’s work – belongs and is beholden to no one.  God’s message and work cannot be limited, curtailed, or contained, it will not be domesticated, controlled, or manipulated, but is free, free as the Spirit.  And then this same crowd that before was bestowing accolades and heaps of praise – everyone was praising him! – now turns on him with violent rage.  The crowd goes wild, drives him out of the synagogue, drives him out of town, and tries to hurl him off the cliff.  But he gets away.  Jesus gets away.  God’s mission will not be inhibited.

It’s not by mistake that Luke places this story toward the beginning of his gospel and right at the start of Jesus’ teaching ministry.  Nothing in our four gospel narratives is arranged by chance, they’re all intentionally chosen.  The gospels are not really histories of Jesus’ life, they are a completely different, a new literary genre, written not for historians (although historians across the centuries love to debate what’s historically true and what isn’t), but written for communities of people trying to follow Jesus Christ.  When we read the gospels we have to remember they’re written to a specific community.  In other words, Luke is writing for his church, being a witness to the work of God in Jesus Christ, but also encouraging his community to remember why it exists, so it can be clear about its mission and purpose.  Read in this light, Luke’s account of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth is a sobering story for Luke’s community to remember why it exists, to be clear about its purpose and mission.  By extension, this text becomes a sobering wake-up call for the church of Jesus Christ in every age to remember why it exists.

Why is this so important?   Because there’s something about organized religious communities, whether synagogue or church, that slowly over time comes to believe that it’s the center of its own, tiny universe.  When asked to characterize one’s faith, many Americans describe themselves as spiritual, but distrustful of organized religion.  Why?  Because they went to the church searching for God, for love, for forgiveness, for hope, and community, but discovered closed, country club-like cliques filled with conflict, competition, ignorance, judgment, and fear, where people are manipulated and used for the sake of the institution.  And, I hope to God, that no one ever feels this way about this church.   Martin Luther (1483-1546) once defined sin as the heart turned in upon itself.  Religious communities also sin when its heart or center is turned in upon itself.   Religious communities can easily slip into empty ritual, of going through the motions, reading scripture, but not taking it seriously, using religious language, saying the word “God” a lot, expecting to be entertained, amused, and thinking that God or Jesus or the Spirit somehow belong to us.  That’s when we need to hear Jesus saying to us, “It’s not about you,” – to hear him say this to us, without hurling him off a cliff!

One of our young theologians (age four) asked her mother one day, “Mommy, what is the church for?”  A simple one word answer could be:  God.  A four word answer would be:  the mission of God.  And what is the mission of God?  Not to grow the church, as if that were an end in itself, but that the church might be placed in service to the Spirit of God.  That’s what we’re here for, to place ourselves in service to the Spirit of God.  I would love to see this become even more the focus in all that we do.  But what’s the work of God’s Spirit?  Jesus told us in the synagogue in Nazareth.  He’s the fulfillment of everything God hopes to achieve in us and in the world.  Jesus is the embodiment of God.  Jesus’ is a man on a mission, sharing and participating in the mission of God. 

And what is that mission? 

Bring good news to the poor,
release the captives,
recover sight to the blind,
liberate of the oppressed,
proclaim the year of God’s favor, God’s jubilee.  

That’s the mission of God – liberate, recover, release, celebrate.  It’s actually what the Bible means by justice, righting what has been wronged, not through vengeful retribution, but through healing and restoring, making whole.   It’s significant that Jesus stops reading and closes the scroll just before he get to the verse that reads, “the day of vengeance of God (61:2b).”  This is one of the strongest, driving undercurrents running through scripture from Genesis to Revelation, it’s the very mission or purpose of God.  Dr. King saw it: “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[3]  Justice understood as wholeness, as healing, as offering hope to everyone who is oppressed in mind, body, spirit, or social circumstance – politically, economically, socially, and, particularly spiritually.  This is the Spirit’s work.  We might say this is authentic spirituality.  It’s all wrapped up here in Jesus’ choice of scripture.  “This is who I am,” Jesus says.  “This is who God is.  This is what I’m about and if you’re with me, it’s what you’ll be about too.”  This promise is not for some, but for all people, whether in the church or outside the church, this is still the mission of God. 

The church’s mission is to act in concert with God’s work and if we don’t, a church is as good as dead, existing only for itself, for its own self-preservation – this happens to churches of every size when they forget why they exist, what they’re for.  Jesus’ own self-understanding makes clear that he saw himself sent by God to fulfill God’s dreams for the world, which means that Jesus’ mission needs to be embraced and claimed all the more by his church.  It’s the work of the church, it’s what we’re here for – which is bound to get people angry with us, both within and without, there’ll be people who want to hurl us off the cliff.  This is often people’s reaction to the hearing and doing and fulfilling of God’s Word.  It stirs everything up.  That’s what can happen when we’re faithful.  It happened to the prophets, to Jesus, and to everyone who tried to be faithful to God’s work.  But it’s not about us, it’s about God.   We have nothing to fear from the crowd, because it’s not about us, it’s about God.   We have nothing to fear because Jesus gets away.  He always gets away.  The good news is nothing can inhibit the Spirit’s work.

[1] Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire:  The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 2003).

[2] We have an account of Jesus speaking in the temple when he was twelve Luke 2: 41-51 and rebuking Satan in the wilderness, Luke 4: 1-13

[3] Full quotation:  “We must act secure in the knowledge that, even though it often doesn’t feel like it, the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  From a speech given by Dr. King at the 25th anniversary dinner of the United Auto Workers (UAW),  April 27, 1961, in Chicago.  The phrase was first used by the Reverend Theodore Park (1810-1860), Unitarian minister and social reformer.