Today: A Sermon Based on Luke 4:14-30 Preached by Mark Harper at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Ga February 3, 2019 – The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
“Today.” That’s the first word of the first sermon that Jesus ever preached. According to Luke, it occurred in the synagogue in Nazareth, a community gathering place that he no doubt knew very well from attending sabbath day services with his parents while growing up. And now as an adult who had left home for a while and gained a following as an itinerate rabbi with a reputation for powerful teaching, he was coming back. That was the word on the street. The hometown boy made good was coming home. A local hero. His presence would make this particular sabbath day special; the air was electric with anticipation.
I’m guessing that some in the congregation were hoping that Jesus would spend a little time saying how good it was to be back (whether that was entirely true or not. In his Broadway show, Bruce Springsteen says that everybody has a love-hate relationship with their hometown. By the end of Jesus’ sermon it’s apparent that his hometown foreshadows humanity’s love-hate relationship with him). But still I’m sure the synagogue crowd would have appreciated hearing him say how wonderful it was to taste his mama’s home-cooking and see old friends again. Maybe throw in a joke about how grateful he was to no longer be choking on the saw dust of his father’s wood shop. After all, the star of one of their own was rising and the good people of Nazareth understandably wanted a little piece of that, imagined a special claim on him, and probably felt they deserved a shout out for their role in shaping his success. And maybe they did. I know how good it felt last week when Colleen Cook thanked you for the many ways her faith was sparked and nurtured in this place. Those were words from the heart and you should rightly feel proud of your guidance and encouragement and friendship along the way of her seminary journey.
And who knows? Maybe Jesus did offer some preliminary remarks and niceties before he got into the meat of his sermon. But all Luke puts in front of us is that after reading from the scroll of Isaiah, Jesus sat down in the customary Jewish way and then began speaking in a very uncustomary way. He began with the word, “Today.” “Today,” he said, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And what scripture was that? The one that said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor … release to the captives … and recovery of site to the blind … to let the oppressed go free and to announce the year of the Lord’s jubilee of a fresh beginning when all debts are forgiven.” Today, right now, here in this place all those hopes and promises are being realized in your presence, in your hearing.
Something wild is happening here. There’s a whole lot of holy going on, a whole lot of God getting close, the Spirit messing with the prescribed liturgy. Just a few verses earlier, Luke tells us that John was embodying the words of Isaiah when he became the voice of one crying in the wilderness, announcing the coming of God into this world. And now we have Jesus doing the same thing: he’s looking his old friends and neighbors right in the eye and saying these old words have taken on new life and become a reality in me. The words are taking on flesh. At that sabbath celebration in Nazareth the Word of God is reading the word about God. And it’s happening … today!
I’m wondering if anybody in that synagogue was ready to hear that. Maybe it would have been better if Jesus had built up to it, had given them a little more time. If only he had talked more about the past, about how God had done great things with the people in the past, had pulled them out of bondage in the past, had made them the envy of all nations in the past. Sometimes triggering nostalgia is much more comforting than navigating the now. Or what if he had spun his preaching towards the future? What if he had said that the same God who had lifted Israel up in the past was going to make ‘em great again … someday, in a while, in the sweet by and by? Sometimes gazing down the road of our dreams is more inspiring than dealing with the current situation on our street.
But Jesus doesn’t go to either of those places. He simply says that the presence and power of God to make new life for those who have had no life is available right now. His ministry and mission on behalf of the poor and left out begins today.
And yet as others who have taken this message seriously have learned all too well, it can be dangerous to start doing things today. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. was responding to white moderate church leaders who criticized his pursuit of civil rights for all Americans. They told him to slow things down, to stop the lunch-counter sit-ins and marches and let the power structure get used to the idea of sharing power with those who had until then been powerless. They chastised his notion that it was time to change laws and act with what King called the “fierce urgency of now.” They advised him that “change must come slowly.” They told him to wait.
King, of course, knew that in the experience of those who had been disenfranchised, the word “wait” almost always meant “never.” He knew that justice too long delayed is justice denied. Dr. King had learned from his King that we tend to confuse our ideas about God with the way God actually works, and that God has never been a tribal God or a nationalistic God or the respecter of our self-created boundaries in the way we want our Maker to be. Like Jesus, King knew that the God who had shown love and mercy to a foreign widow from the wrong side of the tracks in Zarephath and an enemy general from Syria, is still commanding us to offer the same compassionate welcome to the hurting whether they live inside our borders or not. That doesn’t mean God loves us any less; it just means we are living in the presence of a God whose sense of community is always bigger than what we think we can handle. We’re being pushed and prodded by a powerful Spirit who is telling us to get busy loving those we have thought we couldn’t or shouldn’t love. That’s why Jesus’ first sermon was almost his last. That’s why our world always reacts with hostility to those who are living in Spirit that lived in Jesus. That’s why our world wants followers of Jesus’ way to get out of the way. And when they don’t, the powers of this world start looking for a cliff to push them off.
It’s almost always easier to avoid doing what we need to be doing today. To promise ourselves that we’ll start tomorrow. Or next week. We do it all the time – with our diets and health, with getting our files and garages organized, with doing the hard work of reconciling broken relationships. But I want to be very clear that what I’m hearing in today’s text is not a general call to seize the day, or to begin living your best life now. Those aren’t bad ideas, especially since the only time we know that we have is today. But what I am hearing from Jesus in Luke, in our sacred story and not from our culture’s narrative, is what the Reverend William Barber calls “normative preaching.” This isn’t some little side sermon; what Jesus says in Nazareth at the very beginning of his ministry defines the rest of his mission and life. Jesus is telling us that the same Holy Spirit that has guided him through the wilderness and into his work is also available for us. This same Spirit is giving us something very specific to do for God. And that fundamental mission, even though it may take on a different character and quality depending on where our particular communities of faith are located, is to embody the prophet’s promise to bring good news to the poor. As William Barber puts it, “If what our churches are doing does not lead to hope and new life for the poor, then it’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.” That’s the essential measure of our faith and life together; that’s the yardstick. The question is not how are we doing as a church, but what are we doing for God? And according to Luke Jesus makes that very, very clear: we are to join him in his work of lifting up the broken down. And we are not to spend five or ten years studying ways to do that. We are to start right now. We may learn better practices and responses along the way, but we are to begin today in the best way we can, trusting that God will give us the resources and hope and courage we need.
After all, today, because of the Super Bowl in Atlanta, the homeless have been swept off the streets there and brought here – and they will still be hungry and cold regardless of who wins. Today we have neighbors struggling with opioid addiction because pharmaceutical companies have forgotten that the common good is a higher calling than profit margins and investor’s returns. Today we have school children in this neighborhood whose parents are in overcrowded jails and who go home each weekend to empty refrigerators. Today we have bewildered and bored friends who have spent their whole lives chasing the dream of perpetual comfort and need to hear the liberating news that God has good and demanding work for them to do on behalf of this groaning planet. Today through the eyes of faith we might look up and see “God’s good future hurtling toward us, bringing the finished work of God to an unfinished world” (Tom Long).
Today, my sisters and brothers, we are being summoned to join our Lord in the fierce urgency of now. Amen.