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Grand Opening II

Old Mystic, January 24, 2010
Luke 4:14-21

Summary

Luke opens his Gospel portraying Jesus anointed with the Holy Spirit and announcing his mission of freedom and life-giving to those who are captive, blind, and oppressed. Luke was anticipating that, by virtue of the coming of the same Spirit upon Jesus’ followers, they would engage in a liberating and life-giving mission to the world in the manner of Jesus.

Sermon

As John opens his gospel with the powerful sign of turning water into wine, declaring that the Glory of God is among us, Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry inauguration, is set on the context of what was the center of Jewish community life: the social and religious encounter of the synagogue. People would gather in the small, poor, peasant town of Nazareth to worship and study the Torah in that assembly, the forerunner of what we call the church. For the contemporary reader, it may not be as climatic as Luke originally might have intended since, besides having a Christology enhanced by two millennia of Christian tradition and the detailed narrative of Jesus birth, Jesus had already been filled with the Spirit at his baptism and by then he counted with many enthusiastic followers.

Yet, the stage is set for the inaugural address; the Grand Opening of Jesus’ ministry with a declaration of purpose: “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.” The words on record are very brief for what they encompass; they state what Jesus came to begin showing the way, teaching God’s wisdom, and empowering his followers to embark in world changing action. It was a call to do hands on work; a call to do mission.

There was no powerful sing at the synagogue in Nazareth. None besides the anointing of the Spirit upon that man called Jesus; a special manifestation that might not have been obvious to many. Jesus stood calmly at the lectern in front of the assembly and declared that the words he had read from the book of Isaiah were being fulfilled on that day. It was a challenge to the religious system, to the political system, and to common wisdom. The good news was that the transformation of the world was possible as it is possible today, in spite of so many monumental obstacles. The task that Jesus was announcing to be at hand ruffled some feathers even among those who needed the transformation announced. For that reason things went sour after that inaugural message. They were expecting the signs they heard Jesus had performed in other towns only to hear him say that unfortunately he was not prophet to them. Enraged, they tried to hurl him off the cliff on which the town was built but Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” It was really a close call!

This opening declares the same hope of God’s Glory been revealed as told in John’s gospel: God is with us. And Luke was telling the world that there is a new way; a different way that challenges all world systems of domination, of oppression, and enslavement; a way that transforms the human condition into new life. As we often say, this new reality, God’s kingdom, is in tension between the “here and now” and the “yet to be.” We are having perhaps just a taste of what we hope and expect and in the meantime we still undergo the “birth pangs” of that life. As we look at the world and the pain, suffering, violence, alienation, and death present, we cringe, not just as spectators, but also as participants of that suffering and failure. However, God is with us. Building upon this eternal reality, I want to point to two ways in which God is with us.

First, God’s Spirit is with us, in us, upon us. Jesus had declared that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him and that was the sign that according to Luke pointed to God calling Jesus his “beloved son.” It was the special anointing from God that the evangelist saw as the mark of Jesus’ special status as the incarnate God confirmed at his baptism. But Luke was definitely going beyond the witness of God’s anointing of Jesus. He already knew, as he wrote in the book of Acts, that that Spirit, the Holy Spirit, came upon all flesh. The story of Pentecost portrays in an extraordinary way how God is with us.

God’s Spirit is a gift; the most precious gift we have. It is God’s life-giving presence in us or available to us. It is not an external force that comes and goes which intensifies or decreases in relation to our faith. It is not a matter of believing in it because it is written; it is a matter of experiencing and acknowledging it because it is God’s presence in the world and in us. That does not make us special, lest we become arrogant. Let us not forget, it is available to everyone and it is in fact what many have called an “equalizer.” It was God’s Spirit that moved Jesus to love, to heal, and to serve; by virtue of that Spirit Jesus declared that he came to serve and not to be served. It was because of God’s Spirit that Jesus had the courage to face the cross for the love of humanity.

The Holy Spirit in us, God with us, is life-giving. As we embrace that Spirit, as we seek God and celebrate his presence, we experience life, real life; not life beyond this earth, but meaningful life here and now. It is the realized and at the same time yet to be fulfilled liberation from captivity, oppression, sickness, and failure.

Second, God Spirit is with us and is sending us into the world. Jesus was clear about the task for which he had been anointed: to bring good news to the poor, announce release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. God is with us, with his followers and wherever we go, in word and deed we are his life-giving agents. The symbolic image used by Luke, the “year of the Lord’s favor,” made reference to the Jewish Year of the Jubilee. It was a year of proclaiming liberty, of returning to the family, of recovering the lost land, of setting free those who have been enslaved, of resting and letting the soil rest, of forgiving debts, of celebration, and of peace. It was the fiftieth year celebration and anticipation of the Messianic kingdom that might have never been followed. Jesus said and says, now is the time; the time to make it a reality.

The Spirit is sending us into the world on a mission that faces immense challenges. A careful look at the concrete content of this missional call clearly indicates how much it goes against the grain even by today’s church standards. We have really accommodated to this 21st century world system—with our nation riding on top of the wave—that the task of liberating “the captive” and letting “the oppressed” go free may sound too political and counterculture—to say the least. Since we have been anointed with the Spirit, we “spiritualize” this call from Jesus confining it to an invisible realm. “When human hearts change,” we say, “then things will get better.” Yet, we are being transformed by the Spirit that is in us!

Wherever we go, the Spirit goes. And all we do, when we seek to do good, to act justly, to meet human needs, will be God’s mission in Jesus Christ to heal and transform a broken world. God has not sent the angels to change what needs to be changed; God is sending us. We just need to do, what we are equipped to do, with God’s Spirit.

Jesus ran the risk of being thrown off the cliff! And at the very end, as we know, he was crucified. I’m not sure I want to preach about martyrdom—I may end up with no audience. Not everyone has to literally become a martyr. Let us remember, God’s ineffable presence is with us. Therefore, there is going to be joy in spite of any suffering; it is going to be—and it already is—a wonderful ride. We are God’s people because God’s Spirit is in us, with us, and upon us. And for that reason we enjoy “giving life” in any way we can in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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