Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21
We are watching Jesus of Nazareth work out being the Son of God. At the point of Luke chapter 4, the title "Son of God" does not signify the second person of the Holy Trinity, it does not yet entail actual divinity, Jesus has still to work that out; and though it was already true of him, I don’t think he worked it out until his resurrection. At this point in the gospel, to be the Son of God is to be the royal prince of Israel, the true king of the Jews, of the House and lineage of David, the entitled one, the anointed one, the christos, the Christ, the Messiah.
Two Sundays ago we read that this title was confirmed for Jesus at his baptism, when the voice from heaven said, "You are my son, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased." Three Sundays from now we will read what happened directly after that: the Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And every temptation began with the words: "If you are the Son of God." If you are the Son of God, try this, try that, do this. Two of the temptations were based on scripture. Jesus had to sort through some compelling options on how to be the Son of God, he had to consider and reject some powerful possibilities to work out being the Messiah.
Today we read of him going public and developing his campaign. He doesn’t go straight to Jerusalem, straight to Washington, he starts out in Iowa and New Hampshire. In Galilee. He does the synagogues, explaining the book of the law of Moses, the Torah. Like Ezra in our reading from Nehemiah. He read the law and made sense of it so the people could understand it, he was giving them interpretation and inspiration and hope. From our perspective we can see him as God having come among God’s people, God talking to them again. But they would not have seen him as the Messiah, doing that. King David was not a teacher. They saw him as a rabbi and a prophet.
He chooses to announce that he’s the Messiah in his own home town, in the town hall, which is the synagogue. He does it by simply reading from the Isaiah scroll. Let me say in passing that Rabbi Bachman told me they study this chapter of Luke in rabbinical school, because it’s the earliest description of what happened in synagogues, earlier than anything in Jewish books. We may guess, from the account in Nehemiah, that the synagogue’s ruler will have blessed the Lord, that the people raised their hands and said Amen, that they bowed in prayer and worship, and that somebody read from the scroll of the Torah. But we know from Luke that somebody read from a scroll of the Haftorah, that is, one of the prophets, frequently Isaiah, and that somebody did explain the readings and apply them: how shall we keep the laws of Moses in a very different context when the Roman law is above us, and we don’t control the economy we work in, and we don’t even own the land we’re farming. I mean, the synagogue was as much a town hall meeting as it was a spiritual meeting. How are we supposed to live?
It’s dramatic that Jesus finishes reading and then sits down. Everybody looks at him. All his relatives and family friends. "Well, aren’t you going to explain it? Teach us. Show your stuff. Don’t embarrass your brothers here." From where he sits he says, "It’s now. It’s here. It’s me." He has announced—by quoting Isaiah. "The spirit of Adonai has anointed me." Anointed, entitled, the Messiah, the christos, the Christ, the Son of God. He has announced his platform, which is to benefit the poor and free the oppressed. Who the people of Nazareth consider to be themselves, who are hopelessly indebted to the lenders and the landlords and have no capital and cannot rise out of their poverty. He has announced his method. He will accomplish his platform by means of proclamation. "Well, you cannot make it so by simply saying it is so." He will proclaim the good news. "Thanks for the news, but what about the full story? Can you deliver?"
Eventually they will decide he can’t deliver. Over the course of three years, and despite some very positive moments along the way, they will decide he is a loser. He cannot have been the Messiah. He cannot have been the true king of the Jews. "Pontius Pilate, that inscription, please take it down." He was not the king of the Jews, he only said he was. His death on the cross is the denial of all their expectations of how he should have been their Messiah. It’s a great negation.
I wrestle with how the church makes so little real difference in the world. It doesn’t matter, if the church’s only purpose is to get us into heaven when we die. But in the Reformed Church, the gospel is for the salvation of the world and the redemption of all creation. "Thy kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven." We feed the hungry for more than sympathy and Christian love, we do it to bear witness to the Kingdom of God. Our church has a good reputation because of Cooking for Chips and the Sandy Relief Kitchen and our Summer Respite Shelter, but where is the church on the structures of poverty and the institutionalized injustices that result in hunger and homelessness? What about climate change, where is the church on that? Our church has given its blessing to same-sex marriage, but what about real activism in addressing sexual discrimination? Some churches were powerhouses for the civil rights movement, but 11 AM on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. As far as Christian action in the world, the church has to weep like those people wept when they heard what Ezra was reading in the law.
We have to remember and take for ourselves that Our Lord’s death on the cross is the denial of his own people’s expectations of how he should be their Messiah. It was a great big "no" to all their "yesses". They saw him as a failure and yet we believe in him. You came here today to worship this disgrace as the Son of God. What has he done for you? What has he delivered us? The forgiveness of our sins? Reconciliation with God? How does that work? By God saying No to us in order to say Yes to us, by the strange exchange of God loving and accepting us precisely in judging and negating all our expectations of how to be the Messiah for us and how to satisfy our standards for making a real difference in the world. If we claim to have the Christian solutions for these real issues in the world, God says no to us. Which is good. It means that God’s love for us is free from us, so we are free. It means the freedom of our guilty consciences and the freedom of our actions in the world. It also means that the only power the church may exercise in the world is the joy of the Lord. The joy of the Lord is our power.
And so the church, as the church, can be content, without guilt, to busy itself in doing what it did under Ezra—coming together to bless God, to read out the scriptures and interpret them, to consider our failures and accept the forgiveness, to bow down in prayer, and to drink the wine and eat the food and deliver the food to those who don’t have any. So I think we’re on the right track. But that is not to let us off the hook. We are to be the body of Christ, which means a real sharing with each other, our aches and pains and our strengths and our vitalities.
None of us here is an apostle, but if you are a prophet, we must support you in your prophecy. If you are teacher, we support you in your teaching. If you are an activist, we must support you in your activism. If you are a healer, or in medicine, or massage, or therapy, we support you in your healing. If you are a helper, a server, a nanny, a caretaker, a custodian, we will support you. If you are a leader, we will support you when you take your hits. If you have the gift of speech, or of interpretation, as a newscaster or a writer, we will follow you and read you. You are a musician, an artist, a designer, an architect, a carpenter, an engineer, an accountant, a banker, we will encourage to make your difference in the world, in your activity in the world and in all your various associations, in freedom outside the church, with other sorts of believers and non-believers. We need to identify activists and support them and love them, so that their activism may have joy. That joy is the sign that our power is of the Lord. That joy is the sign of the unfailing yes of God and of the unfathomable love of God.
Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.