Sunday, January 17, 2021

Phil Kniss: When the lights came on for Jesus

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus’ mission announced
Luke 4:14-30

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Today again, I want to de-mystify Jesus just a bit.
What I mean by that is,
in so many Gospel stories,
our instinct is to cover up Jesus’ real humanity,
and explain his words and actions
as something he could only do because he was
the divine Son of God.
And in the process,
we lose the connection with Jesus, our brother, our sibling,
one who shared a full, embodied humanity with us.
We need both—the humanity and divinity.

Last Sunday’s story of his baptism by John in the Jordan
is a perfect example.
We focus in on the voice from above,
the descending dove,
the bright heavenly glow, maybe trumpets and angels.
But we need to remember he went to that river in a crowd,
as a member of particular social and religious group,
trying to live their lives at a particular political moment,
which, as I mentioned last Sunday,
has some parallels to our own political moment.

Without taking anything away from the Jesus who is Lord of heaven,
we can’t afford to lose sight of the Jesus who is like us.
This has never been more true than it is now,
with all the global, national, and personal suffering
going on right now.
We need a Jesus we can relate to.
Who knows what it means to struggle with life.
I mean, really struggle.
Who knows what red-hot anger feels like.
Who knows the exhilaration and hard work of loving someone.
Who has felt, in his gut, the wrenching pain of grief,
after losing someone way too soon.
Who has experienced, yes, even fear and doubt.

Otherwise, we might have a mystical Savior,
but we don’t have a Jesus to follow in life, as a disciple.

In today’s story from Luke we see Jesus in two scenes,
both in his hometown of Nazareth.
Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue,
and Jesus being confronted by an angry mob.

Now, if we see only Jesus the Divine Son of God,
the story goes like this—
He calmly enters the synagogue intent to declare
what he already knows,
that he is the Messiah, anointed to deliver his people.
But the people aren’t ready to accept that divine truth,
so they try to kill him,
but he miraculously escapes their grasp because, well,
because he’s God.

Certainly, there are elements of that in the story.
But let’s find the human Jesus in Luke 4,
the one who resembles us.

When Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah,
he probably did exactly what Erma Taylor did today—
read from the assigned lectionary text.
The scroll of Isaiah was handed to him.
I assume he did what synagogue worshippers often did—
took his turn reading the assigned text,
and then, as is customary,
made some comments about the text.
Synagogue readings often sparked conversation,
sometimes debate.

I think this Isaiah reading was a pivotal moment for Jesus,
not because the God in him
directed him to go in there and boldly announce his mission
and give his inauguration speech.

I think this was a pivotal moment
because the words of the prophet Isaiah spoke to him right then.
As he read them, the lights came on for Jesus.
I can’t prove it. But I believe it.

I think about all Jesus experienced in just the prior 2 months,
as a human—as a young man exploring his call and identity.
I bet his mind was churning.
The picture was starting to come together,
but a little blurry.
Isaiah brought it into focus.

In our text last week Jesus was baptized by John and heard the voice
that staked a claim on him—“You are my son.”
But what did that mean? Jesus surely wondered.
Then the next 40 days were torture.
He spent it in the desert, fasting,
struggling against his demons.
Or in the words of the Gospels,
being tempted by Satan.
He was being forced to choose between the easy road,
or the hard road.
Bread or hunger.
Glory or suffering.
Power or poverty.

He survived with his identity intact,
because he kept quoting his scriptures back to Satan,
kept reminding himself of who he was,
and where he came from.

Read all about those wilderness temptations
in the first part of chapter four.

Today’s story comes immediately after that.
Looks to me like it’s a 1-2-3 sequence,
river baptism — where his call and identity are announced
desert temptation — where his call and identity
are tested almost to the breaking point
and home-town synagogue — where the lights come on for him
and it dawns on him
what the river and the desert really meant.

On this Sabbath day, worshipping with people he grew up with,
people who knew him when he was an awkward teenager,
Jesus suddenly saw that his own emerging call
was bringing the call of Isaiah full circle.
“These words have been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In other words,
Luke brilliantly describes how Jesus—
his person and ministry—
grew organically out of his own tradition.
The early Christians, to whom Luke is writing,
were not making up some new and strange religion,
as some accused them.
No, there is this unmistakable line the connects
the work of God in the Torah and Prophets,
to the work of God through Jesus of Nazareth,
and to the work of God in the church.
There is one long thread of God’s saving history,
which they are all connected to,
including the church of today.

And that thread is summed up in the text Jesus read
that made the lights come on.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That was, as it turned out,
Jesus’ inauguration speech.
And it is ours, too.

There’s going to be another inauguration speech on Wednesday,
that a lot of us will probably listen to.
It might be a good one.
I hope so.
It might call us as Americans to rediscover our better selves.
I hope the people who most need to hear it,
will listen with even a slightly open heart.

But no matter how good it is,
it won’t rise to the level of these four lines from Isaiah.
This, sisters and brothers,
is what God is about, fundamentally.
And it is what we are to be about.

And truly,
those lines had an impact on everyone in the synagogue that day.
Especially after the lights came on for Jesus,
and he handed back the scroll,
and with all eyes on him, spoke these weighty words:
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

It was one of those moments.
His hometown audience was transfixed by what Luke calls
his (quote) “gracious words.”
They wondered, is this really the Jesus they grew up with?
Joseph’s son?

And then scene #2.
It took a sudden, and ugly, turn.
Because Jesus took an ugly turn.
He got too personal with them.
His words were “gracious,”
as long as he talked about injustice out there.
They assumed he was targeting their oppressors—
Caesar and Herod and the like.
But when he turned those gracious words against them,
his neighbors and cousins and people he did carpenter work for,
they went from being enchanted to being enraged.

He made statements that were hard to argue with
because they came straight from stories
out of their Hebrew Bible—
Elijah saving the widow of Zarephath from starvation,
and Elisha healing Naaman, the Syrian, from leprosy.
But he pointed out the obvious which theydidn’t want to see—
that those prophets ministered healing and compassion,
in God’s name, to Gentiles—
to those outside the fold,
while there were Jews who remained hungry,
or continued to live with leprosy.

Due to the fact the lights came on
for this charismatic carpenter-prophet from Nazareth,
he could cleverly, and provocatively,
undermine the narrative of his own neighbors—
who thought they were God’s privileged people,
with an inside track to God’s love and attention.

Without saying it in so many words,
Jesus condemned their narrow view of God’s love,
their practice of judging and cutting off
people like lepers and tax collectors and sinners
and Gentiles and Samaritans.

So his people turned on him.
So offensive were his words, there was a riot.
A deadly mob formed, intent on killing him.
People shouting and shoving,
to the point they almost threw him off a cliff,
but he managed to slip their grasp.
This time.

Now that’s quite a human and divine story Luke tells,
here at the front end of Jesus’ life of ministry.
This is Jesus.
Now, suddenly clear about what he is called to do and say.
Nothing will dissuade him.
Not just because he is God.
But because he a human being who says “yes” to God.

Saying yes is something we can also do.
Even in the face of seemingly hopeless situations—
globally, nationally, personally.
We can say yes, to staying connected to God’s saving history,
to proclaim freedom, release, healing, and restoration,
because that is God’s work.
God help the lights to come on for us, too.
Because God has chosen us.
Every bit as much as God chose Isaiah,
and God chose the carpenter from Nazareth,
to embody God’s very presence, in the flesh.
God has chosen you.
God has chosen me.

Let us say “yes.”

—Phil Kniss, January 16, 2021

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