Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’
Who Needs to Worry About that Fox? Luke 13:31-35
Foxes and chickens seem to turn up in all kinds of interesting stories, don't they? Throughout Japanese, African, and Native American folklore, foxes cheat, swindle, and sneak their way through life, often much to the dismay of the chickens and an occasional rabbit. In most stories of foxes, they are portrayed, at the very least, as devious and sneaky varmints, and, at worst, chicken-devouring predators. And, chickens, well, in most stories, no one really wants to be the chicken. They usually aren't very smart or brave, and they often end up as dinner. Remember the story of Chicken Little? Foxy Loxy is smart and hungry. Chicken Little is foolish and afraid. Chicken Little becomes dinner. Chickens and foxes, animals very common in the lives of most rural folks, often show up in stories meant to teach us something. Their very commonness makes them very good metaphors for human behavior. Jesus, that great storyteller and teacher, was quick to embrace a metaphor that he thought would help him communicate more clearly with people. He knew the power of chickens and foxes. He knew that sometimes a sneaky, dangerous presence was waiting to gobble you up. He also knew that chickens aren't as helpless as you think. He was willing to put his faith in the chickens. You see, Jesus has work that he must do, and no sneaky, conniving fox was going to stop him.
We have come to the point in Luke where Jesus has been at work for a while. You will remember that Jesus had identified his mission as similar to that of the prophet Isaiah. He quoted the prophet: "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." That is exactly what he proceeded to do. He began to bring about mercy and justice. He proclaimed the kingdom and prophesied the power of God. He healed chronically ill people. He cast out demon after demon. He argued with Pharisees and teachers of the law about what was more important, perfect observance of the letter of the law or perfect observance of the spirit of the law. He has also spoken about how dangerous it will be follow him and build the reign of God. And, he has learned that his own cousin, John, has been murdered by the king, Herod. John had angered Herod by calling out his hypocrisy. Like a fox in a trap, Herod lashed out and had him killed.
The thing is, even though Jesus knew that his work was dangerous, he did not go about his work deceptively. He did not sneak around and work behind the authorities' back. That's what a fox would have done. And, remember, Jesus was no fox. He was not just trying to survive on what he could steal or sneak away in the night. His work required him to be out in public, to call out the injustices, and to argue with the authorities. His vocation was loud, prophetic, and messy, not sleek, sneaky, and foxy. Jesus' prophetic work was that of the chicken... pecking, squawking, clucking, crooning, brooding to save her beloved chicks, the people of Jerusalem. His whole life has been oriented towards caring for others, towards carrying the truth to his people and sharing the reign of God. He was headed to Jerusalem, the place where the chicks were in most need of tending and the place where powerful foxes were lurking and would do most damage. It might have been safer to sneak in. But, Jesus was a chicken. And, best I can tell, chickens don't sneak anywhere.
The Pharisees don't really seem to understand the bravery of the chicken. They are afraid for Jesus, even though he has been a thorn is some of their sides. Regardless of their disagreements, at this point in Luke, they don't want to see him killed. So they try to warn him that Herod wanted to kill him. That would stop him from getting to Jerusalem and tending to his mission. Jesus understands that his calling is clear and he dismisses Herod as a fox. Scholars tell us that in Hebrew tradition, foxes are associated with destruction, and in Greek tradition, with cleverness. Jesus knows that a fox may be dangerous. Jesus' knows that they can sneak in a coop and easily snap a chick's neck. Lest we forget the horrible beheading of that other prophetic chicken, John. But, a fox won't have the last word here. God will. And, God is calling Jesus to cure people and to banish demons. Fox or no fox, only when he is done will he leave Galilee and travel to Jerusalem.
Jesus is so confident in his calling from God to go to Jerusalem that he is completely unconcerned about Herod. Jesus knows his people's history well. Jesus knows that he is a prophet and that prophets don't always fair so well in Jerusalem. The prophets Uriah and Zechariah were killed in Jerusalem. The king Manasseh killed a whole score of prophets in Jerusalem. And, is some Jewish lore, the prophet Isaiah, the one after whom Jesus modeled his own ministry, was killed in Jerusalem. He may not foresee a long life for himself once he reaches Jerusalem, but, he's going to make it to Jerusalem. So, Herod's threats mean nothing. As Rev. Pam Fickenshur said, “he is annoying and capable, but not terrifying.” Herod may be dangerous and powerful, but, not more powerful than the Holy Spirit. Herod's threats cannot stop Jesus. This fox will not find it's way into the hen house.
While Herod does not concern Jesus, the future of his people does. That's what he spent most of his energy talking about in this story. Jesus was really concerned about Jerusalem. Jerusalem, as the home of the temple, the building which housed the very presence of God, represented the whole people of Israel. As Jerusalem goes, so goes the nation. He must get there and share with him his good news of love and justice. He was afraid though. As we have already discussed, he knows his people's history. People do not always listen to prophets. He offers deep and sincere lament for his people's current state and also for a future that he fears, one in which they will ignore his words and refuse to build God's reign with him. He laments a possible future where the authorities will continue to hoard power and food, and the orphans and widows will go hungry, where the Spirit of compassion and grace at the heart of the Law would be lost in rigidity and self-righteousness. Jesus, who sees no future in the cunning of the fox, longs to offer the nurture and protection of the mother hen. He can build a future with compassion.
Jesus wants to brood over Jerusalem with a hen's fierce love and protection. Following Jewish tradition that sometimes describes God as a Mother (be it a mother eagle in Deuteronomy, a mother bear in Hosea, or a mother who has given birth and is nursing her child as is found in Isaiah), Jesus describes his relationship to Jerusalem this way: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" Jesus understands his Divine work as that of nurture and protection. Jesus will not beat his people into submission, as the tyrants of the empire do. Instead he offers the fluffed up, puffed up clucks of the mother hen, watching and gathering her chicks safely under her wing, nurturing them into the people God was calling them to be. This mother hen who would gladly, instinctively, put herself between the fox and her brood. She is vulnerable to violence, but willing to risk her own body to save her chicks. Even as Jesus knows his prophetic role puts him in harms way, he is willing to risk his life to tend to the needs of his people. With this one lovely brooding hen image, Jesus has reminded us that the core of call of the prophet is not anger or self interest, but sacrificial love. The work Jesus is called to is love, not self-preservation.
In our own world of sleek foxes and treacherous rulers, this fat mother hen is a welcome sight. Who would have expected that a chicken would turn up as an image of courage and love? I guess some farmers might. They've probably watched many a hen as she broods over and protects her chicks. I know that we once had a big brown hen who would have whooped anyone who bothered her chicks. I remember watching her as they gathered to rest: she would spread her broad wings wide and tuck the little ones in, ready to protect them from whatever came their way. We kids sure as heck didn't bother her because we knew that she would not hesitate to flog us if we got too close. I kind of like this chicken Jesus, who knows his love and work make him vulnerable, but follows his calling anyway. His ministry puts his life at great risk, but, he knows that to ignore his calling would be an even greater loss. So, he spreads his wings wide, inviting all of us chicks into his warm, sheltering embrace.
It is not easy to be a chicken. Chickens are so often targets for the strong, the cunning, and the hungry. In the end, the chickens my family had didn't fair all that well against our neighbor's dog. And, while that fox Herod was not able to hurt Jesus, an even greater predator awaited him in Jerusalem. We remember that Jesus, our Mother Hen, will still be a target for the sly and the conniving, even if he got away from Herod the fox. Jesus, like the mother hen, will only have his love and his own body to use to protect the one's he loves. He will not hesitate to use them. Once he gets to Jerusalem, there will be a point when all will seem lost, where the predators will have seemed to have made dinner out of our mother hen. But, the hen's sacrifice will not be the end of the story. Her love will be. We are here today as evidence of the power of that mothering, brooding, sacrificial love. We are the chicks. With a mother hen like ours, who really needs to worry about that fox?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources when writing this sermon:
Ruth Anne Reese: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2770
Scott Schauf: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1575
Arland J. Hultgren: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=509
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4530
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-2-c-courage-and-vulnerability/
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Pam Fickenscher talking about foxes: http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20100222JJ.shtml
David Lose's mothering images from the Hebrew Bible: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2460
Our Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 14, 2016: To Be Tempted and Empowered, Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”,
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
To Be Tempted and Empowered: Luke 4:1-13
Some stories are so important that they appear in more than one Gospel. This story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is one of them. Three different Gospel writers, the authors of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all thought this story was so important that they included it at the beginning of each of their Gospels. I can see why. It is a very compelling story. The thing is, the writers don't tell the story just because it's interesting. They share it because it tells us something important about Jesus and his ministry. Let's take few moments together to learn a little more about Jesus from this story. Let's see how Jesus responded when he was tempted and begin to ask ourselves, how are we tempted and how can we be empowered to act as Jesus did?
This story comes right after Jesus' baptism. The Holy Spirit had come down on him in the shape of the dove and led him into the wilderness. I wonder if Jesus remembered the stories of his people as he walked away from the Jordan. Throughout Jewish history, people have struggled in the wilderness, and have also encountered God there. He knew the stories of people who struggled, and often failed, to trust God as they wandered 40 years in the wilderness. I bet he remembered these stories as he, too was tempted.
Jesus seemed to follow in the footsteps of his ancestor Moses who is said to have spent forty days on a mountain with no food. Luke tells us that Jesus didn't eat at all during his time away. Luke doesn't tell us is why he didn't eat. Was he fasting? Was it a time of drought and he could find no food? Was he too worried to eat? The answer is not obvious, and his reason for not eating may not actually be the more important part of this story. What seems to actually be more important to Luke is how Jesus responds to not eating. You see, Jesus was very, very hungry. And Jesus had some company out there in the wilderness... some unfriendly company that was trying to take advantage of his vulnerabilities. The devil, a walking, talking manifestation of temptation hiding in the guise of reason, knew that hungry people can make some terrible decisions. He knew that a hungry Jesus could be tempted. So, he asked him a question.
The devil, hoping to goad him into action by both questioning his identity and by offering him something that he truly needed, said to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Friend, look. You're wasting away. You haven't eaten in days. You deserve this. You need this. If you have the power that you say you have... if that voice that spoke to you when you were baptized is true... If all those stories you family tells about prophets and angels and stars actually happened, you can actually do something about those pains in your belly. Make yourself a little something to eat. This is a good thing. God helps those who help themselves, right?
Jesus said no. Even as his stomach ached and his ribs poked through his shirt, he said no. He simply stated, "One does not live by bread alone." He is not the Son of God so that he can fill his own belly. That's not what this power is for. It should be noted that he's not choosing not to make bread because he feels like he needs to suffer. Instead, he is very clear that he isn't going to use his power foolishly or for his own gain. His power is not oriented towards himself. His power is other-oriented. Even though he is hungry, now is not the time to use his authority. It is for something greater.
The devil, realizing that hunger wasn't a powerful enough temptation, tried to use this "other-orientation" to tempt Jesus away from his mission. The devil offered Jesus a chance to be the most powerful human on earth. Think of all the good he could do if he was in charge? Then, the devil says, you can make all of the decisions and make sure everyone is cared for. You know that God's reign needs building. Jesus, why not gain a place of authority and make sure everyone builds God's mission as you see fit? The devil said look at all these kingdoms in the world. I will give them to you, and all the authority you need to rule them. I can do that, you know. All you have to do is worship me. Imagine all the good that you could do if you were just in charge of everything! Jesus, having lived under the tyranny of Rome and having watched the pettiness of local politicians, probably had dreamed of having a just and loving ruler for his people. He probably knew that he could do better than tyranny. But, to become ruler this way was to do so at great cost. He said no. He could not worship evil, even if it meant that later he could do good.
The devil, frustrated after 40 days of high quality temptation that have gone nowhere, has one last offer for Jesus. Taking Jesus up to Jerusalem, to the very top of the temple, the devil said, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here." The devil quoted scripture, reminding Jesus that the writers of the Psalms said that God loves God's people and will protect them. If Jesus is the Son of God... if God is calling him to a special mission, God would surely send angels to catch him before he crashed into the stones below. Such a dangerous spectacle would help Jesus prove to himself that God was indeed the one who spoke to him at his baptism. Jesus, when you feel the angels lift you up, you can know for sure that this mission you are undertaking wasn't simply madness. You could prove that God is leading you and that God will protect you.This will get dangerous. You need to be sure. Why not jump?
Jesus said, no. He realized that just because the devil knows how to use scripture to justify a terrible idea doesn't mean that Jesus has to, quite literally, fall for it. Some scriptures simply carry more weight than others, and act as the guides for our interpretation. In this case, Jesus knows the guiding scripture. He said do not put the Lord your God to the test. More importantly, with this last interaction, we can now see that Jesus finally knows that he can fulfill the mission that God is calling him to, even though it will be dangerous. He knows that saving himself from the danger isn't really the point. That is not what his authority is for. The devil leaves and Jesus is ready to begin his public ministry. It doesn't exactly seem like the most auspicious beginning. He is hungry. He has no followers, He is aware that his life is going to get increasingly dangerous. And, yet, he is empowered to begin. He is still full of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will always guide him.
I don't know about all the other tests that the devil put him through while they were out in the wilderness, but these last three tests seem to have something in common. They all seem to be related to how Jesus will use the power that the Holy Spirit had born in him. Even when it seems like him using his authority might not be the worst thing in the world, like when he's invited to feed himself or become a more just ruler of the earth, there is still a strong sense that his special authority is not really for him. It is for others. Or, more specifically, it is to be utilized in service to others and also to be utilized differently than the earthly authority that the devil has been offering him. You'll remember that later in his story, Jesus will have no problem making sure that hungry people are fed even when he once would not feed himself. He would later feed people because they needed food, not because he hoped that doing so would make them beholden to him. The devil was looking for someone to be beholden to him. You will also remember that Jesus will one day become a leader, first of a few followers, then of many thousands. But his leadership was based in healing and teaching, not the tyranny and intimidation of the empire.The devil is interested in tyranny and unchecked power. Jesus isn't. You will also remember, later in his life, he will return to Jerusalem and he will be encouraged to save himself from the cross. But, he will not. He would not use his authority for self-preservation. That is not what his authority is for. He will use his authority to remain loyal to his mission, even if that means he could die. His authority is to be used to show people a different way, not to save himself.
Scholar Fred Craddock once wrote, "The stronger you are, the more capable you are, the more opportunity you have, the more power and influence you have, the greater will be your temptation." When we see Jesus being tested, we are seeing him at both his most vulnerable and seeing him leaning into his new found strength, learning how to make the choice to follow the Divine path ahead of him. None of these tests would mean anything if he wasn't able to actually succumb to the temptation. But, he doesn't. His love for us prevails. His love for God prevails and will continue to prevail, even unto death. He will only use his authority to serve another. When we are tempted, are we willing to make the same kinds of hard choices? And, knowing that Christ chose us in the midst of the greatest temptations in his life, how can we continue to choose him, and choose to serve with him? These are some of the questions that this story asks of us. That's why the Gospel writers shared this story, because of these questions. Given that they haven't all been answered in 2,000 years, I don't think I can settle these questions today. I do hope you'll keep them in mind as we continue through this season of Lent. This journey begins today with Christ's temptation and goes through his resurrection. Remember, though,this story hasn't ended yet. There are many tests ahead. Let's pray that we, too, can be filled with the Holy Spirit and make decisions more like Christ's.
Fred. Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Ruth Anne Reese: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2769
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4291
Scott Schauf: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1574
Arland J. Hultgren: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=508
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_february_14_2016
Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=725
Fred B. Craddock, "Tempted To Do Good" in The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen;listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
What Happened Up On That Mountain? Luke 9: 28-36
What a difference one small phrase can make. Did you catch the line "Since they stayed awake" in the Gospel reading today? I learned that that line could also be translated "but when they were fully awake." Those two translations seem pretty different to me. People who know Greek better than I do say that both translations are accurate readings. But, I think the difference is important. Were they asleep, or not? Because what they were supposed to have seen up on that mountain was pretty fantastical. What if it was all just a dream? How can we know what to believe if the apostles weren't even awake when it supposedly happened? Something very important happened up there. Jesus was changed. I think his followers were supposed to be changed, too.
This is not the first time that Jesus had gone to a secluded place to pray. He does that often in the book of Luke. He went into the wilderness after his baptism. He went up a mountain to pray before he appointed the apostles. He went to away to pray after feeding 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. In today's reading, he is again in solitude, talking to God, though this time is a little different. In all the other stories, he went alone. This time he asked a couple of his apostles, Peter, James, and John, to come with him. And, it seems obvious that they were struggling. It also seems to be pretty understandable that they would be tired. Following Jesus is hard work. Luke describes a constant crush of people crowding around Jesus and his followers. There are frequent arguments with religious leaders. And, there are so many sick people who need his help. Jesus has even empowered his apostles to heal people and cast out demons. They had begun to travel away from him to go preach and heal people. This story happens shortly after they had first begun making these trips for preaching and healing.
Scholars point out that Jesus went up to the mountain shortly after asking the disciples who the crowds say that he is. He prayed before he asked them. Peter, one whom he invited with him up the mountain, said that he believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus, surprisingly, told them not to tell anyone what they believed. He also said, quite clearly, that anyone who follows him will risk their lives. He said that God's kin-dom will be coming soon. These are heavy words to carry. The Gospel writer tells us that he carried them around for eight days. But, it becomes clear after carrying around all that weight, Jesus needs to go away to pray again. This time, he would ask some people to accompany him.
We can envision the scene. Jesus, head bowed in the dark, begins to change. Reminiscent of Moses' encounter with God on Mount Sinai, Jesus' face begins to glow and his simple, probably dirty, garments begin to glow in dazzling white. Unlike Moses, who's glow was a reflection of God, Jesus' glow seems to be radiating out of his own person. If this weren't fantastical enough, two men appear at his side. The Gospel reports that the men are Moses and Elijah, the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets. They had both received revelation of God on a mountain. Jesus is being revealed as a revelation of God on this mountain. Scholars also remind us that these two were understood to have never died. They were taken straight to heaven. They knew God well. And, they spoke with Jesus about his future.
And, what were the apostles doing at this moment? Well, it appears that they might have been sleeping. Maybe that explains how we got this strange story. Maybe they simply dreamed it all. Maybe all of the previous weeks' miracles and crowds and resurrections bubbled up in their dreams, painting Jesus a glowing, impossible white... bringing back Moses and Elijah... shrouding them in clouds with God's voice ringing in their ears, "This is my Son, My Chosen; Listen to him!" Maybe that's what finally woke them up, the rumble and terror and power of the voice of God in their dreams. They realize that they see Jesus alone. They were so sure that they had just seen two men there. Now, they don't know what to believe. Maybe that's why scripture said they kept silent about what they had seen and told no one. They knew they fell asleep. They didn't know if what they saw... felt... heard was real. They didn't want to look like fools. They were embarrassed that they slept when Jesus really seemed to need them to pray with him. In their dreams, they were faithful. It real life, they had fallen. So, they told no one. They did not know what to say.
Or, maybe they were awake the whole time. Maybe they fought through their exhaustion and saw the grace-filled change come over Jesus. Maybe they actually saw Moses and Elijah, and offered to build them small dwellings to stay in. Maybe they actually felt the mist of the cloud enfold them and heard the voice of God, just like Jesus did at his baptism. And, maybe the two men suddenly disappeared. Perhaps the men were awake, if sleepy, the whole time, and they were just so overwhelmed by what they saw that they simply could not tell anyone else. Maybe, just maybe they have learned that in order to actually listen to Jesus as God commanded them, they might have to be quiet for a while.
Having initially asked the question, now I actually wonder if it really matters whether the apostles were asleep or awake. For modern readers who are uncomfortable with the more miraculous, seemingly impossible parts of scripture, having Jesus' transfiguration be a dream certainly makes this story more accessible. Anybody can have a weird dream and learn something new about the Divine in it. They don't have to struggle so hard to explain how they can believe in the Bible when it tells stories that objectively cannot happen. They can simply say that this great and weird story was a dream. And, many of us have had weird dreams that help us learn something real and true about ourselves and about God. It may be far easier for some people to see themselves in the sleeping apostle than as someone who witnessed the impossible. This story allows for very practical folks to have a chance to dream and be changed by those dreams.
For those who have fewer issues with the mystical and mysterious parts of Scripture, this story holds a place for impossible, indescribable experiences of the Divine that are beyond typical patterns of comprehension. This story shows us examples of people radically and irrevocably changed by their experience with Jesus, people completely terrified and unprepared for the new ways that they've experienced God, people struck silent by the miracle that they have just witnessed. If we read this story as a story of people who are awake and further awakened by this impossible experience, we are leaving room for something radical and far bigger than what we are currently able to describe. We are leaving room for God who still speaks, even in ways that we don't know yet know how to understand.
I think we actually need both of these reading strategies to understand this text. One scholar I read this week compared this story to novels that employ magical realism in their storytelling. He said that magical realism shows us the possibility of multiple realities to be working at the same time. Multiple realities and multiple ways to interpret one text can be in service to the greater messages of the story. I think both of the readings that I've described today show us that Jesus found deep strength in prayer, and prayed in preparation for important events in his ministry. Jesus also needed companionship as he prayed. Just as he invited the apostles to pray with him, we are invited to pray with him and invite others into our own lives of preparation and prayer. I think both of these readings can teach us that God is big, bigger than we can really know. God will always surprise us. We need to really listen when the Holy Spirit is telling us something new, being it through our dreams or through radical, impossible experiences. And, Jesus, well, Jesus is a brand new way to think about God, but a new way steeped in ancient traditions. These two readings help us remember both of those things as we try to follow him.
Something really important happened up on that mountain. Something that changed Jesus and his apostles. As we continue to read through Luke, we're going to see that the Apostles will continue to have a hard time understanding what they see and feel as they travel with Jesus. It seems like Jesus' followers are always seeking more understanding than we have right now. May we continue to follow him, whether we understand what's going on or not. We don't have to have all the answers. But, it helps if we keep asking the questions.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted in writing this sermon:
Cláudio Carvalhaes: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2756
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4284
Scott Schauf: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1572
Arland Hultgren: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=507
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘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 favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Jesus' Mission Statement: Luke 4: 14-21
The last few weeks have been pretty busy. It might help if we took a moment to remind ourselves where we are in Jesus' story. First, we had two miraculous babies born, John and Jesus. Both of their parents sang songs of great joy at their birth, reminding us of God's goodness, loyalty, and protection of the poor and oppressed. John would grow up to be a fierce prophet who lived in the wilderness. Jesus would grow into his calling as the Messiah. We know he's the Messiah very pretty early on. Gabriel said that he would be called Son of God and Son of the Most High. Angels also told some shepherds that he would be the Messiah. They sang joyful songs, too. The shepherds traveled to see the baby and became the first ones to testify to the glory of God that they saw in him. They also became the second evidence, after Mary, that God entrusted the poor and lowly to witness and do great things.
Then, two more people, prophets Simeon and Anna, confirmed that Jesus was indeed anointed for great things. We then heard about a young boy Jesus, precocious and confident enough to hide away at the temple to hear and debate with the scholars while the rest of the family went home to Nazareth. We were reminded about how lucky he was to have adults who cared for him until his parents returned. The next story we heard about Jesus was his baptism. He followed his cousin John into the wilderness. John had been there for some time, and had quite the following as a preacher and prophet. He was quite clear that while he was not the Messiah, someone else was. And, that someone was coming soon. The king got offended, worried that the Messiah would bring his winnowing fork down on him. He jailed John, hoping that by imprisoning his critic, he wouldn't have to think about all the evil that he had done.
It seems clear that Jesus is the one that John has been talking about. That is confirmed when, after he is baptized, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove descended upon him and said, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Jesus was changed by the water, and was finally empowered to undertake his calling as Messiah. It says that he was 30 years old when he began his work. First, after being led into the wilderness, he was tempted to abuse the power given him at his baptism. Three times he was given the opportunity to use his power for his own gain. Three times he said no. This seems to prove that he was ready to begin teaching in earnest. He left the wilderness and went back out into Galilee and taught. His teaching was so compelling that news about him spread through the countryside. We don't know what he said in these first lessons in far-flung synagogues. But, we do know that it really mattered to people.
Today's Gospel story is not Jesus' first sermon. But, Luke seemed to think it is the first really important one. Jesu had finally traveled back to Nazareth, his hometown. It was the Sabbath and he went to the synagogue, the synagogue where he was raised, for services. According to scholars, the synagogue was the central institution for everyday Jewish life. While the temple still existed, all Jews would have been expected to visit it for specific sacrificial rituals. It was the center of national Jewish religious identity. The synagogue arose during the time when Jews were in exile, as a way to gather together, though they didn't have the altar or a priest. Synagogues were lay-led, with Pharisees present as the most prominent lay experts in the law. All adult men were invited to read scripture and to comment on it. Scholars tell us that the services were simple: usually reading and teaching, praying, and gathering of offerings for the poor. According to one scholar, the synagogue was a school, an assembly for worship, a community center, and a place for administering justice.
Luke understood this particular bit of teaching to be very important, even though Jesus had taught in many other places. Maybe it was because it was in his hometown. This is the place where he was nurtured into adulthood. Now that he had been empowered by the Spirit, nurtured into his Messiahship, maybe he needed to go home to really start his ministry. But, going home wasn't easy. In the verses just after this reading, Jesus was accosted and nearly thrown off a cliff when he reminded people that the prophets Elijah and Elisha spent most of their time ministering to non-Jews, an act Jesus mirrored by first preaching in predominantly Gentile Capernaum. He reminded his neighbors, cousins, and friends that God would care for all people, not just their people. They were not ready to be schooled about the Bible from one who's diapers they helped change. They knew who he was and they knew that he had no right to tell them what God would and would not do. They nearly killed him to protect their own egos.
Maybe the reason Jesus went home was not because he expected a kind welcome and a gentle start to his ministry. I think he knew scripture too well to think that would happen. Maybe he went home because he knew if he could tell the truth about his mission to the people who had known him the longest... had seen him as a smart-mouthed kid, an awkward teen anger, as a self-serious young man... he knew that he could tell the truth to anyone. If he could be brave with these people, he could face anyone. So, he went home. He went to synagogue, and he told them his mission.
When handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he specifically sought out these words: "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 offered this commentary, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." He told them that this scripture from Isaiah is why he was there. He told them that when he heard these words from Isaiah's Servant Song that he knew what he was called to do. While all of God's people are called into this service, he knew that he had come to share this message in a new, special way. Justice and mercy were not new to the Jewish faith. In some ways, his ministry was to be a great renewal of a rich, compassionate part of Jewish tradition. But, his ministry was new, too. Divinity lived and breathed in him in a way people had not seen. In one man, we have deep tradition, rich renewal, and a completely new incarnation of God. He was going to hold them accountable for the justice and mercy that God had called all of them to live out. No wonder people were frightened and amazed.
When Jesus spoke of his mission, it seems as though he was describing his ministry as the beginning of a time of Jubilee. Scholar Ruth Anne Reese reminds us that, according to the book of Leviticus, every 50th year was to be set aside as a time of liberation and restoration. While justice was demanded at all times, the Jubilee was the particular time in which slaves were freed and captives restored to their own communities. Jesus reoriented Jubilee so it wasn't just observed every 50 years. It was to be observed on that very day, and every day that followed. Jesus said that today is the day when scripture has been fulfilled. I say that, today, it is our call to keep Jubilee going because Jesus never once called for a stop to this time of Jubilee. He never once said, we'll Jubilee for three years and then return to our mediocre justice as normal. No. He said Jubilee is today. Jubilee is his legacy that we as his followers are called to live out every day. Jubilee is his mission statement.
What would it mean for us a faith community to really commit to Christ's Jubilee mission? What do these words of good news for the oppressed mean for those of us who feel poor and those of us who feel privileged? I think these words show us a vision of the reign of God where even the lowly can be leaders (remember the shepherds who were the first witnesses) and where the privileged use what we have to serve with and for others. What would our witness in the larger community look like if this church really committed to the advocacy and mercy that this Jubilee mission calls for? Today is our annual meeting. We will make some plans for the next year of our ministry together. I think we have a really great start on this whole Jubilee thing with our own mission to be a Christ-centered community of prayer and worship, of welcome and care, of learning and growing, of witness and service in the worldwide church of Jesus Christ, and with the work we do with Church World Service, the domestic violence shelter, and the food pantry. But, just like Jesus who brought something new with his mission, we need to bring something new to ours.
I'm going to hand out our new community involvement surveys right now. We'll gather them after the annual meeting. We know that there are needs in our community and we know that God has given us gifts to help meet them. This can be the beginning of a Jubilee year for us, where we rededicate our lives to the mission that Jesus began. We can remind ourselves that the salvation that Christ offers is, in part, a freedom to care for one another as much as we care for ourselves. It is a freedom from the worries and sins that turn us inward, and calls us outward to serve our neighbors. Salvation is a Jubilee. Let us be in Jubilee with Christ. Let us help build the freedom to which he has called us.
Resources Pastor Chrissy used in writing this sermon:
Ruth Anne Reese- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2741
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4248
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.