Sunday, February 21, 2010

Temptations in the Wilderness

(A sermon on Luke 4:1-13, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church on 2/21/2010)

This morning we are called to do some Biblical Investigation.

It’s often suggested that there’s a fundamental choice to make with the Bible: either you believe it word for word, or you don’t.

This just isn’t an accurate understanding of our vast texts of Scripture. To start, there are different types of texts. The letters in the New Testament, for example, are correspondence: they are responses to an ongoing conversation and relationship. The Books of the Prophets, in contrast, are a mix of history, reflection, and insights to the future based on the present. Genesis is the tradition of how the Hebrew people came into existence in relationship with God, and Exodus is the story of their liberation from slavery, and their establishment as a nation.

And then there are the Gospels: four very different texts that together paint the picture of Jesus’ life, message, and ministry.

“Word for word” is simply not really the way that anyone really understands the Bible. Here’s a different type of example. This morning’s Gospel passage from Luke is nearly the same in Matthew, with only one major difference: the order of the second and third temptation is different, Matthew has the devil tells Jesus to throw himself off the temple before asking Jesus to worship him. Even thought there is a clear difference, no one worries which Gospel is right and which one is wrong: after all, they are essentially saying the same thing. The suggestion that word for word is what’s important isn’t true. Everyone interprets.

There are, of course, bigger questions concerning this particular text. After all, Jesus was alone in the wilderness, and yet we have an omniscient view of the story, recounting the conversation between Jesus and the devil. Clearly Jesus did not take a scribe with him into the wilderness. So this story either comes from Jesus recalling what took place, or else it comes from someone creating dialogue to speculate on what Jesus wrestled with while in the wilderness.

Part of me can imagine Jesus and the disciples sitting around a fire one night, and Peter saying “Master, tell us about your time in the wilderness.” Perhaps that happened. However, since the Biblical accounts we have place us in the middle of the event as observers of what happened, it is most likely that someone else created the dialogue.

So, where did it come from?

Whenever we have an account in Luke that needs to be better understood, we start by checking with the Gospel of Mark. We can be very confident that Luke used Mark as a source. There is no record in Mark of specific temptations in the wilderness, or any dialogue. However, Mark does say that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan.

One might guess that Luke simply expanded on Mark’s account, creating dialogue to suit his understandings of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. After all, this is an acceptable literary device in the first century, and Luke clearly does this in various places. But before we can attribute something to Luke, we have to check with the Gospel of Matthew.

As I said earlier, Matthew and Luke have this same account in very similar language. This is important, because it points us to a different conclusion. When Matthew and Luke share a story that is an expansion (or doesn’t appear) in Mark, it is unlikely that they just happened to expand the story in the same way. Instead of originating with Matthew or Luke, it suggests that the story predates them, from a different shared source. We call that source “Q”: the “unknown source.”

No one knows if “Q” was a collection of accounts and stories of Jesus, or includes original material to the author. Did the writer of “Q” create the dialogue of the story, or record someone else’s version? We just don’t know for sure.

So, let’s put together what we know. The story is not unique to Matthew or Luke, so it’s not one of them expanding on an account of Jesus. While Mark doesn’t have the temptations or the dialogue, he does mention Jesus and Satan. All three Gospels place the account in the same sequence: immediately after Jesus’ baptism, but before the start of Jesus’ public ministry. With three Gospels concurring the action and order of events, we can reasonably conclude that this is established tradition of Jesus’ life, and that the dialogue was developed before Matthew and Luke was written.

So, after he was baptized, before speaking publicly, Jesus went off into the wilderness by himself. That we can say with confidence.

Having investigated the origins of the text, let us now look at the devil’s three temptations, using Luke’s version:

“Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
“If you will worship me, (all the kingdoms of the world) will all be yours.”
“Throw yourself down from (the pinnacle of the temple)”

In isolation, this seems like an odd collection of temptations. To figure it out requires the context of the wilderness.

People usually go off and spend extended time in the wilderness for one of two things: seeking or sorting. “Seeking” involves an epiphany: an eye-opening moment, transformation or deep insight. “Sorting” suggests that the moment has already happened, but one needs to go off to be alone to sort things out, find direction, and discern the next steps to take.

Jesus, in his baptism, had his epiphany: “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.” Whether it’s incarnation or confirmation (pending on the particular Gospel and one’s interpretation), the eye-opening moment for Jesus (and us the readers) is when he comes out of the waters and the heavens open up. It’s clear that Jesus goes into the wilderness to sort, not to seek.

Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus goes into the wilderness to sort out what he is to do: what kind of beloved Son will he be? What will his ministry look like?

The devil’s temptations now take shape:

Temptation Number One: “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

This isn’t just about satisfying Jesus’ hunger after a fast, but something far greater is implied. By turning stone to bread, the devil is suggesting that Jesus take on hunger and famine. Feed the hungry.

Temptation Number Two: “If you will worship me, (all the kingdoms of the world) will all be yours.”

For the price of worship, the devil offers Jesus the opportunity to rule the world with justice. End the tyranny of Rome: instant regime change. Jesus could accomplish great things for the world by accepting this temptation, by “playing the world’s game for a good purpose.” (Sharon Ringe in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, edited by David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor.)

Temptation Number Three: “Throw yourself down from (the pinnacle of the temple)”

This doesn’t sound like anything’s offered here, but in truth it may the greatest offer of all. Take control of the temple. Establish righteous leadership. Restore the rightful place of the temple as the center of faithful living. All it would take is an example to the community, and Jesus could have ultimate religious power to be used for good.

It might be troublesome to realize that the devil tempts Jesus with good things. We tend to think of the devil leading us to only do bad things, but that’s often not the case. Feeding the hungry is a good thing. Governance with justice is a good thing. Righteous religious leadership is a good thing. To make it harder, all of these things fit into Jesus ministry: Jesus, throughout his ministry, will feed the poor, advocate governing with justice, and faithfully wield religious power.

The devil seeks to move Jesus only to solutions, or to taking “the end justifies the means” approach. The devil seeks to divert Jesus from faithfully walking God’s unknown path towards a more certain one with results measurable to the it worldly goods, political power, or religious power. The focus for Jesus, however, is the kingdom of God...and remains so in the midst of the temptations.

Jesus emerges from his time in the wilderness fully embracing his role in the kingdom of God. His path not only results in good things accomplished, but the practice of them demonstrates love for God and neighbor. No shortcuts are taken.

We are called to the same pattern of living. As we enter the wilderness of Lent, we are invited to seek or sort out how we might faithfully walk the path of God with our lives...and come to realize that how we get there is as important as reaching the destination.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Global Warming Preach-In: The Mountain Top

(A sermon for Interfaith Power & Light's National Preach-In on Global Warming, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 2/14/2010)

The mountain top never fails to opens our eyes to bigger truths.

At the bottom of the mountain one sees the long journey ahead: the destination is so far away, it may seem even impossible to reach.

It’s amazing that in the midst of a hike, the bigger picture gets lost. The overall size of the mountain is reduced to vast pockets that surround the hiker, which can feel overwhelming, but in reality is only a small portion.

When you reach the mountain top, and view things from there, one sees the world differently. The close detail of individual things is encompassed into the beautiful tapestry known as “the big picture.”

Finally, there is the desire to stay on the mountain top. It’s so beautiful there. All of the pressures of daily life are lifted, and there is the sense of completeness: like there is no more work to be done.

Reality, however, calls us back down off the mountain, back into our lives.

The mountain top experience is also about ideas. It happens when eyes are opened and we begin to see the picture is so much bigger than we realized. Often it has to be journeyed to, the moment of realization is powerful and shakes our core, and we are hopefully changed when we return to daily living.

All of this is present in this morning’s Gospel, as well as the story of Moses. Those who witnessed the events saw God in a new way: they saw transformation, and they in turn were transformed.

Instead of breaking down either of these accounts further, I wanted to share something else.

I get all sorts of emails from large groups that I am a part of or newsletters I subscribe to. I have to admit that I don’t always open them of read them carefully. I’m usually too busy or concerned with interacting with individuals or the smaller groups that make up our church or local community. On Tuesday, one of those newsletters caught my eye with its title:

“Last chance for procrastinating preachers.”

That caught my eye…

When I opened it, I learned that Interfaith Power and Light, a group that I worked personally with while I was in Cleveland, was calling the National Preach-In on Global Warming for this weekend:

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day: “Love Creation.”

I was already thinking about the subject before reading the email. Lately I have been frustrated on the subject of Global Warming. When we had our first big cold spell (my thermometer said negative 18 degrees at one point), when on more than one occasion while out and about I would hear someone say “[Harrumph]: so much for global warming.”

With the big snow in Washington DC and the presence of snow in Atlanta, I’ve been seeing this sediment expressed in political battles and in the media as well.

This is a problem, because Global Warming isn’t indicated by one day being particularly warmer than the next. It’s incorrect to speculate that these snows, or a cold streak of days, are proof that Global Warming isn’t real.

Speculating on the meaning of severe weather events is not new, and is not limited to skeptics of Global Warming. Deadly heat and dust storms in Australia last year, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and a deadly heat wave in Europe in the summer of 2003 were all touted by some to be proof of Global Warming.

We all know, by the number of times that a storm is predicted here and turns into nothing, that it’s difficult to accurately predict the weather. The same thing is true about predicting what meaning is to be found in individual storms.

(From the article "Climate-Change Debate is Heating Up in Deep Freeze" in the NY Times:)

Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who writes on the Weather Underground Blog, said that the recent snows do not, by themselves, demonstrate anything about the long-term trajectory of the planet. Climate is, by definition, a measure of decades and centuries, not months or years.

Climate scientists say that while no individual episode of severe weather can be attributed to global climate trends, there is evidence that such events will probably become more frequent as global temperatures rise.

It is a fact that the overall trend of the last hundred years is rising, and the last 20 years in particular have been alarming and unprecedented.

The science is united and indisputable: Global Warming is a reality.

The Episcopal Church has embraced this position, and is already actively working in the fight to change, and I am proud of the work of our church.

But what is especially exciting to me is that communities of faith of all types have taken the issue forward, and it’s coming from all directions of the spectrum: conservative and liberal; as well as Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others.

Sally Bingham, founder of Interfaith Power and Light, Deacon in the church, Canon at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and friend of mine, wrote this for today’s Preach-In:

Protection of Creation has reached every mainstream tradition in America. We have earth liturgy, earth friendly practices and adult education happening everywhere. Seminaries are teaching environmental ethics. Young people are hearing more about environmental issues than any generation before us. The ecumenical Patriarch, leader of 50 million Greek Orthodox, called degradation of the environment a sin. Recently the Pope added pollution to the list of sins in the Catholic Church. And in his address on World Peace Day he said, “if you want to cultivate peace, protect Creation.”

....Science can give us all the facts and figures, but science cannot do it alone. It is religion and our faith that provides transforming power and a new way of being in the world. It is religion that transforms our hearts. There has got to be a sacred relationship between humans and nature. When God made the world and said it was “good”, we were given the job to keep it “good”.

Life isn’t about being comfortable. Being fully human is challenging and only after one faces the challenge will one receive rewards. Jesus brought a new message that called for behavior change. It was not well received and yet we know he is right.

Yes, we are sustainable and we will survive. Humans are resourceful, clever and committed once we see or feel a threat. Our faith will give us the courage to make the changes we need to make. Once we fully understand the threat to our life sustaining systems, we too will change our behavior. Many of us already have and more are changing all the time.

(One other thing to note is that) Jesus brought a message of peace. The environmental message is also one of peace. It is a peaceful movement rooted in love and justice- a perfect theme for Valentine’s Day. It cries for love and appreciation of all that God created. Every butterfly that flutters: every bee that pollinates our food. There will not be peace on the earth until every species and person has access to clean air and clean water. Working together we can deliver a message of solidarity, love and peace which will come when we can universally declare an end to the war humans declared on the earth.

When we can stand together and say, enough is enough. We want to live and we CHOOSE a resurrected life over death. Thus on this Valentine’s Day we will invite the earth and our neighbors to be our valentines. We can begin showing acts of Love toward our neighbor and love toward nature.”

Sally message of “Practicing Love” is a good one, and it leads me back to the mountain top:

The mountain top experience is not restricted to mountains. People experienced a mountain top moment with the photographs and video of the earth from the Apollo Missions in the late 60s, cumulating with the most arguably the most famous photograph ever: the Apollo 17 view of the fully lit earth on December 7th, 1972. We could finally see, from a distance, the complete beauty of our home, and it pointed to the interdependence we all have on each other, and our planet.

I hadn’t reached my first birthday when that picture was taken, but I have come to understand its significance. We owe it to our generation, as well as those to come, to fulfill our roles as stewards: to honor God’s entrusting the world into our care.

We must take the hard next steps, individually and collectively, and address climate change…as an act of faith.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Totally Television": M*A*S*H

Here at All Saints' in Littleton, we are exploring the intersection of popular culture, religion, and ethics in four television shows.

When I talk about intersection, I'm not looking necessarily for direct correlation between the Christian scriptures and the script: i.e. trying to claim that the show is written to mirror the Bible or directly uphold the teaching of the church. Instead, I am interested in what the television shows say about ethical choices, living in community, relating with one another, and finding ways to live with the consequences. The worthwhile television shows not only speak to our current culture, but also raise up life's questions: both as individuals and as community.

So I'm writing MY reflections on the episodes, with the hope that not only those who attended will add their reflections, but others who know the show and episodes will do so as well.

War of Nerves
Season 6, Episode 4

Psychologist Sydney Freedman, a frequent visitor to the 4077, arrives on a bus with wounded, sporting a superficial head injury (foreshadowing alert). He had been to the front to see a young man, Tom, who had been returned to his unit after a traumatic episode where he saw his buddy soldiers killed. Colonel Potter asks Sydney to see "some of the loonier" members of the camp who are losing their grips on things.

Sydney sees Margaret and Charles individually, who both insist that they are fine, but that the other person is "crazy and infatuated with me." Margaret's transition is underway as one focused on the surface and superficial, to a warm, caring, more complete person. Charles, in only his fifth episode, is a question mark at this point of the series: highly qualified, arrogant, and easily unlikable. The person he really is beneath the surface, however, has yet to be revealed. Both Margaret and Charles are obsessed with appearance, and keep people at an arm's length in the process.

Klinger and Radar both come to see Sydney for different reasons: they are each worried that they really are going crazy. Klinger, continuously trying to get a section eight discharge with women's clothes and outrageous behavior, is for once worried that he's losing it. Sydney is able to bring out of him that the motivation for his actions is his reasonable fear of death: both his and the people around him. It's a great scene: comedically and for its honesty.

Radar also is worried he's going crazy. The focus is on his teddy bear. "Sometimes I talk to it." "Does it ever talk back?" Sydney quips. Sydney suggests that the security Radar gets from his bear is reasonable in the midst of blood, guts and war, and when this is all over and he finally goes home, Radar likely won't need the bear anymore. "Won't need him anymore???" Radar wonders. A scene about innocence, loss, growing up, and finding oneself (as an individual and as a nation...thanks Barbara!!!).

Going on at the same time is the recovery of Tom. BJ and Hawkeye have him on the mend, and he is smiling and cheery with them. BJ and Hawkeye tell the good news to Sydney, who then goes in to see Tom. When he sees Sydney, his anger erupts: he is furious with Sydney, and blames him for everything.

The time comes for Tom to be sent home. BJ and Hawkeye are able to talk him into talking with Sydney again. Tom agrees, and they rush Sydney over. Tom says that he understands Sydney meant well, but insists that he has caused him great harm, and he will never forgive him for it. As the ambulance drives away, Sydney says: "Well, he may do alright. It’s very possible that getting his anger out on me is the best thing for him. (PAUSE) On the other hand, I’ll never know." Regret and frustration lurk behind Sydney's mild manner.

There is one more 4077 member to visit Sydney: Father Mulcahy.

Fr. Mulcahy: Well, I…I…I’ve come about a friend….

Sydney: I see. What’s his problem?

Fr. Mulcahy: Things aren’t going so well for him, and he’s feeling a little low.

Sydney: Who’s your friend, Father.

Fr. Mulcahy: You.

Sydney: [laughs]

Fr. Mulcahy: I wonder if a good antidote might be to think of all the successes you’ve had. I would think you’ve had a few, no?

Sydney: Sure. I’ve sent dozens of kids back to the front and they’re fine now.

Fr. Mulcahy: It hurts to think you might lose even one though, doesn’t it.

Sydney: See, when Pierce or Hunnicutt lose one, he’s out of his misery but when I lose one, I’ve lost a mind.

Fr. Mulcahy: When I lose one, I’ve lost a soul. Well, I guess it’s all in how you look at it.

This dialogue creates a look of shocked realization in Sydney. He knows that he's supposed to brush off a case that fails, but he's struggling to do so, and part of his burden is the guilt in thinking he's failed with the stakes much higher than everyone else's. Fr. Mulcahy gentle "it's all in how you look at it," brings Sydney out of isolation and self-condemnation: showing him the hard but necessary road forward. Fr. Mulcahy invites Sydney to treat himself to the "medicine" that he has prescribed: the bonfire the camp has built to not only release tension and anxiety, but also to help reunite the community.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fulfillment (Part Two)

(A sermon on Luke 4:21-30, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 1/31/2010)

This morning we get part two of Jesus’ experience in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth: the opening of his ministry in the Gospel of Luke.

It all starts promising enough. “With all eyes fixed on him, Jesus says, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” This seems to go over really well. People would have been excited to hear these words, that the words of the prophet Isaiah are fulfilled. We are told that, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” The statement that follows “They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’” seems harmless enough as well, but it seems to set Jesus off down a road that ultimately enrages the crowd so much so that he nearly gets thrown off a cliff.

What’s really going on here?

Well, Luke’s source for this text is Mark 6, which says this:

“He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’” (Mark 6:1-4)

Luke doesn’t include the whole text, but we are to hear that the statement “Is not this Joseph’s son?” as a negative statement that questions Jesus’ authority. This leads to the parallel statement in Luke, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

Luke, however, is not satisfied with this being the point of text. He reports Jesus going a serious step further. Jesus says, “But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:25-27)

I’m sure you can discern that this is really offensive to those gathered to hear Jesus, but you may not fully know why. Those gathered in the synagogue that day, like Jesus, were Jews. They rightly understood themselves, in terms of Hebrew Scriptures, as God’s chosen people. The claim from Isaiah that Jesus has linked himself to is supposed to be their salvation: likely understood to be their emergence from the rule of the Romans. Most have certain expectations as to how Isaiah’s prophesy is to be fulfilled, and most of those scenarios involved some sort of physical kingdom to stand up to the Romans, or anyone else that threatened the community. The understanding is that the only way to deal with the brutal power was to be more physically powerful.

Jesus ultimately will counter this understanding of the fulfillment of scripture, and what it means to embrace the kingdom of God. He doesn’t specifically do so in this text, but the statement “Is not this Joseph’s son?” suggests that there already was disbelief that Jesus could have any effect on the status of the Judeans. Jesus hears this, and then busts open the notion that Isaiah’s salvation is just for them, and about a kingdom in the same vein as the Romans.

Remember what Jesus initially read from Isaiah:

“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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

This was all understood from an insider’s point of view. But Jesus suggests that the only ones that received the promises of God in Elijah’s and Elisha’s time were foreigners: outsiders. Pairing this with the statement “Isn’t this Joseph’s son,” and the statements ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ and ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum,’ and you can see that Jesus is challenging the entire notion that Isaiah’s promise is just about them.

Jesus is saying, in a not so veiled way, that God continues to do surprising things: breaking into the world in unexpected places.

This, again, fits Luke’s Gentile audience. The covenant of God is not just about the people with the long term relationship: it is for everyone, and in fact, those who assume God’s favor as meaning that they personally will be rewarded over others are mistaken.

This also underscores the reality of Luke’s Gospel: Jesus will be rejected by many of his own people, and ultimately be embraced by many Gentiles.

For us hearers of the word today, I think the message is two-fold. The hometown arguments... who is this Jesus, isn’t he Joseph’s son, isn’t he a carpenter... can distract us from the message of God’s presence. Whether it’s “The Kingdom the God has come near,” or “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” it is the message that God is present and calls us to life and the care of each other that’s important, not arguing over who the messenger is, or insisting on how it’s all going to happen. We can ponder and speculate all day long about who we say Jesus is, and ultimately it is important to be able to articulate what we come to understand, but at the end of the day, believing in the message and then acting it is what really counts.

The second point is this: society’s concept of power is the ability to get what one wants, and to keep bad things from happening. It involves control, and usually dominance over another. We are reminded, again and again by the events of the world, that God’s power is not based on controlling everything. I believe that when an earthquake devastates, a hurricane pounds, an act of terror destroys, or even an illness like cancer invades, it is not an act of God, nor could God have prevented it. My belief and understanding is that God promises not prevention, but to be to present in the midst of destruction, and that from the ashes, new life will be created. Death never has the last word.

That’s real power.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Fulfillment (Part One)

(A sermon on Luke 4:14-21, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 1/24/2010)

Preaching wise, I could not have planned my arrival at All Saints’ any better than the way it just happened. Not only was I able to being here in Advent, the start of the church year, I was able to start with the year of the Gospel of Mark.

Even though Matthew comes first in sequence of the New Testament, the general consensus is that that Mark was the first Gospel written: most likely between the years 64 to 70 AD.

Starting our ministry together with Mark allowed us to explore what is arguably the essential foundation for answering the question that followers of Jesus must address: “Who do you say that I am?”

In our second year together, we get to explore the Gospel of Luke.

Most biblical scholars believe that the writer of Luke had the Gospel of Mark in his possession while constructing his Gospel. This explains why much of what is found in the Gospel of Mark also appears in the Gospel of Luke. It’s important to note, however, that Luke adds a number of events, and often changes the sequence of the way things happen. Luke also tends to emphasis different points and actions about Jesus than Mark does. He does this in part because he is writing to a different and specific audience: namely a Greek, Gentile audience.

As we’ve previously explored, Luke has all of this back-story into Jesus’ birth, as well as his presentation at the temple as baby, and his journey to Jerusalem as a teenager: all things not found in the Gospel of Mark.

What is shared with Mark is the account of Jesus as an adult. Both accounts start with baptism in the time of John, even while handled differently in each Gospel, still shares similar language and overall message. Both Gospels then continue with Jesus driven into the wilderness by the Spirit.

The section just prior to our Gospel this morning is a greatly expanded account of Jesus in the wilderness. Where Mark says simply that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days tempted by Satan, with the wild beasts and waited on by the angels, Luke’s account is full of actual dialogue between Jesus and the devil: an account we will not hear until the first Sunday in Lent.

So the “then” that this morning’s Gospel lesson begins with is after the wilderness and the temptations by the devil. We are told that Jesus leaves the wilderness “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.” He starts his public, adult ministry in a traditionally Jewish way: going to teach in the synagogues, where we are told that he is praised by everyone.

Now Luke shows us, firsthand, what that actually looks like, in a two-part Gospel (this week and next week) in his hometown of Nazareth. He does everything strictly by the book. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stands up to read.

It was custom that any Jewish man could volunteer to read simply by standing up.

Jesus is handed the scroll from Isaiah.

Luke, throughout his Gospel, connects Jesus directly with the Spirit, which could not be any clearer in this passage.

“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.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Jesus reading comes mostly from Isaiah 61:1-2, although the final part is left out: the words “and the day of vengeance of our God.” He also adds the line “to let the oppressed go free,” which is from Isaiah 58:6. Blogger John Petty suggests that this phrase literally translates “to send the broken ones release,” which I think is an especially powerful way of thinking of it.

Jesus then, in the custom of synagogue tradition, rolls up the scroll and sits down. Preaching is always done while sitting. As everyone looks at him in great expectation, Jesus delivers his first public words of his ministry.

Flash back to the Gospel of Mark. The build up is essentially the same: baptism, off into the wilderness, John is arrested, and finally, the first public words of his ministry. In Mark, they were words I hope are now familiar to you: “The Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mk. 2:15) These words set the tone and focus of the entire Gospel of Mark. Luke does the same thing: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk. 4:21)

The very first word, “today,” is a favorite of Luke’s, used twelve times in Luke’s Gospel. (John Petty) It speaks to the immediacy of the moment. Luke suggests that the claims of the read scripture are met in Jesus: good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and the year of the Lord’s favor. This sets the tone and focus of the Gospel of Luke.

So Jesus says that this happens today, at the onset of his ministry. What is also rather interesting is how this all happens: this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

John Petty writes that “Hearing is an intimate thing. The words literally come all the way inside one's body where they are then 'processed' and understood through ones neural connections. Hearing Jesus' words, connecting them with the fulfillment of scripture, seeing Jesus' ministry of "release" on behalf of the poor--all this is apprehended intimately, right now, today." (John Petty writes at

I find it telling that in both Mark and Luke, Jesus requires action. In Mark, it’s “repent, and believe in the good news.” In Luke, it’s the action of hearing.

We are called into action by Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s promises. Jesus’ presence...his words and his actions...speak to what is possible right now: be it Mark’s vision of kingdom of God, or the Good news found in Luke. Even today, in the aftermath of a terrible earthquake in Haiti, or the fires must closer to home (here in Littleton), Jesus fulfills what is possible: the broken ones of today’s world, wherever they are and whatever binds them, are released.

I think that's what Paul is getting at in this morning's lesson when he wrote, "If one member suffers, all suffer together." (1 Cor. 12:26) If we believe this to be true, then we cannot help but act: we won’t let our neighbor suffer if we really believe that God is working to bring relief. Believing this to be true frees us from the despair or complacency that we are powerless, and instead moves us to do our part in actually making this world...this a reflection of what God is doing today.