Texts: Nehemiah 8:1-10; Luke 4:14-21
If there is a place in sermon writing with which I struggle, it is the opening paragraph. Usually, if I can get my opening then the rest of the sermon will come clearly into focus. Often, when I comment to someone that I am stuck with my beginning, they will suggest that I go ahead and write the middle or the end and come back to the beginning. Rarely, if ever, has that worked for me. It seems, at least for me, that there is a progression or sequence to writing. Over time I have learned to appreciate this beginning struggle. Yes, it sometimes causes me panic, especially when it’s 6:00 p.m. on Saturday evening and I have written my opening paragraph at least ten times and I’m still looking at a blank computer screen. But in the end, if I can wrestle with the beginning I can usually see my way clear to what it is that I want to say. I thought about my sermon writing experience as I read Luke 4 and struggled with how to preach on this very familiar text.
The words of Luke 4 are familiar to our church. Much like Micah 6:8 they have guided us in our understanding of what it means to live out our faith. They are the only words of scripture that we have inscribed on a plaque hanging in our church. Do you know where? Underneath Bill Finlator’s picture in our fellowship hall. I don’t know if Luke 4:18-19 was Bill’s favorite scripture, but it sure shaped his ministry—a ministry that brought good news to the poor, that proclaimed release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to those oppressed. Yes, Bill resisted what so many of us do when we read these words. We read them and think that they are only about Jesus—about his anointing and ministry. But the truth is that these words are for each of us who claim to be people of faith; who have been baptized, however that looks in our various traditions. We are the anointed ones—the very people whom God’s Spirit rests upon—the ones who are to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, restore sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Sometimes to really get what’s going on in a particular passage you have to read what comes before and after the part you are reading. If we begin reading at the beginning of chapter 4 we learn that Jesus has just spent forty days in the wilderness facing temptation. The text explicitly says that Jesus was tempted by the devil. I certainly don’t want to run afoul of the old expression that one must give the devil his due, but I want to think this morning about Jesus’ temptation from a different angle. As I read this passage, the real temptation before Jesus is the temptation of his own power. Here we have the Liberator, the prophet, the Son of God, who is on the threshold of his ministry, but he withdraws into the dessert. And what is the key question with which he struggles? It is the question of his own personal power, and how he will ultimately choose to use that power. One way to read this story is that Jesus had clarity from the beginning—that he wasn’t really tempted at all. But I read it differently. It is in response to these specific temptations that Jesus becomes clear about his path – that he will use his voice, his faith in the scripture, and his utter commitment to God; that he will not use super-human powers, but exactly, and only, human powers.
In today’s lectionary text, Jesus chooses strategically to quote from Isaiah, from a passage that explicitly puts him in line with other prophets and people of faith who believed that God’s spirit was upon them. Once again the point is made clear. For any individual who claims to be God’s beloved and for every community of people who claim to be the people of God, it is their responsibility to preach the good news to the poor, to release the captives, restore sight to the blind, and free the oppressed. There is no pass on this for it is our baptismal vow and covenant. I don’t know if hearing that scares you or frees you, burdens you or blesses you. I hope it frees you and blesses you. I hope it frees you to live as person anointed with God’s spirit. I hope it blesses you to act as a person who is anointed with God’s spirit. For both are true.
This morning we began our scripture readings with a text from Nehemiah. Maybe by now you are wondering how it connects to what I have been saying. Let me try and make the connection. Listen again to how that text begins. “All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses…Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding [meaning the older children]”. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah often struggle with who had the right to serve as priest or who has the right to be a member of the community. In Nehemiah 8, however, the writer goes to great lengths to show that Ezra’s reading of the law followed the initiative of the laypeople, and that the priest was supported by thirteen laypeople who helped him read and interpret the law. Nehemiah 8 is clear in its message: Ezra changed the law from a priestly concern to something that involved all the people. Do you get the connection? The Spirit of God is upon us, because God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor. God has sent us 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.
Here is what I would ask you to remember about Nehemiah 8 and Luke 4. First: God’s word is for everyone—not just religious leaders, but for all people. Each of us has a responsibility to read and discern God’s word in our lives. That may scare you and feel like a burden. I hope it frees you and blesses you. Second: The Spirit of God is upon each one of us and God has anointed each of us to bring good news to the poor, to work to release all who are held captive by their circumstance and/or the system, to restore sight to those who have lost their way, to change our ways so that the oppressed might be free, and to proclaim that God’s love and compassion are for all people. That may scare you and feel like a burden. I hope it frees you and blesses you. Third: It is through struggling and wrestling with our own temptation for power and privilege that we find clarity in who we really are and what we are called to in this world. That may scare you and feel like a burden. I hope it frees you and blesses you. And last: Jesus came announcing deliverance, but not the kind of deliverance that the hometown people wanted to hear. They read the scriptures as promises of God’s exclusive covenant with them. Jesus came announcing deliverance, but it was not a national deliverance. Jesus came proclaiming God’s promise of liberation for all the poor and oppressed regardless of nationality, gender, or race. Remember this: God’s deliverance knows no boundaries, no limits of any nation, church, or group. God’s deliverance is radically inclusive. That may scare you and burden you. I hope it frees you and blesses you.
Finally, lest any of us leave this place today wondering how we can fulfill our role of being the anointed ones—of being the ones God’s spirit is upon—let me remind all of us that there are a million ways to proclaim the good news. “We sell God way short when we forget that—when we try to force ourselves into a narrow mold or fall silent because we cannot speak. Every now and then we may be called upon to stand up in some public place and give account for the hope that is in us, but nine times out of ten our proclamation of the good news will be the quiet kind: reading a psalm to a sick friend, telling the truth to someone who has asked for it, ending a quarrel with words of forgiveness, writing a note that restores hope…inviting a stranger to come in—those are all proclamations of the good news.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine)
God’s spirit is upon us—individually and as Pullen Memorial Baptist Church—to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, to restore sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim God’s love to all people. It is not intended to be a burden, but rather a blessing. May we find the blessing!