Texts: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21
One of my Christmas gifts this year was a three-month daily subscription to The New York Times. For a year now I have read the New York Times headline articles on an app on my iPhone. But invariably someone would say to me, “There was a great editorial in The New York Times. Did you read it?” My answer was always “No,” because I didn’t get the whole paper on my phone app. Even though I knew I could get a subscription online, I am a person who likes to hold a book or paper in my hands when I read. But a home delivery subscription seemed like an indulgence, so I grumbled about it, occasionally bought the paper at the store, and resigned myself to missing out.
But on Tuesday morning, December 25, I walked out on my front porch to find my very own The New York Times. Santa had come through! I couldn’t wait that morning to sit down with a cup of tea and read it “cover to cover.” And I did – and for the next four mornings after that I did. Tuesday morning. Wednesday morning. Thursday morning. Friday morning. By Saturday morning, I was so depressed that I could barely face opening the door to pick up the coveted paper I had so looked forward to receiving and reading. The news – all of it – seemed to be nothing but bad news. Gun violence, fiscal cliff, the banning of Russian adoptions, floods and bombings, and unrest all over the world filled page after page. There was even a story about a church in Boston that had divided over the decision to sell a rare psalm book. The Old South Boston Church, which owns two of the first-edition copies of the Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640 – valued at up to $20 million dollars – voted to sell one of the copies to raise money for renovations. $7 million dollars of maintenance deferred and a rare book has divided one of the oldest churches in the country. Even the potentially good news stories turned out to be bad news.
For the next week, the papers piled up on the kitchen table unread. I needed a break. I needed to step away and try to find some good news in a world of bad news. The good news I had been looking for in the paper finally came this past week as The New York Times reported almost daily on the events of the inauguration of President Obama to his second term as president. Week before last, I read about and watched with anticipation the events leading up to the inauguration in my New York Times. As article after article speculated what he might say in his inaugural address, I looked forward to hearing President Obama as he began his second term. I, myself, had tried to imagine what he might say. Would he speak of priorities that I felt were important to our country – equal rights for all people, gun legislation, a continued commitment to healthcare for all, care of creation, immigration reform, just to name a few.
As I was engrossed in all the hoopla around the inauguration, I also began looking at the lectionary text for this Sunday. As I read Luke 4, I had one of those ah-ha moments. While I was preparing for one inaugural address, there in front of me was another inaugural address. While I was anticipating President Obama’s speech about his priorities for his second term, and his vision for what this country can and should be, Luke offered another inaugural address – Jesus’ inaugural address: a speech in which he laid out his own priorities and vision for our world and humanity.
Inaugural addresses are important. President Obama just used his to announce the priorities of his second term. A century and a half earlier, President Abraham Lincoln used his second inaugural address to do something no other president had ever done before: speak in terms critical of the nation in order to name the evil of slavery, the toll it had exacted in human flesh and warfare, and the need to stay the course and resolve both the war and its cause.
And in today’s text, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus does the same. He lays out what is needed to stay the course if we are to bring God’s realm into our world. Yes, it could be said that Luke 4 is Jesus’ inaugural address: his announcement of his mission, his priorities, and his vision. It is his description of the realm of God here on this earth. It is a promise of God’s aid and presence. And all of this is summarized by the words good news: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God had anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God 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.” In these few but profound and clear words, Jesus gives his inaugural address.
“What is striking,” one theologian writes, “if you listen closely, is that this good news is only good if you are willing to admit what is hard in your life, what is lacking, what has been most difficult. If we are fully going to understand this good news, we have to remember the context in which Jesus speaks these words. We must remember that Jesus had just spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by all the things that draw us away from good news – abuse of power, greed, and making idols out of our possessions. The good news that Jesus is speaking of is not ‘good news’ in general, but rather good news for the poor. It is not just release, but release to those who are captive, sight to those who are blind, freedom to those who are oppressed…God offers words of comfort, but such words only mean something to those living with discomfort.” If we want to hear the good news, we have to look at where we are in need. Jesus comes bringing good news to those in need.
This, in a sense, is what the community of faith is – God’s people delivering the promise of good news in a world of bad news to all who come in need. Afraid? Come here to find courage. Lonely? Come to us, let us care for you. Ill? Come here – or better, let us come to you – to care for you. Isolated? We will visit you. Marginalized? Come here and we will welcome you. Told by others that God does not love you? Come here and hear the good news that God loves you just as you are. Not sure what you believe? Come here and we will search with you. Discouraged? Gather here and we will encourage one another.
We, the church, are called to be good news in a world of bad news. And the good news is this: God comes not for the perfect, but the imperfect; not for the healthy, but for the ill; not for the righteous, but the unrighteous; not for the strong, but for the weak. The good news in a world filled with bad news is that Christ came into the world not to condemn it, but rather to redeem it. In his inaugural address, Jesus says that he has come to release us from all that imprisons us, to help us see with our hearts what we cannot see with our eyes, to free us from all that has us trapped into believing that we are not good enough, to free us from thinking that we need to be someone other than ourselves for God to love us and from the oppression that tells us our worth is wrapped up in the things that we possess.
Good news in a world of bad news. It is there, if we look for it. God is redeeming our world with good news. Saturday, January 19, on the front page of The New York Times the story reads: “Outside a squat Cincinnati church within sight of an elementary school, dozens of people with guns braced against the Tuesday morning cold” waiting to participate in a gun buyback program. The good news is there if we look. It may be obscure or embedded in some small article not on the front page or even in section A. I found this one on January 19: Myanmar Announces a Cease-Fire in Assault Against Kachin Rebels. January 24, the headline: Equality At The Front Line: Pentagon Is Set To Lift Ban On Women in Combat Roles. Friday, January 25, page A15 there is double good news: Senator Unveils Bill to Limit Semiautomatic Arms and Gay Marriage Bill Approved in Rhode Island House Vote.
More good news is needed in our world. There needs to be more good news for those who are hungry and homeless as a result of the economic injustice in our country. I have come to bring good news to the poor. For a nation that spends more than any other developed nation on healthcare and is still at the very bottom on average life expectancy, there needs to be more good news for those struggling to afford healthcare. I have come to bring recovery of sight to the blind. More good news is needed for our environment that is being oppressed by our greed and over-consumption. I have come to release the captives. More good news is needed for those who have been abused and marginalized and outcast by the institutional church that would rather condemn than redeem; that values dogma and doctrine over doing justice and loving kindness. I have come to let the oppressed go free.
Though it was written 101 years into our existence as a church, I want to leave you with what I believe could be Pullen’s inaugural address written by our historian Roger Crook in 1985.
Pullen Memorial Baptist Church will not be a club for religious people but a community of faith. The congregation will not be held together by their friendship with one another but by the love of God. They will not be a people who come to enjoy the Sunday morning service but a people who present themselves in worship before God. They will not be a people who measure success by number but a people dedicated to making a difference in the world. They will not be a people concerned with the survival of the church but a people committed to the ministry of the church. They will not be a people bound by the past but a people who draw strength from the past. They will not be a people who despair of the future but a people whose heritage offers hope.
May God’s spirit be upon us as we seek to bring good news to a world often filled with bad news. May we not despair, but be a people who bring hope.
One last thought. One might ask after reading Luke 4, “What is my inaugural address?” “What is the good news I bring to the world?”