+ A sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on January 27, 2019 +

Texts: Luke 4:14-21

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I remember the first sermon I ever preached very clearly.
It was six years ago and my pastor knew that I was planning on going to seminary, so he offered me a chance to preach at my home congregation, University Lutheran in Seattle.
This was long before I took a homiletics course and before I studied the scripture with any real academic rigor.
This was long before I knew anything about writing a sermon and before I had even set foot on a seminary campus.
So, naturally, I eagerly said yes!

The morning I would preach was assigned the story of the prodigal son—a familiar favorite to many.
But as the day approached, I remember how nervous I got.
Even though this wasn’t the congregation I grew up in, these were my friends, some even more like family.
And now I was stepping into their pulpit, signaling a new phase in our relationship, trying to take a place of authority and teaching.
I felt the weight of this task and of trying to make this parable from two thousand years ago more relevant to these modern people so removed from its original context.

Now, I’m not exactly trying to compare myself to Jesus here, but I’m saying that I can understand what he’s going through in today’s gospel and the anxiety he must have felt before his first sermon.
We see Jesus, fresh after getting baptized and being tempted in the desert, returning home to Nazareth. 640x640_11196306
He goes back to his synagogue with his friends and his family proudly watching as he stands up to read the scripture, from the Prophet Isaiah, and proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has 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.”
And then the people looked at him—just you all are looking at me now—expecting to hear some interpretation of these ancient words, of how Isaiah’s message was relevant to their lives.
This was a text that promised a messiah.
This was a prophesy that told of a time when God will make things right again.
What would Jesus, their friend, their neighbor, their brother, say about it?

Two obvious choices would be to look back at the time when Isaiah wrote these words of promise or look toward the future and anticipate their realization.
Because I think that’s what we often like to do as people of faith—or perhaps that’s something people just generally do.
We like to look to the past and we like to wait for the future.
And I think either of these approaches could make for some pretty good, safe sermons—especially first sermons.

He could remember the past, the glory days of his people when the great prophets like Isaiah proclaimed the promises and might of God.
How their ancestors were free with their own king.
How they were the chosen people living in the promised land.

Or he could preach about the future, about the coming day when the Kingdom of God will reign and Isaiah’s prophesies will be the new reality.
About how the captives will be freed and the poor will be lifted up and the wounded made whole.
About giving new hope in during the painful realities of the meantime when that promised future seemed so far out of reach and the people are loosing their hope.

Remember the past or look to the future—it’s a choice that must still be made today.
And it’s a choice that sounds familiar to me as we are engaging in this discernment about our future as a congregation.
It’s easy to lock into these two worldviews—the past and the future.
We remember the glory days of Holy Cross, those days when worship was full of people, when the sounds of children echoed through the halls, when we felt our purpose in this place was clear.
Or we look ahead to what could become of this building, of this land, and of this congregation—of the ministries we can support, the new possibilities we can envision, the hoped-for return of people to our pews.
And before long, we can find ourselves wrapped in nostalgia or pining for a distant tomorrow.
Before long we can make the past a glossy idealized version of reality and the future a frightening unknown.

But rather than choosing the past or the future, Jesus surprises us with a third option.
A decidedly risky and unsafe option for a novice preacher.
1868253822845987962_15165784109222Today,” he says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

I can almost hear the amazement in that synagogue.
Jesus, have you forgotten where you are?
We live in this small, impoverished town, a forgotten village in a land occupied by foreigners.
We live with harsh taxes, frequent wars, and are loosing hope.
We had it good once and are waiting for liberation and freedom. How can you say this has been fulfilled?

And if we look around ourselves today, at the world and our country, it sure doesn’t seem like it has been fulfilled by now either.
The people living in poverty in our city and our country still need good news.
Our country has the most people in prison and the highest incarceration rate in the world.
We put partisan and ideological blinders in the way of truth.
We still live under oppression and inflict it upon others.
And the year of the Lord’s favor, otherwise known as the jubilee year when all debts are canceled, slaves are liberated, and lands returned to their rightful owners seems like sheer fantasy, not even in the realm of possibility.

And our congregation knows that we would hope for more from God’s fulfilled promise.
With our smaller attendance, our strained budget, and our aging buildings, this is not the future we would have hoped for decades ago.
That doesn’t seem like the long-awaited fulfillment.

So Jesus, how can you say this has been accomplished? How can you possibly tell us that this scripture has been fulfilled today in our hearing? Because we can see how far we have to go.

Now, if you’ll allow me to get a little technical with the text here, the Greek word for “has been fulfilled” is in a specific type of grammatical tense: the perfect tense.
This means that this verb isn’t static, but continuous.
So rather than “this has been fulfilled” as a one-and-done type of thing, something that happened once and is finished, we can read this as an ongoing action. This has been fulfilled and continues to be fulfilled and will continue to be fulfilled.
This means that the past and the future are important, but not as important as what is happening now, today, here in this place.
Jesus is not saying that the work is finished, that all is right in the world, because we can see that it isn’t.
But instead of a static statement, Jesus is making a threefold declaration—simultaneously an announcement, a promise, and an invitation.jesus-reads-in-synagogue1

First, Jesus is announcing that God is acting on behalf of those on the margins—the poor, the oppressed, the blind, and the captive.
That these people who are so often forgotten or disregarded by society are those for whom God is acting.
That the Jesus has come among us to do exactly this, to proclaim God’s love and healing for these people so easily neglected by the world.

And even though that may not sound like it includes us here in Bellevue, in this middle-class mostly white congregation, Jesus assures us that this same announcement is for us too.
That he has come for us too.
That the parts of us that we might want to hide, the parts that are hurting, the parts that are wrapped in doubt and pain, the parts that need wholeness and life, these are why Jesus has come—to proclaim God’s good news for us and to bring us release, to bring us healing and light, to bring us liberation and love.

Second, Jesus is promising that God will always side with these people and with all the vulnerable.
That this is the heart of who God is and God will forever love and act on behalf of those in need.
And that God is always with us and will always love us and bring us life, forever.

And third, Jesus is inviting us to join him in this same ongoing work of manifestation and fulfillment of God’s promises.
He is calling us who have been made whole into this community, so that we may respond to this gift by continuing Jesus’ own work of embodying and fulfilling God’s announcement and promise, making them made known in our own life and actions by aligning our work with the ministry of Jesus.

Jesus is using his first sermon to preach that today, this day, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
This day.
And tomorrow.
And the next day.
Every day, God is fulfilling this promise.
And every day, God is inviting us to take our place in that promise and into the work needed for it to become reality.

That Sabbath day in Nazareth, Jesus was inviting his friends, his family, and his neighbors to perceive the fulfillment in their midst, to see the promise of God among them and within them.
To look and see how God’s kingdom is breaking into this world despite their poverty and captivity and oppression.
To see that God is faithful to God’s word and is working within and among them each day.

And Jesus is telling us that today, this is scripture is being fulfilled in our midst.
week2-largeBecause just as the Spirit of the Lord descended upon Jesus in the Jordan River and anointed him to proclaim this good news, the Spirit of the Lord descended upon each of us in our baptisms and anointed us to this holy work.
Because this announcement, promise, and invitation is for us here in 2019 too, and it is being fulfilled today.
Every day is a chance for to realize God’s promise, because the Spirit is here with us and we are active and integral parts of the fulfillment.
We become part of the proclamation, the release, the recovery of sight, the liberation, and the jubilee, lest we leave Jesus’ words in the past or consign them to the distant future.
Lest we regard them as something from millennia ago in a far-off land or we disregard them as mere dreams of some time ahead.
Jesus is telling us that these words, these promises, these hopes are for today.

And even though Holy Cross looks very different than it did years ago and even though we do not know what it will look like years from now, Jesus is reminding us that living into God’s promise is not about dwelling in yesterday or waiting for what tomorrow may hold.
It’s about today.
It’s about using this time and this place we are planted.
It’s about what God is doing in and through us and in and through this congregation.
Because while we have a storied and glorious past and while I believe we have a bright and Spirit-led future, Jesus has announced the fierce urgency of now—today is the day of fulfillment, today is the day of action.
Even as we celebrate our history and plan for our future together, this the time to continue what we do best, to love and serve our neighbors, to come together in fellowship and community, to protect the earth and advocate for justice, to work toward the fulfillment of God’s vision for our city and the world.
To be Holy Cross together.

Now, while we will see next week this sermon in Nazareth was not well received, Luke tells us that Jesus immediately got to work.
Throughout the rest of Luke’s gospel, we see how Jesus dedicated his life to the fulfillment of this prophecy using this inaugural sermon as his framework.
And in Luke’s sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, we see the church continue this same work and seek its fulfillment across the known world.
And today, it’s our turn.
Today, we get to become active parts of this promise as we work with Christ until God’s vision is realized.

Now I know that this is a daunting task.
This is something that, as we will see next week, will drive the first hearers of this sermon to outrange because of the enormity of the work.
But remember that we are not alone.
We have this community of faith to work with us, we have a Body of Christ that stretches across the globe ready for action, and we have a God that is announcing that this promise is fulfilled, will be fulfilled, and will continuously be fulfilled until everything is accomplished.

And today, just as in Nazareth so many years ago, Jesus comes among us as one of us, as God-with-us, in this Body of Christ, and in the promises of this Table and of the Word, and he proclaims again:

The Spirit of the Lord 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.

Today, this promise has been fulfilled in your hearing.


Works consulted:
“The Power of Today,” Diana Butler Bass:
“Declaration, Promise, and Invitation,” David Lose:
“Preaching Nazareth,” Karoline Lewis:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s