A week ago in our national life we had an inaugural address. Quite a number of commentators expressed surprise at the President’s strong words; they were a clear vision of where he feels we need to go as a country, about what the work ahead of Congress should be. And the reactions to the speech were mixed; some people were delighted and energized, and others were upset and disappointed. That is to be expected; whenever a public leader makes strong statements, there will be a variety of reactions and responses – at least in real time. History, of course, may offer a different perspective.
Here are some now famous words of presidential inaugural addresses:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” 1865, Abraham Lincoln
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” 1961, John F.
Each of these leaders had their supporters and detractors; those who felt with the presidency that a new day was dawning, and those who thought the country was being led into rack and ruin. Now my point here is not a political one, but I do want to set the stage for hearing the words of Jesus this morning.
In the Gospel passage from Luke, Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan River, has been driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert for a time of prayer and fasting - a retreat, has returned to Galilee where his teaching ministry was well-received. And now, Luke tells us, Jesus has arrived at Nazareth, his home-town, to the synagogue where he grew up, where everyone knew him. He read aloud the Torah scrolls, a sacred responsibility and honor, and then sat down in front of the assembled congregation, as was the practice of rabbis when teaching. The passage that Jesus had read, presumably the portion of Scripture appointed for the day in the Jewish lectionary, was from Isaiah, chapter 61: “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 then began his teaching by saying: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This was Jesus’ inaugural address, the formal start of his public ministry, the point at which he announced himself and his vision to the world, beginning with the people among whom he had learned to live and worship and understand the words of the Jewish Law and Prophets. And they were strong words. We don’t hear the reaction of the people present in the synagogue until next week, in the next section of the Gospel, but I can tell you right now: it wasn’t good. Some of the people were so riled up they tried to throw Jesus over a cliff on the outskirts of town! Why should these words that Jesus quoted from a Biblical prophet that had been written over five hundred years earlier cause such a stir, such a reaction?
These words from Isaiah were news of deliverance, of God coming to save his people, to right the wrongs that had been done to human-kind, to vindicate the People of God – not just the rulers, or the rich, or the ones in power, but all the people; perhaps most especially, those who were poor, prisoners, oppressed, blinded or otherwise impaired and considered less-than-whole. It was understood that these things would happen, and that God’s deliverance and justice would take place, when the Messiah arrived.
So Jesus takes the scroll of Isaiah, reads these words, sits down in the place of authority to teach, and begins by saying: Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Jesus was telling the assembled congregation in that Nazareth synagogue, and telling the world, that he was, in fact, the Messiah; that he was the Messiah.
Strong words…really strong words, make no mistake about it. The Messiah has arrived, and he is Jesus, and here is the plan – clear and plain as day: God is delivering and saving and vindicating hiis people; starting here, starting now.
So what does all this have to do with us – at a distance from Jesus of two-thousand years, in a church that is half a world away from that Nazareth synagogue? Jesus’ inaugural address is an announcement that is still true, it’s still the plan, and Jesus’ is very much still the Messiah. The difference between us and the people in Nazareth is that they were just at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just at the start of that final chapter of God’s plan of salvation for the whole world. We, on the other hand, are somewhere deep in the middle of the chapter. God’s deliverance and salvation has been going on for centuries, whether we are always able to see it or not.
But hearing Jesus’ words so clearly helps to re-focus us, helps us to remember who Jesus is, and who we are, and what we are to be about. Jesus came to save and redeem the world, to bring wholeness and goodness and peace – not just to our souls, but also to our families, our communities, the structures and governments of human society, to all Creation. There is no part of what God has made that will not be redeemed and restored.
And our job is to participate in that redemption and restoration; as disciples of Jesus, we are to take on the mantle of his work, as well as the gift of his love. Wherever we go in our daily lives, we are to be agents and instruments of God’s justice and goodness. The specifics of that will be different in every situation and for every person. I can't tell you what that will be for you; only God and you can decide that. But we know that the over-arching picture of Jesus’ ministry, in which we are called to participate, will look like this: (please read these words with me)
"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."
Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 27, 2013