Luke 4:14-21; Luke 1:46-55
We are three weeks into the new year. Some of us made resolutions, like, “I am going to eat a more healthy diet.” This one is so common because during the holidays, we splurge on so many treats! Or, “I am going to begin, or reinvigorate my exercise program.” Again, probably based on so much sitting and feasting during the holidays. Or, “I am going to get more rest, work a little less, enjoy life a little more.” All of these are some variation of our bodies calling out for a cleansing, fresh start!
Maybe there is something significant about these kinds of resolutions. While we seem to return to the same themes every year, maybe that is telling us something that we could pay attention to. Maybe we learned something during the Christmas season; maybe it just seeped in without our being aware of it – that the incarnation changes everything. It changes how we use our bodies. Because God chose to become human, it honors our “poor estate,” as the one God chooses.
Just as Jesus’ physical body made a difference in the world, so our physical life makes a difference. This physical body is so important that the divine was willing to become like us, in us, knowing all the joys and sorrows of being human.
Have you ever wondered if Jesus had weight problems, or got drunk once or twice, or overworked himself, or got stressed out? Certainly, he must have gotten enough exercise, since he walked everywhere and did every chore without modern labor-saving devices.
There is a humorous episode of Star Trek Next Generation, in which one of the God-figures of the story, Q, suddenly lost his divinity and had to live as a man. He was not very happy about it, especially that phenomenon we call “sleep.” What a waste of time! But he learned that this being mortal is harder than it looks. He did get his divinity back, but he had just a little more sympathy with embodied creatures after that. In this case, the divine learned grace by becoming human, rather than humans learning grace from the divine.
Like Q, we sometimes become disconnected from our physical form. We make life all about the abstractions, or about getting to somewhere else, here or hereafter.
Jesus lived in a time when the focus of life for the common person was to survive. It was very earthy, embodied, mortal. There was little time to get an education or discuss philosophy, or even to make art beyond the pots and clothes that were required for living. Those with leisure for these occupations were very privileged.
What does the gospel look like from this very mortal, embodied perspective?
Take a minute and write down what the gospel is in a few words or sentences. Or if you don’t want to write, just reflect on what you think of when someone refers to the gospel….
With these thoughts in mind, let’s wonder for a few minutes about what did the good news sounded like to those who listened to Jesus.
This story from Luke 4 is often described as Jesus’ first sermon. Jesus walked into his public life teaching and announcing good news. All the gospels tell us this. In fact, we call these first books of the New Testament “gospels” from this behavior of Jesus. The word gospel means “good news,” and its verbal form is commonly used to describe what Jesus did – He went around “good-newsing people.” Spell check tells me this isn’t a word. But it is such a beautifully descriptive phrase, that it might be beneficial to add it to our vocabulary!
During the formative years of the modern era, preaching came to be very strong and scary. One of Jonathan Edwards most famous sermons, and characteristic of the era, is called, “Sinners in the Hands of and Angry God.” Preaching came to be confrontational and harsh, sometimes brow-beating. The aim of preaching came to be to convince people that they were bad, to break their spirits, in essence, to bad-news people.
But Jesus’ message is consistently described as “good news,” “gospel.” Not everyone received it that way, as we will find out next week. But the good news of Jesus message is the focus for today.
Jesus was raised in a human family. Mary and Joseph nurtured him in the spiritual path, saw that he went to the synagogue and learned the great stories of faith. And which stories did he learn? All of them, I am sure! But which ones did he call on? Here, for his visit to his home synagogue after a teaching tour everyone was talking about, he chose Isaiah 61. This may have been the assigned reading for the day, but it seems like he had some choice in the reading. The last Isaiah scroll was what was handed to him. Then he looked for the place where this particular passage was recorded. Did he choose it? Did he read only these two verses or the whole chapter, or more? Wouldn’t it be nice to know!
One thing the text does say is that we do not have his whole teaching recorded here, because it says, “He began by saying….” I wonder what else he said, don’t you?!
The early pronouncements of Luke give us some common themes – Zechariah’s song, Mary’s Magnificat, and now Jesus first hometown teaching. His family had a focus. These songs are all about justice, God’s care for the poor and oppressed. These were the songs that filled the hearts of the common people. These were the songs which formed the first hymnal of the early church as well.
And they are very earthy. They have everything to do with how life in this body on this earth changes because of God’s coming to be with us. Put the songs side by side, and one sees that the content is similar, the rhythm is similar.
Like mother, like son. Of course, Mary had a huge influence on Jesus’ life. She sang to him his cradle songs; she told his bedtime stories; she and Joseph taught him to say his prayers, to chant the Psalms, to the rhythm of the hammer in the workshop. What he had to say was connected with Mary’s vision. Like mother, like son. Handed down generation to generation of people who put their hope in God.
So what were the themes in these two songs? What is good news here?
First, they are both high celebration! They are like the songs we choose as our favorites in the hymnal because the words and music touch our hearts, encourage us and make us feel blessed, loved and inspired. Back in those times, these songs were all put to memory. They couldn’t look them up in the family Bible or hymnal, much less the internet! They knew these words and the songs accompanied them while they walked and worked.
Maybe it is time for us to get some of these great hymns into our hearts, where they can accompany us in all our bodily life. So that when we have a near miss on the roadway, we break out in:
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me” …from crashing into that car.
So that when we step into the beauty of the sunset, we sing:
“This is my father’s world,
O let me ne’er forget
that thought the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet!”
So that when that dreaded phone call comes, we sing:
“Into your hands, O Lord,
I commend my Spirit,” or
“The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want,
he makes me down to lie,
in pastures green, he leadeth me
the quiet waters by.”
What about this for a new year’s resolution? – to learn to sing from the heart the music of God?
The second thing about both of these poems is that they are personal, bold. “From now on all generations will call me blessed!” “The spirit of the Lord is upon me!” I am struck by the confidence in both of these messages.
Sometimes we have become so engulfed in the exhortation to humility that we have no confidence in God’s love for us. Not these two! They knew that God loved them and was working in them to bring blessing to all. Even though the worlds they lived in bore few signs of blessing, success or abundance. They knew they were exactly where they were supposed to be in their lives and that just being there, where they were supposed to be, was all it took to be in the middle of what God is doing in this world.
Okay, so you say, you are talking about Mary and Jesus, after all. These are the high points among human beings! How can we compare? That is the good news! That God is in residence among and within us – not just a few special ones. That we, too, are the presence of God for blessing this world! God has come and it changes everything!
Maybe a little more boldness to bless would be a good new year’s resolution!
Then, of course, one can’t miss the parallels in these two poems revealing God’s passion for justice. Release from captivity, sight where we have been blind, generosity where we have hoarded, belonging where we have known isolation. The end of racism. The end of terrorism and violence. The end of prisons. The end of slavery and human trafficking. The end of blindness, hunger and exclusion. The end of all things that drive us apart and the arrival of a new world where we understand that we need each other, that we are gifts to each other.
Those to whom Jesus preached his first sermon didn’t need new year’s resolutions. They needed their world and its power structure to be turned upside down. They didn’t need a new diet, a new exercise program, or new good habits. They needed to know that God sees them, God looks with favor upon them, because when that happens, it is life-changing. And when you are poor and oppressed, when you are disregarded and discriminated against, when you are regularly rejected and reviled you don’t need a do-it-yourself life-improvement plan, but a life-change. And that’s what the Gospel is. It is not what we can do to improve our lives, but how we can get connected with God to love through us.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us. This is the phrase that I take away with me today. It is the good news! It’s that simple!
Repent and believe the good news? All that means is: turn your life upside down, because it is not your life anymore. The spirit of the Lord is upon you! The good news is that what we do with our presence in the world right now is the way God’s grace touches everything we touch.
We are the physical body of the Spirit’s presence, thus, we are the good news! We are called to go around good-newsing people, as Jesus did.
Announcing good news seems naive in our world of such cataclysmic chaos, violence and fear. Of course it does! For the good news turns our world order upside down! It is not what we fearful human animals would have thought of on our own.
How do we know that God is love? When someone human loves us. When someone human says, “Let me help with that.” When someone with skin on says, “Let me take you out for dinner so I can spend time with you.” When someone right next to us, who we can touch and feel, reaches out to touch our hand saying, “I am here, too; you are not alone.”
We change the world one connection at a time. That is always the only way it has ever been. The good news is that the Spirit of the Lord is upon us now!