Epiphany 3C Sermon Notes (2019)

SERMON NOTES — January 27, 2019

The place of this Gospel Reading in Luke’s Gospel: the opening scene of Jesus’s public ministry. So it has some extra importance!

Have you been watching all the Democrats announce their candidacy for President? Where do they choose to make it? In their hometown? Do they emphasize a certain message or theme? This morning’s Gospel Reading is Jesus announcing his candidacy for public ministry. He chooses his hometown and Isaiah 61, the quintessential proclamation of the Jubilee, “the year of our Lord’s favor.”

What was Jubilee? It was a radical political idea, a sign that God’s way of reigning was coming into the world. The main idea of Jubilee was to extend some of the culture of Sabbath to an entire year, not just a day in the week. Sabbath is the seventh day. Jubilee was to be the year after the seven-times-seven year — the fiftieth year, a ‘Sabbath’ year. A year of reset; a year of rest. And the main practice was to be a release of all debt. Debt was just as big of a deal back then as it is now. Maybe more. And as now debt effects the poor far more than the rich. To be in significant debt was the most common way of ending up in prison or in slavery. So a year of release of debt is: “good news to the poor.” It is “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 what comes next is even more bracing: Jesus concludes his candidacy by boldly stating, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Wow! That’s chutzpah! But for Christians, Luke’s Jesus is expressing what we see as our mission in following Jesus: namely, helping to bring God’s politics into this world in meaningful ways — advocating for the poor and oppressed. Once again, we need to see that Jubilee represents the usual values of human empire turned upside-down and inside-out. Human structures of order in society have always favored those at the top of the power pyramid, or at the center of the circle of power. God’s politics as represented by the Hebrew prophets and Jesus turn those values upside-down, the bottom of the pyramid; and inside-out, the margins of the circle. It is good news for the poor and the oppressed, because the year of the Lord’s favor favors them.

Under our theme of New Reformation, I’d like to stop and notice what Jesus does not choose to talk about. He is declaring his candidacy, framing his central message. Is there anything there at all that suggests it is about going to heaven when you die? Again, we modern Christians seem to have made central what is at best secondary. Jesus came to launch God’s politics in the world — the “kingdom of God.” His entire life and ministry was lived on behalf of the poor and marginalized. He died as an outsider, executed by empire. And the year of God’s favor, the Jubilee, began as God raised Jesus to life, showing how God’s powerful presence is actually with the poor and oppressed.

Is going to heaven when we die a part of the Christian hope? Yes, but as part of God’s promise that we will all someday fully enjoy the Jubilee. The main promise is that Jesus launched the Jubilee, God’s politics, in his person and that the Spirit carries on the work with our help. The promise is also that someday it will come to completion. Going to heaven when we die fits into that promise, not as the final destination, but as the temporary place of resting on the way to the fulfillment. What matters most is not life-after-death, but life after life-after-death, the time when heaven fully comes to earth in the sense that God’s politics in Jesus will reign as Creation come to completion — no more death, no more tears, no more human oppression.

So why does it take so long? Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Perhaps this is parsing things too finely, but a better translation might be, “Today this prophecy is being fulfilled in your hearing.” “is being” is slightly different than “has been.” It shows continuing action — continuing action that continues for us today, in our hearing, as we respond to what God has launched in Jesus and is continuing through the Spirit and us.

Again, why does it take so long? Part of the answer has to do with us, the church, having gotten off track in following Jesus and the Spirit. We’ve come to trade a hope for an otherworldly destiny for the destiny of this world, God’s good creation. But the other part of the answer comes from the very different kind of power typically worshiped by humanity instead of the power of love that Jesus embodies and fulfills. The power of love works on a different timetable because it cannot use force.

We began with Luke’s placement of this story at the beginning of his ministry. Let’s also remember that it comes right after Jesus’ battle with Satan in the wilderness, where we read,

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Luke 4:5-8)

Human beings actually worship a satanic sense of order rather than the order of the true God Jesus came to reveal to us. Jesus doesn’t challenge the devil’s claim. That’s why his fulfilling the prophecy of the Jubilee is so important! It begins a different way of being human to the extent that we begin to live by different politics.

What should the church look like in our current time and place? Brian Zahnd has a brand new book called Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile. In other words, it is like the time that the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. America may be a kindler, gentler empire in some respect (and not so in other respects), but it still follows the basic ways of empire. Let me share an excerpt from his chapter on Satan that outlines God’s very different way of bringing change:

Why doesn’t God just destroy the (d)evil? Because the satanic phenomenon is inextricably connected with who we are. God cannot simply destroy the devil in one fell blow without destroying us too. Jesus came to destroy the devil, but the devil will not be destroyed like Osama Bin Laden was destroyed by Seal Team Six. It takes more than a bullet to the head to kill the devil. Jesus destroys the devil by calling us out of rivalry, accusation, violence, domination, and empire, into heaven’s alternative of love, advocacy, peace, and liberation — this is what the Bible calls the kingdom of God.

So, yes, I believe the devil is real. . . . The devil is the all too real dark spiritual phenomenon of accusation and empire that lies behind humanity’s greatest crimes — the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the medieval crusades conducted in his name, the lynching of black men in the Jim Crow South, and the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust. The devil is also very real in a million smaller, yet still diabolical, acts of rivalry, accusation, violence, and domination that take place every day. Ultimately the Satan reaches its fullest form in the evils of empire. But the good news is that Christ has overthrown the kingdom of Satan with the establishment of his own empire — an Easter Empire. (pp. 115-16)

God’s “alternative of love, advocacy, peace, and liberation” came into this world in Jesus the Messiah. God’s Easter Empire, the “year of our LORD’s favor” is being fulfilled today in our hearing. And you and I are invited to join in.

Let’s end with a Prayer of the Farm Workers’ Struggle, written by Cesar Chavez, UFW Founder (1927-1993):

Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
so I will know my people’s plight.
Free me to pray with others;
for you are present in every person.
Help me to take responsibility for my own life;
so that I can be free at last.
Grant me the courage to struggle for justice;
for in such struggle there is true life.
Give me honesty and patience;
so that I can organize our community.
Bring forth song and celebration;
so that the Spirit will be alive among us.
Let the Spirit flourish and grow;
so that we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for justice;
for they have given us life.
Help us to love even those who hate us;
so we can change the world. Amen.

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