Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6, 8-10 Psalm 19 I Cor. 12:12-31a
Three Church of England priests were sharing a cabin on a train ride to an Anglican conference. Shortly into the trip, one of the priests says “Well, we’ve worked together for many years, but don’t really know one another well. I suggest we tell each other one of our sins.” They look nervously at each other but nod okay. The first priest says, “Since I suggested it, I’ll go first. With me, it’s the drink. Once a year, I take off my collar and go out of town to a pub and drink myself blind for a few days. Get it out of my system.” They all look at each other nervously, but the next priest slowly starts, “Well….with me, it’s gambling. Periodically, I sneak money out of the poor box and go to the races. I spend it all! I get it out of my system.” They both look at the third priest, waiting. He doesn’t say anything. Then one of the other priests speaks up, “Come now. We’ve both told our innermost faults. It’s your turn.” He looks at the others and starts hesitantly, “Well….with me it’s gossip..….”
We are all broken. We all have flaws. Some of us drink too much; some spend our money gambling; some love to gossip. The list could go on forever, but the good news is that Jesus teaches and offers a different reality. When it comes to being members of the Kingdom of God, we are all made whole and complete through the work of God.
The Holy Spirit is a prominent figure in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel. This is an important emphasis because of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. He is literally christened or anointed like a king, not with oil but with the Holy Spirit. Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, the first act of Jesus after his baptism and the temptations was to go to the synagogues of Galilee and teach. And his teaching was received with praise.
After his return to his hometown, he reads from the scroll of Isaiah. It’s from the Greek translation of the Old Testament and aligns with the opening two verses of Isaiah 61. And it is here, as he proclaims the reading fulfilled in front of the people, that he claims his status as the anointed one of God. The passage from Isaiah is also full of the themes that Jesus teaches and acts upon throughout his ministry – healing the blind and sick, freeing the oppressed, and proclaiming God’s favor for God’s people.
Later, Luke will tell us in the early chapters of Acts, how the Holy Spirit came upon the believers at Pentecost and launched the birth of the church. Now, Luke is telling us of the Holy Spirit’s involvement in the life of Jesus as he steps forth in public ministry. Even Jesus is not self-sufficient. He is dependent on God for life, faith and mission. Our text, which finds Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, is preceded by the brief story of Jesus’ baptism and the somewhat longer account of the temptations in the wilderness. For Luke, all three episodes are Holy Spirit stories, as the Spirit claims, tests, and empowers Jesus for the ministry that lies ahead.
The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove while he is praying after his baptism and speaks the claiming words of affirmation. Then, the Holy Spirit fills and leads Jesus into the wilderness for a time of testing as Jesus refuses the pathways that are the wrong choices for his servant ministry. Now as Jesus returns to Galilee, the Holy Spirit will fill him with power for ministry as he reads a text that will be his mission statement as Messiah.
Luke joins Nehemiah and Psalm 19 in affirming the revelation of God in the Word that is read in the assembly of believers. The act of reading and hearing the Word of revelation provides a theme most appropriate for Epiphany. Luke wants us to know that it is the Holy Spirit who leads Jesus into saying “no” to the temptations offered and saying “yes” to a mission that is given to him by God. When Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, he is declaring that his ministry in the Spirit as Messiah of God calls him to be an agent of mercy to the downtrodden in this world: he will be good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and a new beginning for all who have failed. Luke rearranges Mark’s timeline of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee to be able to move his mission statement to the front and center of his public ministry. It is a defining moment in the Spirit.
It takes courage to preach hope in the midst of despair and desolation. For preaching hope can be done badly, falsely, hurtfully. When people are living in darkness, a word of hope too easily spoken can leave that despair unseen and deepen the pain of the people. Prophets do not speak carelessly. They do not speak as one who can afford to hope because the suffering doesn’t touch them. Nehemiah wants to restore his homeland. Now is the time for the people of God to experience the word of God read and explained. Ezra is concerned about the interpretation of the book of the law.
The Holy Spirit gives us something to do for God. Everyone seems to want to know, “How are we doing as a church?” But, the real question is, “As a church, what are we doing for God?” Jesus steps forward in Nazareth and declares the truth about his life. He has been filled with the power of the Spirit and anointed to bring good news to the poor. To know our mission and to understand what God has given us to do are as important to us today as they were to Jesus.
How can we know that we have the power of the Spirit? We know because the Holy Spirit gives us something to do for God, and a time to do it. There is a sense of urgency in Jesus’ mission. He finished reading, rolled up the scroll, gave it to the attendant, sat down, and with all eyes on him said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The time of God’s Holy Spirit is today, right now. It is the Holy Spirit speaking when we hear God’s whisper to us – “Child of God, live this day as if it were our first day, as if it were our last day, as if it were our only day.”
Powerful words……Luke wants us to know how Jesus’ ministry began here on earth. It begins when the Holy Spirit claimed him at baptism, tested him in the wilderness, and filled him with power for an urgent ministry of grace to the downtrodden in this world. The Holy Spirit came and taught Jesus what was real: to say “no” to false options and temptations in the world, and “yes” to God’s good purposes for all people; to say “no” to self-glory in all its forms, and “yes” to helping the poor and the captured of all kinds; to say “no” to trying to get our God to work for us and “yes” to working for our God with urgency and compassion.
The Holy Spirit comes when we have something to do for God and a time to do it. Following Jesus means accepting his mission and his time. What would change in our lives and in our churches if we stood in the pews on Sunday morning and declared to God and to one another, “God give us no other day than today to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and new beginnings to all who have failed”? Jesus went forth in the power of the Holy Spirit as an agent of God’s mercy to the downtrodden, and so can we!!
It is our responsibility, in the midst of the many voices calling us, to know the person of God so well that we are able to discern what voices are consistent with God, who created us in God’s own image, redeeming us through God’s only Son, and sustaining us by God’s Holy Spirit in and through the body of Christ. God needs all of us. God needs our hands and feet, our heart, our commitment, our will, our strength, our compassion, our intellect, our all. Jesus is alive in us and we are alive when we live into Jesus’ message and ministry. What voice do you hear? Amen.