This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Breath of God.

Luke 4:15-30.
            After his encounter with the Adversary, Jesus returns to Galilee and begins preaching in local synagogues.  He comes into the town where his family lived when he was growing up: Nazareth.  We do not know how long he has been gone.  Perhaps it was only a few weeks before that he left to go down to his cousin’s John’s ministry at the Jordan River.  Some wonder if he hadn’t been away a lot longer, given the fact that people have to confirm with each other who he is.
            In Nazareth he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as usual.  He must have been invited to preach by the President of the synagogue, because, after the reading from the Torah scroll, he is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he stands up to read from it. 
            He unrolls the scroll until nearly the end, and he reads some verses from chapters 58 and 61.  Then he gives the scroll back to the attendant, and sits down to teach.  Rabbis and Jesus almost always sat down with everyone else when they were going to teach.  And after a pause for effect, he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
            He says that because he understands himself to be anointed by God for these very same purposes declared by Isaiah.  If these verses from Scripture look ahead to the work of the Messiah, Jesus is saying that we need look no further.  He is the One who is coming to accomplish this ministry.  He is the One who has come to “bring good news to the poor,” “proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, [and]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 
            Jesus chooses these verses to describe what his ministry is going to be.  It is of great importance that these are the verses he picks.  They are not random.  They were probably not the lectionary reading from the Haftarah for that day.  He chooses these verses deliberately, and Luke just as deliberately tells us about it. 
            Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth is “the end of the beginning” of the gospel.  These verses from Isaiah lay out the theme, direction, and purpose of Jesus’ ministry… and his rude reception by his own people foreshadows his eventual fate in Jerusalem.  They bring together everything that has happened so far, especially his mother’s hymn about him scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and sending the rich away empty.  Now it’s not just something his mother told him; now he is reading this job description in the book of the prophet Isaiah and embracing it for himself.

            It begins with the Holy Spirit.  The tenor of Jesus’ ministry is not something he dreamed up and chose for himself; it is an expression of God’s Spirit.  The word we translate as “spirit” also means “wind” or “breath.”  It sounds just a little different and tangible to say “the Lord’s breath is upon me.”  That reminds us that it was the breath of God that spread over the waters of chaos at the creation, and the breath of God that animates Adam and brings him to life.  It’s much more personal and less abstract than language about a “spirit.”  Some scholars even feel that the name of God might not have had any vowels at all, but was intended to be whispered, pronounced with the breath alone.
            God’s Breath is the breath of life.  God’s Spirit brings life like the breath that comes into the dry bones in Ezekiel 37.  Everything that lives breathes.  And the character of our breathing determines the quality of our life.
            Jesus is anointed with God’s Spirit, God’s Breath, at his baptism, which is ratified by the Voice and the dove, and confirmed at his successful passing of the devil’s tests.  He is the functional agent of God, embodying God’s Word and being infused and empowered and energized by God’s Breath.
            And when you have the Breath of God upon and within you it is not neutral; it is not immaterial; it does not leave you unchanged.  It gives you a purpose, a destiny, a direction, a mission.  It gives you very specific super-powers, which Isaiah and Jesus sum up as: to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
            And it’s not just Jesus and Isaiah, although that certainly would have been enough.  But it is all the prophets who receive the same Breath, the same Spirit.  And it is all the Scriptures that are “God-breathed,” that is, written by people inspired by this same Breath/Spirit upon them.  The Torah, with its laws enabling the people to live in peace, justice, and equality; the Psalms, in which the people join their own breath to God’s in song, it’s all inspired because it all expresses these values reiterated by Jesus and Isaiah.
            The Breath of God moving in the world has everywhere and always the same effects.  These effects are so consistent that we can even see by where these things are happening the work of God’s Breath or Spirit.  Later, in chapter 7, Jesus will say just this.  You know I am who I say I am because of the kind of work I am doing: people are being liberated, healed, and empowered; people are even being raised from the dead!  That’s the sign of God’s Breath at work.

            What does “good news to the poor” mean?  What do you think it means?  What would be good news to you if you were poor?  That the insecurity, the hunger, the humiliation, the exposure, the deprivation, the liability to disease, and the powerlessness of being poor are all lifted.  Good news is the assurance that you will receive what you need to live.  The good news is the promise that now you are a part of a community that will provide for you.
            When Jesus and Isaiah proclaim release to captives, it means freedom from all the things that would bind us.  This can be literal incarceration… and that reminds me of possibly the most obscene scandal in America today which is the high rate of incarceration, a rate far higher than any other nation in the world: over 700 people for every 100K; we have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners, a circumstance I attribute to a perfect storm of racism, lobbying by both for-profit prison companies and correctional officer unions, a dysfunctional and corrupt legal system, and misinformed vindictiveness on the part of many in the population.  It costs far more to keep a person locked up than to put them through college.  The vast majority are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. 
            There are other kinds of bondage as well: including chemical addictions and being bound by bad habits and bad ideas.  Proclaiming release – and by the way the word for “release” is the same word used for “forgive” – is not merely verbal, but active.  God wants people free.  Release from slavery is the beginning of biblical faith.
            Recovery of sight to the blind may be taken literally; Jesus heals many who couldn’t see.  But there are people who are figuratively blind as well, who do not perceive the truth, who are being led astray and leading others astray.  Jesus comes to heal our defective vision also in terms of our worldview and the way we see and know things.
            And letting the oppressed go free reiterates Jesus’ recognition that God advocates freedom.  The freedom God advocates is for those victimized by the excessive application and abuse of freedom by others.  For God, “freedom” never means the ability to restrict or limit the freedom of others, as if I am not free unless I can force you to do what I want.
            Freedom means not being oppressed by those who have more power and wealth than you do.  It means being free from the delusion that I have the right to take away someone else’s freedom because I can.

            But it is the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor” that is the culmination of Isaiah’s and Jesus’ words.  It refers to the institution of the Jubilee Year in Leviticus 25, a time when all debts were to be canceled, and all property revert to its original families of ownership.  It was, to say the least, not a popular idea among wealthy creditors.  But it was very good news for most people in Jesus’ day who were victims of a system that kept them in crushing indebtedness.  Jubilee was designed by God to prevent too much wealth accruing among too few people.  Sound familiar?
            Everyone in this room prays daily for this Jubilee to happen.  Jesus put it explicitly in his exemplary prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  That is a prayer for Jubilee.  This was so threatening to the wealthy imperial, institutional church that they changed the words to the more vague “trespasses.”
            But when Jesus talks about freedom, one big thing he means is freedom from debt. 
            Well, this sermon impresses people in Nazareth.  Jesus was a very effective public speaker.  They’re not even completely sure he is the same person as the one they used to know.  “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they ask each other.
            This very question appears to annoy Jesus to the point where he seems almost deliberately to alienate them.  He goes on to accuse them of only being interested in him for his entertainment value, predicting that they will not accept him.  Then he gives two examples of Old Testament prophets who performed miracles, but for foreigners, not Israelites.
            What was so disturbing about them questioning whether he was Joseph’s son?  We know whose Son he is; but they did not have the advantage of having read the first 3 and a third chapters of Luke’s book. 
            “Joseph’s son” had no business boldly proclaiming that he is personally fulfilling Scripture.  He certainly had no basis for the rather revolutionary declarations he repeats from Isaiah.  Joseph’s son would be more responsible, he would take over the carpentry business, and get over the delusions that he is the Messiah, or something.
            Responding to this, Jesus basically says, “You don’t own me.  You don’t define me.  I am not bound to what you remember or expect of me.  I don’t expect you to get what this is all about.  I refuse to live in your little box.  Elijah and Elisha did not consider themselves private miracle workers only for their own people.  Their ministry was to everyone, and so is mine.  Deal with it.”

            Maybe Jesus wants to make sure they hear him correctly.  His ministry of liberation and justice is not just for them.  He does not come to free only Galileans or Jews.  He is coming to free everyone.  He is not here just to perform miraculous acts of healing for individuals. 
            Luke is trying to answer one of the biggest questions of his own time: if this guy is the Jewish Messiah, how come so many Jews do not follow him?  Luke suggests that it was because Jesus’ mission was far wider and inclusive and transformative than his own people could imagine.  “Joseph’s son” was one thing.  But it is hard for people to accept as God’s Son someone they remember as a 2-year old, or a teenager.
            The message for us is that following Jesus means being animated by the same Breath of God, to do the same kind of mission: bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release or forgiveness to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, when all debts are canceled.  None of those things has even been particularly popular with people who are not poor, incarcerated, blind, or in debt. 
            None of those things makes sense either if we think we own Jesus, know Jesus, define Jesus, control Jesus, or imagine he is just “Joseph’s son,” a local boy, one of “our people,” completely bound and determined by his, and our, social context.  That may be our self-serving fantasies about the “historical Jesus,” or the equally self-serving, sentimental, domesticated, unthreatening image of Jesus as the upholder of the status quo we may have received from sermons or in Sunday School.
            That is when we hear him saying to us, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’  And you will say, ‘Do here also the things that we have heard you did 2-thousand years ago.  Entertain us with some miracles!’  Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in their own home town.  Maybe my miracles are for those who really need them.  Maybe what I require from you is discipleship.” 
            And maybe discipleship means bringing the good news to someone else, someone whom we have decided doesn’t deserve it, someone who isn’t like us.  Maybe we think the captives are where they belong and the oppressed had it coming.  Maybe we wonder how someone else’s blindness got to be our problem.  Maybe we’re benefiting too handsomely from having people indebted to us to imagine that should change.
            Or, maybe, the Breath of God will blow through and over us too, and we will realize that what Jesus was anointed to do, we are anointed to do as well.  Maybe we, who have been baptized into his Name, will realize that we are his Body, and that God has equipped us to be his people.


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