A Homily for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who has come to proclaim freedom to the captives. Amen.
The lectionary has dropped us today in the middle of a chapter and in the middle of a story already in progress. Think back with me to a few weeks ago. We read St. Luke’s account of Christ’s baptism where the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon our Lord in the form of a dove. And then – well, then Luke interrupted the story with a list of Jesus’ ancestors. But the next event, which starts our present chapter, follows closely on the heels of Christ’s baptism. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Jesus endures these demonic assaults, and Satan “departed from him until an opportune time.”
“Then,” as we read last week, Jesus, still “filled with the power of the Spirit” began teaching in the synagogues throughout Galilee. He entered the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown, and read from Isaiah: “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 gave the scroll back to the attendant, sat down, and gave one of the world’s shortest sermons: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And this brings us up to date for today. How did the people react to such an odd sermon?
“Wait. Isn’t that Mary and Joe’s kid? Who does he think he is to claim the authority of a prophet like Isaiah?”
“He was always a little off. Remember the time he went missing in Jerusalem?”
“Yeah, that whole family is nuts. I’ve heard they have a cousin who wanders the desert in camel hair robes.”
And, to be honest, that’s not the reaction preachers want to a sermon; bemused muttering in the pews is rarely a good sign. But then it gets worse. Somewhere in the congregation, someone realizes that the Romans might not take too kindly to that whole “liberation of the oppressed” part. No, this isn’t just the hometown kid acting above his station; he’s a threat.
“If word of this gets out, we’re going to have a legion on our doorstep. If he’s not careful, he’s going to get us all crucified.”
The crowd is whipped up into a frenzy. They drive Jesus out of town and to the edge of a cliff, trying to throw him off to his death. Miraculously, Jesus is able to simply walk away “through the midst of them.”
I suspect that this may be one of those “opportune times” for Satan. “You’ve been doing this for a few weeks, and already the threats pour in. Those were your neighbors, your childhood friends, even some of your relatives back here, and even they were trying to kill you. Do you really expect anyone else to be anymore receptive? Do you really think anyone would leave their life behind and follow you? Do you really think the Romans will let you keep preaching? They’ll murder you. But my offer still stands. Bow down now, and this whole pile of human filth and misery can be yours.”
Dear ones, the Spirit rests upon us to proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom. The Spirit is sending us out as members of the Body of Christ.
But how risky it is! We heralds of this coming Kingdom, we who are sent out to proclaim the Good News of our Lord, pose a direct threat to the powers-that-be. You, yes, even you, pose a direct threat to the powers, to the Caesars, dictators, and presidents who grasp power through violence and fear, to the corporations that make their profits off the backs of the poor, to the religious leaders who sell a false message of extravagant financial and political prosperity in the here-and-now. These powers will not let go without a fight, and we should expect no warmer a greeting than Jesus found in Nazareth.
It sounds extreme in Macon, with churches on nearly every corner, but this is not hyperbole. The prophets of old faced down tyrannical kings. In the end, even Christ, who passed through that Nazarene crowd, eventually ended up on the Cross. (Good Friday is only about two and a half months away, and we’ll read that story soon enough.) From the earliest days of the Church, when Stephen was killed bearing witness to Christ in Jerusalem, to bishops and theologians like Ignatius and Justin in the second century and bold women like Perpetua, Felicity, and Blandina, to those who were marched into concentration camps for opposing the Nazi regime, those who were hung from trees and whose churches were bombed for proclaiming the liberating Gospel in the Jim Crow South, and priests murdered by death squads in South and Central America, the powers and principalities of this world are quite skilled at violently imposing silence and rewarding those who keep their mouths shut. How tempting it is when confronted with the lions in the arena or the barrel of a rifle to simply tell those in power what they want to hear. Oh, what an opportune time it must be, standing before a powerful judge, that voice whispering, “Just deny it all. Just tell them what they want to hear. Offer whatever they want, and make it out of here with your life.”
Theologian and historian George Kalantzis describes martyrdom this way: “Injustice recognized justice” because, when sent to the arena, the young were shown to be as wise as the old, women to have the strength of men, slaves to have a more profound sense of freedom than their owners. This is power, foolish in the eyes of the world – power not like that of the emperor or the CEO, but power granted by Christ and wielded trusting that our Lord will raise us up. This weakness in the eyes of the world bears witness to God’s strength. Throughout the ages, Christians have let the Spirit flow through them, even when facing prison, torture, and death. These witnesses – martyrs in Greek – looked the demonic powers square in the eye, and said, “The worst you can do is take my life – but true life is in Christ. Send me to the grave – for I know that the only tomb that matters now sits empty.”
Sisters and brothers, the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, sending us into the violent wilderness of the world. Proclaiming liberation to the oppressed will sound a lot like bad news to the oppressor. Putting the last first will sound awful to those already at the front of the line. Laying down your life is terrifying if you don’t know what’s on the other side of the grave. For those of us who have more than enough, giving it away might hurt an awful lot – about as much as the realization that it was never ours to begin with.
But behold! We are united to a great cloud of witnesses! We have the shining example of those blessed martyrs from Scripture, Stephen, Peter, and Paul, and those early martyrs like Ignatius, Justin, Perpetua, Felicity, and Blandina, and their twentieth century heirs, Dietrich, Martin, and Oscar pointing us towards Christ. And we have Christ, ushering us through the midst of an angry and violent mob, ushering us into new life.
Here is strength! Here is power! Here is the freedom to serve God and neighbor! Here are the waters where the Holy Spirit anointed you! Here, you died the only death that truly matters, dying with Christ that you may rise again with your Lord. Here is wine to revive you, bread to make you strong! Here is your Lord to strengthen you when you falter. Here is the Good News: that the powers and principalities, that sin, the devil, and death do not have the final say.
Today’s sermon is greatly influenced by Dr. George Kalantzis’ lecture “A Witness to the Nations: Early Christianity and Narratives of Power.” I was looking at taking this approach to the text when I came across Dr. Kalantzis’ presentation — a video I saved long ago and finally watched for some continuing education.