A Homily for the Third Sunday after Epiphany
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who fulfills the Law and the Prophets. Amen.
Two weeks ago, we read that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan. St. Luke doesn’t tell us much else about this; unlike Sts. Matthew and John’s longer descriptions, Luke gives us a scant three sentences before the Evangelist is off describing Jesus’ human lineage. Lest we think this was merely a momentary apparition, though, Luke picks up the story again by saying that Christ leaves the Jordan and enters the wilderness (we’ll read this in about six weeks when we get to Lent). This isn’t just a quick trip out to the desert but rather a time of wrestling with temptation and Satan. And Christ does not go alone – he is, as St. Luke puts it, “full of the Spirit.” Now, today, we pick up the story: Jesus, back from the wilderness, begins his public ministry “in the power of the Spirit.”
Christ’s entire ministry is infused by the presence of the Holy Spirit. And so it is that, in the synagogue, he takes the scroll and reads from the prophet Isaiah – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”
He reads on: “for [the Spirit] 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.” Here it is – the thing for which Christ – in Hebrew, the Messiah, literally the “Anointed One” – has been so anointed. This is what the Spirit has filled Christ for. This is how Jesus introduces his divine identity to the world. This is the Gospel, the Good News he brings.
It’s a Gospel that is both deeply spiritual and personal – but also inherently social and political. Yes, the Gospel pertains to sin and forgiveness and things supernatural, but it’s also explicitly about what happens in this physical world here and now. The Gospel is good news for the poor. It’s freedom for prisoners and slaves. It’s liberation for the oppressed.
The Gospel is the year of the Lord’s favor – what Leviticus calls the Jubilee year. This was a year when land sold reverts back to the original owner, breaking up the estates of the wealthy to protect those who live in poverty. It was a year when those who had been sold into indentured servitude were released, when enslaved foreigners were emancipated. It was a year when all debts were to be forgiven. It was a year when even the land itself was left fallow to rest.
This is glorious news of liberation – but only to those filled with the Spirit, those with eyes to see and ears to hear. If we hear it through the ears of this present fallen age, then it is divisive – good news for some but terrible news for others. It’s a calamity to those of us who still cling to our earthly positions – those of us who, because of income or race or nationality benefit from the oppression of others and would rather not give those up. It’s a calamity to those who would turn a blind eye to the injustices of this age so long as we remain comfortable. If we would rather assume that our nation and our heritage are beyond reproach, suddenly being confronted with this overturning of the world can come across not as Gospel but as a threat. It can look a lot like loss – of wealth, of power, of prestige. If we see this from a human standpoint – that for others to gain, I have to lose – then it is truly wretched news.
But if we see it through the Kingdom of God, then we see it as liberation – that the redemption of the oppressed and the redemption of the oppressor are bound up together. Those of us in positions of privilege are being set free from the sin of pride, set free from slavery to wealth, set free from our fear of neighbors just as our kindred are set free from captivity and poverty.
Just as Christ’s Blessed Mother sang of God’s redemptive work overturning the order of this world, casting the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty, so too does Jesus announce that he has come for the poor, the captive, the oppressed. He has come to set the wealthy free from their slavery to wealth in order that the poor may be lifted up, the hungry fed, and those enslaved by human masters set free. Jesus’ ministry is to proclaim the ultimate jubilee, the true justice of God’s reign on earth.
This, Christ said, has been fulfilled.
And here we stop. Because we must ask a question. How has this been fulfilled? If you travel through even a small city, you see large homes, gleaming office buildings for the powerful, and luxury cars – all while our neighbors sleep in tents under freeway overpasses and beg for scraps downtown. The injustice of this age is evident, even to the limited human imagination that can’t comprehend the full extent of God’s divine majesty. This does not look like the Year of the Lord’s Favor.
Here is a mystery of our faith: Christ has already accomplished everything, and yet we still live in a world marred by sin. We still face down temptation daily, we are still in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Greed and corruption and injustice and violence still have their say in the cosmos.
When Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah and sat down to preach, he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” But that’s not quite right. The Greek says something closer to, “Today this Scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.”
This is a divine, miraculous work that has already begun and is ongoing. It is the work that Christ the King, ruler of the universe, fulfilled through his preaching, through his miracles, through his live-giving Passion and his glorious Resurrection. It is the work that he will bring to its ultimate fulfillment when he returns in glory at the last day.
It is the work that he is fulfilling even now. It is a work that he is fulfilling in many and various ways, and even through us. Yes, that same Spirit is filling us, sending us out to be fulfillments of the words spoken by Isaiah through Christ.
Yes, the Spirit is upon you! Through these waters, the Spirit has called you to be a fulfillment of the words spoken through Isaiah! In Baptism, you were made a part of the Body of Christ. You are now part of God’s plan to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the oppressed, and freedom to the captives. God’s Kingdom, already established through Christ and yet-to-come when Christ returns in glory, is erupting through you, my kindred!
Yes, erupting through and among you as we gather in these pews, in this space, but also when you depart! You are an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God on Sunday morning when we gather, but also Sunday afternoon when we leave and on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday as you go about in this world. When you were Baptized, God reclaimed all of you, every moment of every day, for the Kingdom and to be an eruption of that Kingdom in this world.
So come, be refreshed in this Sacrament on the Altar. Here is Christ, for you, strengthening you to be his Body for the sake of the world. Come, taste and see. Come, remember who you are: A sinner redeemed by God’s own grace, baptized into his Body, and sent forth in ministry to the entire world. Come, drink deeply from the cup of salvation, that you might go pour yourself out for others as the Kingdom of God arrives.