Monday, January 28, 2019

A Message of Hope

An elderly woman is planning to celebrate her 90th birthday, but due to constraints, none of her three children will be able to join her for the big occasion.  All three have done well in life and each plans to give her a lavish gift.  The first child sends tickets for a month-long cruise in the Mediterranean.  The second has a local car dealer deliver a brand new Mercedes complete with a chauffeur (she is 90 after all!).  The third, remembering how mother used to love to read the bible before her eyesight went bad, buys her a truly remarkable parrot, trained for 12 years by a cloistered monk to recite the Holy Scriptures word for word from beginning to end.  There is nothing else in the world like it.  As you might imagine, it costs the youngest a fortune, but no amount of money is too much compared to a mother’s joy.  A couple of months after her birthday the children are able to be together with their mother.  She shows them beautiful pictures of her cruise and thanks her first child for making it possible.  She tells the second how much she enjoys being driven around town in her stylish, comfortable new car.  And she says to the third, “Thank you so much for the chicken.  It was delicious!”

The Prayer Book’s Outline of Faith uses a question and answer format to articulate what we Episcopalians believe.  One question asks, “Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?”  The answer, “We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.” 

An interesting thing happens when a group of Christians comes together and opens the bible.  God speaks.  Or at least godly conversation ensues.  We find our talk is infused with something that otherwise would not be present.  As we listen to its words and yield to its authority we find ourselves hopeful and challenged, healed and stricken, guided and confused.  In short, reading Scripture changes us.  You cannot listen to Scripture and engage in conversation about it and remain the same.  That is how it is now and that is how it was two millennia ago.

Today we read of Jesus returning to his boyhood hometown and attending worship in the synagogue where he grew up.  He is given the honor of selecting a reading from Scripture and speaking on it.  He asks for a scroll containing the words of the great prophet Isaiah who proclaimed a message of hope at a very dark time.  Jesus unrolls the scroll, searches for a specific passage, locates it, and then reads these ancient words:

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.

The original context is not lost on those present.  Isaiah spoke during a time of exile to a people who were oppressed, who had never even set foot on their ancestral land.  Isaiah proclaims this bleak period is about to end.  “I am here to tell you a new day is about to dawn.” 

Isaiah’s was a bold message because nothing about the time looked hopeful.  God’s people had settled into their lives in Babylon and while they did without much, over the years they had learned how to make due.  But Babylonian power was beginning to wane and Persian invaders from the north were ceasing territory at an alarming rate.  The handwriting was on the wall.  The people in exile were living in a city about to be overrun by another force who would subject them to who knows what.

While most anticipated this development with dread, Isaiah saw in it something different.  He saw the hand of God at work in the Persian army because Cyrus, its leader, had an established policy of letting exiles return to their homeland.  This, in fact, is what happens.  The exiles receive permission to return to the holy city of Jerusalem where they repair the broken walls and gates (securing the city) and rebuild the Temple (this work of restoration is the setting for today’s first reading). 

Everyone in the Nazareth synagogue hearing Isaiah’s words almost five centuries later associates what Jesus is reading with these events.  And each person present must ponder his current misfortune with the plight of those to whom Isaiah preached.  The people of Nazareth are subject to the occupying Roman army.  They are forced into servitude and taxed into poverty.  They witness their sacred traditions being defiled and their cultural identity being dismantled.  They long to be delivered.

Jesus knows the longings of their hearts and he knows the heart of God, who desires for all people to live free and to flourish.  And this passionate desire at the very core of God’s love burns in the heart of Jesus.  The way Luke writes his Gospel, today’s reading serves as the inaugural event of Jesus’ public ministry.  The passage he chooses to read functions as a statement of his mission.  Everything Jesus will do from this point forward will serve a singular agenda.  It will proclaim and demonstrate that God is acting now to make all wrongs right.

It is a hopeful message and initially it is well received by those who have witnessed Jesus grow from child to adult.  The only problem is they do not know what they need in order to be set free.  They do not realize that a change in their outer circumstances needs to be accompanied by an inner transformation.

I just finished reading J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Eulogy.  He describes his life growing up in a small Ohio town in an extremely dysfunctional family whose roots are in Appalachian Kentucky.  Vance is one of the few people from his background to overcome the odds against those from poverty and brokenness.  But even though he goes on to serve in the marines, graduate from The Ohio State University, earn a law degree from Yale, and go on to a successful career and a happy marriage, he writes eloquently about the way his childhood experiences marred the achievements of his adult years. 

He had to unlearn all the old responses to chaos and violence.  He had to confront his own sense of identity, which was forged in the conflicted environment of a loving family system that broke down time after time.  He knew how to be a hillbilly (which Vance points out is not without its blessings and benefits), but he had to learn the ways and rules of a very different world in order to make something different of his life.  Although Vance was exceeding everyone’s wildest dreams for him – his outer world – he could not be free until he made sense of his inner world by confronting what held him back and embracing what was worth keeping.

This is the kind of work Jesus sets out to do through his ministry.  He knows how the years of oppression have damaged the soul and diminished the spirit.  He knows how sin and suffering have left a mark on each and every person he encounters.  And he knows God’s favor will not rule in a person’s outer world if it does not reside in a person’s inner world. 

It was true then.  It is true now.  It is a hopeful truth.  And it is a hard truth.  You cannot be whole until you are healed from the inside out.  Winning the lottery will not fix you.  Earning a degree from a prestigious Ivy League school is not a magic elixir.  Not to pick on a particular politician because most of them pedal the same promise, but you cannot make America great again through public policy alone.  For any of these things to make a difference, something has to be different about you.  Not about your circumstances.  The difference has to be in your essence. 

As I say, this is a hard truth.  Next week’s gospel reading is a continuation of today’s and it will bear this out.  But it is a hopeful truth because inner transformation is the work God wants to do.  God’s very words, “You are my child.  I love you”, lay a foundation for something new.  Jesus’ every action and every word demonstrate God’s love for you.  And the Spirit’s work and moving is a force you can invite or discourage.  The choice is yours. 

The reason Jesus chose the passage from Isaiah to read to the people of his hometown has not changed all these years later.  He saw in it a message of hope and a message of challenge, a call to celebrate and a call to change.  The word of God remains living and active.  God still speaks through it and not one of us is ever quite the same when we hear it.