In the Power of That Spirit

Sermon Preached on January 21
at Church of the Transfiguration

Going to synagogue in Jesus’ time was not quite the same as church-going is for us today. The leader of a local Jewish congregation would invite an appropriate person to read and comment on the scriptures. So, for example, the leader might look around and say, “Bruce – your turn this week.” And all eyes would be on Bruce as he approached the front. An attendant would hand him a scroll and Bruce would open it up, read the passage, provide a translation for us – in Aramaic – and then explain the passage to us. Are you up for that today Bruce? I only ask because I’ve been up all night with 13 confirmands and I’m feeling a bit tired this morning.

O.k., the point is that this is the context in which Jesus reading of the scroll in Luke’s gospel appears. And, because people at the synagogue in Jesus’ time were more biblically literate than you and I are today, they were probably doing what we all do when someone begins to recite a text that we know extremely well – they listened for mistakes! So here’s what could have happened in the synagogue in Nazareth that day:

Jesus began, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”

And someone in the congregation whispers to his buddy – “Hey! I know this one. . .it’s from Isaiah”

And Jesus continues, “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.”

Now another voice in the congregation speaks quietly to his neighbor – “wait, he got it wrong! He forgot the part about “binding up the brokenhearted.”

“Oh, let him finish anyhow.”

Jesus continues on, “to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Now the friend leans over to his buddy again and says, “he didn’t finish the verse. The verse in Isaiah ends with “the day of vengeance of our God.”

So maybe Jesus didn’t get it quite right. He misquotes Isaiah and, what the hecklers didn’t notice, is that he actually combined three verses of Isaiah that don’t normally get read together. But that’s not the impression we get from Luke’s gospel. Instead:

The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.[1]
And, what’s more, this didn’t just happen in Nazareth. It has, in fact, been happening throughout all the surrounding country. Whenever he began to teach in the synagogues we are told, he “was praised by everyone.” Later in Luke’s gospel we are told that people are astounded by “his teaching, because he spoke with authority.”[2] What is it about Jesus that even when he misquotes scripture, people are awestruck, amazed, and filled with praise? Where did this authority come from?

It is significant that this passage comes just after Luke’s account of Jesus’ 40-days of temptation in the wilderness – a passage we usually associate with the first Sunday in Lent. During this period of temptation, the devil says to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus does not. Next the devil offers Jesus the opportunity to rule over all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshipping the devil. Again, Jesus refuses. Again the devil tempts Jesus saying, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” from the top of the temple because God will protect you. Jesus, once again, does not take the bait. [3]

The devil offers Jesus leadership filled with magic tricks that serve to impress and to frighten, leadership based on power and domination over others and Jesus refuses it all. Jesus refuses this model of leadership and chooses instead to claim his authority by lifting others up – by bringing good news to the poor, by proclaiming release to the captives and the oppressed and recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus rejects authority that is based on smoke and mirrors, rejects authority that is a selfish power trip and finds instead authority that is rooted in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Today’s gospel reading opened with Luke reminding us that this is Jesus, “filled with the power of the Spirit” and, in fact, the portion of scripture which Jesus chooses to read in the synagogue begins, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me.” [4] And let’s recall what happened at Jesus’ baptism? Luke tells us, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”[5] This then is the clear source of Jesus’ authority – the strength behind Jesus’ ministry in the world. And this is what those gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth and those gathered in the synagogues throughout the surrounding country - this is what they saw when Jesus began to teach and all eyes were fixed on him.

Having just spent the last 12 or so hours with our group of young confirmands, the service of confirmation is at the forefront of my mind this morning. The examination of the candidates for confirmation begins with the bishop asking the candidates to reaffirm the baptismal vows which have been made on their behalf.[6] This is immediately followed by a question to the rest of the congregation asking us, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?”[7] We then join with the confirmands in the renewal of our own baptismal covenant.[8] This is followed by a prayer said by the Bishop which includes these words: “Renew in these your servants the covenant you made with them at their Baptism. Send them forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before them. . .” – in the power of that Spirit – this phrase refers back to that moment in our baptism when the sign of the cross is marked on our forehead and we are told, “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” [9]

Just as Jesus is marked by the Holy Spirit at his baptism so too we are marked by this Spirit and just as Jesus draws his authority from the power of the Spirit so too we draw our authority from the power of the Spirit and, like Jesus, we too are bound for service – a service like Jesus’. Not a service of authority over others, nor a service of false authority through trickery, but a service of raising up those around us who are in need of the good news, who are in need of a healing word or touch, and who are in need of freedom from oppression. May God send each of us forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service set before us “that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of [God’s] marvelous works.”[10]

[1] Luke 4:20b-22a
[2] Luke 4:32
[3] Luke 4:1-13
[4] Luke 4:14a, 18a.
[5] Luke 3:22a
[6] BCP 414-5
[7] BCP 416
[8] BCP 416-7
[9] BCP 308, 418.
[10] Opening Collect, Third Sunday after the Epiphany, BCP 215.

Photo Credit: From "Power and Hegemony," Islam from Inside, November 30, 2005 accessed online on January 23, 2007.