SJF • Epiphany 3c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”+
You’ve probably all heard the old saying, “No news is good news.” What I’d like to suggest to you this morning is that old news is good news, too. For in the Gospel passage we heard today, Jesus wasn’t being original. He wasn’t telling the people in the Nazareth synagogue anything they hadn’t heard many times before. No, he was reading from a scroll, a copy of a copy of a copy of an ancient document, handed down for almost five hundred years: the scroll of the prophecies of Isaiah, old news from long before his time, but good news at any time.
Who wouldn’t want to hear about release for captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed? This is good news that addresses universal human longings, universal human hopes, whether preached as they were originally, to those facing captivity in Babylon, or centuries later in Jesus’ day, preached to Palestinian Jews suffering under Roman domination, or again centuries after that to African slaves brutally torn from their homes and shipped across an ocean to toil on plantations of the American South or the cane-fields of the West Indies, or then again in living memory to their descendants in the ghettos of Montgomery, Alabama or New York City. This is old news, but it is also good news, preached again, even more recently, amidst the ravaged ruins of Haiti.
This good news had been repeated for centuries, by the time Jesus took up that scroll,. and it has been often repeated since. What is different, the crucial difference, in the news as Jesus delivered it, lies in his closing one-line sermon on the text: (the shortest but most powerful sermon ever delivered!) “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Isaiah’s words had been read for centuries, and would continue to be read, but always with an eye to the future, to some unrealized liberation not yet come, and in that they provided encouragement and support for people in their suffering, to comfort them. Yet Jesus, with that authority for which his ministry and preaching were known, says in that one line that these promises are not for some future yet to be realized time, but are unfolding even now, even as he says them. Promises from a distant past for a future yet to come suddenly meet in the glorious Now of their realization.
This kind of spiritual “time travel” is deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition into which Jesus was born and in which he grew to maturity. The annual Passover meal was not simply a re-enactment of that night in Egypt from the distant past, that night when the spirit of God hovered over the city, slaying the firstborn of the Egyptians while passing over the houses of those marked with the blood of the paschal lamb. The annual Passover meal was and is timeless, so that those Jews who gather to this day to break matzoh and eat bitter herbs and roasted lamb in haste and with girded loins — it is as if they are dining at that same original Passover meal. So too for us, our weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist where we share in Christ our Passover is not simply a re-enactment or a recreation of the last supper, but a present participation both in that historic event and in the heavenly banquet that awaits us in the future. God telescopes or folds up the distant moment of salvation into the present commemoration, and has and will for ever and ever.
This is the spirit and attitude we need to adopt if we are to understand what Jesus means when he says the year of the Lord’s favor has begun; that release, new vision, and liberation have arrived. The ancient prophecies of a distant future time are happening now, all around us, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. The day of liberation has come!
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Yet what an odd person to bring such a message! We know what would happen to Jesus in very short order: arrest, trial, sentence, torture and death. Hardly evidence of the Lord’s favor! The one who proclaims release will betaken captive; the one who announces new sight to the blind will be blinded by the sweat of his own thorn-wounded brow; the one who proclaims liberation will go to his death while a criminal goes free. Could there be anything more tragic, more ironic?
But my dear sisters and brothers, what I proclaim to you today is that it is neither tragic nor ironic. What Jesus spoke that day in Nazareth was true then and it is true today. Just as the Passover Seder and the Holy Eucharist are for ever new instances of the same meal, a kind of second seating, if you will, so too the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled in our hearing, today and every day — if we have ears to hear. For what Jesus shows us in his life and in his death and in his rising to life again is that the kingdom of God is among us. What Jesus reveals to us in his victory over death, is that liberation is taking place even in the midst of our pain and our suffering; that the presence of the Holy One of Israel abides among the faithful even when they are oppressed; that the knowledge of the love of God survives and thrives even as we pass from life. This is the incredible fulfillment that Jesus proclaimed that day: that the liberation of the spirit transcends and transforms the suffering of the flesh; that the vision of the heavenly city can illuminate our eyes even when they are blinded by the tears of this transitory life; that the yoke of oppression can be lifted from our shoulders even as we sink into the grave, singing all the while, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
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This parish church has from its foundation been blessed by the presence and ministry of people in the healing professions. I’ve spoken before of Dr. George Cammann, the inventor of the modern stethoscope, who served this congregation in the nineteenth century as a lay leader. And among our members today are many who work in the hard but vital field of medicine. Those who exercise these ministries share in the vision of fulfillment that Christ preached that day so long ago. And what we celebrate and honor in them is not simply the skill to cure, but the gift to heal.
To bring about a medical cure is no small feat, but as we all know, ultimately medical science comes to an end, and there is always that one last malady or injury that will not or cannot be cured.
But healing — healing that is so much more than a mere cure — healing can happen and does happen even in the midst of death, perhaps even especially then. Most physicians and nurses know this, they’ve seen it — anyone who serves in a nursing home or hospice knows it for a certainty— that even in the midst of death itself liberation can be proclaimed. The healing of the spirit can encompass the death of the flesh, the vision of the heavenly city can shine forth even in the most unexpected places.
I spoke last week of the sign of transformation that Jesus gave at the wedding party at Cana; how it wasn’t so much about wine as about the new life to which he called the people. So too, the sign for us this week is not the sign of miraculous cures, but of unshakable faith that survives even in the face of death, that transcends the grave and outlives it — that hope for the resurrection. Those who serve in the works of mercy are themselves signs and agents of the heavenly reality that comes to birth even in the midst of earthly pain and death. They are the members of Christ’s body, the body which suffers when any member suffers, the body that rejoices when any member of it is honored. These workers of mercy are those most acutely charged with reaching out to touch and comfort in times of pain and suffering, to cool the fevered brow and grasp the hand of the wounded.
In their hands and hearts that scroll has been placed, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, not merely the temporary respite of relief but the eternal manumission of salvation; not the mere glimpse of a furtive hope but the steady vision of the love of God; to set free the oppressed and proclaim the Lord’s favor; not for a time or a season but for eternity, and not with the relative freedom of even the best earthly society but with the true and lasting freedom of the children of God in God’s own house; This is not an unrealized promise from long ago. This is not a hoped for vision deferred to some distant time to come. This is the power and the presence of God with you and the present power of God among you — you, the Body of Christ, filled with his life-giving Spirit. As he promised, so it is. Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Here. Now. Always. Everywhere. In all places and at all times. From the heights to the depths and to the end of the ages. “Publish glad tidings, tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption and release!” To him whose promises are secure and fulfilled, to him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.+