January 27, 2013
I was a Communications major and an English Writing minor in college; which means I wrote a lot. I wrote speeches, short stories, news stories for my broadcast work and for the school newspaper. I wrote poems and essays. It seemed that no matter what heading I was writing under, one aspect was true for all of my writing, the first words you wrote were important. The beginning of something counted, because that’s how you hooked your reader or your listener. You had to capture their attention. So the lead in a news story was vital. The first sentence of your fiction, whether it was a short story or a novel, had to make your reader want to keep reading, know more. And one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from one of my poetry professors. He said that after you write the first draft of a poem, go back and automatically cut the first line. Be ruthless about it, he told us. Don’t be so married to a first line that you aren’t willing to do this. His reasoning was that often the first line is the most stilted or awkward, because you’re just trying to get started, get warmed up. So cut it, and 99.9 % of the time, your poem will be better for it. He was right. I’ve applied that philosophy to poetry. I apply it to my sermons.
It all comes back to the idea of first words. What do you want your first words to be? They are essential, so choose them carefully. They set the tenor and tone for what you say and do next.
The words of Jesus in this passage from Luke’s gospel are his first words in his public ministry. It is his first sermon or as one commentator wrote, his “inaugural address.” That is certainly a fitting analogy in this week following the inauguration of our president.
What is so profound about these first words of Jesus is that he lays out succinctly and to the point what his ministry and his purpose is. He quotes the prophet Isaiah, and says, “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.”
Then when he’s finished reading from the scroll, he sits back down and with everyone’s attention focused on him, he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” As I interpret that, Jesus tells them that what Isaiah prophesied has now come to fulfillment. The one who has been anointed to do these things, to bring this good news is now here.
This is what Jesus does. He brings good news. But the good news isn’t just a general happy note about God. It is specific. The good news is for the poor. I can imagine that the poor then, just like the poor now, live on a steady diet of bad news. So to hear that this man anointed by God, filled with the Holy Spirit, has come on their behalf, to bring good news to them, that must have been incredible to contemplate. The good news continues in release of the captives, sight for the blind, and the oppressed going free. The jubilee of the Lord is truly upon them all.
From this point on this is what Jesus’ ministry is all about. From his first words to his last act of sacrifice, this is what Jesus does – brings good news and healing and liberation to the poor, the blind, the captive, the oppressed. The least of these and those who live with so much bad news are now the recipients of God’s good news.
What Isaiah prophesied has come to pass. And more importantly, that prophesy has been fulfilled in our hearing. I don’t believe that the fulfilling of these words was meant for the people sitting in the synagogue with Jesus only. It has been fulfilled in our hearing. We too are now able to recognize the good news that is in our midst. But the hearing of the good news, the recognition of the good news is not an end in itself. I think perhaps it is just the beginning. We can’t just hear these words and then move on. Hopefully, we’re doing a little listening as well. Hopefully, we’re thinking about these words, pondering them. I don’t think we’re called only to hear them, I think we’re also called to respond. As one New Testament scholar put it in her commentary, we are being given the chance to participate in the good news. It isn’t just being acted upon us and we are its passive recipients. It has been fulfilled in our hearing, so can we respond with our doing.
On Friday the kids and I made a very quick trip to Kansas to see our good friends, the Hawley’s. Their daughter, Jamie, was in the musical Hairspray at the High School, so we went for the show, and for her birthday which was yesterday. They also had a family from their church in Nebraska coming for the final performance on Saturday night and for Jamie’s birthday, so we all met at the IHOP for a birthday brunch before the kids and I set off for home again.
At brunch Jim and one of the Nebraska friends and I were talking about this passage today and what I was trying to accomplish in my sermon. We talked about this idea of not just hearing these words of good news but participating in them. And the Nebraska friend said, “but what does it mean to participate in the good news? What does that mean?”
I thought about her question the whole drive home. Because I think it cuts to the heart of why we’re here. We’re called to participate in the good news, but what does that mean? What does that look like?
The truth is, I don’t have an answer. I don’t think there is one single answer to the question. I think there are many answers. I think part of our call to respond is to figure out our own answer.
In a few minutes we’ll be ordaining and installing new ruling elders for our congregation. I think they’re willingness to serve the church in this capacity is their answer to the call to hear and respond.
This afternoon we’ll host our monthly community meal. Many hands will work together to feed the hungry and to bring a little of the good news to the poor.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that they were all part of one body. No member of the body was better or superior to another. No member was less important, less necessary than another. They were all needed. They were all indispensable to both the hearing of the good news and the doing.
So how are you called to participate in the good news that Jesus declares in his first words? What is your answer to that question? We all have an answer to offer. We all have a way to participate in the good news. So for Jesus’ first words and his last words and all the words he spoke in between, let all God’s children say, “Amen.”