by Rev. Rebecca Migliore
January 23, 2022
Another week, another gospel. Last week we were with Jesus in the gospel of John, for the miracle of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. But this week, we have switched back to the gospel of Luke (the main gospel for this year, year C in the three year lectionary). And so, although last week, Jesus and those he had called as disciples were gathered at the wedding, this week, we have to go back a step. There are not yet any disciples. It is just Jesus. In Luke, after the birth narratives, and the story of Jesus staying behind at the temple, Jesus has been baptized by John, has gone into the wilderness to be tempted, and then comes the story we hear today.
This is the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has started to teach in synagogues. He is traveling around the countryside. People are curious about this new rabbi. He is probably figuring out exactly what his life is going to entail. We have all been in a somewhat similar situation. Maybe we were starting a new school—where there will be students and teachers who don’t know anything about us. Or maybe we just graduated and are looking out at the world on our own for the first time. Where are we going to live? Who are our friends going to be? What job are we going to get? Will it just be a stepping stone, or a place to settle in for a while?
All the possibilities are spread before you, just as Jesus was looking at all the ways that his life could unfold. But for today, he finds himself back at home, at Nazareth, where he has been brought up, where people think they know him. And he goes to synagogue, as was his custom. Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam… (Blessed are you, God, sovereign of the universe…)—the prayers that he had said since he could remember were being chanted around him.
The Torah (the holy scripture) was probably reverently removed from whatever was serving as the ark in that synagogue. And it was lovingly paraded around the sanctuary, with people kissing the shawls they had placed around their shoulders, then reaching out, to touch the scrolls only with the shawls, and then to return those shawls to their mouths—as close as you could get to the presence of God. Then came time for someone to read the all important words. Jesus stood to read (as was the custom). He was given the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, and he unrolled the scroll, almost to the end, to the 61st chapter and began to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”
He got to the end of the reading, rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant who then returned it to the ark, and then, only then, did Jesus sit down (as was the custom of the preacher of the day). Everyone was watching him. Here was a hometown boy made good. They had heard that he had been well received in the synagogues of the towns around and about. So there was excitement, and I’m sure some wondering. “What’s he going to say?” “How did he get so knowledgeable?” “Let’s see if he really is all that!”
And Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Because we read these words so often, because we associate what they say so closely with Jesus himself—often calling them the blueprint for Jesus’ ministry—I think we miss the startling nature of what Jesus has just said. These words, in their original context, the context that Jesus would have known them in, was the prophet Isaiah speaking to the downtrodden people of Israel, who have just been liberated from years of exile and oppression. They are returning to a broken land. They are no longer who they were. They are trying to rebuild the temple and their lives, but nothing can bring back its former glory. It is a sad, depressing time.
And into this time and place speaks the prophet with a word of hope, a word of cheer. It could almost be prefaced with the words the angels always speak to us, “Do not be afraid.” God’s Spirit is still with us, Isaiah says. God has anointed me, God has given me the job of reminding you, that God is in the business of changing things. I, in the name of God, am to bring good news to the oppressed; I, in the name of God, am to bind up the brokenhearted; I, in the name of God, will proclaim liberty to the captives; I, in the name of God, declare release to the prisoners; I, in the name of God, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor—a jubilee! A time when all debts are cancelled, when land is returned to former owners, when slaves are freed, when all are given a new start.
Sure, we know God has spoken those words in the past. God has restored God’s people in the past. But what does Jesus mean that those words, those very words, have been fulfilled in our hearing, TODAY? Seasons of the Spirit imagines what might have been going through the minds of the congregants that day.
“Fulfilled? Today? No. No, that just can’t be. We know that when we step out of that synagogue, nothing will be different. The emperor will still be taxing us, the soldiers will still be threatening us, the beggars will still be begging from us. And we were right. So what did Jesus mean, ‘The scripture has been fulfilled’? Surely he had it wrong. The year of Jubilee has not come.
And maybe it’s for the best. We wouldn’t know how to deal with it if it had: How could we return properties to their original owners when it’s been so long that we can’t even remember who that is? Would we have to release all of the captives—even the ones guilty of crimes? How can we help the poor when we can’t even help ourselves?...What is justice in a world as messy as this one? What is freedom? And perhaps most importantly, [exactly] what was the good news he spoke about?” (Seasons, for Jan. 23, 2022, p. 139)
“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is shocking enough when we imagine Jesus meant that the scripture was fulfilled because HE was the one who had been called, he was the one anointed, he was the one who would be preaching good news, and proclaiming release and recovery of sight and to let the oppressed go free. It means recognizing Jesus as Messiah—the one of God who will usher in God’s new reign.
But as I read and reread the passage for today, and as I mused about God’s words as spoken by Isaiah, as spoken by Jesus, I wondered, what if it should be even more shocking. What if those words are meant, not just for Isaiah, not just for Jesus, but also for us.
You see, yes, the Spirit of God rests on Jesus at his baptism. But the Spirit of God is given to each and every one of those gathered at Pentecost. Yes, Jesus is anointed to bring good news, to proclaim release and recovery and setting free—but that doesn’t happen with a wave of the hand. It didn’t in Isaiah’s day, it didn’t in Jesus’ day, and it doesn’t in our day. Release, recovery, setting free—has to be done, bit by bit, in our lives, in our communities, in our country, in our world.
No wonder, once they thought about it, people throughout the ages have howled, “You can’t be serious.” Release, recovery, setting free—that infringes on us. Release, recovery, setting free—that requires whole new systems, whole new ways of behaving, a whole new world. Release, recovery, setting free, is ok as long as we are the ones being released, recovered, and set free. But when it comes to everyone else…! Are Jesus’ words “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” a word of hope, or a threat? Do we want Jesus’ message to be fulfilled? What might it mean for us? For our world?
Fulfilled. Did Jesus mean, eventually it will come to pass? As we often tell ourselves that Jesus means when he talks about the kingdom of God, the reign of God coming near.
Fulfilled. All we have to do is look out our door, look inside ourselves and we know that the scripture has yet to be “fulfilled”—if fulfilled means finished, completed, all wrapped up.
Fulfilled. Is the part that is fulfilled is that we have been given our marching orders. The proclamation has gone out. We have been told what it is we need to do (as God has told us in years past). Release, recover, set free. Those are action words—words that stretch into the future as well as the past. Words that might scare the devil out of us. Release—we don’t like to let go of things that have become familiar. Recover—isn’t that the word we move to when rescue has failed, when we are just cleaning up the pieces of something gone terribly wrong. Set free—to set the oppressed free means upsetting the oppressors and dismantling the institutions that oppressed and that sounds like a whole lot of work.
And anyway, Jesus couldn’t have meant that it had anything to do with us. Except that in this gospel he is going to not only have blessings but curses. He is going to tell parables that insist we are supposed to go after the one out of hundred sheep that get lost, that we are supposed to welcome the prodigal home, that we are to be the good Samaritan, that we are to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
And I don’t think I’m the only one hearing this word in this terrifying way—if we had read the epistle lesson today, it was 1 Corinthians 12—where we hear from Paul that we are all members of the body of Christ. We might have different gifts (in Paul’s metaphor—a hand or an eye or an ear or a nose, or …) but each gift, each of us is needed for the body to work. Each of us is needed to do our part.
So, we don’t get to foist bringing in the kingdom, bringing the reign of God all on Jesus. We each have something to do with it as well. And when does that start? Today. When we hear the words. As soon as it is read, is spoken, is preached. Now. Release. Recover. Set free.
Which gets us back to “Fulfilled.” It think what was fulfilled on that day was that the call had gone out. It think what was fulfilled on that day was Jesus declaring that no matter how long ago God’s words were spoken, no matter how long it seems we have been waiting, no matter how deep our despair, or how low we think we are, or how little our faith may have become, the Spirit of God is still working. The Spirit of God has anointed once again. The call of God has been proclaimed for our time. “Fulfilled” means that it has begun. “Fulfilled” means “I’ve done my job, now, tag, you’re it.” “Fulfilled” means get going.
Yes, get going on our promise to be a Matthew 25 Church—to keep our congregation strong, even as we try to figure out how to dismantle structural racism and eradicate systemic poverty (who said we Presbyterians picked small goals)!
Yes, get going on our Micah Project conversations and activities—as we get to know one another better, as we share deeply, and imagine what we might do here in West Orange and beyond.
Yes, get going, even in the midst of pandemic or endemic times.
“Today, the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” is a trumpet blast. It is a drop the mic moment. It is a throwing down of the gauntlet. Jesus may have been sitting, but he is urging us to get up out of our seats. To get up out of our lethargy. To get up out of our feeling sorry for ourselves. To get up out of whatever it is that holds us back.
We are not the first who have faced difficult times. We will not be the last. But what we can count on is this. God is with us, today. That God’s Spirit hovers over us always. That we have been given so many gifts—and if we work together, if we don’t let anyone or anything get in our way—God can do amazing things through us. Even “release, recover, set free” is not beyond our reach.
“So,” Jesus says, “What are you waiting for?”
“I have showed you the way.
I have called you and you have promised to follow.
We have work to do.”
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.