Scripture: Luke 4: 14-21; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a
Jesus’ call to his ministry: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
Jesus must have felt the sense of ‘call’ when he read today’s Scripture at the Nazareth synagogue. He had just returned from his ‘post-Baptism retreat’ in the wilderness. That experience had filled him with the power of the Holy Spirit [Luke 4: 14]. He had read these words from the prophet Isaiah [61: 1-2]. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor … and recovery of sight to the blind. To set at liberty those who are oppressed, and proclaim the acceptable day of the Lord.”When he finished reading, he said, “Today you have heard this Scripture fulfilled.”
Have you ever had the experience of feeling a call to change your life? I have had two such events in my own life. In high school, I had a revelation that I was more than ‘just interested’ in chemistry. Much later, I had a vivid dream that changed the direction of my life. It led me to enrol in the divinity program at Trinity College, University of Toronto.
We are at the very start of Jesus’ public ministry
Jesus was reading from the sacred scroll at his home synagogue in Nazareth. Just as at St. George’s, I’m sure that unannounced visitors didn’t get to read Scripture. Luke reminds us once again that Jesus was Jewish. He was a regular member at his local synagogue.
What the Spirit of the Lord seems to have meant to Jesus that day
Jesus must have felt that the Isaiah of the Hebrew Scriptures was speaking to him directly. Like Isaiah long before him, he felt the Spirit of the Lord upon him. Isaiah’s words parallel those words of the prophet Micah [6:8]. “What does the Lord require of you? That you should do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” The words of both these prophets represent an ongoing theme of the Hebrew Scriptures – Jesus’ own Bible. These concepts informed much of Jesus’ subsequent ministry. Jesus did indeed preach good news to the poor and the oppressed. Likewise, he restored sight to both the spiritually and physically blind.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me …” The one that God has anointed was the Messiah, so when Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he was really saying, “Folks, I am the Messiah.” This reading fits with the season of Epiphany, because Jesus’ own words attest to his Messiahship. Of course, he saw himself as the Jewish Messiah; the idea of Christianity was a long way in the future.
Both Mark and Luke understood God’s Kingdom, and Jesus’ Messiahship, as present events
Those words, “Today you have heard this Scripture fulfilled,” reminded me of Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel, “The Kingdom of God has drawn near.” The idea that the Messiah would bring in God’s righteous rule very soon seems to look for perfection or utopia. Many Christians look for God’s Kingdom in the same way. They expect to find God’s Kingdom in the afterlife; in heaven. No, says Jesus, it is coming “Today!” We have not yet achieved perfection, but it’s what we have to deal with right now.
The social gospel
So Jesus’ saying, “Today you have heard Isaiah’s prophesy fulfilled,” is a challenge to us all. It isn’t a call to help the oppressed, the poor, or the spiritually blind at some convenient time in the future, when we get around to it. We must do so today, and with a passion for the task. That’s what it means to have the Spirit of the Lord upon us. The people who give out sleeping bags to the homeless in our cities do so “today” whenever today is cold. There’s little point in collecting sleeping bags to distribute in July and August when the need is ‘Today’ in January and February.
Isaiah’s words “to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free” are at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. They also complement the social gospel of Christianity. However, few of us are possessed – or blessed – with Jesus’ well-defined sense of mission. I suspect that most of us find the sense of mission to be much more ambiguous. We have to wait for God to whisper in our ears how to help us to be the Christ figures that we profess.
Combining ‘head’ with ‘heart’
What’s more, today’s Scripture seems to be head-oriented rather than heart oriented. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me/God has anointed me/Today this Scripture was fulfilled.” You have to know your Old Testament theology to appreciate it. But in reality it is a call to action. It was for Jesus; it is for us. It’s like how the chorus of the hymn “Shine, Jesus shine” includes these words “Shine, Jesus shine, fill this land with the Father’s glory. Blaze, Spirit blaze, set our hearts on fire.” In other words, it packs an emotional punch.
Think about St. Paul. He never met the earthly Jesus, but his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus likewise packed an emotional punch. That encounter changed his life. It set his heart on fire — another way of saying that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. From being just a tent-maker, he devoted the rest of his life to founding churches and writing letters to keep in touch with them.
The Spirit of the Lord inspires us to feed the hungry
I brought St. Paul into the argument because we also read today from his First Letter to the church in Corinth. He compared the parts of the human body to the Body of Christ. Most of us have heard that passage many times. However, I want to reflect on how it fits with the Gospel, and how it fits in with today’s other activity – blessing the food we collected for St. Matthew’s House food bank.
As I look at the food we have collected in recent months, I realize how much more there is than when I first came to the parish. Our hearts have been much more on fire lately. We have found a way to be the Body of Christ in this place, despite difficulties with our location. Last week, Paul told us that “Some are teachers, some are healers, etc., but the same Holy Spirit inspires us all.” St. Paul didn’t single out food collectors as one of the types of Spirit-led people in his church in Corinth. However, he might well have done so if he were writing to us at St. George’s. Last year, our small parish collected over two tons of food for St. Matthew’s House.
Jubilee: the ‘acceptable day of the Lord’
Isaiah had proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favour, the “acceptable day of the Lord,” when society would care for the poor and the oppressed. Ancient Judaism proclaimed every 50th year as a Jubilee year [Leviticus 25: 8-17]. The Jubilee reduced inequality through redistribution of wealth and land, and forgiveness of debts. That has a very contemporary ring, given the increasing inequality of our own society.
In a truly ‘acceptable day of the Lord’ we would not need food banks in Canada, because everyone would have enough food for their families. But the reality is that perfection – the acceptable day of the Lord – has not yet arrived. Yet, because we have made the effort to help the poor and the hungry, even in a small way, we too can say, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me …’
As with Jesus, God has chosen (or anointed) us for this particular ministry. As we bless our donation of food, we make real – again, in only a small way – Isaiah’s dream. In our own sight, we are bringing good news to the poor. We have heard God’s call, and we are trying to respond – today, here in this place, because people are hungry now, ‘not in some heaven light years away’ as we sang last week. Hence, we are an arm or a leg or whatever part of the Body of Christ you’d like to imagine in southwestern Ontario.