The Spirit of the Lord is upon us

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us

January 27, 2013
Stina Pope

Texts for this sermon: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

The people of God gathered to hear the word of the Lord. In our first reading, we hear that Ezra brought out the book of the law and when he opened the book, all of the people stood up, just like we stand for the reading of the Gospel. In that culture, the teacher sat down to teach, and the students stood as a sign of respect. So standing for the reading was a way of saying they understood the book to be the great teacher. And what were they reading? The book of the law of Moses. This was the wonderful teaching they were receiving, the words were so graceful that the people wept, lifting up their hands in prayer and then bowing their heads in worship.

We often think about the law as a harsh instrument that comes down on people, and sometimes people talk about the Old Testament as being about law and the New Testament as being about grace, but that is not true at all. The people understood the law as being a gift of God, not a punishment, and Jesus talked about being the completion of the law, not the elimination of it. He frequently got in trouble with those who understood themselves as being custodians of the law, but if we look carefully, we find that the reason for that is that he was accusing them of using the law to their own advantage, of using the letter of the law to hurt instead of healing. He made them mad because he called them on their duplicity.

If we look at the Psalm for the day, it echoes this sense of the law. In verse 7-8, the author says: “The law of the LORD is perfect and revives the soul; * the testimony of the LORD is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent. The statutes of the LORD are just and rejoice the heart; * the commandment of the LORD is clear and gives light to the eyes.” This is written by someone who loves the law, who finds wisdom and light in the law, and who rejoices in the justice found there. I was just reading an article in an interesting magazine called “Liberty,” in which the authors talked about our assumptions of democracy being the best type of government. They suggested that it might not be, because our democracy is based on a particular philosophy, and without that philosophy, democracy could easily look like the time of the French Revolution – which is not a time we would want to copy. The authors of Liberty are particularly concerned about religious liberty, and how the laws of different nations affect religious liberty for good or ill.

What was so very precious to the Psalmist was that unlike the capricious gods of their neighbors, the Lord had given the law to the people. The result of this was that they knew what to do. This may seem self-evident, but it really is not. We see the results when parents are capricious, bestowing gifts one day and hitting the next. The children are scheming and fearful, unable to tell the truth, and fundamentally unhappy. When the people received the law of Moses given by God to tell the people how to act, that is, what God wanted, there was clarity. We all like this, don’t we? “Oh! you want this from me!” Especially when what the boss wants is something we can do, and it clearly helps us all get along better. Then we want to do it, which is what the Psalmist says in verse 14: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, *O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.

Now we come to First Corinthians 12:12. The Corinthians were not an easy bunch. They got into trouble on all kinds of issues. We know this, because Paul wrote two letters to the Corinthians, trying to knock some sense into their heads, lovingly, of course! In this passage, we first see the response to an issue that is still with us today. It is a fundamental lack of respect for those who have different priorities than we do. Perhaps it is just a lack of respect for the priorities themselves, but that still can create havoc in a church. I can remember being in another church which will remain anonymous, where the music department considered itself the center of the church universe. What Paul says here is helpful: “the members of the body that are weaker are indispensable…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” This is something we can see in larger contexts, and one I struggle with sometimes. Here is what happens: I have a pet project, and I want everyone to jump on board with me – but they don’t! Then, someone else in the diocese has a pet project, and thinks I should spend time and energy on that project. But I do not have enough time to help with this project, and that one and the next! When I pay attention, I can go to that person and say, “Listen, I cannot spend very much time on your project, but I think you are doing good work. Therefore, when you really need me, not just a body, but me, then call and I will come.” That way I am trying to give respect for that person’s priorities.

Paul continues: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Notice that he does not say: You are a body of Christians! In English, this is a very different concept. No, we are the body of Christ, members of the body of Christ. As such, we all have different and important gifts. And then at the end of this passage, he slips this in: “Strive for the greater gifts.” What are the greater gifts? Greater than being a preacher or healer or performer of miracles? He will list these in Cor. 13 which you have heard before and will hear again in a couple of weeks. The greater gifts are faith, hope and love, and the greatest gift is love. The giver of this greatest gift is God, who teaches us how to love by loving us.

So our underlying philosophy is the rule of a legal system that is not only just but also protects the weak, and the greatest gifts to society are faith, hope and love. Now we are ready for the Gospel (Luke 4:14-21) “Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.”

So far, there is nothing very extraordinary. Of course going to the synagogue on the sabbath was his custom! And it was not terribly unusual for a visiting rabbi to go from place to place. The little villages often did not have rabbis, just like little churches in little villages often do not have their own priests. So it is rather exciting when a new one comes to town and has something to say. Jesus clearly has something interesting to say. Now, he comes to his home town. Remember, it is not too long before he says that it is only in one’s own town where a prophet has no honor. But this is the beginning. And what a beginning! “He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“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.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. 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.”

There’s just one problem. That’s not what it says in Isaiah. It has been altered. What we don’t know is whether Jesus altered it, or if Luke did. What we do know is that very soon, in fact, it is right after this, you will hear about it next week, the villagers are so incensed by what he says to them that they take him out to the edge of a cliff to throw him off, and somehow he gets away through the crowd! How does this happen? We don’t know.

What we know is that this is the beginning proclamation of his ministry. And we are the body of Christ. Therefore, this is the beginning proclamation of our ministry.

Hear the Word of the Lord!
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon us,
because he has anointed us
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent us 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.”
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Oh no! This is not about us! This is about Jesus! But Paul is very clear – we have become the body of Christ by virtue of our baptism. Therefore, uh oh, this is about us. Let me read it again.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, upon us! And why? because he has anointed us
to bring good news to the poor. Are we doing that? What good news do we have?
He has sent us 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.”

But dear me! I don’t know any captives, maybe I know someone is blind? the oppressed go free? What is this talking about? If we think about it, we know many people who feel trapped, by money issues, by social issues, by chemical dependency, by abusive family members, all of them captives; we know many people who stumble through life not seeing, not feeling love, totally oppressed. If we think about it, we do know these people. What we have not thought about is that we are the body of Christ, and therefore the Spirit of the Lord is upon us to bring the good news that God loves, even them. And we know that God loves them, because we have gotten the good news ourselves, that God loves us, even us.

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”