The Divine Possibility of Today
Luke 4:14-21 (NRSV)
Then 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. 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."
Today’s account of Jesus preaching in the synagogue comes on the heels of Jesus’ post-baptismal experience in the wilderness, where he was tempted with food, power, and security. To each temptation, Jesus steadfastly refused the false promises, privileges and powers of this world. This allowed Jesus to maintain an authentic communing relationship with God the Father. This relationship filled and sustained Jesus with the power of the Spirit. And so, having rejected worldly temptations and being filled with the Spirit, Jesus travelled to synagogues throughout the land to teach people what it meant to have a relationship with God.
Without much detail, scripture tells us that reports about Jesus spread throughout the land and he was praised by everyone. We can only assume that Jesus had been going from synagogue to synagogue with a message similar to the one revealed in today’s gospel, in which Jesus read the words of the prophet Isaiah, who bore God’s promise of good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and “the year of the Lord’s favor.”
As was the custom, after reading the scripture Jesus sat down to teach. He began with a promise: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s all we are given in today’s gospel text and it doesn’t sound like very much to go on. Was that it? Was he just going from one synagogue to another, from one town to another, with the same message that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”?
Yes; and what a radical and beautiful truth that is!
Today is the day the impoverished receive good news.
Today is the day the captives are released.
Today is the day the blind will see.
Today is the day the bonds of oppression loosen.
Today is the day in which everything in existence is infused with the Lord’s favor.
This is a powerful statement by Jesus because it completely shifts the timeline of spiritual expectation. Prior to Jesus’ radical declaration concerning the nowness of God’s promises, people located God’s promises in the past, in how they celebrated festivals dedicated to the stories of their previous deliverance by the Lord; or the located God’s promises in the future, as in someday the poor will receive good news, someday the captives will be released, someday the blind will see, someday the oppressed will be free, and someday will be the year of the Lord’s favor. They attended synagogue in anticipation of that day; they burnt offerings to bring about that day; they followed religious rules and customs in order to be ready for that day.
Remembering God’s active presence in your past is a vital component of spirituality. The hope that someday things will get better is a hope worth holding onto. But these pale in comparison to the hope that today is the day everything changes – the trust that God’s healing and redemptive power is here now.
Pastor Mark recently preached a sermon in which he referenced the “It gets better” campaign aimed at LGBTQ youth. There is beauty in holding out the promise that one day such people will experience the same rights, privileges, and respect that others enjoy. But the promise becomes even more powerful for LGBTQ youth who are treated with the same rights, privileges, and respect that others enjoy today.
Why put off until tomorrow what can be done today? Speaking as a diehard procrastinator who typically suffers an allergic reaction to this motto, it’s hard to deny its importance when it is referencing peoples’ wellbeing. God does not taunt us by dangling promises before us that remain inches beyond our grasp. God’s promises are meant to be realized today.
Jesus read the prophetic promises given to Isaiah by God and had the audacity to demand that their truth be manifest then and there, “in [their] hearing.” No more waiting for God’s promises to come true someday.
Here I’ll pause and give you permission to let that thought in; you know, the one lingering in the back of your mind. That little voice is saying, “Obviously not. Obviously there are poor people who still desperately need to hear good news. The captive, the blind, the oppressed are still here, seemingly everywhere we look. The world has been full of suffering people who were present before, during, and after Jesus walked this earth. Look around, is this really what it looks like to participate in the year of the Lord’s favor?”
If you’re thinking that, you’re not alone, and I respect that you have not buried your head in the sand regarding the reality of our world. Yes, there are people who suffered yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, and they’re still suffering today. But that does not negate the truth that good news, freedom, clarity of vision, and the Lord’s favor are present, active, and accessible today. It simply means that we have some work to do to be the hands and feet of this good news.
In studying today’s text I was reminded by Lutheran professor and pastor David Lose to look to the original Greek language of the text. He says, “as it turns out, the [verb] tense of Jesus’ declaration that ‘the Scripture has been fulfilled’ isn’t the once and done present tense or the singular past tense but rather the ongoing, even repetitive, and definitely re-occurring perfect tense. So Jesus is kind of saying, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled and continues to be fulfilled and will keep being fulfilled and therefore will keep needing to be fulfilled in your presence.’”*
Later in the gospel of Luke Jesus will say, “blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:28). When you look around and rightly recognize the injustice and suffering, the next step is to take God’s promise seriously and get to work on others’ behalf…today!
We are rooted in the soil of God’s promises. That daily reality is the good soil from which we grow and produce the fruits of righteousness. The good news is that we are blessed to participate in the reality of God’s promises that enable us to be good news for the poor, to release the captives, to help the blind see, to break the bonds of oppression, and to share the unconditional promise and reality of the Lord’s favor.
This idea is beautifully captured in the poem, “The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman. I say Amen and encourage you to read and reflect on this poem in a period of silence before we continue or worship with singing.
“The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.