He Sat Down

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | January 23, 2022

Luke 4:14-21

There are times when the less that is said the better.

Toward the start of his public work Jesus read scripture one day during a worship service. The reading was from the book of Isaiah. He read –

“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 prisoners go free,

          to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he said, “Today in your hearing this Scripture is fulfilled.” Then he sat down. It was a short sermon.

He said a lot in a few words. The power of those few words was emphasized in the four-word commentary on his short sermon – then he sat down. He knew when enough was said.

Sometimes when we think of the words that we usually apply to a situation, we realize that even though they might apply, there is a certain sense that our words are inadequate. Truth, yes, but somehow lacking in any real power to change things. Yet truth that needs to be spoken; but spoken with care.

We see a great contrast between the ideal and the real. We see this gap between the ideal of our hopes and dreams and the real of everyday lives. For example, God loves you, but disaster may strike at any moment. The fact that God loves you doesn’t prevent bad things from happening.

One day I received word that one of my parishioners, a woman in her twenties, a wife and mother, had died from a heroin overdose. I went to the tenement where the family lived. Her husband was there, along with two of the children. I knew the six-year-old daughter from my work at the primary school.

The husband of the woman who died was a wreck. His part of the conversation did not give me a lot to go on. We managed to get some grasp of what he wanted for the funeral, but it was more or less him telling me, “You do what you think is best.”

Before I left, the girl I knew from school showed me a drawing she was working on. It was a picture of her mum with flowers and birds and sunshine. She said she hoped that her mum could see from up in heaven and would like it. I told her that I was sure her mother loved it.

I left that place thinking about all the odds stacked up against that family and those children who lost their mother; wondering about how they would grow up and what their chances would be to grow up happy and successful. She was such a happy girl at school. I wondered how long that would last.

What would I possibly have to say that would in any way help that situation? There didn’t seem to be any words and still I was thinking, somebody really needs to do something. But what? What was the possible truth for that situation? What could anyone do? What could I do? When we are confronted with need, we want to do something; something real that makes a difference. But what?

There’s a story in the gospel of Luke that sets the stage for the ministry of Jesus. If we were to describe Jesus as he is portrayed in Luke, we might say he is “Jesus the revolutionary.” His mission was to confront people in their attitudes and turn people and systems around. People don’t always appreciate it when someone tries to do that. Jesus was no exception.

Jesus began his ministry quietly. He would travel from village to village, talking with people he met. As a teacher, or rabbi, he would often speak in the synagogue. The synagogue was the center of village life. It was the place that defined every community.

During worship, any Jewish male could read from the Scripture, and if he chose to, comment on what he read. People tended to enjoy Jesus. They said he spoke with authority. Sometimes the teachers would just give a standard interpretation of a text, quoting scholars that people had heard a dozen times before. Jesus spoke from his own authority and he gave his own interpretations, which tended bring God down to earth for people. He made God seem real in everyday life.

One time he was in his hometown and when the people gathered for worship Jesus read a passage from the book of Isaiah. It was a familiar passage:

“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 prisoners go free,

          to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

If he had followed his reading with a story or something like, “This is our mission in life,” people probably would have nodded their agreement and nothing more would come of it. But he said something quite to the contrary of their expectations. He said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” And then he sat down.

I appreciate that he said that what he came to do has already been fulfilled. There is so much pressure on us sometimes to go out and “save” the world. But only God can enact salvation. Our job is to reflect what God has done. Our job is to embody God’s purpose.

But “how?” is always the question. Jesus does not offer any suggestions here. He doesn’t say, “What you need to do is start a revolution. Throw off the oppressors!”

He doesn’t say, “What you need to do is go out there and get people to make a decision for Christ!”

He simply says, “Today in your hearing, this Scripture is fulfilled.”

I’ve always been told there is plenty that we can and should do if we want to be good followers of Jesus. We describe what we do in terms of western business models. We use terms such as, “Mission Strategy,” or “Stewardship Campaign,” or “Church Program” to provide some framework to our identity.

If anyone asks, “What do you do?” it can feel like another way of asking, “What good are you?” because if you aren’t “doing” something then you have no real value. We can point to our “strategy” or “campaign” or “program.” This is what we do – this is who we are.

When Jesus said, “This Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” what did he then do? He sat down. He made the most monumental announcement that people could have hoped for, that God’s intention for humanity was here and now, and then he simply sat down. He didn’t ask for any signs of agreement or commitment. He didn’t have the ushers hand out pledge cards. He didn’t present a ten-point plan on fulfilment. Just, ‘amen’ sit down and now what?

One of the ways I’ve struggled with this Jesus story over the years is by wrestling with the compelling notion that we always have to do something about it. Yet the words fulfilled as he spoke them are about being as much as about doing.

As we allow our actions to grow out of our sense of identity – not to act as obligation, but to act in response to our core identity – then we discover what God has already fulfilled in us.

At the funeral of the woman who died of a heroin overdose I spoke some words of hopeful truth. I can’t say how they were heard, but they were spoken nonetheless – 

“We might give up on ourselves. We might lose hope in life itself. Even when we do, God never gives up on us. No matter how far down we might get into the pit of despair, we can’t get lower than the depth of God’s love. Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.

Life can get pretty nasty sometimes. There’s too much pain and more suffering than anyone deserves. So what does it matter? If nothing else, it matters to God. It matters to God because we matter. No matter what. If God’s love were any other way, then it would be no love at all. How does that change anything? Sometimes not a lot, but not a lot is sometimes all it takes to make all the difference. 

Jesus said that in his Father’s house there are many rooms. Many rooms for all the children who eventually make their way home. Some of them are a little worse for wear. Some of them are beat up and battered and fairly broken in heart and soul and when they get there. Some of them get there before their time.  But there’s a room, there’s a place, there’s a home filled with a love that never ends.

I don’t know what became of the girl who was six years old when her mother died. She would be her twenties now. Life being what life is, one can only hope. God being who God is, one can only hope.

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Amen.

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