by Christian Collins Winn
Interim Teaching Minister
February 2, 2020
Well good morning! It’s great to be with you again today. This is my second time speaking to you, but my first opportunity since joining the staff here at Colonial. My family and I are very excited to be able to join such a vibrant and loving community and we are excited to see where God will lead this community in the coming months and beyond.
As you may remember, we are in the midst of a sermon series called “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood,” which is the rendering of John 1:14 from Eugene Peterson’s Message translation. Over these last weeks, we have been led by Marie, Jeff, and Sara through the first clause in the passage: “The Word became flesh”. Today, I want to speak on what it means that this Word, which has become flesh, moved into the neighborhood.
I must say that I’m not generally a fan of paraphrastic translations of Scripture, because I find that in their attempt to make things in scripture clearer, they often unintentionally obscure what is already difficult or ambiguous in the witness of Scripture. And though the Message isn’t technically a paraphrase, it does sometimes have a similar quality. But I confess, Peterson’s rendering here of the Word “moving into the neighborhood” has really grown on me over the last couple of weeks. I think it’s because it captures and makes more concrete what we might be prone to make more abstract. What I mean is that it’s not just that God or the Word of God took on flesh; that God became one of us; that God engaged in a profound act of solidarity on our behalf—it is the way in which God chose to actualize or make concrete that flesh; that is what makes all the difference. It’s not just that Jesus became human; it’s the kind of human he became. And though I do want to keep in mind here that Jesus was a Jew, from a certain part of Israel, what I am really trying to get at this morning are the contours of his life. What was he about? How did he live out his short life? What seemed to matter most to him? What was the shape of his life? The Word became flesh, and moved, walked, lived, pitched his tent, in our midst. What did that look like? That’s what I want to call our attention to this morning.
To get at this I have chosen as my text what is often called the inaugural sermon of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Now, to be clear, I suppose one could turn to almost any passage in the gospels to get at this question. But I was drawn to this one because I was given a second commission in my sermon today, which is to connect with the Colonial value of risk.
The way that we talk about risk is rightly focused on the risk attendant to being people of faith. Faith itself, in a sense, is a leap. It is a risk to follow after, a fact to which I will return, but there is also something imitative in the risk that God invites us to embrace in becoming people of faith; or rather, people who keep faith. What I mean is the risk that was attendant in Jesus’ own road, on the way that he trod while he sojourned with us. As Catholic theologian James Allison puts it: Jesus’ life “was a living forth into a narrative beset by danger and risk. Even after his birth, . . . conspiracy, treachery and violent rage were the constant background to the One who was coming into the world.”
To get at this sense of danger and conflict, the Gospel of John, in chapter one, speaks about this risk in somewhat placid terms when we hear that the Light of the World, who is Jesus, “shines in the darkness.” Our passage today, in a sense, puts a bit more flesh on those bones, by highlighting both the contours of what Jesus was about, as well as the profound risk that such a life meant, and quite frankly, still means if we really take it seriously.
Now, in the flow of the Gospel of Luke, our scene takes place after a series of events that are meant to establish that Jesus is the messiah, the Spirit bearer and servant of Yahweh. He has been baptized by John, that lonely wild-eyed desert dweller, where he received the Spirit and the acclaim of heaven when a voice declared, “You are my Son, the beloved with you I am well pleased.” He then does battle with the powers of the darkness—the accuser in the desert or wastelands—and in this battle of temptation, has proven himself to be the faithful covenant partner of Yahweh. And now, he has begun to travel through his homeland, the Galilee, where he receives the approbation of the people. He is celebrated. Honestly, if we stopped the story there, I think we would feel like things are really looking up for Jesus.
Unfortunately, things turn sour when Jesus visits his hometown of Nazareth. Luke tells us that Jesus, the faithful Jew, attended synagogue on the Sabbath. From what we can reconstruct, among the many things that happened in synagogue service were a recitation of texts from the Torah and the prophets followed by a sermon. Presumably because of his growing fame or standing in the community (we really don’t know why), Jesus is invited to participate.
He takes a scroll and reads a text from Isaiah: “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.” The passage comes mostly from Isaiah 61, with a minor addition from chapter 58, which in its original context speaks of the end of exile and the final unveiling of the reign of Yahweh. The Isaiah passage is actually a riff on an earlier chapter—Leviticus 25, which outlines what is often called the “Jubilee legislation.” According to that legislation, every 50 years the land was given a Sabbath and no crops were planted; prisoners were to be released; debts were to be forgiven and property was to be returned to those who, out of economic duress or injustice, had been forced to sell their land. In other words, these prescriptions envisioned an enormous social and economic disruption for the purpose of curtailing the negative effects of deliberate injustice or simple misfortune.
In the Isaiah passage, these ideas are used to emphasize the fact that when God’s reign begins, it will be marked by the veritable turning of the world upside-down, or right-side up depending on your perspective. The poor, the destitute, the outsider, the dispossessed, all those whom societies from across history and across the world have deemed unclean, useless, and to be feared will in fact be brought into God’s presence and lifted up. The captives, those imprisoned both because of human justice and injustice, will be released. In other words, in a Jubilee world the normal patterns of acceptance and belonging will be transcended or laid aside.
What a profound vision! And after reading such a passage—and given the acclaim that Jesus has already garnered—is it any wonder that the text tells us that the eyes of all in the synagogue were “fixed on him.” I mean, how could it be otherwise?!
And what is Jesus’ response to this anticipation? “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” What will become clear as we move forward in the gospel of Luke is that in his own person and ministry the kingdom of God is dawning. That what matters to Jesus is to be in solidarity with the wretched of the earth, with “those who have their backs against the wall” to use Howard Thurman’s phrase. This is the good news of God’s reign! So what on earth happens? How is it that by the time we get to the end of the episode we hear that the people in the village are enrage and intent on throwing Jesus off a cliff?
The answer to that question lay in the fact that Jesus’ understanding of the upside-down kingdom of God is going to reach right into the heart of Nazareth. That solidarity with the least of these, means solidarity with the outsider.
Though the townspeople seem initially to respond positively, Jesus appears to know better: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” These statements reveal that the problem that Jesus is dealing with is the presumption of insider status. That the gospel of God’s reign is only good news for insiders. From their perspective, Jesus is the local boy made good; and they expect special treatment. After all, they are Jews to whom the promises were made, and Jesus is one of their own.
Curiously though, when Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61, he leaves out a clause from verse 2 which speaks of the Day of the Lord as “the day of the vengeance of God.” Jubilee certainly means good news, but it also means judgment, the judgment of those who have promoted injustice—and given the illustrations that Jesus brings into the conversation with his neighbors, one can only assume that for them, judgment meant bad news for outsiders, for gentiles.
But for Jesus, the dawning Jubilee will encompass far more than anyone could possibly imagine. To make this point, he refers to two episodes which happen early in the prophetic careers of Elijah and Elisha: “But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” The primary thing that these two illustrations have in common is that they are both examples of God turning to outsiders to give aid, relief, and salvation, before God turns to insiders. And what is more, these are not just any outsiders—they are marginal outsiders, a widow and a leper! Turning to outsiders in such a remarkable way, clearly relativizes the very idea of insider and outsider. In fact, it actually collapses the distinction.
And so the people of Nazareth become enraged and they elect to rid themselves of him by casting him from a cliff. The text tells us in a rather matter-of-fact way that, “he passed through them and went on his way.” The verb poreuomai, translated here as “on his way,” is the same verb that is used to describe Jesus’ determination to go to Jerusalem to confront his fate. The implication, it seems to me, is that the judgment of which Isaiah 61 speaks, which Jesus left out of his recitation, is not altogether removed. No, the judgment which was to fall upon the unjust, the sinners, the godless, and the enemies of God’s people, will now fall upon the messiah himself. For as we follow the gospel story, we know that it is Jesus who will undergo the trial of fire, it is Jesus who will bear the sin of the world and bear it away.
But what does all of this mean? What does it mean that God has walked among us in this way? That God has decided not to be God without us in this way? That God has tied Godself to us in an act of profound solidarity, a solidarity which begins with the liberation of those in bondage, with a turn to those who live in crushing poverty, a turn to those without a place to call home, a turn to those who live lives in cages; a turning, by the way, which does not end, one which eventually will envelop the human community, and persons from every walk of life? To see God move in this way, walk in this way, pitch a tent in this way—is this supposed to leave us unchanged? I think not.
Rather, it calls to us. It calls us to follow after. It calls us to “follow after into the neighborhood.” But fair warning, it we are going to follow after our Lord in this way, we should know that there will some who want to throw us from a cliff.
In 1970, with race riots happening in Los Angeles, New Jersey, Mississippi, and elsewhere, this community made such a move of solidarity. You invited Howard Thurman, one of the icons of the Civil Rights movement, to be one of your summer ministers. He spoke here for three weekends in July. Now, I wasn’t yet alive, and truth be told, I’m not from around here—I’m from North Carolina, so I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of this community. But it doesn’t take much to know that such an invitation, no matter how small it might have been, probably wasn’t universally embraced. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to conceive that there were probably some who would have liked to throw those involved in this act of solidarity off a cliff. Brothers and sisters, it is my prayer that as we move forward we will continue to be a people and a place of such courage—that we will be a people who welcome the chance to have some “skin in the game.” Amen.
Heavenly Father, you who have, who even now, and who will continue to set free the captives, enliven our eyes, energize our bodies and set aflame our hearts that we might be a people who follow after Jesus. Turn us towards this hurting world and fill us with your Spirit that we might work for, and have even in this life, some foretaste of your great Jubilee, when you will set all things right and make all things new. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen!