The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me: Ministry in Luke, part 2

Much has been made lately of a “king Jesus” gospel that turns the focus of the biblical drama to the kingdom of God, along with Jesus’ lordship over that kingdom. This makes saving faith for some commenters more a matter of allegiance than trust. Will we be loyal subjects of the king? The emphasis on Jesus’ lordship related to the kingdom is not wrong as clearly the gospels and other NT texts make connections between Jesus and David. Luke clearly does as well. But I want to suggest that this is not the primary way that the gospel writers in particular want us to think of Jesus. In Luke, the majority of the biblical allusions refer not to David, but to Moses, Elijah, Daniel, an indication that Jesus is fundamentally the prophet of God.

So, for Luke and the other gospel writers, Jesus is not so much a king-prophet as a prophet-king. And I think this distinction is an important one. The most problematic aspect of Israel’s faith was what Brueggemann refers to as the “royal consciousness,” the idea that the crown and the temple are inviolable, which inevitably allows those in power to ignore the poor and needy. The persistent form of “royal consciousness” in Christian history, particularly in the West, is triumphalism. The “king Jesus” gospel just invites these vulnerabilities to be foregrounded.

The antidote to the royal consciousness has always been the prophetic voice, and in Luke this is the primary form the ministry of Jesus takes. The gospel in Luke is good news for the poor, the lowly being lifted up and the powerful being pulled down from their thrones. In Luke Johnson’s words, we have a prophetic Jesus and a prophetic church.

As in all the gospels, the meaning of the whole story turns on the death and resurrection. The gospel writers do not leave us with a single interpretation of Jesus’ death, but give us four distinct pictures. Luke’s portrayal ties the significance of Jesus’ death to the death of the prophets that came before him. His death is the prophetic sign of his ministry.

At a strategic moment in Luke’s gospel, after having already predicted his death on two occasions, Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). A few chapters later he offers a lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (13:34). This lament over Jerusalem matches woes he delivers to the Pharisees in 11:37-52. Here, at the conclusion of a string of woes, Jesus implicates them in the killing of God’s prophets from “Abel to Zechariah.”

“Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation” (11:47-52).

In setting his face to Jerusalem, then, Jesus is clearly aligning his death with the “blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world,” for which “this generation”” will be held responsible. The judgement against “this generation” finds an echo in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. After calling the crowd to repentance and baptism, “he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’” (Acts 2:40). Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection in Luke clearly has something to do with this identification with the righteous who have suffered unjustly throughout history. His own death at the hands of those within this generation will pull back the curtain on all that has gone before.

The cross is not merely atonement for personal sin in Luke. It’s not personal guilt that Jesus is concerned about in Luke 11 or that Peter is in Acts 2. The problem is much bigger than personal guilt. The problem is the way the world works. The problem is that God keeps sending prophets and the world as it is arranged keeps killing them.

At the climax of the scenes related to Jesus’ trial, Luke makes it clear that his killing is a group effort. “Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people,” he reports. This is bigger than the decision of an evil person or group of people. The momentum that leads to Jesus’ death sentence feels more like a social contagion. This
is underlined by Pilate’s repeated findings of Jesus’ innocence. Four times, including three in this climactic scene, Pilate finds “no grounds for sentencing him to death” (23:4,14,22). But the crowd is unmoved by Pilate’s finding and shouts over him, “Crucify him!” They prefer that Pilate release Barabbas, a convicted insurrectionist and murderer. This is a lynching. An innocent man, an unruly mob, complicit authorities, all overcome by a certain social momentum.

Trading Jesus for Barabbas makes no sense from a public safety standpoint. The crucifixion of Jesus is not about justice or safety, but unmasks a deeper motivation to maintain social control and cohesion. Though Pilate finds nothing in Jesus to sentence him to death, he gives in to the crowd’s desire to crucify him, conceivably to avoid the social unrest that might come if he refused. More, Luke reports that one result of the series of interrogations that Jesus faces is “(T)hat same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (23:12). Herod, Pilate, the chief priests, and the people all find a place of unity in the violent death of Jesus. The killing of Jesus has kept, and even made, an unholy peace.

The thing about belonging to a way of being in the world that keeps the peace through violence is that the victims need to stay dead. Jesus knew this. His woes against the Pharisees and lawyers seem to indicate this. He compares the Pharisees “to unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it” (11:44). He seems to be saying that their surface observance of the law obscures the neglect of deeper matters related to justice. Their piety, in this case, covers death. The words with which Jesus condemns the lawyers, however, makes the point more directly. The lawyers build tombs for the prophets whom their ancestors killed. This might have two interpretations. One interpretation which is supplied by the text is that by building the tombs, they approve of the activity of their ancestors. I think the implication of Jesus’ words, however, runs deeper. They are honoring these whom they have unjustly killed, blunting the offense of the violence, burying it, literally. They are using the deaths of the prophets as propaganda for the very system that killed them.

I can’t help thinking of the monuments and streets and commemorations made in our day for prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. The very system that builds monuments to him, still suppresses minority voting, incarcerates young black men at appallingly high rates, and pro- vides limited access to quality schooling and housing. King is publicly championed as advocating that people be judged, not by their race, but by the content of their character. Suppressed are his attitudes about war and poverty and systemic racism. In this way, the monuments serve as propaganda for the very system that killed him. I think something like this is what Jesus has in mind in Luke 11.

The inconvenient matter in the killing of Jesus, however, is that he didn’t stay dead. He refused to be a monument or a street name. The amazing scene of Acts 2:1-4, including a violent wind and tongues of fire, is explained by Peter as the result of God having raised this Jesus from the dead. The remarkable thing from Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is the offer of peace to those complicit in the death of Jesus. “Repent and be baptized everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins might be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, and your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39). Jesus offers peace, not through scapegoating or retributive violence, but through the giving of his own life that pulls back the curtain on the myth of redemptive violence, showing it for what it is–injustice. More, the risen Jesus offers life under a different power than that offered by the rulers of this “corrupt generation” who rule at the end of a sword. Jesus offers instead the Holy Spirit, power for a life that makes peace in a way other than control, coercion, and state sanctioned violence.

Jesus lives and performs his ministry in the power of the Spirit. The same Spirit that animated the prophets before him, rests on him and marks him as God’s anointed one. His death serves as a prophetic sign against those in power, the rulers of this age and the corrupt of this generation. His death makes it plain that the killing of the prophets before him, those who stood on behalf of the poor against rulers and powers, is unjust and noticed by God. His resurrection is the sign that the power of the Spirit is among the poor, lifting up the lowly, and creating bonds of solidarity–a new community– beyond the power of rulers and kings.

In the next post, I want to write a little about how some of the parables function in Luke to give us surprising insight into who Jesus is and what his ministry entails.

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A eunuch rolls into a graduation ceremony on a chariot…

This sermon was preached by my colleague, Natalie Magnusson, at our graduation service for MRE graduates this past Saturday. Natalie is the Assistant Director of the MRE and has led our students in their pursuit of God-centered Identity through the use of a cohort Rule of Life. I asked if I could post her sermon on this blog for two reasons. First, it’s just a great sermon. Second, she began not with the topic, “graduation sermon,” but by taking a text from this week’s lectionary readings. Beginning there, she did a masterful job listening to both the text and our learning context to sound just the right notes for the day. Through intertextual echoes, she performed the text on the stage of commencement. To all preachers, go and do likewise.

Acts 8:26-40

An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This might just be the first commencement ceremony ever to feature an Ethiopian eunuch! In typical MRE fashion, however, it seems fitting to call our attention to a stranger. To be compelled by the Spirit to run after and to be hosted by this stranger… 

The Spirit of God is wasting no time here in the book of Acts and is bringing Jesus’ final words into fulfillment, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Just before our encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, the persecution and scattering of the church in Jerusalem begins. We find Philip in Samaria proclaiming the gospel to a group of Jews who are considered impure. The Samaritans are not welcomed in the center of traditional Jewish life and worship, yet God welcomes them in, and they too receive the Holy Spirit! The inclusion of the Samaritans prepares us for what is next… 

An angel of the Lord sends Philip and us to the south. Luke makes sure that we know this is not the Santa Monica Freeway or the Dallas North Tollway. This is a wilderness road…more like an abandoned road in Nebraska. A road that feels like we’ve reached the ends of the earth. So we are surprised to see off in the distance another traveler on the road! As we approach closer, we are even more surprised to discover that this chariot is a royal chariot from a faraway land, a Lamborghini driving along the bumpy backroads of Indiana. The passenger is none other than an Ethiopian eunuch in charge of the queen’s treasury. While his royal duties no doubt offer him a significant social status, it comes with a price. In order to protect the wealth and the power of the queen, he has been castrated. His body has been mutilated for the sake of the crown. So…we are surprised to hear that he has just been in Jerusalem to worship, as Jewish law clearly excludes eunuchs from entering the temple! Why travel all that way to be barred from entry? Why read the holy scriptures of a religion that has closed you out? Yet this tension is the exact place in the narrative where the Spirit of God compels Philip and us to run, not walk, but to run to the eunuch.

His body has been mutilated for the sake of the crown…I can’t help but think of other bodies in our world who are mutilated and exterminated for the sake of the powers that be. The words, “I can’t breathe…” come to mind….Or the countless indigenous peoples who have been annihilated or removed from native lands, often by the hands of Christians. Or the African bodies that have been enslaved and exchanged as commodities for the sake of deepening the imperial, and then later, colonial purse, once again, often by the hands of Christians. Or the bodies of marginalized women around the world who are often sterilized without consent, forced to make our goods in sweat-shops, and trafficked as pawns in the sex industry. Or the bodies of Mexican and Central and South American children who are separated from their parents at the border for the sake of US immigration policy and control. Or the bodies of our transgender neighbors who are used in a large game of partisan politics. Or the Black bodies who continue to be brutalized and incarcerated at alarming rates for the sake of asserting white superiority. Sadly, these are no exaggerations…these are not mirages of chariots on the horizon. Human bodies continue to be treated as objects to be controlled and then humiliated and excluded based off of the narratives and rules we have assigned them. Those of us of privilege or in power have arranged, or at least participate in, a no-win situation. For those of us who literally hold the keys of our churches, we toss and turn at night wondering why people do not want to step foot in our doors. But maybe what we’re learning here is it’s not about getting people into our doors. Maybe it’s about running instead…

So as we find ourselves running headlong towards the chariot, we start to feel anxious about what’s next. Do we fumble around for our church’s brochure that features activities in which this eunuch couldn’t participate or feel comfortable? Do we anxiously scroll through our brains to find the top three evangelistic points to preach to an unlikely convert? Or my favorite, Do we wave from a distance and wish him the best in finding a community that is a good fit? Thankfully Philip and the Spirit have been at this longer than us. No anxious or awkward moves needed, unless you take running up alongside a chariot as awkward! We take our cue from Philip’s openness to the eunuch to appear on his own terms. Rather than acting out of assumptions and unloading all of his evangelistic zeal on the eunuch, Philip opens space so that the eunuch may express his particular needs and invite Philip to join him…to sit beside him. Philip’s Jewish upbringing has the potential to trigger fear and disgust in him, yet he chooses to risk close proximity. Philip could have asked the eunuch to stop his chariot and meet with him on his terms in the safety of the wide-open road. Instead, Philip, and us along with him, climb into the space of a reasonably friendly looking stranger, the space of one who has been degraded and shamed. The eunuch is now the host, and we find ourselves dwelling together in the ancient words of Isaiah.

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asks, “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?” Having just been in Jerusalem as Saul is ravaging the church, it is likely the eunuch has heard rumblings of a man named Jesus who was led to the slaughter. There is a chance he might already be starting to connect the dots from this Isaiah text to Jesus. He possibly has Jesus in mind as the “someone else,” but I wonder…if he’s holding out hopes that he too might be able to find himself in the “someone else.” The eunuch has also been silenced, humiliated, denied justice, and had his life taken away from him for the sake of the powers that be. 

We’re not sure if the eunuch has opened his scroll wider and skipped ahead in Isaiah in order to read Isaiah’s proclamation about eunuchs. It says:

…do not let the eunuch say,
   ‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
   who choose the things that please me
   and hold fast my covenant…
I will give them an everlasting name
   that shall not be cut off.”

Philip no doubt has read this part of Isaiah. Luke has read it. The hearers of Acts have heard it. We have read it. The good news of Jesus that Philip proclaims is the good news of the eunuch being welcomed fully into the household of God! The good news is that the narrative, the role-centered identity, that others have written about the eunuch is not the end of the story. Just as the mutilated lamb of God has been raised up, the eunuch is being and will be made new in the eschatological redemption and resurrection of our bodies. He will no longer be cut off in body and from community, and God is already welcoming him in as he is. Humiliation and injustice do not have the last word in the kingdom of God.

The Ethiopian is so overcome in response to this good news, that he is compelled to find water for baptism! I find it striking that Luke phrases it this way, “both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away.” Of course, we could say that Luke is using the word “both” because Philip needs to get into the water to baptize the eunuch. But I think Luke is conveying something more here. It seems as though Philip and the eunuch have both experienced a conversion moment of sorts. Philip flashes back to those moments of his past when he has participated in forbidding eunuchs and others from entering into the house of God. Philip, too, is overwhelmed on this wilderness road with the expansive love of God. The kind of love that will run after a eunuch!

Perhaps you find yourself most in the Ethiopian eunuch. For much of your life you have felt taken advantage of, silenced, and excluded for the sake of those who seek to maintain control and supremacy. Opportunities and life have been taken from you because of things you cannot control, such as your gender, race, ethnicity, or physicality. You have had a yearning for God and for full participation in the people of God, but you have not known how to get past the key holders. You are so weary from the exclusion that you are about ready to give up. Today God runs after you in this wilderness space and is hosted by your curiosity, longings, and welcome. The God who was also humiliated and denied of justice sits beside you and listens attentively to your own humiliation and denial of justice. God welcomes you in a way you’ve never been welcomed before, and you go on your way rejoicing in your new vocation of hospitality. 

Or perhaps you find yourself in Philip or being called into the life of Philip. You are being sent away from familiar surroundings and spaces of comfort. The church is no longer as you’ve known it. It feels scattered. The Spirit keeps pressing you into encounters with people you once did everything possible to avoid. You are discovering that the welcome of God can occur in the wildest of spaces and in the people whom you think have nothing to offer. In fact, you are realizing that the very people churches have most often excluded, because of their bodies, are the ones who are displaying the openness, curiosity, and welcome of Christ. You find yourself sitting alongside and listening to the voices of those you’ve sought your whole life to silence. You are humbled and feel the power of the Holy Spirit baptizing you into the embracing life of the Triune God all over again. 

Some of you might be afraid I’m doing an altar call and that we’re about to wheel up a baptismal tub right here and now! That would certainly be an eventful way to end our time together in the MRE! As much fun as that would be, my hope is that through this narrative the Spirit is compelling each of us to run after and sit beside any person who has been silenced or taken advantage of for the sake of control. That we will have the humility to repent of the ways we have participated in exclusion and trust the Spirit who leads us into wilderness spaces, spaces that seem abhorrent to us. May our eyes become attuned to the lamb of God who is most apparent in those who have been humiliated and denied of justice. And may we choose not to look away but instead choose to risk close proximity. As graduates of the MRE, may you go forth from here continuing to yield to the Spirit of God and find yourself always hosted by the stranger.  

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The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me: Ministry in Luke

In the opening scene of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke, he preaches in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. There he receives the scroll opened to the prophet Isaiah 61 and proclaims the “year of the Lord’s favor.” In doing so, he announces the end of exile and the coming of God’s reign. The signs of that reign are that the poor have good news preached to them, the captives find liberty, the blind receive their sight, and the oppressed find escape from their oppression (Lk 4:16-21).

This list of beneficiaries of the year of the Lord’s favor found in Luke 4, correspond in important ways to those already marked as favored ones in Luke’s opening chapters. We meet Zechariah and Elizabeth in the opening chapter, a devout, but barren couple who receive the surprising news that they will have a son who will prepare the way for the Lord’s anointed. In the ancient world, childlessness was not only a sign of a lack of God’s favor, but also a condition that was believed to be the fault of the woman who bore the shame of the circumstance. This is indicated in Elizabeth’s response to her being with child, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked upon me with favor and took away the shame I have endured among my people” (1:25).

When the angel of the Lord appears to Mary just a few verses later, he greets her as a “favored one,” and she was “perplexed by his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (1:28-29). A young teenage girl from Galilee had likely never considered herself “favored,” but now she is being addressed by a messenger of God as a “favored one.”

When Mary and Elizabeth meet subsequently, Mary breaks into “song,” “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (1:47-48). God’s favor is shown in relation to Mary’s low estate, which is then echoed in the verses that follow: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:51-53). God’s favor is with Mary, the lowly, and the hungry.

A chapter later, in the birth account of Jesus, an announcement is made by an angel surrounded by glory to a group of lowly shepherds watching their flocks by night. “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (2:10-11). At the announcement the angel is joined by a heavenly host, praising God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!

These early stories in Luke set the tone for understanding the movement of God in establishing his reign–the way the world looks when God does the arranging. Here, the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, the lowly and hungry, a barren woman, a teenage girl, and lowly shepherds are favored by God. They are exalted by God, and the proud and those with power and privilege are brought low. As many have pointed out, the kingdom of God in Luke brings great reversals as God sets things to right.

Later in Luke, Jesus demonstrates in practical terms what this reversal looks like. When hosted for a banquet at the home of a Pharisee in chapter 14, Jesus calls out their banquet practices. “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the cripples, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (14:12-14). This looks a lot like the reversals we have seen previously in Luke. What is imagined here is an economy that doesn’t work on favor currying and reciprocity, but on the blessing of God who rewards at the resurrection of the righteous.

At this point, one of the guests no doubt offended by Jesus’ words, exclaims, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” This is surely the equivalent to responding to “Black lives matter,” with “All lives matter!” Jesus has just defined who has priority in God’s kingdom, the “favored” list we have seen before. Poor lives matter. Overlooked lives matter. Lowly lives matter. Blind lives matter. Crippled lives matter. To which the response of privilege is “All are blessed who eat bread in the kingdom of God.”

All of this leads Jesus to tell a parable in which the rich and too important are left on the outside looking in when the great dinner bell rings in the kingdom of God and room is made only for the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind (14:16-24).

Simply put, in Luke the kingdom privileges those who are left out or overlooked in other kingdoms. Another way to say this is that those without power belong to God, and in the experience of an alternate form of power.

In Luke, Jesus ministers by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him. He is not, to use Charles Taylor’s language, a buffered self, or an autonomous, self possessing, rugged individual. He belongs not to those who can make their own way in the world through their cunning and resource. Rather, like the poor, he relies on power that he doesn’t possess, but a power that is given to him. In Luke’s story of Jesus, the rulers whose use of power killed the prophets from “Abel to Zechariah” is ultimately no match for the power of the Spirit. While the powers of kings and rulers include imprisonment, taxation, even capital punishment–powers of death, the power of the Spirit raises up the lowly and creates communities of sharing and care–the power of life.

To say that the “Spirit of the Lord is upon me” is to evoke the legacy of the prophets and their advocacy for the poor. Next blog, I will notice Jesus’ identification with the prophets, particularly in his death.

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Scribes Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven: Ministry in Matthew, Part 3

One last bit of reflection on Matthew before I move on to Luke. I want to begin with an observation I made at the beginning of this “series” related to the gospels and churches. If you believe, as seems obvious, that the gospels were occasional writings, (that is stories of Jesus suited for specific churches and their actual pastoral needs) then it’s important to think about the significance of using a narrative to address specific church problems. After all, a narrative is fairly indirect. So, a gospel wouldn’t function the way a handbook would or even a pastoral letter with specific advice. I think there are times when the narrator steps out of the narrative to make an unmistakable point, or when Jesus speaks directly to a situation that everyone in the audience recognizes. More often, though, a gospel invites participants into the experience of an unfolding drama so as to remake the world in which they are trying to make gospel sense of things.

While gospels are more indirect, they are also full of greater possibility. Our experiences with novels and movies tells us that there is always more meaning to be gleaned in subsequent viewings or readings. Poetry and narratives are particularly porous, carrying within their forms a surplus of meaning. Some of this meaning is undoubtedly intended by the author who leaves clues for interpretation along the way. But some of this surplus meaning is supplied by the reader. As a would-be author, I have been surprised by the ways things I have written have been interpreted, and not in ways that I felt were wrong, but in ways that suggested that there was more meaning in what I wrote than what was apparent to me.

This notion of a surplus of meaning is important to understanding Scripture as a living word, one that can speak beyond its context to new audiences while generating meanings never imagined by the author. These meanings are not indeterminate because the documents have specific words used within a specific literary and theological context. But they can produce meanings beyond what the author intended.

I’ve rambled a bit here to say that the narrative form has hermeneutical significance. That is, narratives produce an expansive imagination not created by other forms of literature, like a driver’s handbook, or an order of worship, or my wife’s shopping list. Narratives tend to be more evocative and less prescriptive. The gospel writers seem to understand that ministry is an interpretative art and not so much en exacting science.

In the last post, I discussed how Jesus’ approach to Scripture was more open than closed. Both Jesus’ key hermeneutical clue,”I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and the formula “you have heard it said…, but I say to you” are expansive, pushing beyond the letter and deeper into the demands of the love of God and neighbor. The interpretation of Scripture is not primarily self-referential, Scripture in that sense being a closed universe of meanings. Rather, Scripture is interpreted in light of the actual conditions of the lives of people.

“Scribes (interpreters) trained for the kingdom of heaven are those who take from their storehouse both treasure old and treasure new” (13:52). In other words, they don’t just apply the old to the new, but they value both the old and the new as opportunities for the living God to be known. This interpretative approach to the faith, one that is open to the new as well as the old, keeps faith from being reduced only to certain, safe performances of the tradition. Those who look to Matthew as a recipe for living as a “people of the book,” will also find themselves open to the new, and as a result, open to mission in God’s world.

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Scribes Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven: Ministry in Matthew, Part 2

One reader of my last blog post lamented that I left you hanging. I suggested that scribal communities are sometimes fairly insular or defensive when it comes to mission. They live deeply in the alternative world of Scripture as a way to avoid the world in front of them. Matthew seems to avoid this temptation, I suggest, and promised I would explore why that was the case. Truth be told, I was working on a hunch and didn’t have much more to say at that moment. But I’ve thought about it more and think I have some things to say.

Let me begin by stating a commitment I have in terms of the word “missional.” For me, the word missional points less to a view of the church or a list of activities that might make one missional, and points more to the new era in which we live. We are not in Kansas any more and now have more of a missionary engagement within our own cultural settings. We can no longer assume that we are at the centers of cultural power and influence, and will have to learn a more apostolic way of being God’s people in a de-centered space. This is good new for the world and for the church. The legacy of mission within the realities of Christendom was too often colonialism. When the church is at the center of societal power, it is easy to confuse its own cultural expression of Christianity as normative. Taking Western civilization and Christianity are easily confused. “Missional,” in my estimation, is an attempt to define the God-church-world relationship in a way that resists colonialism.

A big part of keeping the church from identifying its particular form with the presence of God in the world is to work within open structures. For instance, I think it’s fair to say that Western theology had an over-realized eschatology. The kingdom of God wasn’t coming, it was here in the form of the church. Trinitarian views of God were largely ignored, especially social trinitarian views in which the communal nature of God was also open to the world. Salvation was viewed as a transaction between God and the individual, ignoring the larger views of salvation in Scripture that involve a coming new creation. I could go on here, but the point is that theological notions that tend toward closure, that are not open to the ongoing work of the coming and living God, tend to support a more colonial practice of mission.

The same is true for Scripture. If you think of Scripture as a complete statement of what it means to be God’s people for all time in every place, then there’s little need to pay attention to your world in which God might still be active. You end up defending the gains of the past instead of living creatively in the dynamics of Word and world. Scripture becomes the final word, a closed system, not the first word that pulls you deeper into the realities of God and neighbor. Matthew, I believe, sees being a people of the Word in this latter sense.

Let me reiterate that in Matthew Jesus is committed to a certain performance of Scripture. He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and not a jot or a tittle will pass away until all is accomplished. Both Jesus and the Pharisees, however, realize that Scripture has to be interpreted in light of Israel’s new circumstances, circumstances very different from the ones in which they originated. In the previous post, we have already noted that Jesus reads Scripture with a priority of mercy over sacrifice. I think it’s safe to say that the way of mercy is more open-ended than the path of sacrifice. After all, Peter asks, “how often should I forgive, seven times?” Seventy seven times is Jesus’ response, in other words, an option that never seeks closure.

But I think the clearest place this might be seen is in 5:21-48, the section in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus contrasts traditional teaching (You have heard it was said) with the way of the kingdom (but I say unto you). “You have heard it said, you shall not murder (closure)…, but I say to you that if you are angry with your brother is sister… (open)” (5:21-22). In each case, Jesus pushes beyond the traditional teaching in such a way that the hearer is pulled deeper into the “exceeding righteousness” of the kingdom, deeper into the life of God and neighbor. This more demanding way is so because it can’t be reduced to a set of rules or precedents. The kingdom is a coming reality that requires ongoing discernment. This is how I understand Jesus’ invitation to be “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48). It is less a destination and more a call to continuously be drawn into the life of God and neighbor.

This call to a deeper commitment to God and neighbor, however, is a gentle yoke and light burden precisely because the God who stands behind it all is merciful. Jesus seems to be suggesting that the way of mercy makes us into the kind of people who demonstrate the exceeding righteousness. These are the people who can be trusted with the authority of heaven. And at the risk of another cliff hanger, that will be the focus of the next post.

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Ministry in Matthew: Scribes Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven

At the very center of Matthew’s gospel we find parables on the kingdom of Heaven. It is the third of five sections of Jesus’ teaching which end with the phrase, “When Jesus had finished saying these things” (We will return to this momentarily). At the conclusion of the parables, Jesus asks the disciples if they have understood what he has said. Unlike Mark, where the disciples are full of misunderstanding, in Matthew they reply that they have understood. Jesus responds with what I take to be the pastoral intention of the gospel: I tell you the truth, a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is one who brings from his storehouse both treasure old and treasure new.” Reading Matthew, we are looking for scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew’s community is a scribal community. That is, they are a people of the book. Let me see if I can demonstrate this claim a few ways. First, Jesus’ opponents in Matthew are limited to the scribes and do not include Pharisees, nor the Sadducees or Herodians, or any other opponents that appear in the other gospels. This may indicate a date after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, when Jewish groups like the Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes are no longer viable, leaving only Christians and Pharisees. At the very least we can say that Matthew arranges the story as a conflict between Pharisees and Jesus, the Pharisees a group that defines itself around a certain performance of Torah. They too, are a people of the book. In many ways, Jesus is presented in Matthew as a more faithful interpreter of Torah.

In Matthew, Jesus is Israel’s prophet and teacher. He is like Moses, but greater. Matthew tells the story of Jesus in ways that call to mind Moses’ story. Like Moses, the infant Jesus is threatened by a king who kills all male children of a certain age. Like Moses, Jesus comes up out of Egypt. Jesus’ first act in his public ministry is to bring God’s word from a mountain. There are five teaching discourses in Matthew, all ending with the phrase, “after Jesus finished saying these things…” (8:1, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1), reminding us of the five books of Moses. In Matthew 23, Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees as “those who sit on Moses’ seat,” but there is little doubt that Jesus is a greater teacher of Israel than Moses.

Remember, right off the bat, Jesus declares that he has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He claims that unless “your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you can not enter the kingdom of God.” A deliberate echo of these texts is found in the final discourse in Mt 23. While Jesus’ disciples are not to imitate what those “who sit on Moses’ seat do,” they are to pay attention to what they teach. Unlike Jesus, these teachers lock people out of the kingdom of God and do not enter themselves. While Jesus’ burden is light and his yoke is easy, those who sit on Moses’ seat tie on heavy burdens and don’t lift a finger to help people bear them.

This is the where the battle line is drawn in Matthew, and, at its core, the difference between Jesus and the Pharisees is how they perform Scripture.

Two stories demonstrate the difference in how the Scriptures are being performed differently by Jesus and the Pharisees. Both stories are carried over from Mark nearly verbatim, highlighting Matthew’s editorial hand. In the first (9:9-13), the calling of Levi, Matthew departs from a verbatim use of the same story in Mark at only one point, adding a quotation from the prophets, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” (9:13). The second is the story of the disciples plucking grain on the sabbath (12:1-8), immediately following Jesus’ saying about his burden being easy and his yoke light. Again, this is a story that follows Mark’s version closely, but here we have three new elements. First, only Matthew tells us that the disciples were hungry, highlighting there need. Second, in Mark, Jesus refutes the Pharisees’ understanding using one scriptural citation. In Matthew there are two, highlighting that Jesus is a better interpreter of Scripture. Third, we have the repeat of the prophetic refrain, “had you known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (12:7).

This impulse, “mercy, not sacrifice,” is something of a hermeneutical lens for Jesus that produces a very different performance of Scripture. The story of plucking grain on the sabbath seems to function as a kind of case study in “binding and loosing,” a theme unique to Matthew. The scene of Peter’s confession of Jesus in Matthew 16 includes the saying, “whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.” This saying occurs again in chapter 18 in the context of going to your brother who has sinned against you. The authority to bind and loose is Jesus’ own, “for where two or three of you are gathered in my name, I am there with you” (18:20). This is an echo of the beginning of the gospel and the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, and a foreshadowing of the end, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The significance of binding and loosing rests in the need to apply Scripture authoritatively in circumstances other than those in which it was written. How much of Scripture is binding? How much is not? How do we determine the difference? The answer in Matthew seems to be found in the prophetic utterance, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

The space of a blog keeps me from fully exploring this theme here, but suffice it to say it runs throughout the gospel. (You can find more here: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol16/iss4/6/)

The issue for a textually inscribed people is aversion to the world, and, therefore, a defensive view of mission. Scripture can become an alternative and ideal world that gives us permission to disengage from the less than ideal in which we live. Yet, Matthew seems to avoid this temptation. We’ll examine why in the next post.

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Learning with others when we’re disoriented

In my previous post, I wrote about the possibility of adaptive change when our sense of normal has been disrupted, as has happened due to the pandemic. Paying attention to our circumstances in the right kinds of ways might very well lead to discerning God’s calling on our lives in our new circumstance.

Still, even if we’re alert and asking the right kinds of questions, new possibilities can be difficult to see because we carry so many assumptions related to how we’ve done things in the past. Heifetz and Linski remind us that the ways we do things come from somewhere, and to move away from those practices seems disloyal. So, even if we’re willing to take risks, there are other emotional forces that make this kind of work difficult.

It helps when we’re in situations like this to learn with others, other leaders, other congregations, other organizations. It’s not so much that the “other” is going to have the solution to our problems, though we may learn valuable things to imitate from time to time. It’s more that learning with others gives us more perspective, more distance on ourselves. When I consult with groups of congregations, its often the case that they learn more about themselves from observing others than they do through self-reflection alone.

This is especially true of volunteers in congregations. They often learn more from volunteers in other congregations than they do from the professionals on staff in their own congregation. There are a lot of dynamics in play here, but I believe one is that members rightly resist feeling like they are the project of the pastoral staff. The presence of others who have responsibilities closer to their own often creates fruitful learning space.

Church Innovations, the group I consult with, is firmly committed to the notion that the real transformation within a congregation will happen by increasing the capacity of volunteers. While helping staff and other formal leadership learn to take on different kinds of leading is very important to innovation, the real work is among the rank and file membership. And they learn best from others who are doing similar tasks in other congregational contexts.

Learning from others seems impossible when we’re sheltering in place. It seems like all of our energies are required just to survive. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that our best future requires energy learning from others rather than minding our own store. Learning with others, however, creates both a vital sense of companionship in a time of isolation, and the perspectival distance necessary for us to interpret our own experience better.

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Asking the right questions of our season of disruption.

I know that being a church leader during this pandemic has been brutal. The smooth, well-worn ways of being a “church” have been disrupted and we are right to feel like things may never be the same. We have stepped through some kind of portal and entered a time when the experience of the pandemic will continue to be with us even when it’s safe to resume a more public life.

My son-in-law has worked from home during the pandemic, like a lot of us. And his company has realized that it spends way too much money on physical space. Working from home might continue beyond the pandemic. In my own work, which was already largely remote, I have made a more permanent work space in my basement. I have an actual office now and am not just doing work from the kitchen table or the living room couch. I live so close to campus that I can be there in a matter of minutes if I need to be, but my students and colleagues have also gotten pretty good at doing things over Zoom to the extent that I wonder if things will ever go back to “normal.”

My point is, in areas other than church life, we’ve adapted, learned new skills, and won’t simply return to the way things were. I understand the very real losses of not being together in an embodied community. In my own worshipping community, we miss singing together and have found that some of our practices of praying together are difficult to do over Zoom. We’ve compensated the best we can. For those not suffering from an essential tremor (my thorn in the flesh), singing together with our hands has become meaningful and we do a time of examen in the place of our regular prayer practice. But we miss being together, hugging each other, eating together and look forward to being able to do those things again. So, there are real losses from the past year, but we’ve also developed some new capacities and learned some things that hopefully will go with us into a new future.

Ok, here’s what I’m driving at. While we are rightfully anxious for the pandemic to be behind us, we shouldn’t be in a big hurry to get things back to just the way they were. The thing about a pandemic or any prolonged disruption in business as usual, is that it provides the space for adaptation, for innovation, for learning new skills. And it also can teach us what things we’ve spent a lot of energy on in the past that might not be worth it. The key is to learn to be attentive to our experiences in fruitful ways.

Too often, churches only attend to the question, “Did it work?” That’s typically a question related to numbers, both people and dollars. In the leadership program I lead, and in the consulting work that I do, we teach attending through a different set of questions. What happened? What did we learn? What surprised us? What might God be calling us to be or to do? These are far better questions in terms of attending to our experience.

I think its reasonable to expect that there will be numerical losses related to the pandemic, that the typical ways that we have done church haven’t created sufficient bonds of belonging to hold people together in the face of prolonged disruption. So, leaders might find themselves anxious about recovering their lost market share. I know these pressures are real and they strike at issues of livelihood and survivability. But I also know that anxiety creates exactly the opposite environment than one conducive to new life.

So, now is the time to attend in trust to the new thing that might be emerging. Now is not the time to rush back to business as usual. Slow down, be attentive. What surprising new skills or capacities have we learned? What have we learned about what’s necessary and what is only busy work that distracts us from what’s necessary? Have we learned anything in the category of less is more? Now is the time for curiosity about what new thing God might be calling us to be or to do.

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In the power of the Spirit, A brief meditation on Jesus and what it means to be human

In Luke’s gospel, the Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism, and full of the Holy Spirit, he is led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan. He then returns to Galilee “filled with the power of the Spirit,” and preaches in the synagogue in Nazareth from Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor… .” In the space of one chapter, there are five references to the Holy Spirit coming upon or filling Jesus with power. Luke’s conclusion is unmistakable, Jesus fulfills his ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This clear association between the Holy Spirit and Jesus seems obvious enough to us who have come to think of God in Trinitarian terms. It reinforces for us our belief in the divinity of Jesus. I would like to suggest, however, that it says as much about Jesus’ humanity as it does his divinity.

Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ ministry being accomplished in the power of the Spirit has always struck me. Of course, it sets up the story of Acts where the church continues the ministry of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh at Pentecost. Jesus ministers in the power of the Spirit. The church ministers in the power of the Spirit. Luke could, however, make the point that the church ministers in the power of the risen Christ without emphasizing the same about Jesus in such an emphatic way. After all, it would seem that divine power would come as a standard feature for anyone bearing the designation, “Son of God.” Doesn’t Jesus do things in his own power? Why would there be a need to emphasize the power of the Holy Spirit?

We think of Jesus the way we Westerners think of most individuals. What it means to be an individual is to be distinct, autonomous, self-possessing and self-directing. We are individuals before we are persons in relation. This view of what it means to be a self would be even more true of Jesus. Everything comes on board. Jesus is autonomous and self-possessing, without need.

Charles Taylor describes the modern view of what it means to be an individual as a “buffered self,” as opposed to earlier views of what it meant to be human that were characterized by porosity, the boundary of the self being open and fluid to powers beyond an interior life. The buffered self, however, is the task of the individual, to determine our identities through self-discovery. Jesus is not a buffered self. His identity is conferred upon him at his baptism. He is the beloved Son of the Father, and he lives out that identity not in his own power, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ identity comes to him through a community of persons. His life is porous to the Holy Spirit. To use John Zizioulas’ term, he is a being in relation.

If this is true of Jesus’ humanity, then it is surely true of our as well. We are not self-originating, self-possessing individuals. There is nothing we have that has not been mediated to us in some way. We exist in a complex of relational, biological, and social factors that precede us and constitute our identities in many ways. This does not deny our agency or responsibility for our lives, but it surely suggests we are more than buffered selves.

In fact, the blessing of being in Christ is that we have an identity conferred upon us at our baptism. Like Jesus, we also have confirmation that we are beloved by God and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This does not negate other factors in our life that influence our identities, but it places these within this more fundamental framework. The difficulty of constructing our own identities as a task is that we are porous selves and it is often hard to sort out who we are amid the cacophony of voices and memory fragments and powers that we accumulate as we move through life. Salvation is in large measure the gift of an unshakeable narrative that doesn’t replace our own, but offers healing and reconciling love in the midst of all our contradictions. This is surely to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.

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Third Sunday of Advent—A sermon on joy

Isaiah 61

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 5Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; 6but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. 7Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs. 8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

You won’t find it in a giggle. You won’t get it in a happy meal. Or, if you’re emotionally healthy, from getting a great deal on cyber Tuesday. It’s more than satisfaction, or happiness. It runs deeper than that. Joy comes from the often surprising realization that deep down, under it all, things are as they should be. Pure life. It’s more than an inner feeling or disposition. Joy is in your body, you can feel it in your bones. There’s a jailbreak of endorphines. In fact, joy is ecstatic. It moves through your body and it fills an entire room. Is there anything better than sharing in the joy of another person? It’s shareable and communal, it doesn’t happen just within us, it happens between us. You simply can’t keep joy to yourself.

And here’s a thing about joy, it often comes in relation to that other deep bodily experience–despair, the sense that things will never be ok. Pure death. Joy is often the outcome when your fortunes have been reversed, when in the language of our prophet, you receive “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit,” when fortunes are reversed deep to deep. When exile no longer frames your waking and dreaming, but instead the devastation of many generations has been replaced with a new vision of restored cities, of coming home. Our prophet says that it is precisely the people who have experienced double the shame and dishonor who will find everlasting joy to be theirs. So, when the prodigal has returned, when the cancer is in remission, when you’re surprised by finding a pearl of great price, when you hold that granddaughter in your arms, when you know finally that you have found a place to belong. Joy everlasting.

And for those with faith, there is nothing left to do “but greatly rejoice in the Lord, exult in my God with my whole being,” to praise like no one’s watching. Joy.

Our prophet says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me… to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

Here’s what caught my ear when I read this. And maybe I’m parsing things too finely, splitting hairs for the sake of a sermon point. But the prophet says, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me. I don’t talk that way, do you talk that way? I don’t talk about the Spirit of the Lord much at all, and my friends who do talk about the Spirit of the Lord don’t say “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” They are more likely to say, “The Spirit of the Lord is within me. I felt the Spirit move within me, prompt me to give you a word.” Well, maybe. I listen, I believe that that can happen. But I can’t tell what’s really inside you. I can’t distinguish between your feelings and your desires, the voice of God, from the voice in your own head. That’s the problem with having a Spirit that is only within you.

But here, the Spirit’s work is upon the prophet. It’s like the source is external to the prophet, something more public and observable than it is private and hidden. It’s shareable because its between us and all around us. It’s upon us. And It’s like the prophet knows that he has an anointing from God because of what is being done and proclaimed. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because I’ve got good news for the oppressed, I’m binding up the broken hearted, proclaiming liberation for the exiles and release to the prisoners, proclaiming the day of the Lord’s favor. Want tangible evidence that the Spirit of the Lord is upon me? Testing the Spirits? Here you go. Want to see my prophetic resume? Here you go. This is what it sounds and looks like when the Spirit of the Lord is upon you.

Which is what Luke wants us to know about Jesus. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him. The Spirit’s presence is public and observable, tangible and demonstrable. It’s not so much within him, but on him, and between others and himself. Luke is the only gospel that tells us that after his temptation, Jesus went up into Galilee in the power of the Spirit. He doesn’t come in his own power, but in the power of the Spirit. And then Luke moves up a story that comes later in Mark, the story of preaching in Nazareth, so that the first words we hear from Jesus’ mouth, words that define his ministry, are words from Isaiah 61 (with a few words from Is 58 thrown in):

“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.”

Do you want to see Jesus’ resume? Do you want to know if he’s the long awaited bearer of the Spirit of God? Here’s the plan, the messianic platform, our Messiah bingo scorecard for those playing at home. Because Jesus is bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release for exiles, recovery of sight for the blind, letting the oppressed go free, he has the Spirit of God. Because. Because these are the priorities in his ministry, we recognize him as the one bringing at long last the end to Israel’s exile, to demonstrate the year of the Lord’s favor. We recognize him as one upon whom the Spirit has fallen.

But Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 aren’t quite the same, are they? Did you notice the difference?

I recently found, we’ll call him Bill, on facebook. I wasn’t looking for him. Facebook thought maybe we should be friends given the friends we share in common. But I would never “friend” Bill, who was my nemesis in jr. high, the antagonist in the nightmares that haunt my life to this day. He made my life miserable. He and his toadies bullied me and opened to me a level of hell I didn’t know existed.

But, I clicked on his profile to see what his life was like. I had imagined over the 47 years subsequent to jr high, even hoped, that his life turned out miserably, that I would ultimately triumph over him with the demonstration of a better life. It might be why I have two doctorates, just to show him. And I needed to imagine that his life had turned out miserably, that life had bullied him. Karma, baby. Imagine my disappointment when I saw that his life was good. He hadn’t lost limbs or had some terrible disfiguring injury or ended up a Lions fan. He owned a successful business and had a beautiful family.

And I felt badly that I wished harm for him.

Look, I understand the impulse to seek consolation in the humiliation of your enemy. I understand why Israel imagined the day of the Lord as a day of vengeance for those who had oppressed them. There it is plainly in Is 61,”to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of the vengeance of our God.” I get why it would feel right to imagine foreigners being your slaves, dressing your vines, when you had once been theirs. I understand why you would indulge the thought that their wealth will one day be yours, that fortunes will be reversed, the way Is 61 imagines. This feels like justice to us, and we need to believe that God is just. I get it.

But in Luke 4, Jesus leaves out the part about vengeance. “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” full stop. And then, in case we miss the point, he proceeds to tell two stories about God showing favoritism to Gentiles in the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. And the crowd is so injured by the thought of it that they tried to throw him off a cliff, shouting “no vengeance, no comfort.”

Here’s the thing about vengeance that I think Jesus knew. It doesn’t produce joy. It might create a thin sense of satisfaction, but ultimately it doesn’t comfort, it doesn’t turn ashes into a garland, or mourning into the oil of gladness. It doesn’t make our hearts bigger. It makes them smaller, and it makes the world meaner. Because vengeance can’t set the world to right, it diminishes the possibility for joy.

And if there’s one thing I know about the Spirit of God, it produces joy from the deep wellspring of life. Luke is the gospel of the Holy Spirit, and it’s striking how often joy or rejoicing is mentioned together with mentions of the Spirit. My favorite is the scene in Luke 10. The 70 that Jesus sent out return with joy, reporting that in his name, even the demons submit to them. And then Luke adds, “in that very hour, Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life. The work of the Spirit is always moving toward joy, toward life, toward the way things will be in the future of God. Wherever there is true joy, the Spirit of life is present. And so, it is necessarily evidence of the Spirit when prophets identify themselves with the poor, with the brokenhearted, with the exile and the prisoner. These are the preconditions for the greatest kind of joy, for turning ashes to garlands, for turning mourning into the oil of gladness, for turning despair into joy, death into life.

It would be hard to imagine 2020 as the year of the Lord’s favor. The losses have been great. We have been exiled in our own homes. And I know there’s still a lot we don’t know about the vaccines, and I know some people can’t take them and some people won’t. But I was deeply moved this week when I watched the first vaccine injections and saw the experience of great joy it produced in the hospital staff. The Spirit of the Lord was upon us. And I was reminded this week that the Spirit was poured out on all flesh at Pentecost, making available the spirit of prophecy to us all, young and old, male and female, even slave and free, infecting us all as carriers of joy. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, ya’al. There will be experiences of great joy, of life even in the midst of despair, even in the midst of a pandemic. You might even find yourself praising like no one’s watching.

Amen

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