Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fulfilled! (Luke 4:14-21)

Jesus probably taught in different synagogues dozens of times during his earthly ministry. Stories about those days must have been all over the earliest Christian movement. So why, we might wonder, does Luke pick this one out to tell? What's special about it?

Is it somehow sharper or more direct than others? Did Jesus have "off-days" or something when what he said didn't connect to the people so well? Is Isaiah Luke's favorite book? Is what Jesus said here somehow truer than what he might have said at other times? Hard to say.

They probably did not take him literally -- you might imagine a guy in the synagogue saying, "Well, great -- that means my wife's good-for-nothing brother's gonna get out of jail and he's gonna head straight for my house." No, they would have heard Isaiah's words in a much bigger context.

Many of the prophetic writings gathered up into the Jewish scriptures focus on the topic Isaiah covers here. He refers to the Day of the Lord, which the prophets saw the same way we Christians see what we call the Second Coming of Christ and which offers a lot of the same themes. On that day, God would restore things to what they were supposed to be. The nation of Israel would be made whole again, and have its own sovereign ruler. God's presence would be manifest in the Temple again, in a way it hadn't been since the Exile. And God would have a direct relationship to humanity again, for the first time since the Fall.

All of these things fulfilled different promises God had made to the people over time -- to Eve that her seed would triumph over evil, to Abraham that his offspring would bless the earth, to David that one of his descendants would sit on the throne of Israel forever, and so on.

Because devout Jews would have attached such powerful meanings to this Scripture, we can see why they were upset when a guy they watched grow up down the street started proclaiming that he was bringing them its fulfillment. Was he making fun of them? Joking around with scripture? Thinking way way too much of himself for someone who's from right here in Nazareth just like the rest of us?

Of course they would have seen that the Romans still ruled their land and the blind were still blind and the temple that should have been their holiest place was a huge monstrosity of a building put up by that monstrosity of a king, the half-Edomite Herod. Captives were still captives, slaves were still slaves and the poor probably didn't need to head back home to check to see that they were still poor. To play with the idea of the Day of the Lord was just a little over the line.

As Christians reflected on this story and on the scripture Jesus read, they began to see a different meaning, though. By proclaiming that Jesus was Lord, that he was in fact God with us and that he was the divine Son of God, they saw another way that the prophecy Isaiah made was being fulfilled. Again, not literally, because all of the things that hadn't happened for the people of Nazareth that Saturday morning still hadn't happened for Christians scattered through the Roman Empire a few decades later. What his prophecy of the Day of the Lord had in common with other prophecies of the same type, though, was the theme that God would be with the people again. The relationship ruined by the Fall would be healed and the people could know their creator as intimately as human beings had known him in the beginning of Creation.

In Jesus, Christians said, that took place. His death and resurrection made restoring that relationship possible. And they decided that was very likely what he meant when he said the scripture was fulfilled "today, in your hearing."

Today we too might be looked on as a little weird if we were to take Isaiah's words and tell people they were being fulfilled even now, while we spoke. For many of the same reasons -- poor are still poor, captives not free, the blind still blind, etc. -- as well as for the additional reason that we believe only Jesus to be the Son of God and thus only he could embody God's presence. In fact, we understand that kind of reaction well enough that we might anticipate that response and decide against proclaiming anything of the sort. But should we?

We might reduce "proclaiming" to "saying" if we want to, but maybe we should remember that working to make something happen can be a part of "proclaiming" as well. There's a story in Time magazine this week about a minister in South Africa who's trying to help teenage prostitutes escape that life and the pimps who literally hold them prisoner. He's proclaiming release to the captives -- he and a king-fu-trained church volunteer who goes by the name of Shadrack -- and he's trying to make it happen.

And we have to remember that at the core of the prophet's words we find the claim that humanity's broken relationship with God is being restored. That can happen regardless of circumstances -- we don't have to be ninjas raiding South African brothels in order to let people know that God is right here among them and wants to connect with them in the way they were made for.

I'm afraid that, even though I have been made a part of the body of Christ, I don't do enough proclaiming that this scripture is fulfilled today, right now. Not with my words, and certainly not with all of my actions. So thanks be to God that there is forgiveness for my shortcomings and that I am given another chance to be his child and his follower -- hey, whattaya know? I can proclaim the good news after all.

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