Thursday, February 04, 2010

Here and Now

Here and Now
Luke 4:16-21[1]
I think there is a great deal of confusion out there about what Jesus was up to in his ministry. If you conducted a poll of people who identify themselves as Christians, I think a majority would say that Jesus came to die on the cross and rise from the grave so that “my” sins could be forgiven and so that “I” can spend eternity in heaven with God. It is a faith that is focused narrowly on the salvation of individuals; the overarching concern is “my” eternal destiny. But if you read the Gospels at all, you find that this idea of what Jesus was up to doesn’t really fit with what the Gospels say Jesus was up to. The Gospels are all on the same page in identifying the focus of Jesus’ “mission” as fulfilling the “Kingdom of God.”
In fact, the Gospels all pretty much at one time or other summarize Jesus’ “gospel” as “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” You probably know that already. What you may not know is that there was a great debate among NT scholars of the 20th century over just what Jesus’ meant when he said “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Scholars debated up one side and down the other whether Jesus meant to say that “it’s here” or “it’s near.”
You can understand the problem—if Jesus was saying “the Kingdom of God is near,” I would think the typical response would be something like, “Well that’s nice but wake me when it’s here.” And if Jesus was saying “the Kingdom of God is here,” you might be tempted to look at him as if he had lost his mind. As a matter of fact, many did! It’s still hard for us to believe that God’s Kingdom is real in our lives here and now.
Most of the people in the synagogue at Nazareth would understand what Jesus was talking about when he said to them, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). They knew what the reading from the prophet Isaiah was talking about—the restoration of justice, peace and freedom to the people of Israel, and through them to all the nations of the earth![2] It was the dream that had inspired them through good times and bad, through exile and return, through renewal and rebuilding against all odds. And while they were “still standing” despite the worst that history could throw at them, I doubt that many of the Jewish people would have thought that their life under the boot of the Roman Legions constituted the “restoration of justice, peace, and freedom”! And yet, Jesus’ message to the people of Nazareth was fairly straightforward. In effect, Jesus said that the dream they had been dreaming and hoping would come true for centuries is here; it’s real right now.
I think the people of Nazareth understood what he was saying—that’s why they tried to kill him! The Scripture Jesus was referring to, Isaiah 61, calls this restoration of life “the year of the Lord’s favor.” This was a well-known concept to the Jewish people of Jesus’ day—it was called the “Year of Jubilee.” It was a provision in the economic system of the Torah that was intended to be a recurring reminder of the dream of justice, peace and freedom that inspired them. Although there is no evidence they ever actually observed the Jubilee, they knew very well what it was—it was to be “the time in which God’s … compassionate justice is restored.”[3] It was to be a time of healing, of releasing those who had sold themselves into slavery, of returning debtors to their confiscated property. Every 50 years, the slate was to be wiped clean and everybody was to get a fresh start.
Jesus said to the people of Nazareth—with a straight face—that his reading of the scripture from Isa. 61 was the beginning of the fulfillment of that dream. God’s compassionate justice, God’s peace, God’s freedom was to be extended to all people everywhere. The “Year of Jubilee” was to be applied to everyone—the whole human race getting the chance to have the slate wiped clean and to have a fresh start. Jesus said that was what he had come to do—to fulfill the dream and the hope of restoring all things in the Kingdom of God.[4] And they found it all just too much to take.
I think that one of the reasons why the Christian faith shifted to hoping for the salvation of “my soul” is because we are like the people of Nazareth—we like the sound of his voice, and his words are pleasing, but what he preaches is just too good to be true. The restoration of all things is a pretty big thing to hope for! And to claim that it’s already going on here and now! It’s just too much for a body to take. I wonder if at least part of the problem is that we have trouble with the word “fulfilled.” We tend to think of “fulfillment” in terms of getting the whole thing right now. But if we think of “fulfillment” in terms of the first glimmer of the light of a new day, or a taste of what is to come, or the beginning of a process, then perhaps we can embrace the hope of Jesus’ words, “today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The Good News of Jesus’ ministry is that everything he did was a beginning in the process of restoring all things.[5] It’s the good news of Epiphany—that God’s life, God’s freedom, God’s joy, God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s love are here. [6] What Jesus came to do was nothing short bringing all that to all of us—right here and right now. What that means is that God’s new world is in the process of “emerging” all around us. The good news of Epiphany is that God’s glory—which consists of God’s “boundless freedom, exuberant joy, and inexhaustible love”—is even now filling the whole earth.[7] God’s glory is already shining among us here and now!




[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/24/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 224, says that Isaiah 61 describes “the concrete form” that “the liberating work of God” would take. As Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 326 points out, this may begin with the restoration of the nation, but it extends to a “covenant relationship with the nations”
[3] Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 205; cf. also Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 325.
[4] Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 188: “God … [is] even now active to restore all that [has] fallen and heal all that [has] become broken.”
[5] Fred Craddock, Luke, 62, points out that Jesus’ first word in his adult ministry according to Luke’s Gospel is “today.”
[6] J├╝rgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 117-18: Jesus fulfills the “glory of God” in humanity by drawing them into the love he shares with the Creator and by imparting to them the freedom he enjoys.
[7] Moltmann, God in Creation, 124.

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