The Charismatic Messiah -- Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3C
Luke 4:14-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Cleveland Museum of Art
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
“Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit,” which Jesus received on the day of his baptism (Luke 3:21-22), Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Everybody started talking about his preaching. People invited him to teach in their synagogues. He was in demand, because his message seemed fresh. It seemed empowered.
Luke makes much of the Holy Spirit, both in the Gospel and in the Book of Acts. In fact, in the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is the primary actor, moving the nascent community outward from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). That same Spirit had fallen on Jesus and it was pushing him forward into the world, a world that might not ultimately welcome the good news he was preaching. Indeed, due to the fact that the preceding passage plays a central role in the Lenten season, we may forget that after his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus in to the wilderness, where he faced a series of tests (Luke 4:1-13) that were designed to derail his mission. It is only after the time of testing that Jesus is ready to begin preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom. There were many people who responded positively to his message. Luke says that the people praised his preaching. Of course, as time passed and the message began to sink in not everyone will be so impressed. There will be opposition, but we’re not there yet.
When Jesus came home to Nazareth he was invited to offer an interpretation of the scripture reading for the day. After all, Jesus had become a celebrity in the surrounding communities, so surely he would bless them with a bit of his wisdom. Luke tells us that Jesus was handed the Isaiah scroll, from which he read a word from Isaiah 61 about the ministry of the Spirit, which served to anoint a preacher who would bring good news to the poor. The text went on to offer details as to the nature of this good news. Captives would be released. The blind would receive their sight. The oppressed would go free. The year of Jubilee would be proclaimed. This Spirit inspired message is one of justice and mercy, of righteousness and freedom. This is a prophetic ministry, and when Jesus finishes reading the passage he sat down, and with every eye in the congregation focused on him, he told them: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words: I’m the one Isaiah spoke of. I’m going to do these very things.
As I write this reflection it is Martin Luther King Day. We have done a good job, as a country, in sanitizing Dr. King’s legacy. We’ve made him palatable. We’ve made him popular. We’ve made him nice. Who doesn’t like Dr. King? After all, he inspires us to dream about a color blind world. David Gushee writes:
At the time Dr. King was murdered on April 4, 1968, he was a deeply polarizing and unpopular figure. A minority lauded him as a hero, but to others he was a troublemaker and a rabble-rouser. People actually did cheer in many places in the US when the news broke that Dr. King was dead.
But now everyone loves MLK. He was, after all, about “service.” He was about “a dream.” He was about “a color-blind America.” He has become a safe national hero.
But people who are about service, dreams, and a color-blind America don’t get beat up, arrested, and murdered. [http://davidgushee.religionnews.com/2016/01/18/how-dr-king-became-safe/]
Dr. King was inspired by Jesus, whom we’ve worked hard to sanitize. We’ve made Jesus nice. Surely he wasn’t a trouble maker and a rabble-rouser. But then why did the Romans kill him? Why did the powers-that-be want to do him in?
Like Dr. King, Jesus spoke to the issues of the day. He gained a hearing from the poor, the outcast, the marginalized. He offered them hope, not just of a better after life, but of freedom here and now. Jesus was a charismatic messiah. He was filled with the Spirit, and the Spirit empowered him to keep strong and keep preaching. Jesus passed on the mantle to his disciples and to all who follow. Dr. King was a preacher and he called upon preachers to take up the mantle. In his last message, offered the night before his assassination in Memphis, Dr. King declared:
We need all of you. And you know what’s beautiful to me, is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.” [King Jr, Martin Luther (2013-08-20). The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr.: "I Have a Dream" andOther Great Writings (King Legacy) (Kindle Locations 2856-2859). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.].
What a beautiful sight it was, seeing people ready to carry the Gospel, inspired by the Spirit. Thus, to be charismatic or Pentecostal is to challenge the existing orders.
I believe that Martin Luther King, Jr. was Spirit inspired and empowered, as was true of the one whom he followed—Jesus of Nazareth, the one who fulfilled the promise of Isaiah. As I think about Jesus’ own sense of call and how that translates into our contemporary world, I can’t help but think about the Azusa Street Revival (1906), which launched the Pentecostal Movement. In its origins Azusa Street broke down existing barriers. The leader of the revival was an African American preacher named William Seymour. The revival crossed ethnic and racial boundaries. It drew in the poor, empowering them to take hold of their own lives, elevating them to equality. Women also were empowered and inspired to preach, to teach, and to participate in ministries of healing. No one had ever seen something quite like Azusa Street.
As I attend to the message of this reading from Luke, I’m reminded that the Spirit of the Lord will not be contained by forces seeking to enforce the status quo. The early Christian community attracted some among the wealthy, but for the most part it attracted those living on the margins. Jesus healed people who were cast aside. The ministry of exorcism was in essence an act of freedom from the bonds that prevented people from participating in society. His message of the kingdom offered an alternate realm of life, not one that was in the clouds, but one that challenged the realities of the present age. As Grace Ji-Sun Kim puts it: “As a poor Jewish peasant teacher from Nazareth, Jesus’ teaching would have been heard as hope for the poor, while being a threat to the Roman Empire” [Embracing the Other, p. 123].
In other words, Jesus’ Spirit empowered ministry was not going to be well received by the powers that be. It will evoke resistance. Dr. King’s message did as well. I was reminded at a Martin Luther King Day event that Dr. King as assassinated just as he was at work organizing an effort that would take on the constant challenge of poverty. King was trying to unite all the poor to take on the powers, to march on Washington and demand that an equitable disposal of resources would be made. That would not have been well received. Justice reform in our day is not well received. The reminder that “Black Lives Matter” is not well received by the Powers. Divide and conquer, that has been the method of dealing with those who press for change.
So, where is the good news? Jack Levison writes of the message of Isaiah 61: “There’s no stopping the Spirit. Better yet, there’s no stopping a leader, whether a messiah or a servant or a prophet, whom the Spirit of God anoints” [40 Dayswith the Holy Spirit, p. 93]. Indeed, they nailed Jesus to a cross, but God said no to their efforts and raised him from the dead! Then the Spirit fell on those early followers of Jesus, and empowered them to preach the good news of God’s realm. That same calling remains with us to this day! The mantle has been passed on to us.