The Spirit's Mantle -- A Sermon

Luke 4:14-21

I’ve always found the story of Elijah passing over the mantle of the Spirit to Elisha to be quite powerful. It’s really the story of one generation passing the torch to the next.  So, when it came time for Elijah to ascend to heaven, he turned to Elisha, and asked him: What can I do for you before I leave?  In response, Elisha boldly asks Elijah for a “double share of your spirit.”  Yes, he wants everything Elijah has, but more.  So then, after Elijah ascends into the heavens, Elisha picks up the same mantle or outer coat that his mentor used to hit  and divide the Jordan, so they could cross over to the other side, and he followed his mentor’s example and hits the water and it divides so he can cross back over to the other side.  When the other prophets see Elisha coming toward them, they recognize the spirit of Elijah resting on Elijah’s former assistant, and affirm his calling to begin a new era of prophetic ministry in Israel (2 Kings 2:1-18).

Although the stories are different, something similar happens on the day that John baptized Jesus.  John didn’t give up his ministry of baptism that day, but it’s clear that the mantle passed from John to Jesus at the moment the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus, anointing him as messiah.    

This morning we catch up with Jesus after he’d endured the trials and temptations in the wilderness, and gained some notoriety  for his preaching in the synagogues of Galilee.  Now comes the real test – facing the hometown.  These people know him better than anyone else, or at least, that’s what they think.  After all, they can say – “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  Because they’d heard about the miracles performed in other towns, they expect him to do the same for them.  With these expectations hanging over him, Jesus enters the synagogue, and as soon as he arrives the leaders invite him to read the scripture for the day and offer a few words of interpretation.  In other words, they invited him to deliver the sermon!     

Now, hearing the Word of God read and interpreted was very important to a community like this.  They believed that God spoke through these words, and they hoped God would speak to them that day.  

You get the sense of importance that the Jews placed on hearing the Word in a passage from Nehemiah, where the people go to Ezra the Priest and demand that he read to them from the Torah.  When he opened the scroll and blessed the people, everyone shouted “Amen! Amen!” and they bowed down and worshiped the LORD, even putting their faces to the ground.  Although we don’t know what Ezra read, the people begin to weep.  Obviously this Word cut deep into their hearts, and so I wonder, does the Word cut deep into your heart and mine?   

When Ezra hears them weep, he tells them:  “Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:1-10).   

  So, in the tradition of Ezra, Jesus opens the scroll, reads from it, and offers his interpretation.  It’s his first sermon in the home church, so how will the people respond? 

Well, the Word that Jesus reads comes from Isaiah 61, which offers good news to the oppressed.  After Jesus reads this passage, he points to himself, and tells them that the Spirit of God had anointed him to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation of the oppressed, and the “year of the Lord’s favor.”   This year of the Lord’s favor is the Jubilee year, which, according to the Torah, instructed the people to return the land back to its original owners.  It was designed to prevent wealthy landowners from accumulating large tracts of land at the expense of the common person.    

These are powerful words that reveal God’s vision of justice, God’s preferential option for the poor.  These are the kind of words that inspire prophetic leaders like Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, and Dorothy Day.  But on this day, Jesus chooses to embrace it for himself.  After laying out God’s vision for the world, he places this mantle of the Spirit on himself, because, as Jesus declares: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”  Not yesterday, not tomorrow, not in the next life, but today.  Yes, today is a day of new beginnings.  

When Jesus uses the word “today,” he’s declaring that the reign of God has begun, and that it would be marked by a message of liberation and hope – not for the powerful and the rich, but for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned – that is, the people living on the margins of society.

Since our nation observed the birthday of  Martin Luther King this past Monday on the same day we watched the first African-American President be re-inaugurated, it’s good to remember that Dr. King wasn’t just a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.  He focused his attention on God’s justice and he took up issues that made him rather unpopular.  When prophets talk about justice, they have a tendency to make enemies!    So, his decision to speak out against the war in Vietnam and provide leadership for the Poor People’s Campaign turned former allies into opponents.  There are aspects of Dr. King’s legacy that we tend to forget, but they too reflect the Good News that Jesus sought to proclaim and embody. 

How should we hear this message of Jesus that he takes to the pulpit in Nazareth?   

Perhaps we can find the answer in the story of Pentecost.  As Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 12, we are the body of Christ, and if we received the Spirit’s mantle on the Day of Pentecost, then we’ve been issued the same call and we have all the necessary gifts to continue Jesus’ ministry in the world today. We’re already participating in Jesus’ messianic reign.  For instance, we partner with Congregational Church of Birmingham in hosting SOS each year.  We’re a key partner with Motown Mission, Rippling Hope, and Gospel in Action Detroit, helping to bringing healing hope to the residents of Detroit.  And more recently we’ve taken a leading role in the formation of the Metro Coalition of Congregations.  

You’ve heard and seen the invitations for our Founding Convention on February 24th, but the Coalition has been busy for some time not only adding to our numbers, but making a difference in the community.   We took a leading role in helping MSHDA get funds out to those facing foreclosure, with Kathleen Potter serving as the chair of that task force.  We’ve reached the point where we think we can declare victory and take up another issue.  We’ve also been active in advocating for a regional transit authority in metro-Detroit, which will allow the region to develop a good, usable  public transportation system.  Crystal Balogh and Kate Mills chair that task force.  A number of others from this congregation are serving on these two task forces, or on the other two task forces – the one addressing gun violence and the one addressing health care.  All of these issues and more serve as calls to justice, and they connect directly to Jesus’ proclamation of a year of the Lord’s favor. 

Yes, Jesus has declared that the word from Isaiah 61 has been fulfilled – but to each of us is given the question – how will you respond?  Will you follow the lead of the disciples and accept the challenge, or will you follow Jesus’ former neighbors who try to throw him off a cliff?  As we ponder this question, let us remember the words of Ezra, who reminds us that “the joy from the Lord is your strength!”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 27, 2013



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