Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Period Where It Didn't Belong...

I left a lot out of this one, I think. I didn't want to get into Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or the fact that far too many Christians think that the only way to encourage people to follow Christ is to threaten them with eternal damnation...

While studies show that fear of Hell makes people "act right," I cannot think of Christianity as behavior modification. In Scripture, the response to God's grace is a desire to follow, a desire to change, a desire to draw ever closer to Christ.

This is my imperfect attempt to articulate that...

Luke 4:14-21
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
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, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"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." 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. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Punctuation is an important part of our language. Punctuation is the difference between “Let’s eat, grandma!” and “Let’s eat grandma!”

In that tiny synagogue in his hometown, with a single punctuation mark, Jesus changed everything we thought we knew about God.

All eyes were on Jesus that day as he took the scroll of Isaiah, unfurling it to the section we know as Chapter 61, and began to read. It is a familiar passage, and one can imagine almost everyone's lips moving in silent recitation. But something happened that day: something new, something jarring, upsetting, disconcerting. Jesus ended his reading with the words, “…to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, returned it, and sat, assuming the position of a teacher.

Now, it’s true that Hebrew had no punctuation in those days; in fact, there weren’t even spaces between words. Vowel sounds weren’t a feature of Hebrew until about nine hundred years after Jesus read those words. But it’s a pretty good indication that there is more to be read when the next word in a sentence is the word “and,” which is the case in Isaiah 61, verses one and two.

What everyone in that synagogue that day expected to hear was Jesus reading “ proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God...”

But no, Jesus puts a period where it doesn’t belong, and as every mouth in the building is silently forming the word “and,” simply says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This scripture: Good news, release, recovery, freedom, favor. Period.

Now, our Lectionary Elves leave the reaction of those listening to him in the Synagogue for next Sunday’s reading, but I can give you a hint: it isn’t a real positive response. In fact, our reading next week ends with the people Jesus grew up with: his friends, his neighbors, maybe even his relatives – trying to throw him off a cliff!

To me, at least, this is a very confusing reaction – a message of good news, release, recovery, freedom and favor being fulfilled, leading to such naked rage? Why?

I think that, for many of us, the prospect of faith in God often has a carrot-and-stick aspect: do things right, say and think the proper things, do enough and give enough, and we get the carrot, the reward. Mess up? We get hit with the stick. What’s more, those people who don’t think and act and worship like me? They really get hit with the stick!

How many times, over the years, have well-known preachers blamed natural disasters – Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, the list is nearly endless – on the sinfulness of the victims, or on the sinfulness of the victims’ ancestors?

And how many men and women and children live under the notion that God is waiting, poised at every moment to punish, to strike, to wreak vengeance – not on enemies or oppressors, but on them, if they make a mistake?

What Jesus does, with this one tiny dot, this period, this punctuation where it doesn’t belong, is to take the stick out of the carrot-and-stick equation.

But what about my enemies? Elsewhere in the Gospels, we learn that we are to love them. What about those who persist in sinning? Elsewhere in the Gospels, we learn that we are to forgive them. What about those who are different, who do not worship or believe or think or act as we do – people like the Gentiles and the Samaritans? Elsewhere in Scripture, we learn that we are to include them. It is, after all, no mistake that the woman caught in the act of adultery is forgiven, no mere chance that one of the earliest converts to what would become known as Christianity is a eunuch, no mere aberration that the star of one of Jesus' best-known parables is a Samaritan.

With a simple period, Jesus turned everything his hometown crowd – and we – thought we knew about God, on its head... but (and this is important) Jesus did not change God.

God has always been in the business of redemption, restoration, and second chances. God’s love and grace are eternal and consistent.

The words that Jesus reads were originally written to a Hebrew population in exile – far from a home that few of them were old enough to recall, enslaved to a pagan king and culture, moment by moment and day by day losing all hope. They felt abandoned, convinced that God had forgotten them. These were the people who wrote the heartbreaking words that open the one hundred thirty-seventh Psalm: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

It is to them, through the prophet Isaiah, that God promises “… to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.

Comfort… provision… beauty… joy… praise… righteousness… splendor.

Jesus did not change God, who, hundreds of years before Christ was born, proclaimed that sacrifices were a poor substitute for mercy, who elsewhere proclaimed that justice, mercy, and humility were God’s sole requirements, who for the entirety of the existence of the Law of Moses had insisted that strangers and aliens not be distrusted or hated or mistreated, but rather be welcomed and cared for and respected.

Jesus does not change God. Jesus, rather, reveals God – a God who loves us, and who loves those who are like us, and loves those who are different, who loves those who we love and who love us, and those we may consider our enemies. The love and grace of God know no boundaries, no limitations.

And in Jesus Christ, all the promises of God – good news, release, recovery, freedom, favor… and so much more – are fulfilled. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus tells the Good News, Jesus heals, Jesus restores, Jesus feeds, Jesus protects, Jesus even raises the dead. And every step, every word, every touch, every act brings him closer to Jerusalem, closer to that last long night where bread is broken and wine is poured, where he sweats blood and is betrayed, that day where he feels the agony of the whip and the excruciation of the crown of thorns digging into his flesh, the terror of the nails and slow asphyxiation and death…

And Jesus knew that this was where he was going, every step and every touch and every word and every act. And every one of these steps and touches and words and acts – ever moment of agony on the cross, and that glorious moment when he burst forth from the tomb never to die again – was a revelation of who God really is.

Those people in the synagogue may well have been asking, where is the day of vengeance of our God? Why isn’t that part of Jesus’ reading?

May I suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, one answer may be that vengeance is too easy? When we are wronged, we may want a Dirty Harry kind of God. When we do wrong, we may expect to be crushed under the thumb of the Almighty. But returning hurt for hurt is the easy answer, and when we require an eye for an eye, we all end up blind.

It is far, far more difficult to forgive, isn’t it? And God does the hard thing by nature. Grace, love, forgiveness, redemption, healing, restoration, community, these are the attributes of God.

God does not hate us. God has not forgotten us. We who love him do so because he first loved us.

The Cross of Christ is God's ultimate answer to and for humanity – redemption through the blood of Christ, reconciliation through his suffering, healing by the stripes he bore, power and victory over death through the Resurrection.

This is the truth of God planted in us by the indwelling Holy Spirit, the message we each are called to not simply proclaim, but to live out.

When Jesus read that passage that day in the synagogue in Nazareth, when he added a period where one did not belong, Jesus did not change God.

Rather, in fulfilling that Scripture in his life, in his death and in his resurrection, Jesus changes us.

Let us pray.

1 comment:

  1. Love this! I don't know how I missed this post. My whole life changed when I realized Jesus did not "reconcile God to man", meaning his sacrifice made it possible for God to forgive us, but Jesus is instead reconciling US back to God; meaning he is showing us who God really is, so we won't be afraid anymore. God always loved us, and always will. Thank you for proclaiming it.