3rd Sunday after Epiphany: Is God With Us?
By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord
Too often we sanitize Jesus’ ministry and today’s reading is one of the ways that we as preachers get ourselves stuck sanitizing or sanding down rough scriptural edges for our congregations. If we limit ourselves only to these eight verses, we miss the power and danger of the Holy Spirit.
Look at where this text sits. Jesus has been baptized (the gospel lesson from Baptism of our Lord), driven out into the wilderness (a text we won’t read ‘til Lent 1), and come back filled with the power of the Spirit. He begins to teach in the synagogue and was “praised by everyone.” He is handed the Scroll of Isaiah and begins to read Isaiah 4:17. He concludes, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Everyone is amazed, and if we leave it there, the Holy Spirit works and everyone is #bff #blessed.
The problem is, that’s not the Jesus we get. He comes out of the desert after being tempted and gets right to work. Luke doesn’t tell us how long it is before Jesus arrives in Nazareth, but the gospel relates the events in near Markan breathlessness. Jesus goes from the desert to the synagogue fast. So here is a dusty, emaciated, threadbare son of a local craftsman showing up to read from the prophet Isaiah about how God is going to look out for the poor, oppressed, captive, and blind. The people might have just been amazed and praised Jesus because they were surprised he was standing, let alone reading scripture.
As preachers we have to be honest about the Holy Spirit. This isn’t a safe Spirit. The Spirit is poured out on Jesus in baptism and then DRIVES HIM INTO THE WILDERNESS TO BE TEMPTED BY THE DEVIL. The Spirit sees Jesus through the wilderness, and Jesus returns filled with the power of the Spirit. Jesus takes this power and preaches, and people are amazed and praise him. Until after v 21, when Jesus interprets some more scripture, AND THE PEOPLE RUN HIM OUT OF TOWN. The Holy Spirit should come with a disclaimer.
Now the thing about Spirit-filled ministry is that Jesus is doing it when they are praising him, and he is doing it when he is being run out of town (or driven into the wilderness). It is neither good nor bad, safe nor dangerous. The Spirit will lead where the Spirit needs and wants to lead.
So, how do we break this down for our congregations? What metric can we use to ensure we are doing the work of the Holy Spirit? What compass is there? Sometimes we are run out of town for not doing the work of the Spirit, and sometimes we are run out for being offensive insensitive jerks. Sometimes we are accepted by communities because we are accommodating, uncritical, and unchallenging and sometimes we are accepted because we speak of the hope and promise of Jesus Christ.
“The Great Thanksgiving for Advent” quotes the Magnificat saying, “You fill the hungry with good things, and the rich you send away empty.” Every Advent I am surprised, thrilled, and scared of these words as I stand at the Table and offer them to God and the congregation. Mary speaks to our fears nicely. We want for God to choose us, and over and over again God sides with the oppressed, the poor, the captive, the hurting, and the lost.
This is a terrifying word because it means that God may not choose us. It is scary that the good news might be for someone else and not for me, us, or you. We spend so much time in Christmas parsing the meaning of the incarnation. The Word became Flesh and dwells among us… Love came down at Christmas….To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, Christ the Lord… Glory to the newborn king, God and Sinners reconciled… veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity. In the season of Christmas and Epiphany we move beyond the reality of the incarnation and dig into the “why” of incarnation. Why did Christ come in flesh? To save us from sin certainly, but also to speak into the reality of the world. To speak the words of the prophets in favor of the poor, oppressed, captive, and the hurting.
The metric we then use to determine if we are doing the work of God is “Am I where God is?” Are we with the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, and the thirsty? Are we with God and God’s people when no one else is, when no one else wants to be, when everyone else tells us not to be? Maybe (as hard as this might be for us to stomach as Americans), God isn’t with us. Maybe God is with the people Jesus reads about in Isaiah.
If we as the Church are to claim the authority to act as the Body of Christ, we must be with Christ. Where can your congregation be with Christ in your community? Who can you be with that Christ is “bringing good news” “release” and “freedom” to? God is with us. God is with you. Christ cleanses us of our sin, offers us transformation, righteousness, and holiness. Can we fully grasp that holiness if we stand apart from the favored ones of God?
The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a graduate of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. He enjoys running, hiking, and backyard gardening. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Jon and Keri welcomed their first child in July 2018, they also have a dog and some bees. Jonathan is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church and serves Yadkinville United Methodist Church in Yadkinville, North Carolina.