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July 4, 2004 (Pentecost 5)—“Tapping into the Right Spirit”

Pastor Fritz Fritschel

Isaiah 66:10-14; Luke 10:1-11, 17-22

The Fourth of July is not listed in our liturgical calendar. Neither is democracy described anywhere in the Bible. Although democracy has ancient roots in Greece, it never was the form of government adopted by the Hebrews. Forms of government within Scripture range anywhere from family clans, tribal confederacies to monarchies and empires--most often aggressive empires.

In fact the setting for the text from Isaiah 66 today comes in the aftermath of one of these imperial sweeps through the Near East by the Babylonians. During that conflict Jerusalem and Judah was devastated. But then, under the benevolent policy of a new ruling power, Cyrus of Persia, the people of Judah are allowed to return to their lands. But it is a land and city that has been broken and battered. Jerusalem has been decimated. That is the brief setting for Isaiah's words:

Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for the city,
All you who love her;
Rejoice with her in her joy,
All you who mourn for her;
That you may nurse and be satisfied with her consoling breasts,
That you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom.

Isaiah 66:10-11

Where does the prophet come up with such striking imagery? He/she uses words of hope and prosperity in the face of devastation. A picture of urban renewal. The image of the nursing mother, giving sustenance and life to the beleaguered city, is remarkable. The prophet at this time, speaking roughly near the beginning of the 6th century B.C.E., had no scripture to appeal to, no authenticated text, no canon of literature. Yet there was a tradition of covenant commitment between Yahweh and the community. That covenant speaks of the faithfulness of Yahweh. So in an earlier chapter, Isaiah 62, the prophet says:

You [Judah, Jerusalem] will no longer be called Forsaken,
And your land will no longer be called Desolate,
For you shall be called Hephziba, My Delight is in Her;
You shall be called Beulah, Married,
For the Lord delights in you,
And your land shall be married.

Isaiah 62:4

And a similar image from the last chapter of Ezekiel, written near the same time:

And the city shall henceforth be called Yahweh-Shammah, The Lord is present.

Ezek. 48:35

The imagery comes from a trust that sees Yahweh as a God of urban renewal, of restoration, of consolation (Preacher's note: the organ prelude today was entitled "Consolation") and comfort. That is the spirit into which the prophet is tapping.

Move now to the passage from the Gospel for today. In the middle of this rather long text is a report brought back by disciples who had been sent out among the surrounding villages by Jesus. They were to preach and heal and announce the nearness of the kingdom of God. Do you remember what they said to Jesus? "Hey, do you know what we did when we...."

No, that is not quite right. They said, "Even the demons are subject to us in your name!"

Now what does that mean, to act "in the name of Jesus?" I do not think it is some kind of magical formula or phrase to be used. It might mean something like this:

To act in the spirit of gracious acceptance; in the spirit of
Compassionate understanding; in the spirit of
Transforming forgiveness; in the spirit of
Challenging freedom; in the spirit of
Liberating those oppressed suffering alien occupation.

Do you remember a text that we had two weeks ago, from Luke 8? It was a story of a healing of a demoniac. He was known by the name of Legion. William Herzog has a convincing exposition of this text.¹ The event occurs in Palestine during the Roman occupation. The Roman military was an oppressive, dominating presence. Now the local authorities were unable to control this individual, so they banished him to live in the graveyard, as good as forgotten and dead. They had chained him, he got loose; they put him in fetters, he got loose. They did not know what to do with him. He was perhaps more than just an embarrassment, in fact he may have been considered to be politically dangerous.

Why? Because he was called 'Legion,' the term for a large company of Roman troops. Perhaps of term of mockery or defiance. And he epitomized the experience of being occupied by alien forces. In his state of demon-possession, he could rant and rave about such occupation and be dismissed as crazy. Local rulers may have considered him a liability. Jesus saw him as a child of God who needed to be liberated. And Jesus did that, bringing the man not only freedom, but also responsibility. For now the liberated man, who wanted to follow Jesus at this point, was told to stay right where he was, telling others how he had experienced liberation.

Now the disciples in our text participate in the same kind of liberating activity. "Even the demons are subject to us in your name." What spirit are they tapping into? The point is that they tap into the same spirit seen in Jesus, but they did not need Jesus around. This was not Jesus' exclusive domain. People can be freed, liberated, forgiven--apart from the physical presence of Jesus. It is a matter of tapping into the right spirit. And we too can tap into that spirit.

We have our own spirits and traditions that we tap into as a nation--ideals, goals, values and visions. Walter Wink speaks about such things in a chapter called the "Angels of Nations." He uses the phrase "angels of nations", based on the language of the book of Revelation, where the seven churches are depicted as having representative angels.

Like these early churches, each corporate body, whether it be an institution, nation, community or agency, has an interior spirit, a quality or character from which they act. Wink then engages in a conversation with what he imagines the angel of America to be. We can think of this angel as symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. What might she be saying to us? Let me paraphrase that conversation:

I am a young and eager servant of the living God. I have lifted high the torch of liberty and opportunity across your shores. Millions of people have seen the light of my flame and found refuge and safety within my borders. They have come from many backgrounds, many different languages, and they are still coming. They still come with the same hopes. And they try to weave together a single nation from many beliefs, skin colors, and values.
But now I hold my torch even higher. For there are visions that are yet unfulfilled. I envision a nation free of poverty, hunger, and homelessness; I see a nation that provides health care for everyone. I see a nation that learns to teach tactics of peace, more than strategies of conflict. My hope still radiates over your shores.
But I also see disappointments and the distortions of your visions. And you have learned how to worship other gods. Wealth and power are your real objects of worship. You have enslaved peoples in the past for wealth and power; you have killed and banished Native Americans for wealth, land and power; you have intervened in other nations' affairs for wealth and power; you have sacrificed your sons and daughters on the altars of wealth and power.
And I? I am helpless to thwart you in the exercise of your free will. If you choose such idols, I can do nothing to stop you, except to hold the vision before you---a vision that is a vocation and responsibility. I support your freedom; but I call you to responsibility. I need your help. It depends on what spirit you tap into. You must come to my aid, even as I have come to you.²

Our country, a pluralistic democracy, is unique in many ways. One of the values that has been important for us since our beginning has been the so-called 'separation of the Church and State.' Although not a phrase from the Constitution, the phrase represents a position and practice that has fashioned our actions. The church does not choose national leaders; public officials do not select or supervise clergy and churches. But now, during this year of particularly heated public discussion, questions about the appropriate relationship between church and state are being raised again.

As important as the separation between church and state is for the free exercise of religion and the neutrality of the state in regard to religious practices, the relationship between religion and politics is different. For religion, the expression of one's faith does and, I believe, should influence our public policies and the decisions that one may make for the community. Everyone, whether believer, agnostic or atheist, has a right to argue from the deepest values that one adheres to try to influence public policy.

But here is the point--when one speaks publicly, one must use secular language. When trying to convince the public of the benefit and wisdom of some law, we must try to persuade others on the basis of common secular values that apply to all people. In other words, even though one's position may be influenced and guided by religious concepts and ideals, one must learn to present these arguments using the language of secular society--life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the public welfare, and the common good.³

For example, my religious belief may lead me to support the notion of universal health care, or some other policy, but in making any public argument, I must learn how to phrase it in the language that serves the common good. It is not legitimate in public speech to appeal the Bible, the Koran, to the Pope, or even to Jesus. The argument must be made with the conviction that such a policy will serve the common good of our pluralistic nation and world.

It is still a matter of what kind of spirit we are tapping into. And, for the formation of our own beliefs and actions, I think it is appropriate to refer to the spirit of Jesus that I described earlier:

the spirit of gracious acceptance,
compassionate understanding,
transforming forgiveness,
liberating actions, and
a creative/redemptive presence.

¹ Herzog, William. Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation. Westminster John Knox Press, 2000. pp. 208-210.

² Wink, Walter. Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence. Fortress Press, 1986. pp. 106-107.

³ cf. Kenneth Cauthen.

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