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January 21, 2007 (The Third Sunday after the Epiphany)—“Today!”

Interim Pastor Steven Jensen

Luke 4:14–21

Many of you in recent years have had to wrestle with the design of a mission statement for your organization or for the church. It has been suggested that Jesus’ teaching noted in today’s gospel served as a “mission statement” at the beginning of his ministry. He told those assembled that God had anointed him and filled him with the Spirit “to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,” to proclaim a new era in which all people were acceptable to God.

Good news, however, is only good news when it meets the needs of the people. As Edward Markquart states in the course Witnesses for Christ:

God’s story is always related to human need. For example, if a woman is dying of cancer, the gospel is God’s strong word of resurrection. If a person is permeated with guilt, the gospel is God’s assurance of forgiveness. If people experience extreme suffering, the gospel is the prayer: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” For the starving, the gospel may be bread. For a homeless refugee, the gospel may be freedom in a new homeland. For others, the gospel may be freedom from political tyranny. The gospel is always related to human need. It is never truth in a vacuum, a theologically true statement which may or may not relate to one’s life. The gospel is God’s truth, God’s message, God’s action, God’s word to a particular person, to a particular need, to a particular historical situation. You don’t throw a drowning person a sandwich. However good the sandwich may be, it just doesn’t meet that person’s need. You throw a drowning person a life jacket or a lifeline, or you dive in for the rescue. So it is with the gospel. The gospel is God’s truth, God’s action, aimed at a particular human need (student book, p. 69).

Luke later ends his book with the pre-ascended Jesus telling the disciples “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47). The book relates the disciples being sent out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, proclaiming the gospel. In contrast, it seems to me that many believers are more concerned about gathering and hearing than being sent and proclaiming.

For Luke, forgiveness is more than just saying “your sins are forgiven”. It includes releasing or freeing people from whatever has captured them or has oppressed them. This would seem to include those in prison, those in bondage to addictions, those oppressed by abusive situations. How do we, as the people who carry on Jesus’ ministry in the world, bring release and freedom to people in such situations? Should our congregations be supporting drug treatment centers, safe-houses, half-way houses, and the like? Should we make special efforts to invite such people to our worship services?

In what settings have you most often heard the phrase, “Today, people!”? I can visualize the classrooms, medical or mental health facilities, military assignments, volunteer sites, disaster responses, and a host of other places and times where those words have been urgently and loudly sent in my direction.

What message do you receive when you hear that? Likely you heard that you need to take action now, do what you were trained to do now, follow through on your assignment now, give me your decision now, provide the appropriate assistance now, stop contemplating or delaying or avoiding or second-guessing and give me your best now.

Jesus’ quote from Isaiah contains the same kind of good news and bad news for us. He is talking about social and economic justice for the poor and oppressed. The good news: You can start now. You can start today. The bad news: You’ll never finish. A commitment to justice for all people—in fact, for all of creation—is a never-ending struggle.

Today is an important word for Luke. It occurs 12 times in Luke and only 9 times in the other three gospels combined. It occurs in such familiar passages as: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.” “Today you will be with me in paradise.” And twice in the Zacchaeus story: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay in your house today.” And, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” And in our text: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

For Luke today is a moment of radical change.

The shepherds come and see the savior born in Bethlehem. They return rejoicing and praising God. They had been changed.

After Jesus’ visit with Zacchaeus, he is changed. He says: “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

We can suppose that the eternal life of the thief on the cross was radically changed by Jesus’ words. He is promised eternity in paradise beginning today.

Today is a time of change brought about through an encounter with Jesus. The change may involve attitude—rejoicing and praising God; or, wanting to kill Jesus. The change may involve financial priorities—giving rather than getting. The change may involve finding comfort and hope in the midst of despair and death.

However, we often avoid the changes of today. Some try to continue to live the past. “Remember the good, old days.” We may remember all the good times way back when. We may remember and talk about all the things we used to do. What are we doing to make today just as glorious?

Or we may look back at the rotten past and blame all our troubles on our hated history. What are we doing today to change that past?

We can avoid changes of today by dreaming of the ideal tomorrow. Someday the prisons will be empty. Someday the oppressed will be set free. Someday poverty will be ended. Someday all people will have heard the gospel. God will do all that someday—so we don’t have to do anything today to help the oppressed out of their plights.

Someday I’ll loose weight. Someday I’ll quit smoking. Someday I’ll start exercising. Someday I’ll take a college course. And we do nothing today to help make that future come true.

For Jesus’ listeners, and for us, the word today is terrifying. On one hand, Jesus is not who they expected. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask. If today is the day of God’s great salvation, what’s this Jesus doing here telling it to us? If today is the great day, where are all the miracles? If today is such an extraordinary day, why don’t I see some extraordinary things happening? Jesus, the boy raised in that town by Mary and Joseph, simply spoke to the people. No flashing lights. No voices from heaven. Jesus saying a few words in the synagogue. “Immanuel”—God with us—is Jesus coming in a few words.

Yesterday can look glorious. Tomorrow can look so glamorous. But today is so ordinary. So many of us get into a routine, a rut. Today is just another day. Was Jesus just another home-town boy? Were his words just another teacher’s words? The great, saving event of God comes in common, ordinary ways. Sometimes we may even miss them. Today is an extraordinary day—God is with you today.

Today is a terrifying word because it calls us to action now. “I don’t know what to do,” we might complain. “I don’t want to make a decision now,” we rationalize. The call of today shakes us out of our complacency. Just as “the Spirit of the Lord” was upon Jesus, so that same Spirit is upon each of us. We will make some wrong decisions, God promises to forgive those—and who knows how the Spirit will use our mistakes! We will make some right decisions and we know that the Spirit will use those. We will become better persons, better believers, and this world will be a better place for some people.

We are to be a radical community on earth. We are called and empowered to work for the release of people who are bound—the rehabilitation of prisoners, the freeing of people wrapped in their shells of self-doubt and self-pity.

We are called and empowered to work on behalf of the poor and oppressed. How can we help the poor on our island or in our country? How can we help the elderly? How can we help single parents? What about the oppressed around the world? Those in Central America? Those in Namibia? Those in the new nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union?

“Those are idealistic and impossible dreams,” you can say. I would agree with you. But that is why that word today becomes so frightening. Jesus is saying that the impossible is happening today. The good news is: You can start now. You can be part of those miracles today. The bad news is: You’ll never finish. If you answer the call to start—it is a lifetime commitment. There will be great, wonderful moments along the way, but there will always be more that needs to be done. The Spirit can help you start today.

As we look around at all of the ministry opportunities, we sometimes forget about the people who are right here in our congregation. Norman Habel, in his Interrobang collection of poems, speaks to some of us in the pews today:

Tomorrow, But Not Today

 

I’m not a shoe

tossed in a corner

or an island

lost in the sea,

I’m not an orphan

or an unwanted pet,

but I might as well be,

because I’m alone.

 

I’m surrounded by people,

but I’m all alone.

Some people laugh with me,

some give advice,

some ask for help

or tell me that I’m neat,

But no one seems to stop

and notice who I really am.

 

I feel so lonely inside

that I’ve started spinning

a shell to cover myself

and hide

that strange something inside me

that is me.

I don’t want to hide it,

but I must.

Otherwise people will see

what I’m really like.

Then they will smile and say:

“What a funny kid.”

 

Tomorrow I’ll try to leave my shell...

tomorrow, but not today.

 

I’m surrounded

by friendly people

who seem so happy,

I pretend to be happy,

and warm and comfortable, too.

 

I don’t know what else to do

when I’m with other people.

I’m all alone then...

And yet I can’t talk about it

or explain why.

It’s like being trapped.

 

I feel like a withered left hand

hiding behind someone’s back.

I’m wearing a glove

to hide myself.

I need my glove,

but I hate it

because it’s not really me.

 

Tomorrow I’ll take it off

and exercise my hand...

tomorrow, but not today.

 

I’m so lonely sometimes

I could run away

and just disappear into the air.

But I want those people around me.

I want their love

and their joy in me.

Still they keep slipping past me,

slipping,

slipping away

and never really touching me.

They just see my mask

and slide slowly by.

 

Tomorrow, Lord, tomorrow

I’ll remove my mask

and people will have to stop

and notice me...

Tomorrow, when I’m older and stronger

I’ll remove my mask...

but not today,

please, not today...

because today I’m too alone

with so many people around me,

so many people

in this place called...

a church.

Today Christ is among us and provides us the Holy Spirit to help us share the good news in word and deed. Christ has come for you! Christ is here for others. Let us live as Resurrection people. Today, people!

Amen.


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