Your Words, O Lord, are Spirit and Life
Last week we heard what happened at a wedding feast in Cana where Jesus’ own mother pushed him gently down the road of service and ministry to others, and as a result pushed him gently down the road to Calvary as well. Today we come upon Jesus at the beginning of his ministry of preaching and teaching. As was the custom in the synagogue, Jesus found a passage from sacred scripture to provide a starting point for his listeners. The passage from Isaiah sounded both optimistic and unreal, a vibrant picture of an age yet to come. Then Jesus proclaimed the fulfillment of that very passage in the hearing of his assembly.
The gospel account tells us that his listeners were quite impressed with his eloquence. We assume he spoke of the mission entrusted to him by God, extending the image from the passage he read, pointing out how he was called “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” Jesus was convinced the messianic age had begun, but he probably also acknowledged that the reality he proclaimed was a work in progress. He wasn’t announcing a mere assumption, an expectation, or a hope. Jesus was stating a point of fact. He was chosen and sent by the Spirit of God to do exactly what they heard from the prophet Isaiah.
At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus announced his life’s program for all to hear, or more accurately, his Father’s plan which he set out to accomplish. In reality, he was also announcing the plan his disciples would strive to carry out in his footsteps. Every now and again, it is helpful to hear that plan proclaimed plainly.
We read from the book of Nehemiah how Israel gathered at the ruins of the temple after their return from exile to hear the Law proclaimed and preached, and how many in the assembly were moved to tears. I can’t recall the last time I heard preaching that moved me to tears (at least, not for the right reasons), or one that left an indelible impression, that I couldn’t get out of my head for days. I think the reason they were moved to tears was because they had to hear it from daybreak to midday. And for some people, just going over the hour is excruciating pain.
People will sometimes tell me that a homily was memorable, but when pressed for details might have to think long and hard. What occasionally happens is that some pick up on a secondary point (and sometimes there are a few), which convinces me that God will be heard loud and clear, sometimes even in spite of me. It is God who speaks to our hearts. But if we are not receptive, it matters little who is up here talking. That said, a good homily requires a great deal of work in my experience, not only on the part of the preacher but also on the part of the listening assembly. Do we take time to break open the scriptures during the week to prepare ourselves to hear God speak to our heart? Do we pray for those entrusted with the responsibility of preaching God’s Word? Or do we relish to pounce on them with criticism and judgement? Do we ask God to help the homilist speak a message to enlighten our mind and inspire our living? Or do we plant ourselves firmly in our seats and dare them to raise the dead?
It has taken me many years to grasp what God might be trying to accomplish by sending people like me to proclaim and preach his Word. And sometimes, I wish I did not have such a grave responsibility. But for as long as I am useful in this task, I will meet the challenge each week. I am sure that among Jesus’ listeners throughout his teaching ministry there were some who only heard entertaining stories and impressive exhortations. And I bet there were some who came only for the free loaves and fish. There were likely some whose hearts were open to hear God speak to them a personal word. So when Jesus announced that the passage he read from Isaiah was being fulfilled as they listened, he was not exaggerating. But only those who heard God speak to them knew exactly what he meant. Everybody else, for whatever reason they came, only got what they came for, if that.
Today Jesus again speaks to us to tell us that God’s plan is being fulfilled as we listen. If we look at Jesus’ life we might perhaps see how he was not as successful as we imagine God’s own Son should have been. And yet his Word continues to make people pause, breaking through to hardened hearts, opening ears and eyes, and inspiring his disciples to action and authentic witness.
We are invited to consider our participation in the life of the church as not unlike how our various body parts have their unique and proper functions. Each of them is responsible for some good that benefits the whole body. That means every member of the believing community, every part of the body of Christ, has a role to play for the greater good of the whole. I guess we don’t often make a big deal about hair and skin and toes and toenails, until they’re falling out or discoloring or looking gnarly. Some body parts are best concealed under layers of fashionable clothing, but their purpose and value are never in doubt. Every now and then I am reminded to give thanks to God for the serpent in the garden. And all those other parts that get to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air will also need sunscreen and moisturizer and a daily scrubbing as they contend with inclement weather and occasional bruising and stinging criticism. God’s Word will shine a light on our darkness. But we will need our own eyes to behold it.
If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts. His Word is to us spirit and life.
Rolo B Castillo © 2019
Luke 4: 18-19