Delivered at Saint Matthew’s, Bloomington on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany
According to the RCL: Neh 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Ps 19; 1 Cor 12:12-31a; Lk 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.
One of the important dimensions to always remember in our meditations and reflections upon Saint Luke’s account of the beginning of the mature ministry of Jesus is what directly precedes our Gospel reading in Luke’s narrative. What directly precedes is his Baptism in the River Jordan, then a genealogy that is 16 verses long which traces Jesus all the way back to Adam and Eve, and then finally his Temptation in the wilderness. And so, first and foremost as we consider the Gospel account today, we see Jesus setting out on his public ministry after having done what in today’s language, we would say is a great deal of discernment. He heard his Father’s voice and the bodily presence of the Holy Spirit at the River Jordan. And this self-knowledge, which was not brand-new but perhaps reached in this baptism its fullest self-revelation to Jesus, drove him into the Wilderness to actively confront the Devil, overcome the Devil, beat the Devil for all time, and then, into public ministry, which demonstrated to everyone that his own fleshly being was foretold by prophets like Isaiah. What I am offering to you is that perhaps this is something of a pattern that might be applicable to us, as individuals but even prior to that, as members of this parish, Saint Matthew’s, Bloomington. For we together are the local Body of Christ in this place, here and now, as we together are on our journey.
Finding a pattern in how our Lord and Savior discerns and then acts has certainly been of tremendous service to me in my own journey. Among my first comments this morning is to express my sincere gratitude to you all for welcoming me and my wife and daughters into your parish family—for allowing us to journey along with you. There has been a warmth, a genuineness, and a deep sense of hospitality that began from my first moments with you. Six years ago when this journey began, I could have never dreamed to be here with you all. When one signs on to God’s demand to pursue Holy Orders in His Church, one learns quickly that things will not go according to one’s own plan. On the other hand, as a wise person once said, if one’s expectation of God’s will is that it will be regularly bring inconvenience, difficulty, and awkwardness, then things will go very smoothly.
How true this is even about Saint Matthew’s, Bloomington! This is, no doubt, a healthy parish with a clear purpose to worship God in the beauty of holiness. And yet among my own first experiences with you all was learning about the truck that smashed into the church. Inconvenient, to say the least—also difficult, certainly awkward, along with a whole host of additional adjectives that could be used. And then I remember hearing Fr Halt preach, my first time, and he spoke passionately about seeing God’s presence—here, in this near-tragic accident, in the waves and ripples of its impact on this parish and the local community. God is active, God is alive, God is present—here and now—we know this to be true, and yet do we have the words to articulate what His presence works and flows?
When we begin to ask these kinds of questions—how do we talk about God’s presence in our lives, and the direction he gives for our lives?—we might falter. We might trail off into vagueness or even silence. We know He is present. We may not know how exactly God’s presence works, and how it flows through us.
This is precisely why we must look to Jesus. This is where, again in so many ways, in all ways, he becomes our primary teacher. This is what the New Testament is for—watching Jesus, the living and glorified only-begotten Son of the Father, the anointed one, our Lord and Savior—watching Jesus live, and move, and have his being. Just as a person training to be a teacher learns best from shadowing an experienced teacher, just as a nurse resident learns from being taken under the wing of an experienced nurse, or a postulant learns to be a priest by direct relationship with experienced priests, just as children learn how to be adults by the constant model of their parents and other important grown-ups—we learn how to be Christians, that is, more and more Christ-like, or in Saint Paul’s words, to “strive for the greater gifts,” by not only reading about him or studying theological theories, but by watching him at work.
I mentioned before that we can find something of a pattern, and I think that pattern is begins with being filled with discernment and emptying forth into action. Jesus learned definitively who he was at his baptism and again in the Wilderness, he then fought against the Prince of Evil and won, and then “returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country.” The profoundness of his power, how it spread widely, this is a preview of what later happened on the Day of Pentecost, when the power of the Resurrection and the Presence of the Holy Spirit, channeled by the ferocious preaching of Peter, changed the course of the lives of three thousand souls that day, and hundreds of millions of souls since then.
All of the creation was made new by Jesus. And he teaches us that asking the hard questions, wrestling with them together, wrestling like Jacob wrestled with the Angel, living-into the mystery of God’s will for us—Jesus teaches us that this is the way toward proclaiming the Gospel in our own lives. The hard questions—like, “Who are we?” “Who am I?” “How did we come to be?” “What is God’s purpose for our being here?” For Jesus this meant realizing the unrealizable—his true identity as the savior promised since the prophets of old. For us it means continuing, according to our gifts, his earthly ministry of full loving God and fully loving God’s creation and our neighbor. Through him and entirely because of His grace, we are to “preach good news to the poor,” to “proclaim release to the captives,” to “set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
And so all that Jesus read from Isaiah that day applies to us through Jesus, is part of our vocation as members of His Body. We Christians can only acknowledge in profound humility the tremendous responsibility Jesus himself willingly accepted for himself, and accepted for his followers. We are incorporated into His Body. We are incorporated into his Saving ministry.
And so, in this season of annual parish meetings and asking the hard questions about who we are and what is God calling us to do, how deep a resonance the words of our Collect become, chanted by Fr Halt at the beginning of Mass, which I invite you to pray again with me now:
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.