Epiphany 3 • 24 Jan 2016

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

Rev. Chris Udy

This time of year is significant
for a number of different reasons.
First and foremost,
for Ginie and me anyway,
it’s our Wedding Anniversary – 35 years today –
and that is very much a day worth celebrating.
Next Tuesday is Australia Day,
and once again we’ll wrestle
with whether it’s a good idea
to put our national celebration
on a day that, for some people,
commemorates an invasion.
There are some who are now suggesting
that a more inclusive date for Australia Day
might be the 3rd of June –
which is now Mabo Day –
and commemorates the courageous efforts
of Eddie Koiki Mabo
to overturn the fiction of terra nullius.
The anniversary of Eddie Mabo’s death
was last Thursday:
he died on the 21st January 1992.
Hopefully this year
we’ll see some constructive steps
towards an appropriate recognition
of Aboriginal people
in the constitutional documents
of Australian law and identity,
and give us all a solid foundation
for reconciliation and national redemption.
We need declarations
and statements of identity that inspire us –
that give us hope
to work for a just and peaceful world;
that give us a vision we can live by.

This morning we read from Luke’s gospel
about the day when Jesus declared his vision
and made the proclamation
that defined him.

Jesus had just come home to Nazareth
for the first time after his baptism.
You remember that he was baptised by John
in the waters of the Jordan river,
and when he was praying, after his baptism,
he heard a voice from heaven
that said “You are my Son, the one I love,
and I am delighted in you.”
As you’d expect,
hearing a message like that
was a powerful, transforming experience,
but as you’d also imagine,
it was also shattering and confusing.
Not everyone hears voices from heaven,
and most of those who do
need to spend some time
working out what that might mean.
Jesus was no different.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all say
that Jesus took off for the desert -
Mark says the Spirit drove him into the wilderness;
Luke is much more gentle,
and he says Jesus was led -
but all of them say he was tempted,
and in his temptations
Jesus was trying to hear
what on earth God meant
by this message from heaven.
Each time the tempter
presented Jesus with opportunities
he said - ‘If you are the Son of God,’
if you really are,
and you’re not just having yourself on,
then use your power -
and use it for yourself.
Turn stones into bread
and feed your body’s hungers;
compromise with evil
and feed your hunger for control;
throw yourself off the temple roof
and let the angels catch you,
satisfy your hunger for assurance;
make yourself a miracle -
then you’ll really know
that you are the Son of God
and that God has chosen you.’
But Jesus rejected
all the options the tempter presented.
He came back from the desert
focussed and fired up -
filled with the Spirit,
and began to teach in synagogues.
News about him spread,
and as he moved through Galilee
expectations and hopes began to rise.
Finally he came back home to Nazareth,
and when he stood to read,
he was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
He found his place and began to read:
‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Then he sat down -
because Jewish teachers sat down to preach -
and delivered one of the shortest sermons in history.

‘Today’, he said,
‘this scripture has been fulfilled
in your hearing.’

Instead of seeing faith
as something that satisfies personal hungers
and helps us with private problems,
Jesus said - God’s purpose is bigger
than our little desires and temptations -
God intends to change the world,
and he wants us to help him do it.
Instead of using religion
to make a broken world more bearable
by answering private prayers
and performing personal miracles -
God intends to heal the whole creation,
and make the earth a place
where all God’s children can be free.
Jesus came back from the wilderness
with a message - a proclamation -
almost the same
as the message that had sent him into the desert.
The message he heard in his baptism
was a declaration of God’s favour:
‘you are my Son, and I love you’.
The message he returned with
was the proclamation of God’s favour.
The method God would use
to redeem and free his children
was a declaration of loving grace -
the proclamation of God’s favour.

Every year on the third Monday in January –
so last Monday -
the US celebrates
the birthday of Martin Luther King
as a national holiday.
Most people remember Martin Luther King
as a martyr for his people -
a man who was killed because of his dream.

Martin Luther King always said
that his dream began in that Nazareth proclamation -
and his method was God’s method.
Instead of using threats and guns
to change the face of America,
Martin Luther King was committed to nonviolence.
He knew there would never be healing,
and there could never be freedom
if one set of bullies was simply replaced with another.
He believed the only way
to change the world
was with forgiveness and sacrifice and grace -
but many other people
thought that was foolish and simple and weak.
For five years after he first talked about his dream
on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington,
everything he believed in
seemed to fall apart -
and in a sermon for Christmas eve in 1967
this is what he wrote.
‘I must confess to you today
that not long after talking about that dream
it turned into a nightmare.
I remember the first time
I saw that dream turn into a nightmare,
just a few weeks after I had talked about it.
It was when four beautiful, unoffending,
innocent Negro girls
were murdered in a church in Alabama.
I watched that dream turn into a nightmare
as I moved through the ghettos of the nation
and saw my brothers and sisters
perishing in a lonely island of poverty
in the midst of a vast ocean
of material prosperity,
and saw the nation doing nothing
to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty.
I saw that dream turn into a nightmare
as I watched my black brothers and sisters
in the midst of anger and understandable outrage,
in the midst of their hurt,
in the midst of their disappointment,
turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. …
Yes, I am personally the victim
of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes,
but in spite of that I close today
by saying I still have a dream,
because, you know, you can’t give up in life.’
(Trumpet of conscience - p91)
Four months later he was dead,
shot by someone
who didn’t want the world to change,
and apparently beaten by people
who were willing to do anything
to hold on to their privilege and control.

After Jesus had proclaimed
the message and the method of God’s purpose
he also suffered the opposition
of those who didn’t want things to change.
Next week the lectionary reading
will continue with what happened
that day of his first sermon in Nazareth,
when the people in the synagogue
worked themselves into a rage
and pushed him up to the top of a cliff
determined to throw him over.
That time he walked away,
but three years later
another crowd would push him
to the top of another hill,
where the much-loved child of God
would be broken on a charge of blasphemy,
killed by those
who had given in to their tempters
and were using their power
to satisfy their own hungers.

But if the people who crucified Jesus
and the people who shot Martin Luther King
believed they had silenced God’s proclamation
and killed the dream,
they were wonderfully mistaken.
Nothing has done more
to change the way the world works
than the message of God’s favour,
and the power released through the foolish weakness
of forgiveness, and sacrifice and grace
is still the most powerful force for lasting change
at work in the world.
People who try to win and rule
with lies and fear and violence soon die,
and when they die, their power disappears.
But the proclamation of God’s grace in Jesus,
and the dream of freedom it inspires
in people like Martin Luther King didn’t die -
they rose to life,
and little by little, day by day,
they keep informing and inspiring another generation
to look beyond their personal and private needs
and work for something bigger than themselves.
Every year America celebrates Martin Luther King’s life
they’re reminded of his dream,
and they remember that it isn’t yet fulfilled.
Eight years ago a black man was elected
as President of the United States -
something that was unthinkable
when Martin Luther King described his dream –
but when we look at the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaigns
and hear about what’s happening
in poor, predominantly black cities like Flint in the USA,
it’s clear that the proclamation of God’s favour
is as necessary and vital as it ever was.

Racism and inequality in Australia
might not be as overt and poisonous as it is in the USA,
but they are entrenched and deeply destructive.
Last year we saw Adam Goodes –
Australian of the Year in 2014,
booed from sport in which he’d been
a model and inspiration to many Australians,
especially young aboriginal kids –
so we also have a long, long way yet to go,
but maybe this year we can dream a better future.

For two thousand years
the life and death of Jesus
and his proclamation of God’s year of grace
has inspired people to dreams and visions of the world
as God intends it to be -
and almost all of those who catch the vision
and see the dream seem to take a similar journey.
At the beginning we’re full of spirit,
overwhelmed by support,
we move with a sense of energy and hope,
and the barriers to freedom start to fall.
But barriers have guardians and gate-keepers -
people who profit from division and pain -
and pretty soon they gather
to niggle at the vision and undermine the dream.
It’s then that we get frightened,
we wonder what’s gone wrong,
and we assume that conflict and opposition
means we’ve made a mistake,
and lost our way,
and God’s left us behind.
But when we look at the life of Jesus,
and see what happens to everyone
who really wants their life and work to matter,
we see that their best is often done
when everything looks hopeless -
when the support’s disappeared
and the energy’s gone,
and the only way forward
is the way of foolish weakness -
faithful persistence in
forgiveness and sacrifice and grace.
For a lot of Christians
and a lot of congregations,
that’s the point where they find themselves now:
tempted to self-interest,
and lost in a spiritual desert,
victims of blasted hopes
and grieving for dreams deferred -
not sure whether to pack it in
or pull it all together for one more try.
So it’s now that we need to remember
and re-claim the message
that gives us life and hope -
because it’s the message -
the proclamation Jesus lived and died for,
that continues to bring freedom
even when we’re exhausted and apparently defeated.
Ultimately we’re called,
not to change everything at once
and by our own effort,
but to keep the proclamation alive,
to remind ourselves and others
that this year is also a year of God’s grace,
and let the Spirit of God move for freedom.
... so let me finish by saying to you
‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon you,
because he has anointed you
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent you
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’